The Christmas Tree

The Scheckel family out of Oak Grove Ridge, 2 miles northwest of Seneca, in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin, prepared for Christmas by searching for a Christmas tree. In the 1940s and 1950s, we were not about to pay good money for a fir or balsam, or pine tree from a dealer or store in town.

We had to find a tree on our farmland. That should not be too difficult, seeing that we had 238 acres. Now, if it just happened to be over the fence on the neighbor’s property, well that was in gray area. The seeds that started that tree, the one on the neighbor’s land, just might have come from our side of the fence line. So wouldn’t that make it our tree?

Most of the time we found a fir tree down in the Kettle Hollow grazing acres. One year we really could not find a good tree. But we did finally find a short-needle scrawny one clinging to the hillside, a poor rendition of a “Charlie Brown”. This was a bad looking tree.

But we trimmed it up, put it in the stand and gave it water and it perked up really good, we thought. Took on a nice green color. Turned out to be a pretty decent tree.

But one year we simply could not find a single 5 or 6 foot pine tree on our property. So back to the fence line. I do believe we owe the Watson farm a nice 6 foot long needle pine tree!

All of us kids helped decorate the tree. Putting the star on top was the most difficult, so that was assigned to one of the older kids. We have a long red rope, made of a plastic like material, that went around and around the tree. We put on the usual round red and silver balls attached to the tree with hooks. We tossed on way too much tinsel.

The tree lights were standard, but we had a string of those lights that had a stem filled with a liquid. After heating up, the liquid would start to bubble. We took bets, without money, (we had no money) on which light would be the first to start bubbling.

After a few days, we three boys pretty much knew which would bubble first, because the same one always did. Those bubbling bulbs were screwed into a base so that they could, if needed, be replaced. Which meant, of course, that they could be unscrewed.

Which is what we did when no one was looking. I believe Bob was the first to devise this trickery, but Phillip and I soon caught on. So it wasn’t long before the kid that predicted the “first bubbler” was the one that did the switching. It was a game we played year after year.



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Softball at Oak Grove Ridge School 

We played softball until snow fell at Oak Grove Ridge School, near Seneca, in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin. My, how that ball would bounce on frozen ground!sk-5-who-bats-first

Whoever laid out Oak Grove School, even before 1900, did not have softball in mind. And now, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn’t any better. The softball field was a terrible place to play. We didn’t know it at the time. We thought it was fine, we just didn’t know any better and you just accepted what you had.

Noon lunch gave us time to get a game in, as much as 3 to 5 innings. Gulp down the food in 5 minutes. Two upperclassmen, which meant 2 boys in seventh or eighth grade were appointed or self-appointed to “choose up” sides.

The only level of flat spot on the whole field was the batter’s box area. The back stop was the wood shed. The bases were pieces of firewood that kept moving around. The batter ran downhill to get to first base, a few feet beyond first base was the gravel road that took you down into Kettle Hollow. Second base was close to the road that would take one back onto Oak Grove Ridge. A runner ran uphill to get from second base to third base, which was right next to the hand operated water

The softball diamond was not square. It was, well, diamond shaped, like on playing cards. The distance from home plate to second plate was almost twice the distance as from first base to third base. That shape fit the real estate we had.

Oak Grove School owned 2 bats, one for the big kids, and a shorter smaller one for the little kids. That was twice the number of bats we Scheckels had at home. The bats were stored in the cloakroom. Some kids had a softball glove, or mitten, most did not and caught the ball bare handed.

Teams were chosen at noontime and we kept the same team for about a week. The battle raged. Yelling, cheering, booing, “you’re out”, “no, I wasn’t”, constant arguing, which was always short lived, name-calling, and castigations. What wondrous times those were!

Sometimes, Teacher would play. Mrs. Ray, well she was a girl, and she threw the ball like a girl, and swung the bat like a girl, which didn’t seem an efficient way of playing ball. So Betty Ray would take a few swings of the bat, and usually would not run to first base, but designated another kid to run for her. We decided that was fair. It was OK for the teacher to have a designated runner.

Willard Ray was the best teacher-player. He was a man, of course, and the only male teacher I had at Oak Grove Ridge School. He was fairly big and strong and could hit the ball a mile, or at least it seems like he could.

Left field was the road that ran past the school, center field was that triangular patch of grass and weeds where the road divides between Oak Grove Ridge road and Kettle Hollow road, and right field?? Well, there was no right field. There was that road and then the woods. Left hand batters, like Jimmy Kozelka, enjoyed a short right field fence that was only 40 feet from home plate. A pop-up down the right field line put the ball over the fence.

If a right handed batter took a stance that had the feet aligned toward first base and swung late, they could put it over that short fence. We made our own rules. We decided that a ball over the right field fence was a ground-rule double. Any ball hit in the road, or gutter, or the 4 or 5 feet of tall grass and weeds before reaching the fence, well, that was playable. If the ball got lost in the high grass, well that’s too bad. Next time keep your eye on the ball. The batter could run forever.


