St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Holding Hands

I belong to the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Writers group. We write a story on an assigned topic each month. The topic "Holding Hands" led to this reminicense.
************* HOLDING HANDS ************
Her name was Denise. She almost got John, Bill and I kicked out of the class we three disparagingly called “Touchy Feely 101 for Teachers.” We were the only guys in the class of 25 prospective teachers. It was required and we suffered greatly as we were prodded to “get in touch with our feelings.”
The previous session had us split into groups of 5, with each member of the group to play a role of a part of a machine. It was described to us that each of us would be part of the machine, making repetitious motions and sounds, interlocked as a group that would look like a flowing graceful sinuous machine from a distance. Sort of like a clock works with gears and pendulum all ticking together, each part critical to the whole, yet each part just a gear or lever of no consequence on its own.
John and Bill took their lead from me, believing the whole class was a lot of crap foisted on us by this woman professor off into women’s touchy feely land. The exercises were down right embarrassing as well as stupid. We guys formed our machine standing stiffly apart from each other, our machine actions being fists poking each other’s shoulders round and round. Denise and Flower didn’t like our machine and wouldn’t participate. They had been permanently assigned to this group with three uptight guys and didn’t like it at all.
Flower was a New York hippy with long hair on her head and legs, who didn’t believe in anti-perspirants or bras. She had unnerved us in earlier group activities as she had claimed that everything that we three had said or done was sexist or a reflection of uptight white male controlling behavior. In those early days of women’s lib it was easiest for a guy to shut up.
The two women tried in vain to get us to loosen up and be like the other all girl groups, forming sinuously, fluid, limb-entertwined machines of grace and beauty with more physical contact than I had had playing football, and without helmets, pads and protection. They looked like wriggling masses of Twister game players to me. I had hated that game too. When I wanted to entwine with one or more strange women, I didn’t care to have an audience, especially if we all were sober! And what would my wife think.
Denise complained to the professor who told us that we must get in the spirit of the exercises or we wouldn’t learn anything; and we would fail the class and never become teachers. I began to dislike Denise even though she did not come across as a male hater like Flower. Denise seemed more worried about getting a good grade and saw us guys and our faulty machine as obstacles to her progress.
Next week brought a lesson in developing trust in others. Long term honesty and trustworthy behavior brought long term trust opined the professor. “There are short cuts that can make trust happen rapidly” she said. “Your next exercise is to spend 30 minutes with another person in the class being led about the Madison campus blind folded; then reversing the roles for another 30 minutes. You must pair up with someone you don’t know or someone you dislike. Before I could pick someone, the prof came over and told Denise and I to partner up as she knew we didn’t get along.
Let me tell you a little about Denise. She was sort of average looking; the type you would call pretty if you liked her; slim, but obviously a woman. She dressed nicely at a time when grunge was in on the campus. Other than having complained about my failure to be a cog in the machine, I had not had other contact with her. Neither of us spoke much in class. I thought that her being black and talking with a southern accent was irrelevant to my dislike of her. Although I had not had much contact with black people in my life, as they were rare even at Madison, and since I harbored the same ill feelings for Flower, a white girl from New York I attributed my dislike to their insistence we guys had to make fools of ourselves to please the teacher rather than any racism.
Denise and I picked Thursday at 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm to be the time to do the exercise. We met at the student union. She brought a black narrow scarf to be the blindfold. I balked at it, saying that we could just close our eyes for 30 minutes; but she didn’t trust me to do it. We flipped a coin to see who was to be the leader first and she won. She tied the blindfold snugly with enough layers so I couldn’t see anything.
She tried giving me instructions as we walked down the sidewalk, across the busy street, over curbs and up steps together, but I stumbled and rambled in wrong directions until in frustration she took my hand. She had a warm, soft, dry hand that felt nice on the cool fall day. She held it like a mother holding her child’s hand. We continued on our walk, Denise giving instructions and warnings and after a few minutes I could follow her guidance almost wordlessly following her hand, tugging to speed up or slow down, raising or lowering to indicate a curb or stairs. I soon felt safe and comfortable in my blindness.
With no need for instructions, she began a conversation by asking me about my deciding to be a teacher. I told her about graduating 4 years earlier; protesting the War and becoming a CO; getting married and then deciding to try teaching when I felt I couldn’t handle the 5 years of graduate school that I had planned to become an astronomer before Viet Nam took over my future. I told her about working in a nursing home, meeting and marrying Margo and sort of drifting into deciding to try teaching. The 30 minutes was up quickly and we switched roles.
We continued to hold hands as I led her through the campus. I tried to lead her as gracefully and wordlessly as she had led me so we could continue our conversation. We were now holding each other’s hands, fingers entwined like old friends.
I asked her about her background. She came from Alabama; the first in her family to get to college; the oldest of many children, she came north to Madison on a scholarship having graduated from a crappy school system where all the whites had left to form private schools during the integration fights of the 60s. She desperately wanted to get through college and go back and teach in her home town. Being a teacher was the highest calling she could think of.
“How old are you?” I asked. “I will be 21 in December” she replied. “I will be 26 on December 10th .” I answered back. “Amazing!” said Denise, “my birthday is December 10th too!”
The time was up quickly and the blindfold came off. We walked back to the Union still holding hands, still talking. It was, we agreed, for each of us our first real contact with a member of each other’s race, a happy one that relieved us, at least this time, from worry about being unconscious racists. The professor smiled at us as we recounted the experiences. Most of the others had the same result. For the rest of the semester our group tasks went better as we cooperated with Denise and I leading the others.
I never ran into Denise after that semester. I left school to practice teach and then get a job. I am sure she is somewhere in Alabama, now a superintendent in a public school system. I like to think that on one or two December 10ths since that day in 1972 she remembered holding hands with an uptight guy who happened to be white.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chicken Pox Christmas by Russ Hanson

