Threshing Oats Part 1

In 1945 Dad and Mom bought our 238-acre farm a few miles northwest of Seneca in the heart of Crawford County, Wisconsin. I was approaching 3 years old. It was known as the Maney farm going way back to the early 1900’s. Pat Maney sold the farm to Fred Becwar in 1936.

It was typical at the time, that if a farmer was selling his farm, he would plant as much corn as possible the last year he owned the farm. Corn was the money crop. Typical also was the practice of rotating crops: corn, oats, and finally, hay. Hay for perhaps 2 or 3 years, then plow it up and go with corn, oats, hay.

In 1945, Dad had to plant a lot of oats, simply because the previous year the land was heavily planted in corn. These were the days of the threshing crews. Our Oak Grove Ridge probably had about 12 or 15 farmers that were on the threshing circuit. Frank Fradette owned the threshing machine. The sole purpose of a thresher was to separate the golden kernels of oats from their stalks. The stalks where sent out a big pipe by a powerful blower and the stalks built a straw stack. The oats kernels were hauled to a granary for storage.

Frank Fradette pulled the threshing machine with a big orange Minneapolis Moline tractor. His father, Louis Fradette, lived over on Shortcut Road pass the Payne farm.  We boys called his “old Louie Fradette”. He owned the blower (or elevator) that took the grain and put it in the granary.

The most exciting day of the whole year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day, was the day the threshing machine and crew came to the Scheckel farm. As little kids, 4 or 5 or 6 years old, our main job was to “stay out of the way”. Those were strict “you’ll be sorry if you don’t” orders from both Dad and Mom.

That threshing machine was a behemoth of a beast. Threshing machines of that era were about 25-30 feet long, 8 to 10 feet tall, and about 4-5 feet wide. No other machine on the farm was that big. When you’re a kid, everything is big!!

Phillip, Bob, and I watched it come up the road from the Bernier farm. It couldn’t have been moving faster than about 5 mph. Threshing machines had steel wheels, and the roadway was gravel. The feeder tray, where the grain bundles are fed, was hinged and tucked under so as to shorten its length.

I was three years old and this is one of my earliest memories of life on the farm. The belching yellow Minneapolis Moline tractor pulled the huge thresher, with my Dad walking along between the tractor and thresher talking to Frank Fradette, who was turned sideways in the tractor seat, alternately looking at my Dad and the pathway ahead.

Thresher and tractor passed the big tree near the house, close to the chicken coop, and through the gate that lead to the “sand dunes” field. The thresher was placed about 400 feet southeast of the house.

Excerpts from Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers


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Those Lutherans

It has been a busy early August for  Larry and Ann Scheckel here in Tomah. Tuesday, August 8, we had our annual board meeting of the Crawford County Historical Society under the capable leadership of our affable president, Larry Quamme. Other members serving are Dennis Pelock, Sheila Champlin, Jacob Vedvik, Illene Olson, John Swanson, and John Rybarczyk, and Travis Kramer. They all do a great job.

The annual board meeting is held at the Sugar Creek Valley Bible Camp in northern Crawford County.  They have all kinds of programs; swimming, hiking, horseback riding, quilting, crafts, etc. for youngsters, teens, and adults. When we held our meeting on Tuesday, there were about 100 kids enjoying the week at Bible Camp.

Sugar Creek Bible Camp is open to all denominations, but it seems that Lutherans are most prevalent. We’ve had a few connections with Lutherans lately. Last Saturday, Ann and I gave a presentation to the Norwegian Tre Lag Stevne conference at the Radisson Hotel in La Crosse. It was about the rural life, farming, and one-room country schools of the 1940s and 1950s. Wonderful group, warm reception, and invitations to speak to a couple of Sons of Norway groups this Fall.

