Seneca Lore

We’re continuing our drive down Highway 27, which runs down the spine of Crawford County, from Sparta, to Viroqua, and down to Prairie du Chien. I grew up in the heart of Crawford County on the Scheckel farm 2 miles northwest of Seneca. I was born in 1942 and spent ages 3 to 18 on that 238 acre farm before going into the military in 1960.

We passed through Rising Sun, Fairview, Mt. Sterling, and glanced over at Evergreen Cemetery next to the Dan Boland farm. Right now, we’re lingering a bit in Seneca. While the Norwegians favored the Lutheran Church in Mt. Sterling and a bit north at Utica Lutheran Church, the Irish flocked to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the southern edge of Seneca.

One of my early memories of any ‘church’ stuff was the funeral for our neighbor Joe Bernier. Joe Bernier went to see Dr. Farrell in PDC, which was in the Beaumont Hospital . Dad and Mom went to see him. The doctor 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 went home to Laskaski’s in Seneca, the big house across the road from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

Joe Bernier died in bed a few days later on Jan 28, 1951. He was not quite 48 years old. Joe and his brother, Bill, both bachelors, often came up to our house, about a quarter mile away, to play cards with Dad and Mom especially in the wintertime.

Joe was gregarious and talkative, whereas Bill was more quiet and taciturn. Joe rolled his own cigarettes, carried a tin of tobacco and a book of cigarette paper. Joe wore a floppy hat and bib overalls. He sat in the same rocking chair every time he and his brother visited.

Joe would retrieve a tin of Prince Albert tobacco from the bib of his overalls. Next, he would reach in and extract a book of cigarette paper, and tear off a sheet. He would shape the cigarette paper in form of a trough, hold the trough of cigarette paper between two fingers and open the lid on the bright red Prince Albert tobacco can. 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. Now he started talking again.

Joe Bernier

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, as 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.

I recall bits and pieces of the funeral. It was bitter cold. Dad later recalled that it was 30 below zero on Jan 30, 1951. I remember going into the Laskaskie house in the evening, lots of people around, and walking with Dad and Mom and others in my family over to the casket. There were a lot of people talking in low voices. I was eight years old and although I had been to other funerals, it was the first time I saw the deceased in the casket.

At that time, ‘wakes” as we called them, were held in the deceased family’s home, not a funeral home as they are today.

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. I can recall us walking back to the black Chevrolet car and going home. I recall Dad saying later that “Joe Bernier was the best friend I ever had.”



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