"Mr. Sazma says his kids have chicken pox" said Mom at the dinner table as she dished out some hand packed Sterling Ice cream she had picked up at the Cushing Coach. "I suppose it's going around."
"I hope the boys don't get it over Christmas vacation. It would be hard on them having to spend vacation cooped up in the house," replied Dad. We four boys didn't pay any attention to them.
"How can we get chicken pox when we don't go in the chicken coop?" stated Everett authoritatively. It was already the week before Christmas vacation. We were too busy studying our "pieces" for the school program and "being good" to worry about the neighbor kids being sick if they were too dumb to leave the chickens alone at their place.
The Sterling Ice Cream was made in Dresser, WI, and was the best we could buy. It had local farm eggs and cream in abundance and with a little canned strawberry sauce from the basement, made a dessert that a half-century later I still think can't be improved upon. The storekeeper, Sazma, had wrapped the ice cream in newspaper from his attached home, to keep it cold on the trip home.
The last week of school was over with the Friday night program at Wolf Creek School. We had a big spruce Christmas tree that we had decorated with red and green paper chains, cranberries strung with a needle and thread, and cutout snowflakes, stars and tinsel. We painted the school windows with Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen and Christmas trees with bright colored tempera paint. We learned how to paint Merry Christmas in reverse on the entrance windows so it would read right from the outside. The program night came and the first graders stumbled through their poems and the older kids with skits and songs. After thunderous applause from the room crowded with adults, a local pianist sat at the piano bench and led the whole crowd in Christmas songs ending in Silent Night. The kids picked up their small paper sack treats; an apple, some hard and soft candy and a handful of peanuts. The adults each got an apple—all supplied by the School Board out of their own pocketbook as a return to the community from their small salaries.
Everett had complained that Friday to his brothers "I itch all over" but didn't say anything to Mom so he wouldn't have to stay home from the program. Well, on Saturday we all itched all over including the youngest, Byron, a first grader. Mom looked at our spots, consulted with Grandma, and gave us the diagnosis "you all have chicken pox."
"It's good they all get it at the same time," commented Grandma, "it's a lot less work to have them all down at once." In those days, measles, mumps and chicken pox were all childhood diseases that had to be gotten over sooner or later. No one ever wasted a doctor's time about these diseases. You just comforted the patient, got out the home remedies and waited a week or two to get over it.
Chicken pox were treated by making dire threats to the sick one what would happen if you scratched the pox. "You will leave big holes in your skin that won't heal if you scratch." We had seen the results that small pox had left on our neighbor Raleigh, so we thought that must be what we would get. Home remedies included "mix vinegar, baking soda, and mineral oil and apply it to help stop the itching", "rub wet oatmeal on the pox" or "wash with a weak boric acid solution" all while making dire predictions of what would happen if you scratched. Another trick was cutting the scratcher's fingernails so short they couldn't scratch. Kids really don't feel very sick with chicken pox, so it is a hard disease to have to be stuck inside for a week or two waiting it out. In those days, you made sure you didn't have visitors or go anywhere, because it was so contagious—and if an adult got it, they could get very sick.
"What are we going to do with the kids stuck in the house for the next two weeks?" asked Mom. Grandma thought we could play games. She always loved playing games with us, but had to be at her own home for Christmas. We had Chinese checkers and regular checkers and an old game of Grandma's called "Bring Home the Bacon." We quickly tired of these.
Mom went to the store and bought a game she had heard of called "Monopoly." A neighbor, Lloyd Westlund, told her "the games last hours and it teaches you arithmetic!"
"If you behave, I will give you one of your Christmas presents early," Mom told the four of us. "We'll be good!" as we clamored for a Christmas present. We knew that our relatives gave us some presents in addition to those coming from Santa, who only gave his out on Christmas night. (We found out Santa Claus didn't exist when one June, we found a bunch of Christmas presents hidden and forgotten in the old piano, labeled "from Santa." Santa wouldn't be hiding presents in our piano we reasoned so it must be Mom, who we knew could have hidden and forgotten them).
The Ben Franklin store in St. Croix Falls had wrapped the game for Mom. We tore off the wrapping and saw the game. Marvin, the oldest, said he had heard of it before. We cleared the big dining room table, unfolded the board and got out the parts.
Marvin, always a stickler for following every rule, carefully read the instructions: "Pick someone to be the banker. Shuffle the Chance and Community Chest cards and place on the board. Pick your own piece to move around the board. Throw the dice and move ahead from Go the amount you throw. If you land on a property, buy it from the bank..."
There were lots of rules, but that didn't bother us. Marvin read more rules as we ran into new conditions. We learned how to buy houses and hotels and to charge rent. Marvin knew percents and quickly taught me, whose favorite subject was arithmetic, to use paper and pencil to calculate everything exactly. After a few learning games, Byron dropped out—it was too hard for him. Mom gave him another Christmas present, a big yellow road grader that steered and had an adjustable blade. She cleared an area on the floor for him to play. "I need some dirt to grade," he complained. Mom took a big 25 cent cylinder box of Quaker Oats and dumped it on the floor for him to grade.
"Yuk!" complained Everett, who liked oatmeal, "it will be all dirty to eat."
"The chickens can have it when he is done," replied Mom, "I have more in the pantry."
It seemed to me that the oatmeal was a little gritty later that week, but Mom assured us the chickens got the stuff Byron graded. Maybe some of it ended up soothing our pox scabs.
Marv, Ev, and I got down to serious Monopoly. We followed all the rules, no matter how hard the math—by Marv's insistence. We learned the strategy of trying to get the right group of houses and stick hotels on them. We understood that Park Place was really for the rich people; railroads were useful to have; sometimes it was better to sit in jail than pay rent, and all of the interesting twists to the game.
Games lasted at least three hours, and if we happened to get evenly matched properties, could last from one day to the next. Sometimes we ran the bank out of money and printed our own. Sometimes the banker was tempted beyond his self-control to help himself from the till. Sometimes, with shifting alliances, one player would offer wildly favorable terms to another to keep him in the game and run the third out of business. Cheating was rare, but often enough that we watched the banker like a hawk to keep him honest. Everett preferred to have lots of money, Marvin lots of property, and I liked a few properties fully loaded with hotels and the rest mortgaged to the hilt.
Christmas came and went and still we played Monopoly all day and into the evening—only stopping when Dad brought out ears of popcorn for us to shell and him to pop. He was fussy; making popcorn was a carefully followed ritual. He shook only freshly shelled popcorn in a dry frying pan over the stove burner turned on high. He watched the kernels plumpen and turn golden brown as they rolled back and forth on the skillet bottom. When the first kernel popped, he stuck on the lid, turned it to medium, and continued to shake the pan vigorously to the final pop, holding the pan off he burner near the end to keep it from burning.
"Only three old maid's in the whole batch!" exclaimed Dad, one of the few things we ever saw him boast about during his life. When he had made a whole dishpan full, he melted lots of Cushing Creamery butter and poured it over the popcorn, salted and stirred it and gave it to us boys, but not before he filled the frying pan, coated thick with melted butter, with popcorn for himself. "The person who pops it gets the extra butter!" he stated relishing it as much as I might like the cleaning the fudge kettle.
As a dairy farmer, Dad thought lots of cream, butter, whole milk, and real ice cream were as important to our physical health as going to church was for our spiritual life. He was blessed with low cholesterol, low blood pressure, and a long life in spite of doctors railing against people consuming dairy fat. He particularly liked cream skimmed from the top of his own cows' raw milk on his cereal.
Finally, with only two days of vacation left, Mom said "You boys are all well again. You can go outside and play." We bundled up for the cold weather, and got out the sleds, ski's, skates and our dog Lucky, and headed for the big hill above the swamp to make up for lost time. Most Christmas vacations were spent almost entirely outside on the hills or skating on Bass Lake. We went down the hill a few times and struggled back up, finding out that we were not up to all that exercise. We headed to the barn to help throw down the hay and slide down the hay piles, pat the cats, climb into the silo and watch Dad chip off the frozen edges before straggling back into the house and setting up the Monopoly game for the rest of the day.
School started soon, and with homework and chores, we didn't have time for games except on some weekend evenings. We still played Monopoly on occasion, but it seems to me that after playing it almost all of the time for two weeks, we sort of wore out our interest in it. Sometimes we played with other school chums, but they never like playing with us. "Those Hanson boy's don't understand it is just a game!"

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Radio on the farm

Radio on the Farm

We four Hanson boys always pestered Dad and Mom to let us take apart anything that looked interesting. We especially liked mechanical things. Because we were already used to dressing and butchering steers, deer, squirrels, chickens and cleaning fish, we had ample opportunity to study biology close up. However, cases that contained motors, springs, tubes and gears were fascinating and harder to come by. Our parents knew that whatever we were given was destined for the dump after our "repairs", so only passed along things that had no possibility of being fixed or needed in the future (now they would be valuable antiques).

Old wind up alarm clocks, an old battery radio that ran off of the Windcharger on the roof, old appliances, motors and almost anything that needed radical surgery fell into our repair shop. As we got older, our tools changed from hammers and crowbars to screwdrivers and wrenches and amazingly we actually started getting some things to work again, or at least to understand what was wrong with them.

The Sterling dump was a wonderful place to find things to take apart. We tried to make a weekly trip and scavenged for everything mechanical and electronic. As our reputation for an occasional miracle repair grew, our relatives and neighbors passed along things for tinkering.
Uncle Lloyd said he had a crystal radio that he had gotten as a soldier during World War II. He used the clothesline in the barracks for an antenna and his metal cot for a ground. It didn't use batteries or plug into the wall current. It had an earphone. He said "Don't take it apart, just try it out. It worked the last time I tried it in the barracks 20 years ago."

In those days we had two radios: the barn radio entertaining Dad and the cows with WCCO Cedric Adams, Joyce LaMont and Halsey Hall and the house Radio playing Eddy Arnold and Mairzy Doats. The idea of having our own radio was exciting!

Dad helped us hang an antenna wire from my upstairs window to a nearby tree using electric fence insulators and the old wire from the yard light pole. We pounded a rod into the ground and ran another wire, the ground, from that to my window and into my room upstairs.
Lloyd's radio had four connectors: two for the small earphone and one for the antenna and one for the ground. Lloyd had told us the sound would be very faint. On the top of the case was a knob with several metal points to tune it and something he called a cat's whisker crystal. It was an adjustable tiny spring wire that you poked into a galena crystal trying to find a hot spot. All of this was totally new to me, but Lloyd had demonstrated how it worked so I followed his instructions.

I could just barely hear a faint hint of a radio station on the earphone. I wasn't sure if it was real or my imagination. Lloyd said it worked best at night. Late one night I managed to poke the cat's whisker into a hot spot and got clear channel stations from Little Rock, Chicago, along with WCCO; stations fading in and out. Then it quit totally. I thought "maybe it is just a loose wire inside the box." I carefully took the 4 screws that held the black Bakelite top to the small wood box and carefully lifted it off. I knew better than to do anything more than just look with Uncle Lloyd's radio. I saw only a coil of wire wrapped around some cardboard tubing, with some of the wrappings having come loose.. I guessed that might be what was wrong.

I carefully put the top back on and gave it back to Uncle Lloyd on our next visit. I just told him I couldn't get it working, not wanting to admit to looking inside the box for fear he would think I wrecked it. He said, "It worked pretty good. They didn't let us have a radio when I was in the Army, but this little one let me hear the news and helped me get through some long nights. I suppose the crystal is bad."

I was fascinated by the idea of a radio that didn't need any power. I looked in the Sears Christmas catalog and sure enough there was a plastic Crystal Radio Kit for $8.00. That amount was in the range for a Christmas present--so I said that I would forgo all the underwear, socks, and clothes and just wanted this Radio Kit. Mom and Dad were always encouraged when they saw their sons wanted something other than just toys, so sure enough on Christmas morning the kit was under the tree.

It was a blue plastic molded box about the size of two match boxes made to look like a little radio. It had some fine enameled copper wire, something called a diode and a small earphone that poked into your ear.

I followed the instructions. Wrap the wire very tightly and carefully around the coil form sort of like wrapping the fish line on a casting reel only one layer deep and perfectly coiled. Then use a little sandpaper and sand one narrow band along the coil cleaning off the enamel insulation. Then assemble the radio so a little round metal ball slid along the bare wire of the coil to tune the radio. Screw in the diode to one end of the coil and the other to an earphone connector. Connect the antenna and ground and the earphone and then listen carefully as you slide the tuner back and forth slowly.