Then there is our St. Mary’s Cemetery here on the south edge of Tomah. We purchased grave plots decades ago and finally got the stone marker (gravestone) in place this past week. Looks mighty handsome, black granite with white lettering. All that is missing is the “end” date, and we’re in no hurry filling that in. The Catholics in St. Mary’s Cemetery are surrounded on three sides by Lutherans. The only escape is to the East along the highway.

Then there is Church League softball. Tuesday night games, very low key, and both teams meet at home plate, just before the first pitch, to say a prayer. We were playing the Lutherans, and would you believe it; I pulled a right leg calf muscle running from first base to second base. I’m in a leg restraint for 2 to 4 weeks. Can’t blame it on the Lutherans; it was all my doing and the doctor suggested I might look for a sport other than softball.

Twenty years ago, July 20-26, 1997, our son, Pat, and I did the RAGBRAI bicycle ride across Iowa. You dip your rear bike wheel in the Missouri River and seven days later you dip your front bike wheel in the Mississippi River.

There are food stands and meals to purchase all along the route, most provided by local churches. I must say that the best cooks were those Lutherans.





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A Memorable Wake in Seneca

When I was growing up on the farm outside of Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin in the 1940s and 1950s, visitations were not held at funeral parlors. They were held in the home of the deceased.

It was the custom in most Northern Europe countries for mourners to keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried. This was called a “wake”. It is a misconception that people at a wake are waiting in case the deceased should “wake up”.

The Bernier farm was a quarter mile northwest of the Scheckel farm. The patriarch of the Bernier family was Michael, who died in 1947 when I was five years old. The wake or visitation was held at the Bernier farm house.

The funeral procession the following morning would had all those cars going by our house.  We Scheckel kids had strict orders not to be standing out in the yard gawking as the procession proceeded slowly from the Bernier farm, going south pass our farm and up the hill onto the ridge to Seneca.  We were to stay behind the house and could glimpse the hearse, pallbearer car and the whole entourage of cars from around the edge of the house as it went pass.

There was a memorable wake in Seneca as related in the booklet The History of Seneca Past and Present. “At one wake near Seneca in those early days, a couple of fun-loving Irishmen decided to play a joke on one of the families of the community. There were not many people at the wake house in the early evening and this family had not yet arrived. These two young men removed the corpse from the casket, and one of the men got into it. It was dark when this family arrived and the room was dimly lit with a kerosene lamp. The family viewed the corpse in the semi-darkness and took seats across the room from the casket. As they looked at the casket, what they thought was the corpse, slowly raised up and sat upright in the casket. This family gasped, ran out of the door, and drove the team home at top speed.”


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The Wake

I believe most everyone remembers the first time they saw a dead person. It’s usually not a traumatic event, but it is a memorable one. For me it was late January 1951, when I was almost 9 years old.

Our nearest neighbors to the Scheckel farm on Oak Grove Ridge in the heart of Crawford County 2 miles northwest of Seneca were two Irish bachelor brothers, Joe and Bill Bernier. Like the Scheckel family, Joe and Bill attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Seneca.

Joe and Bill often walked the quarter mile up the Oak Grove Ridge road to visit Dad and Mom and to play cards.  Joe always sat in the same rocking car. He was gregarious and talkative, whereas Bill was more quiet and taciturn. He wore a floppy hat and bib overalls.

Joe carried a tin of tobacco and a book of cigarette paper to roll his own cigarettes He would retrieve a bright red tin of Prince Albert tobacco from the bib of his overalls. He would shape the cigarette paper in the form of a trough, hold the trough of cigarette paper between two fingers. Holding the tin horizontally, Joe would tap the top side, moving back along the trough of paper, and carefully fill the cigarette paper with shredded tobacco.

Joe closed the lid on the tobacco can with one hand and while holding the tobacco filled tray in the other, and placed the Prince Albert can back in his bib overalls. Now, this is the only time he stopped talking.

Carefully, Joe Bernier took a hold of both sides of the tobacco tray paper, brought it up to his lips, ran his tongue along the outside, lowered it, and carefully brought the other side of the tobacco paper over the top of the exposed tobacco and gently pressed it against the wetted side.  It made a nice seal. Joe would start talking again.

