“Inspiring!” Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams

In early September I had the pleasure of welcoming a book I midwifed into the world. This is one of the great moments in the life of a personal historian. How often do any of us get to see the tangible result of months of labor meet the people it was intended for?

On September 6 I attended the annual Farm Party of the Adams-Jelle family and friends, which this year included celebration of a freshly-published book of letters written of Pat Adams, carefully assembled and edited by Pat’s oldest daughter Cate Adams and close friend Carole Milks Turner. I published Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams through my company, First Person Productions, helping Carole and Cate with each decision and technical step from manuscript to launch. We’re now working on marketing, because we feel this book will find its place in the larger world.

Cate Adams thanks family and friends for their support.

Cate Adams thanks family and friends for their support.

A prolific correspondent and true Aquarian-age woman, Pat Adams lived the last 15 years of her life with cancer, capturing her courage and vivacity in her remarkable letters, emails, and journal entries written from her farm in Southern Wisconsin and her cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Relatives and friends as far away as Florida and California saved her correspondence over the years, savoring her wry humor and insights about everyday life, her love for her family and friends, and her appreciation of the natural world. As death approached, an immediacy and determination entered her emails and letters. Reading Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams is a way to draw life lessons from a wise woman and enjoy again the simple things that matter: nature, life’s passages, and of course, the lost art of letter writing.

“This book is amazingly warming,” wrote the first reviewer on Amazon.com (and a stranger to the Adams clan). “Reading someone else’s thoughts and feelings, from the little things most don’t take time to enjoy, to the huge things like dealing with cancer. Absolutely a great, inspiring read! Highly recommended!” (Carla Grant, September 12, 2014).

After Pat’s death, Cate and Carole chose to compile a selection of her correspondence for family, friends, and others who seek inspiration for living life to its fullest. “Reading through Pat’s letters, we howled with laughter and were twisted by grief, sometimes simultaneously. Fueled by our roller-coaster emotions, we kept going,” wrote the editors in their Acknowledgments.

Fireflies at Twilight, back cover   Fireflies at Twilight: front cover

Pat Adams died on March 14, 2011. Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams was published August 15, 2014. The book is available on Amazon.com.

The Farm Party featured readings from the book by a few of Pat’s close friends and relatives–until tears and laughter took over, and we all went back to the business of living.

I’m deeply grateful to earn my living as a personal historian. One of the rewards is definitely this–enjoying food, drink, and family with my clients at the successful completion of their projects.

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Old Letters Become Time Machine to the Past (On the APH blog)

Last Saturday I attended a family launch party for a book of letters that I just published for a client. Seeing a book (or any form of personal history you’ve helped produce) welcomed by its intended audience is one of the truly great moments in the life of a personal historian. Next week I’ll blog about the letters, their author, and the book the family produced.

In the meantime, I invite you to read this post on the Association of Personal Historians blog: “Old Letters Become Time Machine to the Past.” Enjoy!

-Sarah White

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Upcoming events, Madison & Mineral Point

There’s a lot writers of “true stories well told” can learn from the techniques of fiction. Want to try your hand at it? Sign up now for…

Fiction Writing Workshop: A six week series with Gregg Williard
Goodman South Madison Library

Get your creative juices flowing in this six-session series with writer and artist, Gregg Williard (aka Fiction Jones on WORT Radio). Participants will read their work aloud to build incredible sentences! Bring paper and pen or pencil.

Thursdays  9/18, 10/2, 10/9, 10/16, 10/30, 11/6
6:30 – : 7:30 PM

Space is limited so register now! Call 266-6395 to register.


Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival on September 13
Mineral Point, Wisconsin

Fourteen literary workshops and evening speaker Michael Perry will be part
of the fourth annual Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival on September 13, 2014, in Mineral Point,  Wisconsin.

The 2014 event begins with fourteen workshops held at the Mineral Point Public Library and Mineral Point Opera House. Pre-registration is encouraged, register online at www.swwibookfestival.com or call 608.987.3370 to save your seat. The cost per workshop is $20. I’ll be presenting “Start Writing Your Memoir” at 1:30pm.