Miraculously, I heard faint music immediately and as I tuned it I found several different stations! I found WCCO radio out of the Twin cities was the loudest. I got my brothers in and each listened in turn and was amazed too. But they left soon to go back to Marvin's room where he was listening to his brand new plastic 4-tube GE Clock Radio that he had gotten for Christmas. Bill Diehl was playing songs on WDGY from that nice young Ricky Nelson, approved of by the pastor (unlike that wriggly Elvis).

I wanted to learn more about radio. The school library had nothing. Mrs. Irving (Marie) Olsen, my teacher, said that we could write to the Madison to the Free Traveling Library that mailed out books to rural areas not served by libraries. I wrote a letter and asked for books on crystal radios.

A couple of weeks later, a book named "The Boy's First Book of Radio" came in the mail. It told all about Crystal Radios and how to build one yourself and suggested where to get the parts. Everett and I got enthused about the radios and over the next few years worked our way through building radios with tubes into radios with transistors--each time getting more advanced books from Madison. We mail ordered parts from Modern Radio Labs, Allied Radio and Philco. We put up longer antennas -- going from the house to the barn. We set up a telegraph to send Morse Code from my room to his room (poking only a very small hole through the plaster walls). We had to learn electronic circuit diagrams and soldering to build radios, burglar alarms, timers and all sorts of electronic items. We knew we needed better radios.

We had seen some of the old floor model radios from the 30s and 40s that had short wave bands in neighbors living rooms. Everett put an ad in the local paper "Wanted: Old Floor Model radio with short wave band." He got many replies often like "Help me get it out of the attic and it is yours." We collected several and with our extra supply of Sterling Dump Radio Tubes, soon each had a good radio working. Later Marvin and Byron also got into old radios too--so we each have a few too many now!

My favorite was a Zenith table model that came from the Cushing Feed Mill through Uncle Maurice. It had quit working and was 1/2 inch deep with feed dust. A thorough cleaning and a replacement tube and it worked great. Everett liked his Airline 25 tube model that had magic eye tuning and used so much current the whole house dimmed as it started up. We still have have them.

With the short wave bands we could hear radio from across the whole world. We could listen to Radio Netherlands, the BBC, Canada and if we were feeling particularly adventurous, Radio Moscow to get the latest Communist Propaganda. We continued to collect old radios as we got older, only quitting when they got up to the exorbitant price of $10.00 each.

At a garage sale a year ago I ran across "A The Boys First Book of Radio and Electronics" and paid a quarter for the well used copy. It is fun to re-read the book that helped move me to a career in science. I wonder if I can trade two #80 rectifier tubes to Everett for the twenty feet of double cotton covered copper wire and a cats whisker to build the Boys First Radio. The tubes are pristine—haven't been used since retrieved from the dump in 1956.

copyright Russell B. Hanson 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dennis

Dennis
Sixth grader, Dennis stood behind the curtain and sang “I’m Overall Jim” as I, a first grader, lip synched it, in response to fellow first grader Susan’s refrain “I’m Sunbonnet Sue.” Susan and I represented the first graders at the Wolf Creek School fall program. Susan (her real name) was sitting in a rocking chair wearing a long calico dress and a sunbonnet. I was sitting next to her in a matching rocker, wearing a straw hat, striped Lee Overalls. Our piece was a duet about being farm kids.
I was too timid to use my outside voice inside in front of a hundred parents. Dennis was recruited to actually sing my part, hidden behind the makeshift sheet curtains pinned to a wire at the front of the planks on short sawhorses, our stage.
Dennis was 12 years old and a sixth grader. He liked to sing and could carry a tune well. His voice was changing, but he could still sing high like a first grader. I got to know Dennis a little that fall as we practiced the song together.
He was slim, light complected with light brown hair. He was quiet, an average student, always polite and smiling. He and his clothes were clean, but patched. He liked the outdoor games, especially softball. He had a very old glove, but could catch any fly or grounder that came to him. He seemed like the rest of the farm kids, but with a serious side.
Dennis lived a mile from school. His mother and father were divorced. She lived in Denver and he stayed with his dad, a drunk. They lived in a decrepit old two story house, weathered dark gray with no signs of paint, a few upstairs windows boarded up, and junk filled yard that a few wandering goats trimmed.
His Dad did odd jobs when he needed money for beer. Dennis was left pretty much to raise himself after his mother got a divorce and took his younger sister to live in Denver with her. Dennis worked for his farm neighbors to earn money for his own needs starting that year; his school clothes and a bicycle were his first purchases. His neighbors to the north, Mac and Nancy, raised string beans for Stokeleys. Dennis could earn a dollar for a long day, crawling up and down the rows picking beans into a mesh sack. Nancy insisted he join them for meals. They kept his money for him, carefully keeping a ledger of his account. If he needed groceries or other items, Mac let him ride along in the old Model A truck when he took the string beans to Milltown. Dennis and Mac had worked this out to keep his dad from beating him to get his money for beer.
His neighbor across the road, Old Man Wicklund, raised 20 acres of watermelons on the sandy River Road land. Dennis earned a little money hoeing melons and in the fall, helping him load the trailer with melons to take to town. He got all the melons he wanted for free. Many fall days he would bring a melon to school, overfilling the basket. He left it sit in a spring emptying into Wolf Creek near the school house, and would bring it out at noon for the teacher and kids to share with him for lunch.
Dennis bought most of the groceries for him and his dad and did what cooking and cleaning was done at the home. Dennis pumped the water, heated it on the stove and washed up every morning. He always came to school clean and with clean clothes that he patched himself.
The summer Dennis finished 7th grade, he got a job with board from a farmer nearby. He earned more money and took a 20 year old car as part of his payment. When school started he proudly drove his nicely polished old car to school. He kept working for the farmer during the winter. Everyone in the neighborhood knew he was too young to drive and that he hadn’t licensed the car, but as the constable told my dad, “He has it hard enough with out us piling on.”
When spring came, he passed his eighth grade exam and graduated with his class. At the last day of school picnic he told us “My Dad say’s I am 14 and on my own from now on. I got decent tires, two good spares, and all my stuff loaded in my car and a little money I saved. I am driving from here to Denver to see how Mom and Sis are doing. If they will have me, I will stay and get a job and try to go to high school there.”
He brought out a well folded US highway map and showed us his route. As the picnic wound down, he went around to his neighbors and his school chums and said his thank you’s and good byes. We gathered round as he got into his car, lightly loaded with all his worldly possessions. He started it up, waved a last time and disappeared forever from our lives, south down the Old River Road. We watched until the faint trail of blue smoke disappeared. We hoped he was heading into a better place.
(True story written for Wisconsin North West Regional Writers topic "Behind the Curtain")

Ice Cream

Ice Cream in the Winter
(a story written to win a blue ribbon at the Polk Co Fair Yarns competition)
“You girls start milking if I am not back by six” Dad called to us as he and Mom left in the sleigh pulled by Fashion. Grandma had fallen and needed help from Mom. Dad was taking her the 20-mile trip. We didn’t have a car in those days, and the roads wouldn’t have been passable for one anyway.
Sis was 8 and I was 10. We knew how to milk cows. It had been a sad year with Billy, born in winter, getting sick in spring, and lingering into the late summer before the funeral in September. Dad took losing his first and only son hard. He rarely smiled anymore. Mom tried hard to be cheerful, but she often cried when she thought no one was around.
It was dark by five. “Lets get started milking. We can get done in case Dad is late,” I told Sis. We lit the lantern and took the milk pails to the barn. Sis started with Bess, an easy milker and I took Flo, a hard milker, but our best cow of the six. The small log barn was comfortable, filled with the smells of freshly pitched silage, hay and manure—all fragrant to farm kids.
“My hands hurt,” whined Sis.
“If you stick it out, we will make ice cream when we are done,” I replied. “We can mix canned strawberries in it.”
“Won’t Dad be mad if we use up the cream?” asked Sis.
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Soon the milking was done. I skimmed a quart of cream from the top of the morning milk can.
“How do we make ice cream?” asked Sis.
“Mom beats some eggs, cream and sugar in a bowl and then puts it in the ice cream freezer to get cold,” I replied pretending to know more than I did.
Four eggs, a quart of cream and a cup of sugar later, tasting it as we added the ingredients, with Sis cranking the egg beater, we were satisfied with the mixture. We put it in a deep coffee can.
I set it in a pail of broken icicles and snow mixed with salt—just like when we borrowed Neighbor Johnson’s ice cream maker. We took turns cranking the beater. Sure enough it thickened up. We stirred in a pint of canned strawberries without the juice and had just dished out two big dishes when Dad came in.
“The cows are all done,” said Sis worriedly. Looking around sternly, then breaking into a smile, Dad said “Is there some left for me?”
Two week later Mom came home. She was back to her old cheerful self again after her time away. “You don’t look skinny and wasted away without me,” she kidded us, “How did you get along?”
“It was hard, but we managed ,” said Dad smiling hugely as he gathered all of us into a big hug We never told Mom that for fourteen nights in a row we ate freshly made strawberry ice cream.
(It won a blue. I read the stories submitted at the fair for the last few years and decided a mixture of nostalgia, pathos and humor were needed in a simple story-- or else something to do with a wounded veteran!)

