"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 3: Early Memories
|My memory is crowded with so many things
I saw and did in the first few years of my life that I can't begin to organize them
all. So I'm going to start with some of the earliest and then relate the remainder
as they come to mind
In one of my earliest memories, I'm all bundled up in a snow suit and stocking cap, surrounded by blankets, and in a wooden box fastened to a sled being pulled by my mother on the way home from a "downtown" shopping trip. I must have been about four years old. And I remember at least one other trip I made in this box-on-a-sled, this time with both parents, when they spent a long evening with Mr. and Mrs. Gus Feind, who lived in a two-story house on the south side of the west end of the Jersey City road which is now called Leather Avenue. Dad and Mr. Feind spent the evening smoking their pipes and swapping tall stories, in German, of course. Mother and Mrs. Feind carried on their own separate conversation, while I sat and listened until I fell asleep. Then I was put to bed in another room until going-home time. Then, all bundled up again, I sat in my box, looking up at the sky with its brilliant moon and a million stars, with the cold night air nipping at my nose, while we made our way home. When we got to Fourth Street I could hear the telephone wires "singing". In those days before telephone cables, each phone line consisted of a single steel wire strung high on a "telephone pole" which in busy areas would have many, many wires on it. In cold weather, the wires would shorten and pull themselves taut, making a gigantic "wind harp". And a light wind would make the "strings" vibrate, each in a tone determined by its tautness. The resulting chorus of string tones was a decidedly pleasant sound. I later found that by pressing an ear to the side of the pole made the sounds seem louder, and I could hear some of the lower tones which were otherwise inaudible.
One summer day when I was about four I was playing in the sand just outside our back door when an itinerant photographer knocked on the door and convinced my mother that she needed a photograph of me. So I had to go in and be washed, changed into different clothes, and then pose out there with my wagon, sand pail and shovel, all the while being careful not to get dirty. I have a copy of that picture, and the expression on my face plainly shows what I thought of this completely unnatural event.
Quite often Horatio Steele's mother would bring "Rachie" along when she visited her parents, who were the Cronkrites, our next-door neighbors. "Rachie" and I used to play for hours in the sand in our back yard, with selected pieces of slab wood which our imaginations readily turned into various types of boats. No, not into cars. I don't think either of us had ever seen an automobile! One such day we heard a boat whistle out on the river, so we ran out in front to see what was going on. It was the paddle-wheel steamer "Ben Sweet", which was used, I think, to pull rafts of logs to one of the sawmills. This steamer was interesting to watch on the part of the river we could easily see, because in its normal configuration it was too high to go under either of the railroad bridges or the highway bridge on fourth street. So when it approached one of these bridges, someone would fold down the smokestack, making it just fit under the bridge. After they were safely through, the stack would be made vertical again. "Rachie" was quite proud of the fact that he had an uncle who worked on the "Ben Sweet".
One summer day when I was perhaps five, Mother took me with her to visit Mr. and Mrs. Thieme, elderly folks who lived on North Avenue just three or four houses from my birthplace, and right where you turn south to go to the M.T.& W. depot. Sitting around listening to the older folks' conversation became boring, so I went out to explore the area. The railroad switching yards were quite close by and I could hear a locomotive moving cars around, so I climbed a small hill where I could see what was going on. After watching, fascinated, for a quite a while, I made what was, to me, a horrifying discovery. On one of the tracks, where two rails were supposed to be connected end-to-end, there was about a two or three inch gap! Surely, if an engine or one of the cars ran over this place, there would be a train wreck! I stood transfixed as finally the locomotive approached the "faulty" joint, only to hear a nonchalant "clackety-clack" as the wheels rolled over it. No wreck! I walked away from there with mixed emotions, some relief and a lot of disappointment!
While I was searching my mental archives for early memories, I was very surprised at finding the large number of unanswered questions I had lived with as a child, many of which can never be answered because now there is no one to ask. For example, why did Grandma Seefeld live in our house while Grandpa lived down in Auburndale? And why did she live in separate rooms, and why was the door to those rooms kept locked? And why couldn't I visit my Aunt Della and Uncle Otto, although they lived just across town? If I asked about these things, I was probably told I wasn't old enough to understand
One evening when I was five, Dad and Mother took me out to the back yard, saying there was something they wanted me to see. Dad picked me up, held me in his arms, and pointed up into the sky. I looked, and there was the brightest light I had ever seen in the sky at night, and to make it even more unusual, it had a great long bright tail! It scared me, and I looked away and started to cry, so they quickly took me back into the house. It was, of course, Halley's comet, and the date was very close to May 10, 1910, which was Dad's thirty-fourth birthday!