For other upcoming events from Sarah White (me), see my upcoming events page on my website, here!

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Spruce Island Camp

By Sarah White


The question is, did Harv marry the job or the woman?

I can believe a certain kind of man would compromise on his choice of mate, to spend half the year on a Canadian island, 40 miles by water from the nearest road.

Whether a man could love Jana enough to leave the world behind, to spend half the year without a neighborhood bar where he can bend an elbow and complain about the wife, I don’t know. I didn’t get to know her.


Harv and Jana run Spruce Island Camp, a rustic resort on six acres of island at the geographic center of the Lake of the Woods. Spaced along a curved shore are pine-log cabins, erased from sight of each other by an unstoppable tangle of underbrush. At the center sits the lodge, Harv and Jana’s base. Behind it is their house and its outbuildings, the oversized doghouse where the foster children live, the laundry shed, the garbage dump.

And that’s all. That’s their entire world from May through October. Every other island in sight is wild, just rocks thrusting up from lake, pines thrusting up from rock, and blueberries and brambles and moss and ferns hanging onto the soil that survives. Moose, bear, lynx and beaver are the only guests for miles.

This is the job Harv married: the most remote and rustic version of the hospitality trade imaginable.


Harv is responsible for the Outdoors. It’s a handyman’s dream: a dozen or so boats to keep in repair, a half dozen cabins to paint and improve in a cycle that must never end. He fights the battle with the help of Jeff, the college kid. The men take turns with the errand runs, collecting guests at the boat landing, retrieving supplies from the lumber yard and grocery store. For company Harv and Jeff have the fishing parties for whom they play Northwoods Guides, catching muskie, walleye, bass. They will prepare these over a campfire for guests willing to pay for “shore lunches.”

Jeff is carved from Norwegian stock. His big block of a head sits resolutely on a tall fair-skinned body. I caught a glimpse of him in late afternoon sun, jumping from boat to pier, shirtless, his faded blue jeans tucked into black rubber wellingtons. He had the beauty of a young animal.

Harv may have had the same appeal at 19; today he is just a good-looking outdoor guy. His beard and well-trimmed hair are smooth and brown as a muskrat’s fur. He wears a uniform of plaid flannel. He keeps his beer gut in check with hard work.

There is more variety in the way women are built than men. Some are pear shaped, some top heavy, some like tree trunks, no curves at all. Jana is a solid stump of a woman, an implacable strength implied by that big torso. She doesn’t say much, but something about her communicates instantly: she is in charge of this kingdom. You’ve got to wonder how that sits with Harv.

Jana’s responsibility is the Indoors. She minds the books, handles the reservations, figures the bills. She is restaurant manager as well as hotelier, cooking and managing the house staff, her collection of foster kids. Jana takes in children who do chores, wait table in the lodge, and change sheets in the cabins. Some are Asian and some Anglo, all about ten or eleven years old. Mostly they lounge in a pack watching videotapes in the lodge and fighting over magazines left by the guests. They seem blasé about the outdoors; I wonder how they feel about their isolated summers.

Jana grew up here, probably doing the same chores. Spruce Island Camp belonged to her parents. George and Florence Mead retired only a few years ago and traces of them linger; forty years can’t be erased in two or three. Harv lives in their shadow and continues what they started.

By the door in the lodge is a framed bit of embroidery commemorating George’s skill as guide and host. Books of Florence’s poetry, published by “The Lake of the Woods Writer’s Group,” are for sale in the lodge store. The poems praise the woods in snow, so Florence and George must have wintered over, but Harv and Jana don’t. They have another life in Long Prairie, Minnesota, where he picks up jobs as a mechanic while she works for an accountant. They leave their cabins standing open in winter, a kind of wilderness welcome that might save a life someday.


We visited the camp at the end of the summer season, but the fall hunters were expected soon. Life at Spruce Island didn’t begin when we arrived and wasn’t going to stop when we boated back out.

