Oak Grove School Begins

Teacher rang the school bell at 9 o’clock and everyone dutifully filed in. Seats were assigned. Teacher gave a little talk about how the school year was going to run smoothly, talked about duties, emphasizing responsibilities and how everyone was to “get along” with everybody.

We all stood next to our desks, hand over heart, faced the corner where the 48-star flag hung at an angle right below the portraits of Washington and Lincoln, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The school year began.

The grass and weeds around the school house had grown tall over the summer. Floyd Sutton mowed a few days before school started. The base paths on the softball diamond were barely discernible. The school grounds looked like a hay field, and would remain that way until 28 pairs of feet tramped over the half acre plot. Melvin Sales had filled the cistern with fresh drinking water, brought over from his farm in a cow tank on a trailer pulled by the 9N Ford tractor. He would do a refill about every 3 months during the school year.

The one-room country Oak Grove school outside of Seneca in Crawford County was now in session in 1948. When I was a kid on the farm, school started around September 4 or 5, depending on Labor Day. We got a few new clothes before school began. There were always about 3 to 5 Scheckel kids heading one mile northwest on the gravel road to the one-room Oak Grove School.

We each had a lunch paid, sometimes a new one, sometimes one left over from last year, or a hand-me-down from an older sibling heading off in the other direction to High School in Seneca.

We carried a Big Chief tablet, usually red, and new box of crayons, and a couple of pencils. We would join the Kozelka kids on the way to school.

The start of school was an indication that Fall was coming on. The haying season was finishing by this time of year. If we got a lot of rain, we would get a third crop off some fields. Threshing was done and the oats was in the granary, along with a bin of wheat for the chickens. The corn ears were fleshing out, the silk turning from a yellowish white to a brown color. The walnuts were starting to fall from the trees over on the hill pasture.

An apple tree was just off the road over in the Ingham pasture. Holstein cows grazed in that wooded pasture and so did a big Holstein bull. That didn’t stop us school kids from crawling under the fence and fetching a few apples to gnaw on or to throw at each other.

Cockleburrs grew along the roadside as did goldenrods, honey suckle, plantain, nettle, ragweed and a bunch we couldn’t identify. Loved those cockleburs. Pull a bunch, wad them up, and toss them as somebody with a wool sweater. Cockleburrs were a forerunner of Velcro, you understand. Yes, it was Fall when school had started.







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Fall is Here

A bike ride on the back roads of Monroe County last Saturday convinced me that the Fall season is upon us. It is the most enjoyable of seasons, full of sights, sounds, and smells that delight the senses. The bicycle is an ideal conveyance; fast enough to get you to a breakfast spot in one of the surrounding villages, but sufficiently slow to take in thesplendor and beauty of the countryside.

Now, in late September, the calendar says it is Fall. The skies are pleasant as the humidity of summer is largely behind us, and the white cumulus clouds stand out against the azure blue sky. The sumac had turned bright red. Dead leaves under the bicycle tires make a pleasant scrunch sound. Pine needles emit a more swishing tone.


Rabbits, in abundance this year, hasten to their hiding places. Squirrels gather nuts, storing them for the long winter ahead. Butterflies are abundant. We see sandhill cranes feeding in the harvested oats and hay fields. Wooly bear caterpillars are spotted below the bike handlebars. I stop to examine a couple of them. They will tell us about the winter ahead. Narrow brown band means a bitter winter ahead. Wide brown band will indicate a mild winter. You can count on it. What’s the verdict? I find a wide band, it’s going to be a balmy winter. No need to travel south this year!

A few V shaped flocks of geese are overhead. Maybe some have headed south already. Good to get to Missouri and Arkansas before all the good feeding places are taken up!

And the smells. A bike ride delights the olfactory receptors, as Fall has a scent all its own. The cornfields emit a certain scent, as do the dried leaves. The winds carry an aroma of a large dairy farm. It’s not exactly a perfume or fragrance, but it does evoke memories of decades past on the Scheckel farm on Oak Grove Ridge near Seneca. You don’t get those scents and memories riding the highways in a car. Fall is truly a time to rejoice in the goodness of the Earth.

Genesis 2:1-25 – Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.


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Gathering Walnuts

The Scheckel farm on Oak Grove Ridge near Seneca in Crawford County had 10 walnut trees in the hill pasture along ShortCut Road. We always looked forward to the annual gathering of walnuts.

As fall approached, we kept track of the walnuts falling off the trees.  We traveled past the walnut trees several times a week on our way to Seneca.  When it was time, we gathered up milk pails and gunny sacks from the granary, the burlap bags we used for corn and oats.  Off we would go to the hill pasture.

Our hill pasture was special.  We drove our milk cows on the gravel road and pastured them during the day in spring, summer and fall. The hill pasture was just a few feet less than the highest point in Crawford County.  A few years after I left the farm, several agencies, including the Wisconsin State Patrol, built a relay tower on the highest point, which was just a few hundred yards from our property line.