Joe placed the “roll your own” cigarette in corner of his mouth, jiggling it up and down as he talked and laughed.  He brought out a little box of matches, with one leg crossed over the other, the bottom of his shoe exposed to a striking match head.  He brought the flame up to the end of the  cigarette, took a few inhaling drags, and leaned far back in the chair, held his head back, and the smoke rose to the ceiling. Joe Bernier’s ritual never changed.  Phillip, Bob and I found it fascinating. Joe could blow smoke rings.  We boys would climb up on an adjacent chair and run our hands through the smoke ring.

Then we had to run upstairs to bed.  Dad, Mom, Joe and Bill would play cards, either 500 or euchre.   As we grew a little older, we could stay up a little later, and we would move around the table to see which player had the best hand.

In January 1951, Joe went to see Dr. Farrell at the Beaumont Hospital in Prairie du Chien. Dad and Mom went to see him. Dr. Farrell said it was just the flu, but Mom noticed that Joe’s eye was off to the side. She thought he had a stroke.

Joe was taken to the Frank and Loretta Weber home in Seneca to recover. Loretta was a Bernier, sister to Joe Bernier. The house, along with a small farm, also was owned at one time by Anton and Bessie Laskaskie. Bessie was also a Bernier. Joe died in bed during the night of January 28, 1951, a probable stroke. I believe Joe was around 50 years old.

I recall bits and pieces of the funeral. It was bitter cold. Dad later recalled that it was 30 below zero on January 30, 1951.  I remember going into the Weber house in the evening, lots of people talking in low voices. My brothers, Phillip and Bob, walked over to the casket. It was the first time I saw a deceased in the casket.  I don’t remember anything about the funeral Mass, but I remember seeing the casket being put into the ground, and there was no vault, as we have today, only a wooden casing.

My Dad said that Joe Bernier was the best friend he ever had.

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Haying Season in Crawford County Part 7

We’re putting up loose hay in the 1940s and 1950s on the Scheckel farm outside Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin.

Between loads of hay, it was off to the windmill to get a cold drink of water. Cold pure water coming up from 200 feet down right out of Mother Earth. Man, that was a good drink. Several tin cups were hung on spikes attached to the legs of the windmill. Unhook the cup, remove the pipe from the well head, and fill the cup with cold water. Even let some run down your neck and back. You were already wet from sweat.

Haying season seemed to run all summer. It didn’t of course, it just seemed to. It was in spurts. First crop lasted two weeks, then cutting oats, second crop hay followed by threshing oats and wheat.

The end of any haying day was not the end of the working day. There were still chores to attend to. Feed the chickens, gather eggs, slop the hogs, milk cows, tend to the bull, curry the horses and put them out to pasture.

Getting hay in on time was a high priority for any farmer. No farmer wanted their hay crop to get rained on. The loss of food value is severe as precious nutrients are leached out.

While haying is tons of work and toil in hot weather, there is some joy to behold in the effort. The aroma from a field of drying and curing hay is a joyful odor. It is the sugar contained in those grass, alfalfa, clover, and timothy plants that brings out the pleasing smell.

Riding from field to barn atop a full load of loose hay was a joyful experience.  A boy can feel like he’s on top of the world. What a fantastic view in every direction. A straw hat kept the sun off our face and neck. The blowing wind dried the sweat. With that load of hay coming out of the field, riding up high, a kid could think he was king of the hill, a “on top of the world feeling”.

There was another benefit to haying; watching that haymow get fuller and fuller day after day. Sometimes in the spring, we ran out of hay for the milk cows. The barn was empty and Dad had to buy hay. We always bought baled hay. I know he didn’t want to do that. Dad didn’t like spending money on anything, let alone hay.