I thought I came as a blank slate, ready for any experience that offered. I did what seemed the things to do; ate and drank and swam off the pier, explored by canoe and boot the island terrain. I crouched on rocky slopes listening for animals; I watched for birds, hunted blueberry patches, and soon fund the unlimited availability of so limited a range of activities stifling. I grew grateful to Canadian Public Radio for news of a world outside.

Lost in the forest, I missed the trees.

I overlooked the bustle of activity all around me. I never saw the lives we were passing through, barely met the cast of characters, each with work to do and a place they came from and a story of how they got here and prospects for the future. Jana and Harv and Jeff. Our fellow guests Milo and Gloria, water-skiing for the videocam. Adolescents Juniper and Melissa, who’ll be your waitresses tonight.


Shyness overtakes me at the wrong times….childhood imprint of my embarrassing father, always striking up conversations with strangers.

And so I have too few clues to go on as I try to decide: did Harv marry the job or the woman?

1993 © Sarah White

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An Elegantly Simple Act

By Doug Elwell

This is a work of creative non-fiction. Some names, characters, places, dialog or descriptions have been changed or added. In those cases, any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Fred wanted to give him something of himself but he wasn’t sure what. The boy was his grandson after all and Fred didn’t see him often enough to be much of a grandfather. He thought about that and what there might be that he could give the boy to fix his place in the lad’s mind. He was getting on in years and wasn’t sure he’d have a place in the boy’s memory and that was what he wanted before it was too late—to not be forgotten by the boy. The boy knew the old man as Pop and Pop had sent him a photograph as a souvenir in September after the boy returned home from his vacation. In it Pop had his arm draped over the boy’s shoulder and had him pulled in close—the way a grandfather should. The younger man on the far right in the photo was the boy’s father and the three of them had just shot a long rapid in the river when the photo was taken by a passerby who was sitting on a rock with his dog. He was nine when the picture in front of the canoe was taken those years ago.

Pop was deep in thought as he sat in his wicker chair on the porch and watched the boy dig potatoes for his grandmother in the garden in front of the cottage—deep in thought. His daughter, the boy’s mother, sat nearby on the swing with her mother who the boy called Nana. The boy’s mother and Nana held hands because they didn’t see each other often and they had been close when the daughter was young and she nestled in the luxury of being a young girl again in that short time that summer. And she breathed in every moment of it—moments scented with the crisp pine air of the Maine woods she had known and loved as a girl. Soon she and the boy and the boy’s father would be back in Illinois and their visit to the cottage on the bank of the Penobscot in the pine woods of Maine would be but a memory. After the boy came in with the potatoes for Nana, Pop got up and drove the boy and his father down the lane to the river in his old sedan.

They loaded the canoe onto the roof of the car. A neighbor met them there and drove them north on a road that followed the river upstream. The boy watched the heavy pine forest that lined the road scroll by. They drove for a long time along the river until the neighbor pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. The canoe was lifted off the car and set at the riverbank. Pop stood—looked up the river then down. He scanned the far bank—nodded—said, “Ah-yuh.” He took his hearing aid ear piece out of his ear and the battery pack from his shirt pocket and put them into the glove box of the car. The man drove off leaving them there at a place on the river where it gurgled around the ashy branches of a fallen pine tree.

“I’ll take the front.” Pop looked at the boy, “You sit in the middle and your dad will sit in the back. Okay?”

“Yessir.” The boy felt a little funny around the old man he called Pop because he didn’t know him well. He was supposed to like him but he was so old and he wondered what there was about him that he could like. It was as if he was another species—ancient like a dinosaur or a rock or something like that. There were spots on the backs of his hands and he could almost see through the old man’s skin and he didn’t think he could hear anymore either. But the boy did as he was told and squatted into the middle of the canoe.

Pop looked at the younger man, “When we get there keep paddling as hard as you can. I’ll do the rest.”

The younger man, the boy’s father, nodded.