Looking north from our vantage point on the hill pasture, we could see the steeple of Utica Church on Highway 27 north of Mt. Sterling.  The top of the Lansing bridge could be spotted above the terrain to the northwest.   We could see all the way back onto Oak Grove Ridge, the farmlands of Bernier,  Ingham, Suttons, and Fradette. The Payne, McAreavy, and Aspenson farms were fairly close. Further to the east was the Elmer Stove farmstead with its immaculate white buildings and white board fences. They kept their bright red Massey Harris ’44 tractor in spic and span condition.

Phillip, Bob, and I would pick up a bucket full of walnuts, pour them in a gunny sack, and tie off the gunny sack with binder twine. We’d walk home and ask Dad to take the tractor and wagon or the pickup truck to load up the gunny sacks and bring them back to the farm.            When we were old enough to drive, we boys could retrieve them ourselves.  Age did not determine when we could drive a truck or car.  If your feet reached the pedals, you could drive.  Dad and Mom didn’t allow us to drive to town, but we could drive on Oak Grove Ridge Road and on the roads around our farm.  “Fearless Fred” Brockway, Crawford County deputy sheriff,  would not be patrolling on Oak Grove Ridge.

The walnut sacks were unloaded on the cement apron east of the Big Barn.  The walnuts might stay in the sacks for several days until we had time to tend to them.  Then the shucking began.  Walnuts were poured out of the sacks onto the concrete, and beaten with a board, that loosened the shell or peeling around the black/brown walnut. Walnuts were picked off of the broken casings and put in a pail or bucket.  Our hands got really badly stained, almost pitch black.  That stain would not come off in soap and water, so we wore our walnut stained hands for several days as sort of badge of honor. Even went to school with stained hands.

The shucked walnuts were stored in metal tins in the basement.  We cracked walnuts in the wintertime, and put them in fudge candy that we made on the stove. Some went into brownies and cakes.


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Threshing Grain Part 5

We continue our story of threshing oats in the mid-1940s on the Scheckel farm near Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin. It is the era of the threshing ring, when farmers banded together to thresh grain, moving from farm to farm over a 2-week season.

Those threshing crews was an opportunity that some neighbors had to visit you and your family at your place. Other times would be the Oak Grove School basket social in the fall, the Christmas program, and the picnic at the end of the year. There would be an occasional wake or funeral.  And farmers learned from each other, gathered information on new crop varieties coming out, cost of new machinery, how to solve a problem with the binder or hay loader. That comradeship and the social aspects were important to farmers in the first half of the twentieth century. It bound them together.

The host farmer was expected to make dinner for the threshing crew. And let me tell you, those farm men could eat! It was impossible task for one woman, so it was expected that several farm women showed up to help.

All the meal preparation was done on wood burning stoves. A few farm families had kerosene ovens. There were no electric stoves or microwave ovens at that time. We’re talking wood burning stoves, indoors, with no air conditioning, and few fans.

Like the men in the field, the women worked as a team. Pies and cakes were prepared ahead of time by the host housewife. Neighbor wives brought food.  Women arrived early, just like the men. A few came by car. Some got there with their husbands, who drove the wagon pulled by horses or tractor. It was a chance for housewives to swap stories, exchange gossip, commiserate, and socialize.  Farm kitchens were a bee hive of activity.

Those threshing dinners were feasts!  There might be as many as 20 or 30 men to feed. Usually the food was laid out on tables in the front yard, close to the house. The threshing machine was shut down. The thresher men unhitched the teams from the wagons, drove them to the water tank, or secured buckets of water. The bridle was removed and replaced by a halter. A six foot rope was attached to the halter and the other end tethered to a fence post, wagon, or tree. Farmers tried to provide shade for their team. Horses were fed a pail of grain and a few bunches of hay. Men tended to the horses before joining the lunch line.

There was a table set up with a washbasin, soap, towel for the farmers to “clean up” before the meal would commence. As little kids, it was our job to set up the washbasin, carry buckets of clean water, stacks of towels, and bars of soap.

The sweat-drenched farmers came by, rolled up their sleeves, bent over the wash basin, and with both hands scooped up water and splashed across the face. The lower face being sunburned and upper face whitened as the sun seldom reached the top half of a farmer’s head.

A bar of soap, washcloth in hand, and a slathering of water and soap on each arm, and a reach for the big towel. Some of the grime is removed, just enough to be presentable for noon dinner.

As I look back at it now, I think no self-respecting housewife is going to be outdone by a neighboring housewife. It was unthinkable that your meal should be less than the feast provided the previous day from the farmhouse down the road.

And what a feast it was! Chicken was the staple meat, perhaps roast beef, maybe ham. There would be heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, along with gravy, stuffing, carrots, peas, homemade bread, and dinner rolls. Cole slaw, pickles, and beets were spread out.  Milk, coffee, lemonade and water for drinks. For dessert, pie was top dog.  Several choices on pies; apple, chocolate, peach, mincemeat. These pies were already cut when out on the table. Big pieces, too, not those dinky slices you see in restaurants today. There would be some cakes, pastries, and cookies. Ice cream was a rarity.