One night, when I was about five, my parents hurriedly got me out of bed and we rushed to get down into our cellar, closing the heavy trap door above us. And we sat huddled there in the dark while above us we could hear the wind whistle and roar, and occasionally we heard a crash or a thud up there somewhere in the storm. After the commotion quieted down, we climbed out of our shelter and went back to bed, since it was dark and we had to wait until morning to find out what kind of damage had been done. The next day we were relieved to find that the tornado had not damaged our house or any of our neighbors'. However, in the two vacant lots next door, two tall pine trees that we kids had played around were lying on the ground, uprooted by the wind. And about two blocks away, the roof that had been over the McCormicks' upstairs porch was now in a neighbor's back yard!
Some time later, those two vacant lots next door became a storage yard for an assortment of house-moving equipment. Since this was in the days before tractors and trailers became common, this gear was powered entirely by horses, and was made almost entirely of wood, with iron straps and bolts to hold it together. There were long heavy timbers, many wooden rollers, pulleys, and several big wooden winches. The wooden winch drums on which the rope or cable was wound were held vertically in heavy wooden frames. The top end of each drum was fitted with a wooden beam or sweep about ten feet long, and a team of horses was hitched to the outer end of this beam, so that when the horses were driven in a circle around the winch, they wound up the rope on the drum. When a house was to be moved, it was first jacked up so some long heavy wooden beams could be fastened under it. Heavy wood planks were placed on the ground under the beams, and a series of wooden rollers was arranged on the planks. Now the house was lowered until its weight rested on the beams and rollers. With the horse-powered winches described above, the house could now be pulled along on the rollers, and as it left rollers behind, they were moved to the front so that the house traveled on a continuous bed of rollers all the way to its destination. A pretty tricky operation, especially if the house had to turn a corner!
At bedtime, when I was little, I would often be "sung" to sleep by the hum of Mom's sewing machine. Mother was an accomplished seamstress, having been sort of "apprenticed" to a dressmaker, in Fairchild, I think, after a short period in grade school which she left, I believe, because she, at twelve or thirteen, felt uncomfortable in a class of much younger pupils all learning to read and write English. Anyway Mother "took in" dressmaking, and quite often there would be ladies in our house, being fitted with newly sewn dresses.
One of my jobs was to dust the sewing machine, which had come from Chicago, Montgomery Ward and Company to be exact. That name really sticks in my mind, because it was cast right into the fancy iron legs of the machine, which I dusted many times with that brown cloth and O'Cedar Oil. Of course I was cautioned against playing with the sewing machine and told of the danger of puncturing a finger with the needle, but I still managed to sew a finger. Only once, though!
Since Mother was a good seamstress, when it came to clothing me, she bought only what she couldn't make. So I wore Mom-made knee-pants and shirts, jackets and coats. While they were good, serviceable clothes, I was sometimes somewhat embarrassed because they were clearly not the same as the "store-boughten" kind worn by other kids. A pair of suspenders held up my knee-pants. I don't think I wore a belt until I graduated to long pants, which was, I think, when I started high school.
My shoes, of course, were always "store-bought." At first, they were button shoes, and a very important piece of household equipment was the button hook, without which buttoning shoes was difficult, if not impossible. And I suppose I probably learned to button my shoes sooner than I would have learned to insert and tie shoe laces! While we're in the footwear department, I must include two additional types, both worn over shoes. One we called "rubbers", which were black, low, stretchy, and covered only the lower parts of shoes. The others we called "overshoes", while the catalogs called them gaiters. Their bottoms were much like rubbers, but the tops (which could be had in various heights) were of rubberized cloth, and were closed by means of black stamped metal buckles, adjustable to enclose different sizes of ankles.
