Walking Home from School to the Scheckel Farm-Part 1

Watching the snow banks dwindle with the warmer temperatures and the ice slowly disappearing in Lake Tomah, the mind drifts back to the days walking home from the Oak Grove Ridge one-room country school in the late 1940s and early 1950s outside Seneca in the middle of Crawford County

Phillip, Bob, and I walked together and in the my later years at Oak Grove, we were joined by younger sisters, Catharine, Rita, and Diane. We were mixed in with a whole parcel of Kozelka kids; Gloria, Nancy, RuthAnn, Jimmy, Gary, David. Shuffling along, talking, laughing, joking, throwing snowballs, sticks and gravel pieces. We boasted, bragged, hit, and shouted at each other, the way all kids act.

The distance from our farm to Oak Grove School was only one mile. But when you are a little tyke, a mile seems like ten miles.  We left Oak Grove School at 3:30 PM heading southeast. When the snow was melting in the spring, the water in the ditch alongside the road ran down a slight slope in the direction we were going. The water came from both directions to the low spot in the road, entered a culvert that ran under the road and out the culvert.

We’d put twigs in the stream and race them, to see whose twig was the fastest. Then the twigs would disappear into the culvert and we would rush to other side of the road and watch them shoot out the culvert.  Culverts were about a foot in diameter, and sometimes that torrent of water would shoot out 10 or 15 feet.

The water was on its way down to Kettle Creek, which emptied into the Mississippi River north of Lynxville. We would argue about how long it would take our twig to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

Bob said “The Mississippi River runs about two miles an hour downstream. It’s about 1200 miles from La Crosse to New Orleans.  So, it was goin’ take about 600 hours, and that’s about 25 days.”.

Past the dip in the road, round a slight curve, off to the left was the long driveway into the Mickelson place. To the right was a huge rock, about 60 feet into the woods, not observable except when the leaves were off the trees. A few times, when we weren’t too concerned about getting home when we should, we would climb up on the high side of that rock.

A bit past the Big Rock was an apple tree, less than 30 feet inside the property line fence on the Ingram farm. The apple tree grew many apples, they were all small ones, due to lack or pruning.  They were perfect for picking and taking a small bite, then throwing the rest at a sibling  or one of the Kozelka kids or a telephone pole.


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Watercress on the Scheckel Farm

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Watercress on the Scheckel Farm

It was a sure sign of spring on the Scheckel farm out on Oak Grove Ridge near Seneca, in the heart of Crawford County, Wisconsin in the 1940s and 1950s.  Dad took my brothers, Phillip and Bob, down into Kettle Hollow to secure some watercress. We called it “greens”. It was our lettuce for a couple of spring months when the watercress young, fresh, and succulent.

We piled in the old Chevy truck, motored back one mile on the Ridge until we reached our one-room Oak Grove school, then dipped down into the valley of Kettle Hollow.

Kettle Hollow started about a mile north of our 238-acre farm. It was near the 40-acre Reed farm on County Trunk E.  All the buildings were white, including the barn. Odd we thought, because aren’t barns supposed to be red?  Stella Reed, a lady who never married, took over the farm when her father died, and she and her mother Cora, operated that farm. On our way to Seneca, we would often see her around the farmstead or out in the field operating her orange Allis-Chalmers tractor.

Kettle Creek cut through the valley and cut across a part of our farm. The spring ran year-‘round and we pastured about 30 one and two year old calves in the wooded 30 to 40 acre plot. All we had to do was set out a salt block and count them periodically.

Dad stopped the pick-up truck on Kettle Hollow Road. We crossed the fence and walked along the stream, looking for the patches of water cress that tended to grow alongside the natural forming pools, where the water did not run very fast. Kettle Creek was not a big stream. Most places a good leap would get you to the opposite side, dry shoes and clothing intact.

Dad brought a milk pail and one of Mom’s scissors. While Dad held watercress leaves in one hand, he cut the bottom of the stalks with the scissors in the opposite hand. He dipped the pail in the water stream and filled it with three or four inches of water. This would keep the watercress from drying off in the three-mile ride home.

While Dad harvested the water cress, Phillip, Bob, and I would find small branches or twigs to use as boats. We put the “boats” in the stream at an agreed upon place, and arbitrarily selected a spot 50 or 60 feet downstream as a finish line. Simple toys and simple pleasures.



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Signs of Spring in Tomah

Some years ago, in my teaching career at Tomah High School, Spring arrived, and the students and I decided to list all the signs of Spring. Each class period could only name one sign of Spring. It only took a few seconds of the class hour and extended to about a week. Six classes a day multiplied by five days gave us about 30+ signs.

Many involved the weather and seasons changing:  rain with snow melting, mud and potholes, warmer weather, ice going out of Lake Tomah, fresh smells in the country, and grass turning green.

Some had to do with the calendar; baseball, softball, track, tennis starts, end of alternate parking, the sun up earlier and later, Ground Hog’s Day, the IRS and taxes on April 15, St. Mary’s Carnival, St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Day, Lent, March Madness-basketball, Prom, A & W is open, golf courses open, the Fire Danger sign at Ranger Station changes, barges on the Mississippi, Spring Sale at Hardware Hank, and weight limits on bridges, Daylight Savings Time starts, and garden shops at stores are set up.

A few concerned things people do: Spring cleaning, joggers and bicyclist out, people get rowdy, senioritis, tank tops and shorts being worn, kiddies in strollers, grass fires, and ads for garden stuff.

Some related to plants and animals; skunks are out, robins have returned, cardinals start to sing, asparagus up, geese going North, pussy willows, road kill and tire retreads on the highway, walleye fishing, red wing blackbirds diving at you, dandelions coming up, birds building nests, tulips coming up, dogs are friskier, and those fragrant lilacs are blooming.

After a long Wisconsin winter, don’t we all look forward to the coming of Spring? New life, new beginnings, and a promise of a pleasant summer ahead.










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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

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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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