A Rustic Lake Cottage

It is Saturday morning at 7:00 and I have finished breakfast and am sitting on the porch overlooking Orr Lake to the west, at our rustic cabin. The lake is 100 yards away and the only activity is our solitary loon calling across the lake. The loon is here for his third year. This is the first time he has a wife and child with him. Our swans have been gone for the same three years—the mother having choked on a dare devil. The rich green of the alders, trees and grass contrast with the rippled silver-blue water and puffy clouded sky.
Each morning a bald eagle flies in and sits at the top of a huge old oak on the knoll between us and the lake, above the spring. Eventually he swoops off and picks up a fish and leaves. I haven’t figured out where the nest is—somewhere in the thousands of acres of woods to the west I assume. Our beaver and otters from the last few years appear to have been trapped out over winter. When you live on a lake, the enjoyment of having a beaver family and an otter family as your neighbors turns you against trapping.
Our lake view is disappearing as trees have taken over the old open cow pasture. For 25 years, when we worked in Rochester, we let the cabin rest, only stopping for brief weekend and vacation visits. Without cattle, the woods try to swallow up the cabin. My favorite tree is a huge maple, well over a hundred years, that has slowly been shedding a large branch or two each year as pileated woodpecker carves ever increasing holes seeking the tasty carpenter ants living in the decaying heartwood. One third of the crown came down in a storm a couple years ago, and the rest of the top, although lush and green again this year, looks like a puff of wind might bring it down. It is our air conditioning tree—shading the cabin from the southwest sun with its branches gently brushing the porch. The trees are close enough so that the squirrels use the cabin roof to rumble their way from tree to tree traversing the whole 40 acres and beyond.
The other trees, mostly elms, have grown up in the years since the cabin was built. One of the biggest, probably 20 years old, is dying this year, the leaves having come out and now have yellowed and shriveled as Dutch Elm disease kills it, already a foot in diameter at the base and in the prime of adolescence. Next year it will be a morel hunting spot and the year after, dry standing firewood, ready for a batch of maple syrup and to keep the cabin warm. The disease will spread to the rest of them in this dozen who sprang up after the cows were gone. In a couple years the grove will be gone.
A spreading century white oak provides a perch for the bald eagle who visits us each morning, sitting in the top for an hour or more before swooping to the lake and carrying off a fish. White oak acorns are food for the deer, turkeys and squirrels. They seem to have heavy acorn loads only every few years, a strategy to keep squirrel populations down and leave a few left over acorns for seed.
Margo, Dad and I built the cabin 33 summers ago when I was still a teacher with summers off to help on the farm. We moved into a bare spot amongst the huge maples high above and back from the lake. We built back from the lake to try not disturb the otherwise uninhabited lakeshore. We sit on the last hillside before the Sterling Sand Barrens that extend 10 miles west of us to the St. Croix River. One time this was the shore of Glacial Lake Lind, a huge lake that encompassed the area north of Wolf Creek in the St. Croix River Valley, according to a book published by Doug Johnson ten years ago, then a U of Wisconsin geologist. We built as cheaply as we could. My teaching salary was $10,000 then, and Margo wasn’t working that year being pregnant with Scott. We cut jackpines, poples and basswood logs, took them to the 100 year old sawmill that Byron and Dad had setup a years earlier, sawing boards and 2x4s. We put Penta treated foundation posts in the ground on a steep slope and built a 16x24 floor on them. We added 8 foot walls and above that created an upstairs by framing two 11 foot rafters joined at the top by a 3 foot wide flat roof top—sort of a modified A-frame on the top of the first floor to give us an upstairs loft area. We used real rough sawn boards instead of plywood for the roof, floors and walls—just like the houses in the old days. Our costs were mostly the nails and the roll roofing (replaced now by shingles).
We had no electricity and no tools of our own. We bought a new handsaw, square and a hammer for me and one for Margo and 50 pounds of assorted nails. We had never done any carpenter work before. We proceeded with advice from Dad and with much creativity and trial and error! This was in the days when Sterling was still free from building permits, zoning and the rules that make creative building impossible anymore. A pitcher pump on a point driven into the spring near the lake furnished water.
Having no money for windows and doors, we went to an auction and bought a bunch of old church windows –the framed glass panels for a dollar each and at an old school auction bought a big old half-glass school room door. We got a few more windows here and there, all just pieces making our own jackpine frames.
We put Aunt Glady’s old wood cookstove in the kitchen and a used barrel stove on the other end for heat. We never kept anything in the cabin worth stealing and credit the absence of break-ins to the gate at the road and the total lack of anything that would bring more than $5.00 at a garage sale. In the summer we cooked with Coleman stove. The few weekends we stayed in winter were comfortable with the two wood stoves heating the uninsulated building, too hot in the sleeping loft and too cold on main floor.
We built an outhouse from rough jackpine boards and lumber, sided, like the cabin, with rough sawn ¾ inch boards. For a feel of luxury, we insulated it and paneled the inside and added an old stained glass and a figured glass window from the auction. The cows soon poked the stain glass window apart with their nosy curiosity and appreciation for fine old artisanship—so we put a plastic fake replacement in. Making a double walled and insulated outhouse was really not a good idea out in the middle of the woods. Squirrels and mice soon chewed their way between the walls.
After a few summers, we paid $1000 to get the electricity brought in ¼ of a mile. We drove a point in the spring and got an old pump from Margo’s parents cabin at Weyerhauser. Our hot water was heated by the sun with black hoses spread out on the on the west hillside connected to a black painted tank salvaged from a water heater to make a solar water heater. By late afternoon we had plenty of hot water to take a bath in the big old clawfoot tub on the porch—overlooking the whole lake yet mostly invisible to the occasional fisherman. We did put up a curtain when we noticed that every Saturday evening at five when Margo took her bubble bath there seemed to be several boats finding the fishing good right off of our dock.
In the spring of 1980, after a tough year of teaching at Amery HS, we moved to Rochester where I was hired as a computer scientist for Mayo Clinic. We were now three hours away from the cabin with no more summers off.
We didn’t use the cabin much after that except on some weekends in the summer and a week of vacation each year and some spring maple syrup making. The cows still grazed up to it and kept the rest of the 40 acres looking like a park (with a few cow pies for contrast). Dad and Mom were cutting back on the farming and number of cows and suggested Margo and I buy on a land contract to supplement their retirement income. They got rid of their cattle in the big cow buyout that came along about 20 years ago and the 40 hasn’t been pastured since.
Retiring two years ago we decided to stay at the cabin for the nice part of the year. To me that is March to December! Long ago I had started a porch to the north, but never really gotten it finished. I had intended to glass it in with recycled patio doors as the walls, and make it weather tight enough to use as a summer bedroom rather than the loft above. I still haven’t done it, but have been thinking much more seriously about getting started on it any day now.

Susan

It was the first day of class. She gracefully walked into the room and found a seat near the front. She had golden brown hair, large brown eyes complementing her flawless tanned skin—a natural beauty without makeup. She wore a knee length dress that showed her slim athletic figure. Her name was Susan, I soon found out.
By the end of the week, I finagled an assignment to work with her on a project that put us together for many hours over the next few weeks. Susan was bright, open, and laughed easily. As we worked, we compared our backgrounds. My happy childhood on the farm with her broken home, passed from parent to parent and grandparents finally landing with a strict, cold maiden aunt.
She did well in class. I often ate lunch with her we were soon great friends. She asked, “Do you like me?” “You are my best friend” I replied, and later decided that for the first time, I was in love. I liked being with her more than anyone else.
The last day of school she brought a picnic basket with lunch for both of us. We shared a sandwich, chips and drank from the same thermos of milk. She brought out a single chocolate cupcake with white frosting decorated with the outline of a heart. Taking turns with the same fork, we slowly ate it, enjoying the thick sweet frosting.
“Thank you Susan, it was wonderful!” I told her as we cleaned up and prepared to return to class.
Susan turned to me, “I won’t be back. My Mom wants me to join her in Denver, and I have to go right now. Thank you for making this year my first happy one” She put her arms around me and kissed me on the lips. I stood dumbstruck as she smiled and said “I love you Russell. Please remember me. I have to leave right now.” She walked away and got into a waiting car that sped off before I could react.
I never saw her again. I never have forgotten her. However life goes on, and next year I met Richynne, a slim, dark, beautiful girl. We were best friends all that year of my second grade in school and Susan and first grade were just fond memories.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Falling Leaves

Falling Leaves
It's been a quiet week on Orr Lake. Two heavy frosts killed the
rest of the garden and chased the lady bugs from the bean field into
the cabin. They keep us company during the fall and on our weekend
visits during the winter—coming alive each time we start the wood
stove and warm up the cabin. They thaw out, crawl around wondering if
it is spring and time to dehibernate.

Margo and Mom sold a lot of pumpkins, squash and apples on the
River Road Ramble, more than double the previous year. The Ramble
and Autumn Fest in St Croix Falls made a fun Saturday. Eureka had a
great turnout at the old town hall, with lots of old tractors, cars,
pictures and artifacts. The new town garage was a popular stop with
all the details of building the new building laid out. Wolf Creek
had a choice of lunch at the bar with 1890s costumed waitresses or a
home made lunch by the Ladies Aide at the church, both welcoming
sinners to the fold.

We had fifty people stop by the Cushing Museum and visit. Lily
Larson's old scrapbooks borrowed for the summer from Lavern and Doris
Jean were a hit. We even sold a Cushing History book or two. You can
buy them to send as Christmas presents at the Cushing Bank, At-las
Antiques and the Luck Museum or order them from SELHS, Box 731
Cushing, WI $15 plus $2.50 postage. We only have one more payment to
make to the Leader for the printing costs! All money goes to the
Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society.