Pop climbed into the canoe, pushed it away from the bank and they drifted slowly downstream. The water was smooth. It was quiet there in the emerald water that was clear green from the weeds the boy could see on the bottom of the river. He looked up when they passed a black sow bear and two cubs on a sand bar. She glanced as they floated by then went on about her business. Pop said she was probably looking for clams. The boy leaned and looked again into the clear green water—watched the weeds and stones on the bottom of the river creep silently by beneath the canoe. They drifted like that for a long time and the river turned left then right a couple times. Around one bend the boy saw an abandoned sawmill on the west bank and a long chute that Pop said once was used to pull logs out of the river into the mill. Another sand bar this time without bears. Pop said over his shoulder, “We’ll be there in a few minutes.” Then to the boy, “You sit still. Don’t move when we get to the rapids.” To the boy’s father, “Remember—keep paddling hard as you can.” The man nodded.

The boy didn’t know what to expect of a rapids. He didn’t know of any on the Embarrass River back home in Illinois. It was a slow brown river that snaked across the prairie under the cover of thick old trees that weren’t pine and didn’t smell.

Picture courtesy of Northeast Whitewater, http://www.northeastwhitewater.com/.

Picture courtesy of Northeast Whitewater, http://www.northeastwhitewater.com/.

From far ahead the boy heard a faint roar that sounded like a train crossing a trestle like the one west of his town. And as the canoe drifted slowly through the calm water the roar grew louder. The river turned to the right and the boy thought the roar was about to swallow them up. It frightened him and he held tight to the sides of the canoe. Then the river turned sharp left. The roar filled his ears and Pop in front rose up onto his knees and put his paddle in the bottom of the canoe behind him. He pulled out a long pole and the boy didn’t hear any of that—the roar of the river. He felt it in his chest as the canoe shot toward the rapid as if in a race with the speeding current. He looked past Pop at huge boulders that rose up six and seven even eight feet high strewn pell-mell in the river. Smaller ones scattered about. Water splashed over and around—threw white sprays in all directions and the boy couldn’t see a way through them. They looked like a wall and he was scared and he held tight—held tight—to the sides of the canoe expecting to be slammed against the rocks.

Pop used the pole to push the canoe off the boulders as the current catapulted them on with the speed and fury of a runaway train. He pushed the nose of the thing to the left then right then left again threading the canoe through the maze of boulders that thwacked its sides—threatening to dash it to pieces with each turn. The boy didn’t see it coming when the bottom fell out of the front of the canoe as it dipped into a slide of foamy white exploding water. All he could see was a wall of water rising then the nose of the canoe crashed into it then shot upward and icy cold spray gushed over Pop and him as the canoe rose to meet the next slide—and the next—and the next—and the next. Each time more icy cold water cascaded into the canoe. The boy shook his head to clear his eyes and Pop was still there poling left and right threading the canoe through the rapids. Spray from all sides slammed into them but Pop was still there and the canoe caromed drunkenly down and down and down the steep rapids. The boy gripped the sides of the canoe—hands drained of blood—feeling.

When the boy thought it would never end—that they would go on forever, the boulders got smaller and the torrents of water that plashed over and into the canoe began to ebb as if they were tired and the boy heard the roar of the river falling away. Pop poled to the right into a channel between the smaller boulders—threaded his way through them as if he were weaving a tapestry. Then they were back into the calm of the river as quickly as they left it ages ago. He sat back on the seat and put the pole into the canoe—turned to the boy—smiled, “Hand me the paddle son.” The boy handed the paddle to him. “Now take that coffee can on the end of that cord and start bailing water.” While he did that the current slowed as they drifted on downstream. The boy looked at Pop’s broad back and strong arms as he paddled the canoe slow and steady now. He didn’t see the spots on the backs of Pop’s hands either. He was bigger than he was at the beginning of the rapids and the boy didn’t know how he could have grown so big in such a short time. They steered to the bank of the river. When the front of it slid into the sand, they got out to pull the canoe out onto the sandy bank. Pop and the boy’s dad turned the canoe over to drain the remainder of the water then carried it a few feet above the bank.

“How about that son?”

“Can we do it again Pop?”

He smiled, “That’s enough for today.” He looked at the boy’s dad—smiled, “—water level’s perfect.”

A neighbor of Pop’s sat at the roadside on a flat boulder with his dog, “Shoot the rapids Fred?”