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Shredding Corn

Corn shredding was a cool, if not cold weather, farm chore. We would hitch up the horses, Prince and Dolly, to the farm hay wagon. I was not very good at harnessing horses. Bob knew how to do that very well. Out to the fields to tear down the shocks, and load the bundles on the wagon. We had a “corn knife” to cut the binder twine that was around the shock. The corn knife was a single blade from a sickle mower mounted on a wood stick

Haul the load of corn shocks to the shredder. The Massey Harris ’44 was connected to the shredder via the long wide belt, same one used for the corn sheller, buzz saw, threshing machine, and hammer mill.

The Scheckel family owned a Rosenthal 4 roll corn shredder. The shredder was set up to blow the corn stalks into the Big Barn in the space where the hay wagon was unloaded during the summer

The shredder separated the corn ear from the stalk. One of us boys would load a single bundle onto the metal platform and cut the binder twine with a corn knife. The corn knife had a leather shoelace that wrapped around the user’s wrist. The purpose was to prevent the knife from falling into the rollers of the shredder and doing massive damage.

Like the threshing machine for oats and wheat, the corn shredder seemed like a living, breathing, and throbbing creature. Dad fed the stalks butt first, into the rollers. The stalks went through the rollers, but the ears of corn were stripped off and slid down a trough, and into a chained driven elevator that dropped them into a wagon. When the wagon was full of ear corn, it was taken to the elevator and lifted into the corn crib.

The stalks were smashed and partially ground up, just plain shredded, and fed to the back of the machine where we sent up the big pipe by a fast rotating blower.

We fed the fodder to the cow, throwing it down the chute. Fodder provided good roughage for bossy. The milking cows also got a diet of hay from the loft and a dose of ground corn.

The shredder also was engineered to perform an additional task that always amazed me. Some kernels of corn were loosened from the cob, as was very much expected to happen. There was a grate that held the kernels and bought them out a small opening in the back of the shredder.

It was my job to gather the kernels in a washtub and feed them to the chickens.

We did not always get shredding done before the snow came in early and mid November. But there was no big urge. Corn could keep in the shock. We did some shredding in late November and even into early December.




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Farm Boy in the Big City

Ann and I were invited to give an hour-long presentation at the three-day National Science Teachers Association Conference in Minneapolis this past week. We presented a session entitled Electricity Made Simple. The theme of the conference was Celebrate Science: 10,000 Connections. larryannhiltonmn

You can see right-off-the-bat that they are borrowing from their license plate proclamation of 10,000 lakes. Truth be told, Wisconsin has over 14,000 lakes and most have names. Minnesota, on the other hand, count farm cow tanks and teeny ponds as lakes!

The  hands-on session was designed for teachers who were searching for ideas to teach basic electrity and simple electrical circuits. Participants hooked up a simple circuit with battery, bulb, and wire, and moved to a series circuit, a parallel circuit, and use of switches, ammeters, motors, fans, electromagnet, a home-made light bulb, and LEDs. Teachers were great and session was well attended.

I never feel real comfortable in any big city; lots of people, tall buildings like the IDS center, street noise, cars that will run you over if you’re not careful. Oh, we got by OK, didn’t get lost, thanks to a really fine GPS on our iPhone.larryannthelocalirishpubmn

As you enter the lobby of the Hilton, Conference Headquarters, you see the life-size bronze statue “Joy of Music,” by G.W. Lundeen. Viewing this sculpture is worth the price of a stay. Well, perhaps not, as one night is slightly less than $200, when you add their bloated tax onto the base price. It’s a step up from Motel 6, but Hilton did not “leave the light on.” We had to turn that on ourselves. Fortunately, a portion of our cost was sponsored.

To celebrate a good session and because it was our last night in the big city, we walked a block to The Local, a classic Irish pub with an 80-foot bar, unique rooms, such as the Whiskey Lounge, the Boardroom, the Kissing Room, The Hollow, The Sanctuary, and The Choir.

The waitress, a U of M student, and not an Irish lass, suggested the fish and chips. We went for the American hamburger, but helped it down with a Finnegan’s.



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Down the Road to Richland Center

Ann and I were invited to address the Richland Area Retired Educators Association in Richland Center on Thursday of this past week at the White House Ramada Restaurant. We started out with a mighty fine brunch at 9:30 AM with sausage, bacon, eggs, sliced fruits and many pastry delights.img_5272

The theme of our PowerPoint talk was Teaching in the Wisconsin One-Room Country School. Many of the teacher retirees, mostly women, attended a one-room school and later taught in a one-room school. Most got their training and teaching certificate at Normal Schools in either Viroqua or Richland Center or Reedsburg.

We discussed the hardships of the rural school teacher in the 1940s and 1950s. The low pay, the multitude of classes to teach, the janitorial duties, finding housing, the poverty, and the isolation.

But also the joys and satisfactions of being in charge, of making a difference in children’s lives, of earning a living on their own. Many of these young ladies had good teachers when they attended the one-room country schools. “I want to be like my teacher” was a common sentiment.img_5273

Another young teacher said “My teacher told me that I could be a good teacher. She encouraged me. I learned later that she talked to my folks. Dad and Mom wanted me to stay on the farm until I got married. I wanted that, but I wanted more.”