We have two freshly resurfaced roads! Hwy 87 from Bass Lake to
Grantsburg and Hwy N from Cushing to Luck. I think they put down 3 or
4 layers of blacktop after having ground up the old surface to recycle
it. The roads were re-done in about a month and never really stopped
drivers from using them. A piece of Hwy 35 in the Luck area is being
resurfaced now too. The smooth roads tell us our tires need
balancing, maybe the wheel bearings are a little noisy and the
suspension is wearing out. Rough roads hide that. Brother Everett
says to turn up the radio and the problems will all disappear. He went
for his leukemia treatment followup test last week after a year of
treatments and is clear of any cancer! He has to continue tests
quarterly to see if it comes back. The Doctor says you can knock it
down, but not get rid of it.

Margo's mom, Myrtle is being kicked out of the private Alzheimer's
home near her home in West Bend, WI., after a year. Myrtle walks
around most of the day, up and down the halls, looking for open doors
so she can leave and "go home", where home is the place she lived as a
little girl. She needs constant watching, something her family could
not do at home and this home couldn't support. After a long search, a
new place, a nursing home, much farther away, has been located. The
move comes this week. As the family has agonized over the loss of a
wife and mother and lately over the move, Myrtle is unaware of family
and surroundings. Myrtle has moments of joy and pleasure with Margo
(whom she accepts as a sister) when they go for a drive, watch the
birds, have an ice cream etc. They are immediately erased from her
memory. Nevertheless, Margo is satisfied that they help both of them
get through the loss. Modern medicine has managed to keep people
physically alive and healthy so that they can die in even more painful
ways.

We were to the funeral of Linda Harris, our old friend from Wolf
Creek School, last week. Linda was only 60 when she died from bone
cancer. The Harris family was one of the pioneer families in West
Sterling, and continued to live there when most of their neighbors
left. Linda was buried in a beautiful homemade pine box, befitting
the pines along Evergreen Avenue where the Harris family once owned
the west end. The large funeral procession left the old Wolf Creek
school building, now the Methodist Church, following a tall wood
wagon pulled by two black horses. We all walked to the cemetery
following a musician playing guitar and singing the old church songs
of loss and hope. Linda was buried in the cemetery where her
ancestors rest. Fifty years earlier on the same autumn Friday, Linda
and I would have been at our desks in the same Wolf Creek School; she
a lovely young girl, her life ahead of her, probably dreaming of what
it would be. Rural schools with kids from a half-dozen families made
those school chums seem like part of our own family; they are hard to
lose. Linda had chosen not to carry the fight with cancer through all
of its phases, saying she was ready to go to heaven.

My favorite reading in the newspapers are the opinions. They come
as editorials, in some columns and in the letters to the editor. I
like it when someone clearly and briefly gives their opinion. I like
ones that make me think about something in a new way or teach me
something. Some writers always do this and some never do.
Last week in Gary King's editorial page he included one of those
emails that gets forwarded around the world and is supposed to make
you think. I started to read it and immediately got bothered with the
math. It does some estimations of populations and then says "divide
200 million adults (in the U.S) into $85 billion (support for AIG, a
big bankrupt insurance company being bailed out) equals $425,000"
indicating that each of us would pay or could receive that much if it
were distributed. The math as calculated by this old math teacher is
$85,000,000,000 divided by 200,000,000 which by my calculations is
$425 (cancel out eight zero's from each and you have $850/2) The
whole premise is totally off, and thus the whole email bogus. I can
guess the author used a normal calculator rather than a politician's
calculator--normal ones can't handle such big numbers. Of course,
with last week's newer government bailout which with the pork included
could reach $850,000,000,000 we get up to $4250 per person for that
deal. I take my debts seriously. To pay Margo's and my share of the
latest bailout, $8500, I plan to write a two checks; one directly to
one of those poor bankrupt Lehman Bros. and the other to a lobbyist to
pass along to a politician for saving me from something or other.

Margo is going back to work to help us pay the $100,000 of our
share of the national debt of 10 trillion dollars. ($10 trillion / 200
million adults x2). In the last eight years we have seen $4 trillion
added to our national debt. Margo and I would be on the hook for
$40,000 for the two of us. I think that includes $10,000 to invade
Iraq, $10,000 so the rich could get a tax cut, and some miscellaneous
items like bridges in Alaska, non-negotiable prices Medicare pays for
drugs and tax breaks for oil companies.

We are enjoying the political season, especially the TV
advertisements. It is particularly interesting in our neck of the
woods where we only get MN stations but live in WI. We are pretty
much up on Coleman and Franken, but in the dark as to if anyone is
running in WI. With our new HDTV converter, we tune to a different
channel, adjust the rabbit ears, and then watch the picture come in
and out like a bad dvd. It seems if a butterfly flaps his wings
outside, it interrupts the signal. Oh well, now instead of getting a
small number of somewhat snowy channels all of the time, we get a
large number of mostly unwatchable channels all of the time. Margo
better get that new roof antenna up before the snow flies more than in
the TV.

I had three of my computers quit on me in the last month. Two
were old ones, living on borrowed time. The other was my nice two
year old laptop. It suddenly started using only ½ of the screen. I
tore it apart thinking that the cable between the screen and computer
had worn in the hinge area. I managed to get it apart and together
again, but had no luck in getting it to broaden its view. If this
column seems only half thought out, you can blame it on my computer.

It is pretty tricky to write a column seeing only half of what you are
writing! (From my weekly column in the Inter-County Leader Frederic WI).

Cutting Firewood

Cutting Firewood
Every fall when the weather cools down we cut firewood. The cabin has a wood heating stove and a wood cookstove as its only heat. It takes many cords of wood to keep it heated. We have to cut wood for the spring maple syrup cooking too. We have many woodlots on the farm with pines and oaks to maples and basswood. Each tree has its own characteristics as firewood that we have learned from history and experience.
Some years we saw lumber at our old sawmill so have slabs for kindling. We save most of them for the maple syrup cooker firebox where the eight-foot pine slabs are great for keeping the sap boiling. Since we haven't cut our wood in advance this year so it will have had time to dry, we have to find some dead wood that will be useable yet this fall. Many elms died in the last few years in the woods, especially along the old fencelines. While picking morels around them this spring I have marked in my mind where some tall branchy ones stand with the bark fallen off, a sign they are dry enough to burn immediately. God looks after those of us too improvident to cut our wood in advance by sending Dutch Elm disease, and windstorms.
The elms are small enough so I don't have to try to split them. American elm is almost unsplittable by hand. The elm trees range from 10-25 years old and the biggest are already 12 inches in diameter with wide growth rings. One has a base log that I save for the sawmill. Elms seed when they are still seedlings themselves and don't seem to be susceptible to Dutch Elm disease until their bark roughens after they are 10 years old or more. There seems to be no end of nearby elm seedlings. A few red elms, with their pretty dark wood, mix with the white American elms. It appears that although the huge spreading elm trees of our youth are gone, killed off twenty years ago with the first scourge of the disease, elms will be around forever in their smaller form. A very adaptable tree! I am the only one of my Dad and brothers who bought a German Stihl chainsaw. The rest chose Jonsereds, made in Sweden only 70 miles from where Great Grandpa Hanson lived. We each like our brand well enough so we wouldn't trade with each other.
I start the season with a chain sharpened professionally and file the rakers down a little to get a more aggressive cut. It cuts fast and straight. Later as I touch it up with the file, it gradually starts making the more artistic curving cuts that I am used to. I take the orange WD Allis to the woods with the trailer made from grandpa's old Widowmaker wheels. That was the nickname for a commercial brush cutter made with a large whirling large blade mounted parallel to the ground out in front of a motor on two wheels that had the habit of getting pinched while cutting trees and would whirl around and cut the operator's legs off. Grandpa decided he was already short enough and dismantled it with the motor going to Uncle Lloyd for a garden tractor, the blade to brother Byron for a painting and the axel widened for a boat trailer then a low sap and wood trailer. We carry the saw, gas oil mixture, bar oil, chainsaw wrench, axe, chain, maul and wedges with a jug of spring water.
The American elms are in a thicket of prickly ash that we cut out of the way first. The bright red berries have a sharp pleasant citrus smell that brings back memories of the more than 50 years I have been cutting wood. Dad took us four boys along to load the wood he cut into the trailer. Farmers had to do most of their woodcutting after the fall crops were harvested usually after deer hunting season and through the winter, before the deep snow. We tied our sleds or ski tow ropes to the back of the tractor and trailer and got a thrilling ride into woods. The elms are easy to cut; nice and dry. A few American elms are already rotten only 3 years dead in contrast to red elms still sound after being dead for 25 years. We always piled the brush to give as much pasture to the cows as possible. No cows run the pasture now, but I still pile it remembering Uncle Chan who told us kids "If you pile the brush in a tight big pile, then next year you will have rabbits hatch out of it". Uncle Chan was never married, so he might have been mixed up about how the rabbits got there, but even now, I find rabbits in my piles the next spring. I think the biologist call this process Harogenesis—sort of like spontaneous combustion. My brother always wears protective shoes, glasses and chaps, having had to do this while working for the DNR. He says that with chainsaws, safety is of primary importance. I tried these, but found that the steel toes dulled the chain and the chaps wad up in the saw and take a long time to pick out. I settle for an orange helmet to match my saw and leather gloves, some yellow sponge ear plugs and a big red faded handkerchief to wipe my brow.
When I was a kid and chainsaws were rare, expensive and heavy two man machines, most people cut their wood in pole length with a crosscut saw, trimmed them with an axe and then had the buzz saw crew come in and saw it into stovewood length. The huge whirling buzz saw blade was too dangerous to be close to until we were twelve years or older. We could help lift the poles, but Uncle Maurice would run the saw and make sure everyone kept all of their fingers. Grandpa or great Uncle George would "throw away." They reached for the blocks of wood that came off the saw and guided their fall, arms swinging them away from the blade. No walking and not too much lifting made it the job for an older man. We kids challenged each other to split the big blocks and spent hours throwing wood through the chute through the basement window and ranking it below and feeding the huge furnace there that provided our heat and hot water. If we were short on wood and the snow was deep, we might get a load of coal to mix with the wood. A load of maple yo-yo scrap from Luck was our kindling and the source of great fun as we rescued nearly perfect yo-yos to play with.
Grandpa had a steam buzz rig in 1900 when he was a young man. It took a lot of wood to keep the steam engine heated up, so when he bought the first gas engine in the area he quickly became the most popular buzz sawyer as he didn't burn a third of the wood he cut! He had the local hardware keep a barrel of gas for him as no one else used it. When he shut down his engine and refueled it, everyone went far away, worried about an explosion. Grandpa had tried filling it once while it was running and had gotten badly burned in an explosive fire. In the 1960s, Grandpa and Dad bought a Lombard gear drive chainsaw on halves. They found that with this one-man chainsaw they could cut the trees down and into stovewood lengths right in the woods and do it faster than cutting poles to buzz later. The era of buzz rigs and the crews of men going from house to house came to an end quickly.
Margo comes to the woods with me and helps to pickup the wood, load the trailer, haul and rank it in the woodpile. She looks at each stick of wood as money in the bank. At our Pine Island home we burn propane and keep the temperature down to save on fuel. At the cabin we let the stoves roar and often find ourselves with the windows open when it is 20 below outside! It doesn't get any more luxurious than that!
Twenty years ago, January 15, 1987, Uncle Maurice Hanson was out cutting wood in his back lot. It had been an abnormally warm January—highs in the 30s and 40s for the first two weeks, a nice break to do some mid-winter woodcutting. On the 15th it cooled down into the 20's with zero expected overnight. Uncle Maurice went out that day into the woods, but didn't come back in when he was expected. Myrtle found him lying on the ground as if he were sleeping. His 82 year old heart had given out while cutting wood. We woodcutters think this to be the perfect way to leave this world for the next.
I don't suppose we will get to cut wood in the next world. I imagine hell is administered by oil executives and heaven surely has the climate of Hawaii.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sand Carp