But he had to occasionally. Barn was empty of loose hay, pastures were not ready in late March and early April, so search the newspapers for ads for baled hay.

I kept my eye on the barn filling, always aware of how full it was getting. When the mow got full, the trolley and fork that brought the new load of hay off the wagon could barely move, because it was dragging on the hay in the mow. We filled bin 3 as full as we could, dropping the hay in bin 2 and mowing or throwing it over into bin 3 so the hay was close to touching the track. Right up there in the apex. Then we would drop hay in bin 1, and mow hay back into bin 2 so it was full, working out way to bin 1, which would be the last bin to be filled.

Now the trip mechanism on the track could be unbolted, turned around, and made so the trolley ran in the opposite direction, so we could fill the bin above the horse barn. Sometimes that space got full, so the space where the hay wagon drove in was filled, then hay was put in the small barn.

A full barn meant a stable barn. Mom and Dad worried when the barn was near empty, vulnerable to the wicked storms that moved across southwestern Wisconsin. Some of those winds were fierce and an empty barn could be blown down. It would happen to neighbors of people we knew. When the barn was getting full, a feeling of relief because a full barn of hay is more stable than an Army tank.

I think even the horses had a sense of what was going on here. I just imagined they knew that their sweat equity was paying off. That they were harvesting the food they would chow down in the winter.

The horses chewed grass in the pasture after working hours. Often the horses were led to the water tank next to the cow corral and half way from the barn to the hog house. Turned out to pasture, they would go down on all four legs, roll around in the dust. Sometimes we would curry comb the horsed. The curry comb was a brush that comb through the horse’s coat, especially important in the areas where the collar rested on the huge beasts.



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Haying Season in Crawford County Part 6

We’re putting up loose hay in the 1940s and 1950s on the Scheckel farm outside Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin. When Dad deemed the load was full, the hay loader was unhooked from the hay wagon, and off to the big barn we would go. The load of hay was backed into the barn and the task of unloading began.

Most farmers who put up loose hay (not baled) had a mechanical hay carrier to lift the loose hay from the wagon and deliver it into the barn’s haymow. A trolley ran on a track that was fastened to the very apex of the inside of the building, just under the highest part of the roof.  This track and trolley ran the length of the haymow.

The trolley would be positioned over the hay load. A trip mechanism bolted on the track above the load, would release a double harpoon hayfork, and hayfork would be lowered by pulley and rope, onto the load of hay. The tines of the hayfork were about 30 inches long and spaced about 20 inches apart. Each tine had a little built in sliding bar to operate a “gripper” at the end of each tine. lever or finger that opened and closed.  When this mechanism was set, the hay was kept in place and could be released by a trip rope. Dad would push the harpoon fork into the load of hay. Then he would pull up on the tine trip arm to set the grippers, one at a time.

The hay rope was a one-inch diameter manila rope 150 feet long that ran along the track, through a series of heavy pulleys: one at the end of the barn, one on the cell near the corner of the barn, and one base of the barn anchored by a push. The rope was attached to a single tree pulled by one horse. Dolly was the chosen horse. She was gentle, slow but strong, and glistened black when she sweated.

Dad would yell out “Ok, go”. We led Dolly by a rope attached to the halter. “Gippy up” Slack was taken up and Dolly would lean into the load. The rope tightened. The pulleys strained. Straight up went the harpoon fork with its load of hay. When the hayfork reached the trolley, a locking mechanism attached the pulley carrying the hayfork and the trolley was released from its center position and free to travel down the track. The fork load of hay would be delivered to bin 1, bin 2, or bin 3 in the haymow.

Two or three of us mowed the hay. We would designate which bin to drop the hay. Dad held onto the quarter inch trip rope as it threaded through his hands, Dad would tug on the small trip rope and the load of hay fell into the correct bin with a swoosh and a breeze and hay dust. Dad would yell “Whoa”, the kid leading the horse would stop the forward movement of Dolly. Tension on the rope eased. The horse was turned around, with another kid pulled the rope back so it would be in place for the next load.