Slides in our PowerPoint depicted my own background. The Scheckel people came from Luxembourg in the 1850s and settled in the Bellevue and Springbrook area of Northeast Iowa. This, of course, led to questions of “Are you related to Monsignor Scheckel?” And the answer is yes, he is my first cousin, one generation removed. Monsignor Roger Scheckel’s grandfather, Arnold, and my father, Alvin, were brothers. Msgr Scheckel is pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Richland Center.

We talked about visits by the County Superintendent and County nurse, the goiter pills, the floor sweeping compound, the Basket Social, Christmas program, and end-of-the-year picnic, the games of softball, Annie Over, snowball fights, sledding, the Dick and Jane series, the flashcards, the Palmer method of penmanship, and running off sheets on the hectograph tablet.

We sneaked in some slides of life on the farm in the 1940 and 1950s. Farming with horses, haying season, shocking oats, threshing, shredding corn, milking cows by hand, cutting wood with a crosscut saw, gathering walnuts, drowning out gophers, firecrackers on the Fourth of July, chased by the sheep buck, and butchering hogs and beef.

Ann and I had fine conversations with the retirees, we sold and signed a few books. Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers and science books Ask A Science Teacher, and Ask Your Science Teacher.

We motored back to Tomah amid the blazing Fall colors and rich farm fields of Richland, Juneau, and Monroe County.

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New Science Book Coming Out

We have a new science book in the works and hope to publish in the coming months. Our first science book, Ask Your Science Teacher, was issued in 2011. The second science book, Ask A Science Teacher, hit the bookshelves in 2013.

Blank blackboard with chalky smudges

In 2014, we published a memoir of growing up on the Crawford County farm, Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers. All three books have sold well, especially the two science books. The Seneca Seasons book is a niche market volume. It resonates well with those who grew up in rural America and especially those attending a one-room country school.

The newest one has a tentative title of I’ve Always Wondered About That. I say tentative because publishers often will suggest or choose their own title.

The new I’ve Always Wondered About That book has over 200 questions that have been asked by school kids and adults. I provide answers to the best of my ability. I have to look up stuff and rely on a cadre of doctors, nurses, dentists, engineers, and teachers for confirmation, suggestions, omissions, and advice.

The following is a sample of the Q and A pages from the book. Why was Abraham Lincoln so ugly? Why is there a big E at the top of the eye chart? Do fish drink water? Why do dogs bury their bones? Did Thomas Jefferson every invent anything? Is there a real global warming problem? How is a rainbow formed? Why do rivers meander? If you hit a golf ball on the moon, how far will it go? Is Bigfoot real? Why doesn’t stainless steel rust? Why is mercury poisonous? If you are in an elevator that is falling, can you save yourself by jumping up just before the elevator hits the ground? Why do things have to die?

These are examples of the same kind of questions in the science columns I write for the Tomah Journal and Monroe County Herald. I will provide updates on the newest science book in future blogs.

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You Don’t Lay, You Don’t Stay

 “You don’t lay, you don’t stay” could well be the warning for a hen on the Scheckel farm in Crawford County outside of Seneca in the 1940s and 1950s. That normal stay was about 18 months.chicken

Baby chicks arrived by mail in March. The new chickens stayed in the brooding chicken coop all summer. After about five or six months, a few eggs appeared as young pullets were starting to become layers. We Scheckel boys always looked for those first small white eggs.

In October, the pullets were transferred from the white brooding house to the permanent red chicken coop. The chicken house or chicken coop was about 200 feet east of the house and slightly downhill.

First, who stays and who is sold? The hens lay eggs all winter, spring and summer, and then sold off as stewing hens in October. A few lucky hens won a reprieve from the cooking oil.  If the bird become tough and refuses to lay its normal one egg per day, it’s off to the stewing pot.

You feel the chicken’s behind. If it is soft and spongy, that hen is a producer and continues to lay eggs. If hard and tough feeling, that bird is not carrying it weight. To track the reprieved birds, we resorted to banding. A round, wooden or plastic colored band was put on one leg of the laying hen. The banded hen stays for another six months.

Secondly, the red hen house needed to be readied. Haul off any manure, scrape the roosting 2 X 4’s clean with a paint scraper, disinfect the walls and roosts with a dark brown smelly liquid, clean the metal feed troughs, put fresh straw in the laying bins, wash out the earthenware crock that held water, and wash the windows.

Transfer day meant catching all the pullets from the brooding house and carrying them by hand to the red hen house. This kidnapping took place after dark, when the chickens supposedly were to “bed” for the night. Mom and Dad would catch the birds quietly as possible. No need to arouse the colony and spread the alarm. Each of us kids would take 2 or 3 chickens by the legs and carry them from the white brooding house to the red chicken coop. I would guess we made about 10 trips each to haul the 500 birds to their new digs.





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