I grew up as a Jack Pine Savage in NW Polk County on the edge of the land they call the Sand Barrens. I never new much about the area until I met Doug Johnson, professor at the UW, digging in the clay bank along Trade River on Evergreen Av., 10 years ago. He told me this story: Some 10,000 to 50,000 years ago some glaciers melted and made a huge lake upriver from St. Croix Falls. Each year as the glacier melted, layer after layer of clay washed into the lake and settled to the bottom – to nearly 200 feet thick. Then as the melting slowed, only fine sand filtered in leaving another 20 feet of sand on the lake bottom. This lake, he called Glacial Lake Lindh—or just Lindh, drained when the water cut through the rocks at the Falls of St. Croix.

Professor Johnson said when the surface water drained; it left about 15 feet of water still in the lake bottom saturating the lower three-fourths of the 20 foot sand layer. The dry sand at the top started blowing and made big sand dunes—the big ridges through the Sterling Barrens. With time and lots of rain, the dunes stabilized when prairie grasses and plants moved in. Lightning fires kept the trees burned off. He told me that it is woods now only because there are people who put out the fires and plant trees (the County and the DNR mostly). He says the area is especially interesting to biologists because the underground lake is filled with both water and sand—attracting and evolving some mighty strange animals. Since then I have made a study of some of these unique species and will share a few with you in hopes you will help us preserve them in their special sand barrens lake habitat.

Lots of people drive along the River Road or Evergreen Avenue and the other old roads in the Barrens and see the rows of dirt mounds along the ditches and wonder what is making them. Well, very few people have seen the Sand Carp that is pretty common in Sand Lake Lindh. As the lake slowly dried up, pools of water were left with fish trapped in them—land locked from the St. Croix, but sitting on 15 feet of water soaked sand. Over a few thousand years some carp evolved to live in the sandy slurry of the old lake, eating roots instead of water plants, and creating water filled tunnels in the firmer areas. Their most unique difference is the blow hole (just like a whale) that they use to clear their sinuses of the sand that filters in. Each sneeze leaves a mound of dirt on the ground above. If you are driving along a barrens road, look for the series of 4 to 6 mounds in row, the sure sign of an active Sand Carp.

Sand Carp are tasty. Their fins make an especially delicate soup. You must be careful to take only those who have not been swimming amongst poison ivy roots or your stomach lining may break out with ivy blisters. We catch them by digging a sand pit—a 10 foot hole straight down in the sand near the mounds. The Sand Carp comes swimming and burrowing along in the wet sand and drowns when he fall into the water hole.

The Sand Beaver is a rarer find, but the careful nature watcher can see signs of their work. Like the Sand Carp, they too spend most of their lives below the surface living in the underground creeks, so abundant at the edges of Sand Lake Lindh. Some of these creeks burst forth as springs along Wolf Creek, Trade River and the St. Croix. The Sand Beaver are invaluable to keep the lake from drying out, as their underground dams block many of the outlet springs. You can see their activity when you see a cluster of dead trees. They cut the roots for their dams. They are a nuisance when they mistake your well for a dam leak and plug your well point (many local wells are only 10-20 feet deep taking advantage of the sand filtered lake water). Jack Pine Savages take a rifle shot down their well to scare away the beavers and to blow out the debris.

The Sand Tern is a unique member of the duck family that has adapted to the underground sand filled lake. It burrows deep into the sand hollowing out a small cavern that fills half full of water. There it builds a floating nest with cattail seedheads brought from a nearby swamp, and raises up to a dozen ternlets. The primary difference from the normal Tern and the Sand Tern is the presence of clawed webbed feet and a seining bill. The claws allow the birds to climb from the hole to the outside. The bill is similar to that of a baleen whale (although smaller) who gulps a huge mouthful of water and then spits it out through strainer teeth to keep the small fish, plankton and shrimp. The Sand Tern takes a mouthful of wet sand and then strains out the sand leaving the bugs, algae and krill.

A rare but increasing species is the Sand Alligator. Normally our area is too far north to allow alligators to survive through the winter. However, years of Twin Citians flushing baby alligators purchased on Florida vacations and becoming nasty pets, have let them travel down the Mississippi to Prescott and then up the St. Croix where they enter Sand Lake Lindh through springs and into the interconnected tunnels of the Sand Carp. They prey mostly on Sand Carp and are comfortable in the cold winters far below the frozen surface, hibernating in abandoned Sand Tern caverns (the web of nature is marvelous!). They can be seen sunning themselves along the horse camp on Trade River on a quiet summer afternoon.

Pocket gophers live in the upper dry layer of the lake and in the dunes. A 10 inch rain can raise the lake water table high enough to drown most of them. This had happened only once in the past 50 years, back in June of ’42 when it rained for 4 days straight. A few living at the top of a dune ridge escaped to repopulate the area as the water table gradually dropped. Their biggest predator is the badger from above, the gopher snake from within and the alligators from below.

The 2006 and 2007 dry years have lowered the lake level nearly 2 feet. As a preparation to future dry years predicted by global warming, a few of the Sand Carp are actively evolving their fins as rudimentary legs and taking short sunbathing trips to the surface. I have only seen them near the Sterling tower, where Fox Ridge rises 100 feet about Sand Lake Lindh’s water level.

The next time you travel through the Sterling Sand Barrens, bring a post hole digger, find a low spot between the dunes and dig a hole down to the lake. Spend a half day peering down this window into Sand Lake Lindh. If you don’t see at least one of the sandwater species I have talked about, I will be very disappointed.
Icy Memories

The ice cracked suddenly and gave way dropping me into the frigid water and into a struggle for my life. My heavy boots filled quickly pulling me down, and cold water penetrated my blue jeans and two layers of underwear. I went down so fast I didn’t even think of trying to swim. I thought—“stay straight and come up in the same place—don’t get caught under the ice.”

I had taken the snowmobile from our home farm to do chores as our second farm 2 miles away, taking the shorter woods route. It was 5 below zero and the roads had not been plowed since the overnight snow. I had checked, fed and watered the cattle and was on my way home. I was 15 years old. We had bought our first snowmobile a month earlier, a yellow and black 1968 Ski-doo .

The safety rules of snowmobiling included the primary one: don’t go exploring without a partner on another snowmobile. If you got stuck out in the woods, you might freeze before you could get back to civilization.