Pop nodded, “Ah-yuh.” He took a camera off the front seat of the car and asked the man to take their picture with the canoe and river in the background.

They climbed into the old sedan left there by the man who drove them up the river. Pop reached into the glove box and pulled out his hearing aid, put the ear piece in his ear and threaded the wire to the battery pack in his shirt pocket and turned it on. They drove the quarter mile up to the cottage. When he stopped the car Pop switched off his hearing aid.

Nana and the boy’s mother were sitting on the porch when they drove into the yard. The boy wriggled out of the car—ran to the porch—soaked—eyes wide—blurted out the details of their shooting the rapids adventure. Nana slapped her crossword puzzle onto the table, stomped across the porch to meet Pop at the steps. “What’s the big idea taking this child down those rapids? You could’ve killed him—and you and Bob. What if you had a heart attack or something? What if you got thrown out of the canoe? You aren’t a goddamned boy scout any more you know Fred. For chrissakes you’re seventy two years old. Sometimes I wonder about your judgment. You’re getting crazier by the day—can’t let you out of my sight for a minute—old fool.” Droplets of spittle sprayed in all directions.

Nana on the porch steps chewing on Pop. She pulled the boy to her, “You okay child?”

“It wasn’t like that Nana.” The boy squirmed away—ran to his mother—stretched his arms wide, “—the rocks—a hundred times bigger than this—and Pop, he—.”

Mother smiled wide—pulled the boy to her—held him close—nestled her head against his, “I know son.”

Pop looked past Nana at his daughter and grandson—nodded, “Ah-yuh.”


The man looked at the old photo. In it the boy stands between Pop and his dad on the bank of the Penobscot. A beached canoe rests behind them. Pop and the boy are smiling. The boy’s dad is wearing a baseball cap and his features are in shadow.

It was an elegantly simple act.

© Doug Elwell, 1999-2014

A recovering educator, Doug Elwell spends most days writing, reading about writing and thinking about writing. His work occasionally appears on True Stories Well Told. Doug can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

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The House That Jasper Built

By Kaye Ketterer

This is part 2 of a 2-part reminiscence about Kaye’s childhood home.

There was nothing extraordinary about the house I grew up in, yet everything about it was extra-ordinary by today’s standards. The house was built in about 1884 by Jasper & Meta Marie Johnson, my maternal great-grandparents. It was a white farmhouse with wood siding and fish scale shaped siding at the peaks. My great grandparents had a beautiful open front porch with gingerbread trim and when my grandparents lived there, they enclosed the porch. In today’s world it would now be called a three season porch. The two story house faced the south, set back from the road with two rows of about 6 elm trees in each row. As a child I thought the rows of elm trees gave my house a castle-like entrance even though the driveway was just beyond the rows of elms. There was only a dirt cellar where canned goods were kept, and you got there by outside steps on the East side of the house.

When my life began in this house I was just two years old and there was no indoor plumbing, nor central heating. There was a pump just outside the back door under the wind mill where we drew our water and there was a big wood stove in the middle of the dining room.   The kitchen got most of its heat from the old cook stove. The outhouse was just a short distance from the back door to the north and we had chamber pots in our bedrooms so we didn’t have to get up and go outside at night. On the main level there was the kitchen, dining room, living room and my parents’ bedroom. To the north there was an enclosed porch as we called it that had a row of windows on the north wall and that’s where you entered the house from the back door.   In this porch, my mother did laundry and eventually the west end was used to make way for an indoor bathroom!   This porch also had a desk where my Dad would sometimes do bookwork and a chrome dining set was placed in front of the row of windows. In the summer months we often ate in this room. When other farmers would come to help pick corn or combine oats, my mother fed them on the back porch. They could wash up in the laundry tub sink and wouldn’t have to take off their dusty overalls.

img023 the house

Upstairs there were three rooms: my bedroom I shared with my sister and another bedroom where my two brothers slept. There was also a room that faced the north, thus we called it the “north room”.   No one slept in this room and when I was growing up it was used to store things that weren’t used anymore like our 6 year old crib and boxes of who knows what! The hallway was quite large and at the top of the stairs there was an old dresser that sat there for years holding off season clothes and usually had stuff piled high on top of it.