These references to winter wear remind me of my first (and only) cutter ride. For those of you who have never seen a cutter, picture a one-seater sleigh with "curled up" runner fronts, like the one often seen on Christmas cards drawn by eight reindeer and packed full of Santa and his goodies. Uncle August's cutter was just like that, but was pulled by a single horse. Mother and I were at her folks' farm in winter because of the death of Grandfather Manthei, so it had to be 1918. One day, Uncle August took Mother and me for a cutter ride. And we were going quite fast, with the horse trotting briskly along, when we came upon a snowdrift. And I do mean upon! August thought it was just soft snow and that the cutter would just plow through it, but it was a hard drift, so the right runner suddenly lurched upward, tipping us over. Fortunately the horse stopped, so we righted the cutter, piled back in, and continued our ride none the worse for the tip-over. Guess what I think of when I hear that song about the "one horse open sleigh!"
Once in a while, (it seems like almost every summer) a carnival came to Tomahawk. The first one I remember occupied most of Main Street (Wisconsin Avenue) and spilled over on to the open area across the tracks on the way to Bradley Park. There were booths with games of all sorts, a cylindrical motordrome in which someone rode a motorcycle in circles on the vertical walls. There was a merry-go-round, which I enjoyed, a Ferris wheel, which I didn't, and a band concert on the second floor of the big wooden gazebo-like concession stand in the park. Here is where I had my first encounter with ice cream! Mother bought me an ice cream cone, handed it to me, I sampled it, and hurriedly gave it back. Nobody had told me it was cold! Then Mother smoothed things over by buying me an orange, which I enjoyed very much!
One summer when I was about nine, an airplane flew into town. This was a plane of the type that the Wright Brothers first flew, except that it was equipped with wheels. The first time I saw it the pilot was flying in lazy circles above the town, letting everyone see what an airplane looked like. The next day, though, was to be more dramatic! He was going to demonstrate a take-off on Tomahawk Avenue, right in front of the crowd! So the next afternoon half the people in Tomahawk crowded the sidewalks on both sides of Tomahawk Avenue while the pilot readied his plane, near the Mitchell Hotel. Finally the take-off started, and he rolled north on the Avenue, lifted it off, and was just a few feet off the ground when he got to the end of the street where I could see him. Then the unexpected happened. He must have sensed that something was wrong, and that if he kept going he could find himself and his plane in the river. So he crash landed it on the river bank, about half a block from where I was standing, reducing the plane to a pile of sticks, cloth and wire. The crowd rushed to the site, some to help the pilot, others to pick up pieces of the plane for souvenirs. I saw one man walk away with half of a broken propeller! The pilot? I saw him in a car being taken away from the scene, and he waved to the crowd, so I don't think he was hurt badly, if at all.
Earlier in this chapter you learned that my Grandmother Seefeld lived in our house but in her own apartment on the other side of a locked door. I never did know what had brought this situation about, but was always aware of a constant tension between the two sides of the house. Then one day this antagonism erupted into something quite serious. I was about eight or ten, and it was my birthday. Mother had baked a birthday cake, and it stood all nicely frosted on the kitchen cabinet when Dad came home from the mill. Before he could get into the house, however, his mother, my grandmother, waylaid him and gave him a birthday cake she had baked for me! So he brought it in, placed it beside the other cake and triggered what was, I think, the worst argument my parents ever had. I don't remember any of what was said, but it went on and on, and didn't stop while I was there. Then first one cake, and then both cakes lay in smashed heaps on the floor, and I left and didn't come back until well after dark.
Shortly after that, mother packed a suitcase, took me and the suitcase down to the M.T.& W. depot and we boarded the passenger car on the tail end of a freight train headed for Bradley. At Bradley, I remember scrambling to get on the Soo Line passenger train headed west. Somewhere we transferred to a different train which took us south to Alma Center, where Uncle August met us and took us to the farm, about twelve miles from town.
We stayed with Grandfather and Grandmother Manthei and Uncle August quite a while, long enough to get acquainted with cousins Alfred, Harry and Erna, who lived nearby. We also visited the Janke's and the Klatt's, where there were, between the two, fifteen more cousins! Is it any wonder that I remember only one or two? After what seemed to me to be a very long time, Dad came down, smoothed things over with Mom, and we took the long complicated train trip home.