I followed the trail to the lake and there decided to take a detour across it, to drop in on Uncle Maurice. There was a well traveled trail across the lake. As I drove across, I saw the beaver house at the north end, and decided to explore it.

I knew the lake was full of springs and had a creek through it, so I left the snowmobile on the trail and walked towards the beaver house through thick fluffy snow. As I got within 20 feet of the shore, I fell through. I must have stepped onto an area above a spring where the ice was thin.

I sank fast—didn’t even think to try to swim, just went down. As my chest submerged, I came to a stop—my feet hitting a very soft and muck bottom. I had stopped with my head and shoulders out of water.

Immediately I tried to crawl on the ice—but couldn’t get a grip on anything and the ice broke as I tried to get up on it. I tried walking towards the shore, the muck gripping my boots, threatening to lock me in place. I managed to wallow forward, breaking the ice ahead of me going towards the beaver house—a large pile of sticks and mud a little ahead of me. As I got closer, my footing got better as I stepped onto the brush, sticks and small logs stored underwater for the beaver’s winter food. I managed to scramble up onto the beaver lodge that connected with the shore.

I ran along the frozen cattails on the shore and followed them around to the snowmobile trail and jogged out the snowmobile—my clothes stiffening with each step. I got it started it and drove home as fast as we could go. Ducking behind the windshield did little to warm me. My clothes were rigid and I was shivering uncontrollably as I reached home and rushed in. I stripped, changed clothes and warmed up by the stove. I threw my clothes in the washer and had them drying by the time Mom came back. “I slipped down in the manure in the barn and was a mess” I told her, not wanting her understand how dangerous snowmobiling could be and add to her worries with four active sons.

I told the Dad whole the story. He commented: “Some people have to learn by experience. “
Writing your memoirs lets you have the life you should have had.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cold Weather

My own birthday is in December too. I am much tougher because of it! My story: It was December 17th. In a snowstorm, after milking the cows in the evening, Dad started the old 31 Chev and headed down Hwy 87 to St. Croix to J. A. Riegel's hospital in the Baker Mansion to pick up Mom and me, her new baby, so she would be home for her birthday on the 18th. Just south of La Vern Larson's farm, the fuse for the headlamps burned out leaving him to negotiate MacIntosh curve in the dark snowy night on the slippery hill. Standing on the running board to see, door open, throttle slightly pulled back and grabbing the steering wheel he figured to get to Eureka and get some new fuses there. But he slipped into the steep ditch, car tipping gently but only partially on its side against the bank, spilling the baby clothes and diapers into the snow. A walk to the neighbors, phone call to Harold Jensen at the garage in Cushing got the wrecker out with fuses and Dad back on his way and soon he arrived at the hospital. He shook out some of the snow from my diapers and clothes, but plenty remained as I was diapered, dressed and brought home, adjusting to the cold cold world with nary a whimper! The last two weeks I have been huddled over my computer working on Cushing History book trying to keep warm at the cabin when it is 20 below outside. My brother Everett says "Tighten it up! Take a candle and look for air leaks by watching the flame bend to the side." Well, the candle blew out anywhere in the cabin, but I have since tightened it up enough so my blowtorch stays lit unless I am near the doors or windows. Since Mom (who will be 86 in a week) is probably reading this and getting ready to mount a rescue, I have to admit that with our good wood stove and plenty of wood that Margo cut and split, the cabin is pretty comfortable. Margo left for Pine Island before the cold spell. She seems to think that with the water system turned off, trips to the outhouse at 20 below are an inconvenience. I say it just increases efficiency, especially for someone who started life with snow in their diapers. I have to join her soon, as she is having trouble with the WD Allis tractor and snowbucket down there. She forgets which wires to cross off for the ignition, thinks it is a bother to air up the tires each time, has a hard time cranking to start it and doesn't like the taste of gas when you need to blow to clear the line every 10 minutes. Oh well, she probably started life with warm diapers.

Rambing into Summer


Rambling into Summer--Russ Hanson
Midsummer Day has come and following the tradition of our Swedish cousins we have had our first fresh strawberries from the garden. Our new potatoes are late this year. Cousin Arne, in Skee, Sweden, grows them a 5 gallon pail he brings in the house at night in early spring just to have new potatoes on the longest day of the year. Farther to the north than us, the Swedes appreciate the long summer days after the long dark winter. If you visit Scandinavia, Midsummer is the best time to go and enjoy their celebrations.
Margo has been at her parents in West Bend for the past two weeks. She takes her mom, Myrtle, out from the Alzheimer’s home for afternoon drives and coffee or ice cream. Myrtle does not know her as a daughter, but seems to accept her as a sister or friend. She still asks about Russ and Scott—even though she doesn’t know us when we visit. Myrtle sees us and her son and husband as strangers—people who make her nervous as we claim to be relatives.
While Margo is away at her parents, I am a little more laid back at the cabin on the lake in housekeeping and meals. While she is here, we have orderly routines, balanced meals, laundry day and dishes are washed and floors vacuumed whether they need it or not. We are a Better Homes and Garden family.
Within a few days of being on my own, my own schedule takes over. Wash the dishes when you need some; do the laundry when you need something to wear; eat when you are hungry and what you are hungry for; shop for food when everything in the refrigerator and in the cupboard is gone, the popcorn is running low and you have had the last condiment salad (you mix mustard, ketchup, relish, pickles and French dressing in a cereal bowl).
My favorite quick supper is a big bowel of popcorn with lots of real butter, lots of salt and lots of melted cheese. I alternate this with a big bowel of caramel popcorn covered with my own recipe of maple syrup boiled with butter—it is only right when it is sticky enough that you feel you should take a bath after you are eat it.
I like a late breakfast that doubles for a farm dinner. My favorite is duo of sourdough toast slices slathered in butter and jelly(my fruit portion); a couplet of butter fried brown eggs fresh from the pampered chickens at Quiet Meadows Ranch; a gathering of morels fresh or frozen from mosquito and tick ridden searches in the old cow pasture; a rasher of double thick old style bacon with the rind; a pan of fresh cinnamon rolls drizzled with sugar frosting and a beaker of double-caff coffee with a well ripened banana for good health. Of course, that is too much work for most days.
Margo worries about the three C’s; Calories Cholesterol, and Caffeine so she thinks of breakfast as decaf coffee, skim milk on bran cereal with 12 raisins and a half of banana each, and maybe half a piece of 386-grain bread skimmed with low sugar jelly.
My breakfast most mornings meets my frugality, taste and ambition; a large glass of diet pop, the kind that is 67 cents for a huge bottle at chain stores, and a mixture of frosted oatmeal and chocolate sided cookies, the kind that are 98 cents a package at the same store. For an afternoon snack, I like left over popcorn re-heated in the microwave. I always eat on the porch overlooking the lake so I can watch all the wildlife.
Margo’s birthday arrived while she was still away so I am surprising her with a tremendous gift; one she has wanted for several years. I can’t wait until she gets back next week to see it! I splurged and bought us a different camper for going south this winter.
Last year we tried two weeks in our tiny pop-up tent camper. Margo whined because there was no furnace and it got down to the 20’s inside a few nights in TX. Even though she had on five layers of clothes and many blankets she still got cold. As an old Scouter, used to winter camping, and having a liberal layer of personal insulation built in, I don’t notice the cold weather much.
Because of my claustrophobia, I have to have sleep on the inside of the camper bunk, away from the low overhead canvas wall and ceiling. It does probably gets a little bit colder for her against the thin canvas wall. Her fingers turn white, but that is just her Reynauds disease—an over reaction to cold and not to be taken seriously. In the National Forest campgrounds, she gets nervous about being separated from the bears by only a canvas wall.
A good husband listens to his wife and responds to her whims and imaginary concerns, no matter how frivolous he thinks they are. I was driving through Luck a couple weeks ago and saw this nice little hard shell camper along the road for sale. It was a 1971 Aristocrat Lo-Liner 15 foot (13 feet living space) that had been remodeled into a ice fishing house. It had real walls and was insulated and had a small gas furnace! Just the ticket to please Margo!
I figured the large ice fishing hole in the floor might be useful. The inside was already gutted so it would give us more space for our own stuff. I negotiated the price down to $75—an excellent price for a camper ready to roll; a match for my retirement budget; yet expensive enough as a birthday gift so Margo will know I really appreciate her!
I hooked on to it with the truck and pulled it home without problem. Of course, it didn’t have a title nor license plate so I had to take the back roads. The seller said he got it from his godfather a few year ago who had gotten it from his son a few years earlier who got it from his friend a few years earlier who got it from an old man who had already passed on a few years earlier and none of them had licensed it—just used it for a lakeside bedroom or fishing shack. The Motor Vehicle department didn’t have any info about the trailer ID number and told me to fill out some paper work, show a picture ID, pay $58, have it road inspected and all past omissions will be forgiven.
It does have a working gas furnace. The three burner stove works but a wooden door replaces the original oven door. The previous owner said the oven didn’t work, so he used it for bait storage. The wood door should work if I will wrap it in aluminum foil before we start baking bread.
I think the large ice-fishing hole in the floor can be made into a toilet (there wasn’t any in the camper) with one of those porta-potties or five gallon pail toilets they have for hunters with a flat RV tank strapped below the camper. Because it is in the middle of the kitchen area, I will disguise it as a table with a tabletop attached to the fold up toilet lid.
Two lawn chairs should make up for the missing bench seats. The setup in the rear for the narrow bunk bed is still there. I think Margo can get used to the top bunk with the ceiling close over her face—I am far too claustrophobic to be up there. A plus is that warm air rises so it will be the warmer bunk and bears can’t reach up that high either.
I have the windows and door opened up now, airing it out. By the time Margo gets back the mildewed fishy smell should be gone—especially if I tear out the moldy old carpet, patch the corner where the roof leaks, and air out the foam cushions. Sometimes I am so happy my Dad taught me to be a handy person!
There is no spare tire or wheel and the wheel bolt pattern is quite odd sized, so I will carry a spare tire, tube and jack in case the 36-year-old tires might be a little less than prime. I have spared no effort in getting Margo good at changing tires so that won’t be a big deal. I can’t wait for her to come home to see her new birthday camper! I have named her “Winnabelle.” When you see Margo next time, I bet she will be smiling! Take my advice guys, spare no effort to please your wife.
***