As a young child I don’t remember the house getting much remodeling or updating, but it was kept sanitary and picked up by my mother’s almost constant, deep cleaning. The bedrooms had the original wallpaper that was stained and peeling and the ceilings were plaster. Occasionally in my bedroom there would be a sticky substance dripping from one of the walls and it would stain the old wallpaper even more. The floors were wide pine boards although in my brother’s bedroom the floor had been covered with thin dark brown linoleum. My bedroom floor boards had been painted a light blue and were somewhat rough and splintering. There was no closet in my bedroom, just a shelf with a thin rod hanging from it where we could hang clothes from hangers. There were two windows facing the south and one window facing the west. This window was almost level with the floor, so in the heat of the summer I would put my pillow in the window sill and sleep on the floor to get any cool air that came through the window. It seemed my bedroom was either hot or freezing cold. In the winter ice would gather on the window panes even though my Dad put plastic inside covering the windows. I learned to be quick getting out of bed and getting dressed in the winter time. My sister & I had twin beds. Mine an old roll-a-way bed and hers a “Hollywood”. Her bed was always called that and I never asked why but supposed it was the brand name. There was one light on the west wall in my bedroom that turned on and off by pulling a string.   My sister & I shared a dresser with two drawers each.

Our farm house never felt big or scary to me; although there were times I wished that my bedroom was downstairs safely positioned next to my parents.   Sometimes at night I would wake up to a whooshing sound and it felt like a bird was in our bedroom. I would turn on the light and see this bat flying around. I was scared and would always wake my sister, who would quickly pull the covers over her head and tell me to go back to sleep! I couldn’t do that, so would call for help and my Dad would come upstairs with a broom and a pail and he would get the bat into the pail and put it back outside. When my sister went away to college I had the room to myself. I liked it except when there would be a thunder storm. Storms always scared me and when I would hear the first crack of thunder I would run down the stairs and position myself right between my parents in their bed. I remember doing this until I was in junior high, then I found a safe place to sleep on the living room couch, near my parents’ bedroom.

The most special times in the farm house were holidays like Christmas. We always cut our own tree from the “forty” as it was called. The “forty” was a 40 acre plot of land surrounded by roads just over the hill from our farm.   The tree was always long needled and was often a bit bare in places, so my Dad usually had to drill some holes and stick branches in the bare spots. It didn’t matter to me because when we got the blue lights, silver balls, and ice-cycles on it, I thought it was the most beautiful Christmas tree ever! That was all the decorating we did for Christmas, but the kitchen was always warm with the heat of the oven as my mother baked about 12 different kinds of cookies not to mention pies, bread rolls, and her specialty: homemade baked beans.

It was always a fun time when my cousins from Minneapolis came to visit. Eventually there were six children and the oldest two were the closest to my age. We did everything together. We usually had to help with doing dishes after a meal, so we made it fun; we played bank! We imagined that the silver ware was money and while we dried it and put it in the drawer, we counted it! As young girls we took baths together on Saturday night to be clean for church the next day. In my bedroom we pushed the two beds long sides together and slept on them the opposite way. This way all three of us fit together.

When my cousins visited, this usually meant more of my relatives would show up either for the weekend or at least for Sunday dinner. This was a huge affair. Our dining room was a large room and we would open the Duncan Phyfe table and put in two leaves. Then the chrome table from the back porch was put on its end up to the Duncan Phyfe. If we needed more room, we’d add the small kitchen table. These tables weren’t the same height, but we would put table clothes on and we were set. Finding enough chairs sometimes was difficult, but we used the piano bench and always put it at one of the short ends where I sat with my cousin.

Over the years the house changed some. Quite early after moving there, my parents had the basement dug out more and put in a furnace. I remember a huge sand pile in the back yard that was there a long time. This was a great place to play with toy machinery! The furnace was huge and burned wood and coal. My Dad cut our own wood, but I remember times he would order a load of coal. I’m sure this was easier on him, but it made the house dirty and when he started the fire in the early morning hours, I would bury myself under the covers as the coal smell was awful! I remember my mother complaining as it made her drapes dirty!

