Skunk Cabbage on the Scheckel farm

Signs of spring are all around us now. For most people it is the warmer weather, more hours of daylight, return of the robins, ice going out of Lake Tomah, and more walkers and joggers out on our streets and sidewalks.

It was a bit different for the Scheckel family in the 1940s and 1950s out on Oak Grove Ridge in the middle of Crawford County. Yes, we had our longer days, warmer weather, winds out of the South, robins in the yard and tulips poking through the ground on the south side of the house. We watched for the barn swallows returning to build their mud nests clinging to the rafters in the Small Barn.  Our Spring included skunk cabbage and water crest.

Skunk cabbage pops up early in the season. We would find skunk cabbage down in the Kettle Creek valley often when there was snow and ice on the ground and we would be cutting trees for logs, fence posts, and burning in the furnace. Kettle Creek is the same valley where we ran about 30 head of cattle during the late spring, summer, and into early Fall.

For you city folks, “ran” is the place the young cattle grazed and watered and licked the salt block. We didn’t actually run after the cattle, nor did we make the cattle run.

Skunk cabbage is partial to lowland places and water-ladened soils. It develops a reddish-purple flower that hangs low to the ground. The shape of the flower resembles a milkpod that we would see later in the year, usually along roadsides.

Leaves develop after flowering is over. Big green leaves, resembling, you guessed it, cabbage. That’s when the fun begins. Snap off a leaf and rub it between thumb and fingers, and you will swear you are in the presence of a SKUNK.

As kids, we wondered how a plant could smell so baaaaddd. We had Chrysanthemums, or mums, and roses, and hollyhocks, around house and gardens. Those were good smelling flowers.

There must be a reason, so I had to look it up. Certain pollinators, such as scavenging flies, stoneflies, and bees are attracted to the “stinker.” The foul odor in the leaves discourages large animals from disturbing the plant and damaging it.

The obnoxious smell is not harmful. It is not poisonous, like poison ivy or nettle. For the three Scheckel boys, skunk cabbage was a sure sign of spring and lots of fun to play around with.


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The Baby Chicks- A Sure Sign of Spring

via The Baby Chicks- A Sure Sign of Spring

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The Baby Chicks- A Sure Sign of Spring

This time of the year, mid-March, I harken back to my days on the family farm out on Oak Grove Ridge, near Seneca, in the heart of Crawford County, Wisconsin. We had milking cows, hogs, sheep, and horses. We pastured and fattened 30 two-year old calves. They fed off the grass and drank from Kettle Creek. We put out a salt block. They were shipped off to market in October.

Chickens were a big source of income for the 11-member Scheckel family. Five hundred White Leghorn laying hens and 200 Cornish Rock roosters roamed the farmstead every summer and fall. Dad and Mom received a postcard in the mail that gave the date the baby chicks were to arrive. There was always the worry over cold weather. Baby chickens need to be kept warm.

The chicken coop or brooding house had been prepared days in advance. Walls were cleaned, the floor scraped clean, and disinfected with a smelly brown liquid applied with a wide paint brush and sprayer. That stuff was so bad it was later banned.

The brooder was installed. A contraption with a sheet metal hood, four-sided, apron down to about 4 to 5 inches. A thermometer kept track of the temperature ideally held at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Chicks soon develop their own heat, so the thermostat was turned down or backed off periodically. We helped set up glass bubblers for water and small metal trays for chicken feed. Baby chicks needed warmth, water, food, and a quiet brooder house. Sudden, loud, sharp noises would frighten the wee fowl and they could bunch up in the corner and smother.

The big day arrived in late March. The baby chicks came by way of the rural carrier mailman. He had four or five boxes of the little peepers stacked up the trunk of his car. He pulled his Chevy Coupe into the driveway of the farmstead, instead of the usual stop at the mailbox on the gravel road.

A rope from the trunk latch hung down over the boxes and was tied to the bumper. All of us kids gathered around, getting as close as we dare. We can hear the chicks chirping and peeping away. We tried putting our finger into one of the air holes of a box. Mom scolded, “back away kids.”

One by one the boxes were lifted out of the trunk, kept very level by the handler. Three or four boxes are stacked on our toy wagon. My brothers, Phillip and Bob, fought over who got to pull the wagon tongue. Phillip usually did, he is bigger, he is older, and he gets first dibs.

Bob and I held the boxes in place atop the kid’s wagon as we slowly make the journey to the chicken coop. We paused by the door. Mom opened the door, removed the top box, places it inside the coop, and close to one of the brooder heat lamps.

The boxes were about 2 feet on a side, and 5 inches high. The side of the boxes had an ample number of half-inch round holes so that the little chicks could get fresh air. Each box was partitioned into 4 compartments using cardboard walls. About 10 White Leghorn chicks were in each little compartment.  This arrangement of cubicles prevented the chicks from crowding together and smothering each other.

We reached in the box and cradled a baby chick in both hands. Then we dipped the chick’s beak into the drinking fountain water. Baby chicks had to be taught how to drink water. Then we would place them ever so gently under the heat lamp, amid admonitions to “be careful not to squeeze them”.

The  baby chicks arriving on the farm was one of the sure signs of Spring.



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Radio in the One-Room Country School

The Philco radio sat on a small table in the front of the room at the Oak Grove Ridge one-room country school miles northwest of Seneca in Crawford County. Wisconsin School of the Air, originating at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, broadcast 10 school programs. I vividly remember four of those programs during my eight years at Oak Grove School-from 1948 to 1956.