Friday, January 25, 2008

Booze Comes to Cushing

Booze comes to Cushing by Russ Hanson

When the first saloon opened in Cushing in 1904 it stirred up a lot of controversy. Roy Hennings, better known as Dr. Squirt, was the Cushing Columnist to the Polk County Ledger, Standard Press and Luck Enterprise newspapers at the time. He gives a weekly account of what was happening in Cushing and in June picked up the saloon issue.

We get a picture of Cushing in Doc’s January 1904 column: “The Cushing feed, lath and planing mill, Peter L. Peterson (Handy Peter) owner, ground during the month of January 90,325 pounds of oats into feed. If Cushing had a railroad it would soon be a business center. In addition to the feed-mill the citizens of Cushing can boast of three grocery stores; one furniture store; one confectionery and millenary store combined; one hardware store; a blacksmith shop and a harness shop and last but not least, a creamery all managed by some of the best business men of the century. “

Doc didn’t mention that Cushing also had a Methodist and Lutheran Church; the Cushing Tigers baseball team and the Cushing Band. Two schools were nearby with Lanesdale a mile or so northeast and the Cushing school a mile west. Above Johnson’s grocery store was a hall for dances and events (this building is north of the north bar). The furniture shop was the Askov Bros. who did embalming and sold coffins as a sideline. “The Cushing furniture merchant has a good line of coffins and he guarantees that if you once try one of his coffins you will never use any other,” wrote Dr. Squirt. The Cushing Post Office had been running since 1870, and a stage carrying mail freight and passengers came through town regularly.However, there was no saloon.

Local townships or villages could issue liquor licenses if they chose to. The issue was contentious in the period leading up to the 18th amendment prohibiting all liquor sales in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933. The temperance movement was very vocal and led through local churches, especially the Lutherans. Sterling Township records show the following: “May 7, 1904 Granted license to N. (Nathan) Cohen for the sale of liquor in the town of Sterling for May and June 1904 the sum of fifty dollars and two hundred and seventy five dollars for the one year beginning July 1 1904 the above sale of liquor to be conducted on the following described premises on lot fifty feet by 100 feet in the NE corner of NE 1/4 of SE 1/4 Sect 36, T36 R19 signed by two township board members: T. F. Monty, John Johnson.” A liquor license was also given to G. W. Bigley of Wolf Creek on July 19, 1904. The two liquor license provided a huge extra income for the township, more than half of the township budget.

In Doc’s May column we read the following: “Mr. ____ fifty some odd years of age and the owner of a farm one half mile out of town and worth $3,500 and money enough to keep him in luxury the rest of his life, has leased lot to the Sheeny saloon keeper for the paltry consideration of $75. The public sentiment is strongly against having a saloon there. The Cushing people think too much of their honor to build the saloon, so the Hebrew had to get a man from the barrens to build it. “ Mr. ____ was Mortimer Havens who lived where the Lundgren Marshland farms are, one-half mile south of town. No one closer to Cushing would let Nathan Cohen, a Jewish peddler, build a saloon on their property or sell him any land. The small lot was on the very northeast corner of the 80 acres along Hwy. 87 where Lundgren’s land ends. Those of you who remember the old baseball field—it was just south of it along the road. There is no sign of any foundation there now. Doc was like most of the people 100 years ago in that he was prejudiced against Jewish people, thus the term “Sheeny” and “Hebrew.”

He was very outspoken in his opposition to liquor sales and the saloon and for the next year, often telling about the problems the saloon was creating in Cushing. Most people say that Doc didn’t drink, but a lot of the people he hung around with did drink, and a few people thought Doc wasn’t any better than the rest of them. However, he certainly spoke out against liquor sales.

In 1904, Cushing extended south to Handy Pete’s feedmill/sawmill (about where Louie’s Garage is now) as most of the area further south was in the marsh. South of town a short distance was a creek draining from the marsh that later became the Big Ditch with the 1912 drainage project. Doc who had nicknames for everyone and every place, started calling the saloon corner Hell’s Half Acre and the creek was “Whiskey Creek” as it was near the saloon. We will read a few of Doc’s columns.

April 1904: “Handy Pete’s feed, lath and planing mill burned everything to the ground (it was rebuilt all new within the year). A certain young man with a poetical turn of mind recently informed me that he had just written a spring poem of sixty stanzas and asked me how much he ought to get for it. Well, I am not much of a judge of poetry, but I think that six months on the rock pile would be sufficient.”

June 1904: “One night last week a couple of young gentlemen went down to Hell’s Half Acre, got drunk and went over to Alfred Peterson, who lives across the road from the saloon to visit Alfred’s sister. Finally one of them men became disorderly and Alfred ordered him to leave the place, he refused to go and when Alfred was going to force him to go, he tore Alfred’s shirt and bit his hand. That’s what comes of granting license and still there are a few raving lunatics in Cushing that say a saloon is alright.”

Next column: “Last Friday night there was a wild time across Whiskey Creek at the saloon. The noise was terrible and one bloody fight is reported. Next morning the deputy sheriff of St. Croix Falls came to Cushing and searched a number of barns in town in search of an outlaw whom he could not find. The officer has been after the outlaw for the last months, and the night that the officer was after him is reported having slept in the woods behind the saloon, but the people that own the woods don’t care whether outlaws sleep therein or not as long as they do not gnaw the bark off the trees. The charge against the man at large is being drunk and disorderly and carrying concealed weapons.”

July: “Last Friday and Saturday nights the carousing around the saloon was frightful. People in town could not sleep on account of the noise. The citizens of Cushing are going to put in a plea for protection. A marshal is needed badly and a jail is needed just as bad. By the time the county builds a jail and hires a marshal, the license money won’t amount to nothing, so what is the use of granting licenses at all. There are so many fights around the saloon I fear the Ledger has not space enough to print them all.”

August: “A saloon disturbance occurred at Cushing, Monday evening, and warrants were issued for the arrest of Martin Lundy, Harry Emery and Axel Danielson. Danielson was arrested and let off with a fine of one dollar. Emery is said to have gone to Eveleth. As a result of this trouble Nate Cohen, the saloon keeper, was brought here Thursday, for trial for selling to a minor. The case was continued to next Tuesday.”

Later July: “Highway men broke into the saloon and according to the man that sells the firewater and brimstone, the stole either $13, $62, $75, or $100, and a box of cigars. At the last report the saloon keeper was rattled and did not know how much he had lost. Evidently the robbery was committed by amateurs. The citizens of Cushing earnestly hope that the next time robbers come that they will be professionals and blow that accursed place off the earth. “

“August 8th, a couple of men got drunk and broke the slot machine at Hell’s Half acre, all to pieces.” October 1904, “It is rumored that Nathan Cohen has sold the saloon to a certain party of Grantsburg.”

In February of 1905 a petition was sent to the Sterling Town Board requesting that referendum vote be held at the annual township meeting on whether liquor licenses should be issued. In April, the township vote was for license 78; against license 91. July 7, 1905 verbal application was made to Town Board to run a pool table in connection with a confectionery store in the vicinity of Cushing. With liquor voted down, possibly the saloon was converted to a pool hall.

In 1906, Mortimer Havens sold his land to S. C. Pomeroy. About this time Henry Sornson records that he helped move the saloon building north across the creek into Cushing and placed it between the Askov building and Handy Pete’s mill, where it became a meat market in 1907, a harness shop, and possibly other businesses before being remodeled and becoming the Bank of Cushing in 1914.

A concrete vault was added to the south and a house connected to the east end. It finally burned after about 80 years and was torn down.

Here is Henry Sornson’s version of the story: “The old bank building was built down here about one-half mile south. That was Mort Haven’s corner then. They called that the Hell’s Half Acre. Frank Anderson bought that from Hymie Cohen, a Jew, who had built it (for a saloon). He sold it to Bonneville and he run it a while. He sold it to Charlie Anderson who moved it up here for a meat market. And he built the house onto what is now the old bank. He was doing a meat market there for a while. I guess it didn’t pay out too well so he sold it. I think his brother-in-law had it for a while. Then they took the meat market over to Ole Gullickson’s store. Then Johnson got it and then Theresa Gullickson. Then they sold it to H. D. Baker. Then it was turned into a bank. That was our first bank. It was quite a town then!