Lars and Helga were getting older, in their late 60s. The children had left home, gone away to college and to jobs that were easier than milking cows on the farm. “You know, Mama,” said Lars at the breakfast table one frosty morning after he came in from milking the cows, “my knees just won’t bend right to milk those cows anymore. Maybe it is time to sell them.”
“Well, you know we need the milk money to pay off those college loans for the kids we promised the bank. Maybe we should get a hired man to help out this winter. Lena was telling me at Ladies Aide that her son, Ole, was looking to get out on his own and earn some money. Since his dad died and they sold the farm, he has just been working here and there for the neighbors haying and silo filling.”
“Yah, he’s a good worker. Dumb as a fencepost, but maybe with some supervision, he would work out. I suppose we could offer him room and board and $100 per month and still pay the bills.”
And so Ole came to the farm in November. The crops were all harvested, and farming was just taking care of the animals; feeding and milking the cows and cleaning the barn. Lars sent his milk to the co-op in milk cans picked up every morning.
1951 was a cold winter in NW Wisconsin—one of the worst in Lars’ memory. Farmers hunkered down, shoveling snow, caring for the animals and feeding the wood stoves. Winters like that on the farm are actually very pleasant, as farmers are not tempted to go out and start a new project—no cutting logs to saw for a new building, no firewood gathering in advance, just caring for the animals.
Big barns, with their haymows full are warm in the winter, heated by the cows themselves. Even with 20 below outside, some doors are left open a crack to provide fresh air and keep the temperature about 50—best for the cows and farmer (in his long johns, 50 is pretty comfortable).
Ole settled into the routine nicely. He and Lars shared the work and everything went fine for a time. The one outside job was wheeling the manure from the gutters to the manure pile each day. The snow had come early with the bitter cold, making hauling and spreading it on the fields impossible. So, each day the fragrant and constantly replenished manure needed to be removed and piled outside.
Farmer Lars had a spot, 100 feet from the barn, that was the base for his manure pile. It was carefully chosen not to be muddy in the spring so the manure spreader could be pulled up closely and the manure pitched in and hauled then. Just before the final freezeup, Lars had Ole smooth the path with the garden rake, so the wheel barrow wheel had an easy smooth path to the pile.
“If you build the pile like the pyramids in Egypt,” advised Lars, “it is easy to empty the loads.” Building a manure pile was an art—each day a dozen loads of fresh steaming manure had to be added and sculpted before it froze in place, not to thaw until late spring. A ramp of frozen manure allowed the pile to rise vertically rather than sprawl across the area. Each day, smoothing the path and adding the loads strategically made the pile rise neatly and impressively. “Yah, I should build the Egyptian Sphinx,” joked Ole.
Farmers are modest folks. They do however, like to have things that “show from the road” tidy and neat. Woodpiles are stacked knowing the neighbors will judge them. And so it is was with Farmer Lars’ manure pile—beyond the barn but fully visible from the road. It could be said of Lars “he built a good manure pile,” high praise from his neighbors.
On the next farm, lived Hjalmer Johnson and his wife, Hulda, and lovely daughter Tilly. Tilly was only a year younger than Ole, finishing up her last year of high school in Grantsburg. Every morning and evening the school bus picked her up and dropped her off driving past the manure pile.
Tilly and her parents were regular visitors in those pre-TV days and Ole often spent the evening with the two farm families visiting over a late piece of apple-rhubarb pie. Ole was too shy to talk to Tilly, but he took a shine to her and decided that he needed to impress her somehow. Tilly was “artistic.” She painted, played the piano, did handwork, and acted in plays. Tilly had luxuriant yellow hair, and her favorite dress was sort of pea-green, full skirt, tight bodice showing off her mature figure.
To attract her attention, Ole needed to try his hand at art, he decided. But what could he do and when would he have time to do it?
Being somewhat resourceful, Ole looked around for the materials at hand. He had been very careful with his manure pile, and by February, it had risen 6 feet high and tapered in smoothly like the pyramids. Each day he carefully forked and shoveled manure into the crevices and had a smooth base—almost too smooth as he had to be careful not to slip.
Pushing manure up a manure ramp onto the pile is a challenge. You need to gain speed on the flat and make a run to push the couple of hundred pounds of warm jam-like manure up the ramp and then guide it to the preferred spot and dump it forward without mishap (i.e. head in the manure, a premature ejaculation or side spill). Farm boys learn this the hard way.
In the center of the pyramid, an obelisk began to rise. Each day it grew larger as Ole shoveled manure onto one spot and used his shovel to smooth and shape the object. When it reached 8 feet, his maximum reach, it started to gain shape. The bottom was like a bell, tapering in half way up. Then it began tapering out, but oval
rather than round.
All through the cold February, the strange shape grew and soon the neighbors began to speculate as they drove by. “That Ole must have cabin fever,” and worse. When asked, Ole just said “I’m trying something new.”
Gradually, the shape began to be recognizable, a woman’s figure! When the core was complete, additions began showing up—a head with luxuriant hair (artfully placed manure filled with yellow oats straw). “Yah, Ole knows what women should look like,” was the comment from neighbor Hjalmer as he looked at the manure pile each day from his farm.
Now Ole was not totally unread, and had studied the Sears catalog and National Geographic for his education about things his mother never told him. At the library one time, he and the other boys studiously took in the Venus de Milo sculpture in the big page art book and patterned his own sculpture accordingly. The arms were too hard to do anyway.
Now Tilly had watched this all happen and began to see the yellow hair and green dress as Ole had meant for her to see it. When the March thaw came and the manure sculpture was in danger of collapsing, she walked across the pasture and went into the barn where Ole was alone at work cleaning it out.
“You know Ole, that sculpture is pretty nice, but you got some things wrong. Would you like to come up in the hay mow and get some pointers for doing it better next year?”
Moral: The message sometimes transcends the medium.