These feasts were beyond description. And always, housewives would be imploring, “come get more seconds”. Food was served buffet style. Farmers would grab a china or ceramic plate, utensils, go down the line, and scoop up whatever food and whatever quantity of food they desired.

Farmers would eat sitting on the grass, some chairs provided, propped up against a tree. Some farmers set out planks supported by two large pieces of firewood. Eat and talk, swap story, tell tall tales, and good ribbing jokes. What great fellowship! Some would go back for more food. No one went hungry.

Excerpt from book Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers


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Threshing Oats Part 4

We continue our story of threshing oats in the mid-1940s on the Scheckel farm near Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin. It is the era of the threshing ring, when farmers banded together to thresh grain, moving from farm to farm over a 2-week season.

Every farmer has pride, and wants to be well thought of by his neighbors. A farmer could not hide his operation from fellow farmers. The threshing crews walked his fields, witnessed the gullies, sand dunes, reddish or yellowish soil where the blackened topsoil had been washed away. Neighbor farmers observed the corn fields, with the corn about four feet high at threshing time, and observed how weedy his crops were. There was no Roundup Ready Corn in those days and weeds were the bane of farmers.

A farmer’s whole operation was open for casual inspection; his barns and silos, his cattle, horses, harnesses, machinery, the condition of his fences, buildings, the house, lawn, and gardens. Everyone knew who had good, strong, healthy teams of horses and who had the nags that could barely do a day’s work.

You could judge a man and his farm. Nobody ever said anything, at least not out in the open, certainly not around threshing time. Those conversations and remarks might be made over a beer at Sullivan’s tavern in Seneca, or Caya’s in Lynxville, or Slama’s in Eastman.

But everyone knew who the “good” farmers were, who took care of their cattle, machinery, farmstead, who were the hard workers and who were the slackers. One and all knew who supported their church and who didn’t, who didn’t even go to church, which of course, was unthinkable. How could you be a farmer, an American, a decent human being and not go to church? That was the thinking of the Scheckel boys.

There were no Porta Potties on farms. Threshing crew farmers were not about to go into the clean farmhouse in their dirty, sweaty, grease-smeared clothes and use the bathroom. Many farms, especially in the early years, did not have indoor plumbing. An outhouse was the “port of call.” The pages of last year’s Sears catalog served as toilet paper.

If a farm had indoor plumbing and no outhouse, thresher crew farmers took care of matters. There was always a nearby woods, or the barn, or the hog house. These matters are best left to the imagination.




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Threshing Oats Part 3

Source: Threshing Oats Part 3

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Threshing Oats Part 3

We continue our story of threshing oats in the mid-1940s on the Scheckel farm near Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin. It is the era of the threshing ring, when farmers banded together to thresh grain, moving from farm to farm over a 2-week season.

On toward 10 o’clock, with the dew burned off by the blazing sun, the loads of bundles started arriving from the fields.  There were 6 or 7 teams of wagons and horses. Some farmers brought a tractor and wagon. These were small tractors, typical for the time of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Farmall H, Ford 8N, Allis Chalmers C. John Deere “Johnny Poppers”.

A half dozen wagons, with teams of horses, could keep the hungry threshing machine busy. Shutting it down was wasted time, and time was everything. That machine kept going, only to be stopped between loads for a quick greasing of all the zerts and at lunch time, which was usually around 12:30 PM.

Fradette opens the throttle of the big Minneapolis Moline, smoke belching out the 3-foot exhaust pipe atop the machine, wafting off into the clear blue Wisconsin sky. The thresher comes to life, the big claw teeth at the end of the grain bundle tray chute starting to move, as if it were gulping for bundles. The tray chain moves, all the belts and pulleys turning, as if this beast is arising from the dead and coming alive.

A farmer has already driven his team and wagon into position, just inches from the feed trough. The thresher is up to speed, and Fradette signals for the first bundles to start down the feeder.

Bundles are thrown in grain heads first, stalk end last, and lengthwise. There are feeder knives attached beneath the claws that cut the binder twine. Uncut twine is bad news, grain is not separated from the stalk, and it can clog the thresher, which means shutting the machine down, a waste of valuable time. Time is everything. In addition, twine can get wrapped around shaft bearing and needs to be cut out by hand with a jack knife.

Frank Fradette was paid by the bushel for threshing grain. A few cents a bushel was the rate. Threshed oats went up an elevator on the side of the big machine and the grains dumped in a receiver basket. The basket was counterbalanced by a weight and when full, the buckle opened and dumped the grain into an auger that took it to a waiting wagon or pick-up. At the same time, the dumping buckle operated a geared counter that kept track of the number of bushels threshed. Two dumping trips of the bucket was one bushel of oats. The counter had 3 “windows” and operated like the counters used to keep track of the amount of electricity one used.

Excerpts from Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers


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