When I was in high school, my Dad decided to re-do my bedroom. He took out everything down to the studs. We didn’t find any gold or other treasures, but we did find honey bees between the studs! It was quite a sight! This is what had been dripping down the walls and making the wallpaper sticky. I don’t remember how my Dad got the bees out, but when the room was done it was beautiful. My sister had done a 4-H project which involved re-decorating the bedroom.   She had is all designed on paper and did sew new curtains, bedspread and skirt for around a dressing table. The dressing table was made from 2 peach crates put together by a board across the top. A new mirror was purchased for above the dressing table. My Dad build in a real closet and the floor was carpeted! I felt like I was the luckiest girl alive!

Over the years, my parents carpeted other rooms and did other improvements. After my parents retired, it seemed the old house was too big and took too much work. After much discussion my parents decided to build a new house. They build it right in front of the old. Everything was on one floor and the furnace was both wood and electric so they were set!   In 1982 there was a family reunion to celebrate 100 years since my great grandparents homesteaded the farm. The old house was still standing, but after that my Dad tore it down, saving the wood flooring and other re-usable things.   In doing so my Dad discovered that several old beams had been charred by the old chimney. It was a good thing they had built a new house.

My oldest brother lives in the house now. He has done some remodeling and used the old wood flooring in his dining room. He put on an open front porch, added a master suite, and a 3 season porch on the back to the north. There are no more elm trees, but the oak tree where we all used to swing still stands with a new swing installed in its branches.  Bricks from the old house have been given to family members and I have a sampling of the old wall paper and some square nails that were used in the house.

The house I grew up in was a good place. Nothing fancy, but it didn’t matter, there was love, good things to eat and plenty of people to play with. I have lived in many houses since my childhood days, but the house I remember most is the farm house of my childhood.

Missed Part 1: The Barn? Read it here.

Kaye lives in Monona, Wisconsin, and keeps her country roots close to her heart. Along with writing, her interests include music, traveling, children, and the elderly.

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The Barn

By Kaye Ketterer

This is part 1 of a 2-part reminiscence about Kaye’s childhood home.

I am the youngest of four children who grew up on a small Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My Dad was the dairy farmer milking about 22 cows and working about 100 acres of a 160 acre farm. Both he and my mother grew up on farms about 15miles away from each other. The farm we lived on was where my mother grew up, and was homesteaded by my Mother’s grandparents. I slept in the same room my mother did and went to the same school she did. Like many things in life, I didn’t really appreciate the lineage I came from until much later in my life.   My parents planted a large garden and my mother canned vegetables and meat and they both respected the land as their close friend and took care of it as the fragile part of life that it was.

I loved being outside on the farm and especially loved being in the barn. My Dad loved his work and would often sing as he was doing the milking and always enjoyed the regular visit of a neighbor coming from town to dig up worms. The barn was built on a stone foundation with walls about 12 inches thick. There were windows on the north, south, and west sides with deep window sills that could hold most anything. The outside boards of the bar were painted red which in my memory had faded from what used to be a bright barn red, to now a dull shade of grayish red. The barn was built in about 1885 and had electricity, but no running water.   The cows would have to be let outside everyday so they could drink from the stock tank as it was called that was attached to the milk house just across the barnyard.   The milking level of the barn would be quite cool in the summer and in the winter even though there was frost on the inside of the walls, the air was warm and sweet from the cows. The barn smelled good most of the time. My Dad cleaned the manure every day from the barn by hand scooping it up and carrying it a few steps out the door to a waiting manure spreader. He would also white wash the barn walls every spring. I loved the barn after a whitewashing! It smelled like a fresh spring day and was as clean as a whistle!   The best time to be in the barn was during the late afternoon milking. My dad would be doing the milking from about 3:30pm until 5:00pm and that is where I would be too.