The first program of the week was “Afield with Ranger Mac” at 9:30 every Monday morning.  It was 15 minutes long and the teacher had “follow-along” lesson plans that had been sent in the mail. Ranger Mac was Wakelin McNeel, who had started his teaching career in Tomah in 1906 at age 22.  He was Ranger Mac from 1933 to 1954.  McNeel was the state 4-H Club Leader for Wisconsin and a Professor of Extension Education.  But on radio he was known as the Chief of the Junior Forest Rangers.  Wakelin McNeel died in 1958 at age 74

Ranger Mac always started his broadcast with an “Up and away” salutation.  He had a distinctive deep rich sonorous voice. The teacher’s manual had admonitions to “Listen for these ideas” and a short vocabulary list, such as; energy, cells, vascular system and honeycomb.  Our teacher would prompt us ahead of time. There were suggested activities in the manual, tips on field trips, and activities students could do at home.

We kids always looked forward to hearing Ranger Mac on the radio.  The program was designed for grades 5-8, but in a one-room country school, everyone listened.  Nature and the great outdoors taught us lessons on conservation, school forests, protection of woodlots, soil conservation, preservation of wildlife. He ended each program with “May the Great Spirit put sunshine in your hearts, now and forever more.  Heap much!”

At one time, our Oak Grove School built a little Conservation Corner of exhibits, plant samples, bird feathers, bird nests, mud animal tracks, wasp’s nests, tree leaves and bark. Ranger Mac exhorted us to keep a log book of our observations of nature. My log book was a single sheet of paper that I wrote down a few things I saw each day.


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Radio on the Farm

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon was another favorite radio program of the Scheckel boys on the Oak Grove Ridge farm in the 1940s and 1950s. Sergeant Preston was a Canadian Mountie. Preston rode his horse, Rex, and a canine companion, Yukon King, was always by his side.

I can’t recall what breed of horse Rex was.  Remember, this was radio, not television. But the Scheckel boys knew that Yukon King was a Huskie, the strongest and swiftest lead dog breaking the trail. Every Thursday night at 6 o’clock, Sergeant Preston was in a relentless pursuit of lawbreakers in the 1890’s desolate western Canadian frontier. He went after gold crazed miners, murderers, claim jumpers and cutthroats.  There seemed to be a winter snow storm or blizzard in every episode.

We also, loved the Cisco Kid radio series. We knew Cisco and Pancho were Mexican or at minimum, half Mexican. It seemed this pair of happy-go-lucky gun-toting caballeros was part outlaw. But they always seemed to help citizens in distress. At the end of each half hour program, one of them would tell a corny joke about the adventure they had just gone through.  They would both laugh, drawing out a long  ”Oooooooh Pancho! “Oooooooh Ceeesco!” and ride off into an imaginary sunset.

Other radio programs were Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Edgar Bergen was the ventriloquist and Charlie McCarthy was his wooden dummy. He would interview famous guests such as Jimmy Steward and Mae West. Edgar Bergen had another wooden dummy named Mortimer Snerd. Whereas, Charlie McCarty was intelligent and sophisticated, Moritmer Snerd was a rube, a country bumpkin. Oh, yes we boys could identify with Snerd. We awaited to the end of every program for “Snerd’s Words for the Birds”, such as “Always be sincere, even if you don’t mean it”. Snerd was always amazed and awed by the marvels of the modern world, none of which he could understand. So “Who’d a thunk it?” are Snerd’s words.

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Radio on the Farm in Winter

via Radio on the Farm in Winter

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Radio on the Farm in Winter

Our radio sat on a low wooden stand in the corner of the living room.  Dad’s rocking chair was placed in front of the radio.  The heat register was nearby, bringing warm dry air from the basement furnace. 

We did not have television or newspapers or magazines on the Scheckel farm outside of Seneca, Wisconsin in the heart of Crawford County during the 1940s and 1950s.  We had the Weekly Reader at our one-room school.  We saw the Movietone News ahead of the movies we occasionally saw in Gays Mills or Prairie du Chien. I recall the ringing authoritative voice of Lowell Thomas describing the battles occurring in the Korean War. That radio was our window to the outside world.

The all-time favorite of us three Scheckel boys had to be the Lone Ranger program. It was broadcast on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights at 6 PM.  In the winter, we tried to get our chores done, supper eaten, rosary said, and cows milked by 6 PM.  We usually made it just in time.

One of us would turn on the radio.  We’d lie on the floor of the living room, or sit in a chair by the table, reading or doing homework and listen to the soft soothing voice of the Masked Man “Bringing law and order to the Old West”.  The Lone Ranger’s trademark was the Silver Bullet and he rode on a big white stallion by the name of Silver.

His faithful companion was the Indian Tonto. Tonto’s broken English would be totally politically incorrect today. He would say “Me thinks you right, Ke-mo sah-bee.” An outlaw would be referred to as “Him heap big bad man”.  Tonto’s mount was the sorrel paint named Scout.  At the end of the program The Long Ranger would be heard to yell, “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!”.  A voice would ask “Who was that masked man?”  Another knowing character would response with “Well, that’s the Lone Ranger!” and then a portion of the William Tell Overture would be heard.


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