Dad pulled the trolley back to the position above the load of hay, the hayfork would lower and Dad would stick into the load, set the lever, and the process was repeated until all the hay was unloaded. I’m guessing it took about 6 lifts to unload the entire wagon.

When we were 6 or 7 years old, our job was to pull the rope back.  When you reached ages 10 or 11, you could lead the horse. When 13 or 14, you were in the hay mow with a 3 tine pitch fork, throwing the hay to the side of the barn. That was the hardest job of all. It might be 70 or 80 degrees outside, but up in the hayloft, you could easily add another 20 degrees, and not exaggerate. This was hard, dirty, sweaty work.


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Haying season in Crawford County Part 5

We’re continuing our story of haying in the 1940s and 1950s on the Scheckel farm outside Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin. Like all farm machinery of the time, frequent greasing was necessary. The grease gun was a constant companion. You filled the grease gun from a big 5-gallon pail of grease, unthreading the body from the head, sticking the open end body down into the grease, and pulling the small handle in the back. The gun filled with grease by suction.

A hay mower might have 3 or 4 zerts. A zerk is a grease fitting, or grease nipple, The patent for the Zerk fitting was awarded to Oscar U. Zerk in 1929. The grease gun fitted over the nipple, the handle was pumped three or four times, or until you saw grease oozing out of the bearing area.

Oscar U. Zerk was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878, came in America in 1946, but lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Quite the inventor, he held patents on quick-freezing ice cube trays, special brakes on trolley cars, and over 300 other inventions. Zerk was very much in the news in Feb 1954, when robbers broke into his mansion “Dunmovin” tied him to a chair, stole dozens of valuable paintings, valued at $200,000 and escaped in Zerk’s own car.

A year later, a career criminal, Nick Montos, was arrested in Chicago, and given 7 years for the robbery. He spent a good amount of time in Alcatraz, died in Nov 2008, age 92, oldest criminal in Massachusetts history.  Zerk died at age 90 and is buried in historic Green Ridge Cemetery in Kenosha.

The ideal conditions are to cut the hay, let it lay 3 days, rake it and harvest it before it rains. Well, that’s the ideal, but every farmer knows he’s at the whim of God and His Divine Providence.

Dad had a wooden hay loader in my early years on the farm. Later, he bought a lighter metal New Idea hay loader. What an exquisite piece of equipment. Standing about 10 feet off the ground and about 6 feet wide, the horses straddled the windrow of hay. The big wheels of the hay loader drove the mechanical parts.  A wheel driven chain on the left side turned the rotary rake, and drove 6 rows of tines, 3 offset from the other 3, that raised the hay up a sloping chute and into the hay wagon.

Several times around the field to get a full load. If short-handed on help, the reins were draped over the front boards of the hake rack. The Scheckel boy handling the hay in the front of the wagon could both drive the horses and help with the load. The horses knew where they were going. They were smart enough to straddle the windrow of hay. The only time they needed “steering” was at the end of the row or a ninety degree turn. I suspect they could pretty much do that also.

Putting up hay with a team of horses was quiet affair, no motors or engines. Horses don’t make much noise. Putting up hay loose, not baled, one could hear songbirds, notice hawks soaring overhead, searching for mice, crows cawing in the distance woods. Putting up hay loose was a chance to admire the patchwork of fields, woods, and neighboring farmsteads.

That is the view I have of haying as I look back at it now. That was not my view at the time. In the 1940’ and 1950’s, haying was back breaking, dirty, dusty, and sweaty toil.

Occasionally, a snake would come up the hay loader and onto the wagon. Oh, that was great excitement. The Scheckel boys did not like snakes. We took every opportunity to kill them. Typically, they were garter snakes and black snakes or what we called bull snakes. Those snakes were quite harmless and we were told they ate a lot of field mice. But I always considered snakes to be one of God’s mistakes.


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