I would follow my Dad around while he did his chores and as I got older I would help him more. I was always full of questions about how the milk machine worked or if cows had a memory. My Dad answered my questions and was always willing to let me help, but I think he liked it best when I would play my own pretend games and he could do his work without interruption. So, the barn became this magical place where anything could happen and I could go anywhere I wanted. It was my own theatrical stage where I could be the main character and every part of the barn became my background and set for whatever need I had.

img022 the barn

There were times the barn was a school house and the cows my students. I remember imagining that the white on their faces was the paper they would use to write on. On the southeast end of the barn there was a pen for heifers and an off the floor manger for their food. I would stand up in this manger as the teacher and direct the cows in their learning. Sometimes I would get carried away and shout my directions and one or two cows would jerk in surprise. My Dad would simply say, “Be careful so you don’t scare the cows”. I remember taking a nail or anything I could use as chalk and write on the walls or beams of the barn as I played “school”. The walls of the barn were whitewashed about once a year, so they made a perfect “chalk board”.

I had cousins that would visit often from Minneapolis and they too loved the barn. We often played “hotel” in the barn. It must have been the idea of my city cousins, as I don’t think I’d even stayed in a hotel yet!! Each stanchion was the door to a room and we used the feed bin as a desk for the hotel workers. On the wall in the barn was an old spice cabinet with several drawers. We used that to store the room keys. Any nut or bolt could become a room key and we fixed a chain with a hook on the end to use as our telephone. Of course preceding all this “play” was cleaning! We would sweep the main walks of the barn and wipe off the feed bin. We surely had a five star hotel with only the finest guests!

The barn always had many cats meowing and looking for attention. They usually were part of the play for me and I sometimes would dress them up in my doll clothes and try to get them to ride in an old black buggy that I used for many years as a play thing. I don’t think the cats liked wearing clothes, but I think I was always gentle and gave them lots of love. There were lots of times my Dad would say there was a mother cat that had a batch of kittens in the hay mow. I couldn’t wait to see them and hold them, but my Dad always taught me to be patient and the mother cat would bring them out when they were ready. This usually happened unless I got too impatient and went searching for them in the haymow myself!   The cats had their own dish in the barn, where my Dad would give them a splash of warm milk and they would all gather around it to lap up the milk ever so grateful my Dad hadn’t forgotten them!

There were times when a calf would be born and after the mother would clean and lick her calf, my Dad would carry the calf to a special place with new, clean straw. I would lay with that little calf stroking its fur and sometimes putting my head on its side until its mother would give me a look and stern MOO! When it was time for the calf to be weaned my Dad would show me how to let it suck my fingers in a pail of warm milk. It was a messy job as the calf would usually be really hungry and want that milk so bad, but not really know how to get it from the pail into its mouth and swallow it! It took a few tries, but eventually the calf would drink smoothly with little or no dripping of milk.

The haymow was another magical place. It was the best smelling place in the barn when the haymow was full of new baled hay. I could understand why cows liked hay. I could almost eat it myself! As the days went by and number of hay bales dwindled, that’s when the fun began! Climbing up high on the bales felt like the top of a mountain. It gave me power! When my city cousins would come, we would carry and move many bales to make tunnels, houses, and even stack them to make higher mountains. My Dad was pretty particular how the bales were stacked to be able to get the most in the hay mow, but when my cousins & I were done, it never looked the same. And my Dad never said a word!

When I was in high school, my Dad stopped using our barn and rented the neighbors barn just down the road.   It was a bigger barn with barn cleaner and drinking cups for the cows to get their water at the stanchions! It was a short walk through the woods and was much easier on my Dad. The plan was to tear down our old barn and someday stop milking cows altogether. In 1972 the barn came down. My Dad salvaged many things from it. The barn boards have become walls, bird houses, and picture frames. The old condenser milk cans have been painted and used for stools to sit on. Some of the barn beams have been built into a cousin’s cabin and others made into tables. The spice cabinet has been refinished and hangs now in the new farm house on the property.   The barn is gone and only pictures and my wonderful memories remain.


Click here to read Part 2: The House!

Kaye lives in Monona, Wisconsin, and keeps her country roots close to her heart. Along with writing, her interests include music, traveling, children, and the elderly.

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