Except for that "blow-up" on my birthday, things around our house usually went along peacefully and quietly. In fact there were some times when it was so peaceful and quiet that I was quite impressed and still have vivid memories of them. These "quiet hours" usually occurred on wintry Sunday afternoons. Dad and Mother sat facing each other close to the dining room windows, which faced the west. Dad in his "Morris" chair, reading or figuring out something about a boat, perhaps, and Mom in her rocking chair, knitting or crocheting. As the sun neared the horizon, all this activity stopped, and the room was so quiet that all one could hear was the ticking of the clock, and perhaps a "snap" or "pop" from the fire in the heating stove. So they sat there, silently watching the sunset. After the sun disappeared and it started to grow dark, one or the other would break the "spell" and Dad would light a lamp and see to the heater fire, while Mother built a fire in the kitchen range, so she could prepare supper. In recalling these "quiet hours" it struck me that, although they didn't speak, there seemed to be a kind of intense, very personal communication while they watched the same beautiful scene.
In the previous chapter I told you about Bill Bradley's "boat train" and the Nyack. Well, Bradley died in 1903, and I don't imagine that "train" was used much after that. But I remember fishing from the deck of the Nyack when I was eight or ten years old. That deck made a rather precarious perch (sorry!) because the bow of the boat was pointed upward at a very unnatural angle, and the whole boat leaned to port with its stern buried in the river bank about half a block from our house. I didn't explore it very much, but did peek in the windows and saw the boiler and some brass pipes and fittings, all still highly polished. I still don't know why it was there or how it got there, probably because if I asked about it nobody knew, or wouldn't tell. Another mystery!
Anyway, I used to fish from the deck of the Nyack, and caught blue gills, speckled bass and, yes, perch! My fishing gear was quite simple. There was the pole, a piece of bamboo about six feet long, a line about the same length, a small hook, a lead sinker, and a cork float or "bobber". (Just a large bottle or jug cork, split on one side with the line wedged into the split, easily adjustable to suit the depth of the water.) Oh, yes, there was that can of "angleworms" which were freshly dug out of our garden.
Sometimes we did a different kind of fishing, called trolling. This could be done by one person alone in a rowboat, but generally involved two people, one to fish and one to row. Unlike "still-fishing", trolling demanded that the bait be kept moving, otherwise it would sink to the bottom and be totally ineffective. In our area, the most popular trolling bait was the "spoon hook." This was a cluster of three medium sized barbed hooks, with a blade shaped much like the bowl of a spoon so arranged that it revolved as it moved through the water. Being polished and shiny, and sometimes partly painted red, it was quite attractive to the larger fish, such as pike and pickerel. Many afternoons, Mother (rowing) and I (trolling) caught enough fish for our supper this way.
Once in a great while, even in these days when "air pollution" is frowned upon, my nose catches and immediately recognizes the smell of burning leaves. This odor invariably takes me back many years to a typical autumn on Prospect Avenue. Everyone, it seems had the same idea at the same time, and raked all the fallen leaves into piles and burned them. So almost everywhere you went, you were greeted by the smell of burning leaves, which, in small quantities, was a decidedly pleasant odor.
Remembering the burning leaves triggered memories of other odors which I learned to recognize at an early age. In winter, I could always tell which houses were heated by wood stoves, and which burned coal, by the smell of the smoke from their chimneys. And I could tell when a nearby house had a chimney fire, simply by the smell of the smoke. Dad's shop was filled with things with interesting smells, the most pleasant of which was the cedar smell which filled the building when he was building a boat. Then there were turpentine, linseed oil, paints and varnishes, and glue. They told me the glue was made from horses' hooves, and after Dad heated his glue-pot on the shop stove, I had to believe them!
And who could forget the smell of baking bread? Of course, while the oven was hot, Mother usually baked goodies like coffee cake, cinnamon rolls, muffins, cake, or perhaps even a pie! Whoa....... I'd better get out of the kitchen. I can't eat those things any more!
Another area in which my memory often flashes back to Tomahawk, is that of sounds. Of course there were the train sounds, the "chuff-chuff" of the locomotives, their sometimes shrill whistles, and occasionally the screech of steel brakes on steel wheels on steel tracks! And there were the sawmill whistles, each one different, which announced starting and quitting times. There was one church bell in town, in the steeple of the Catholic church. It used to ring every week day at noon, and several times on Sundays, calling the faithful to mass. And I can't forget the "fire whistle", a steam siren located at the water pumping station and which was used to call the firemen (volunteers, of course) to the fire station in the city hall so they could take the fire truck to the fire and do their thing. Leo Martz, who had a sheet metal shop, was the fire chief. This "fire whistle" also blew at curfew time, nine o'clock every evening, to tell kids it was time to get off the streets and go home!
Other sounds I remember: The rattly old 4th Street bridge across the Wisconsin (replaced in 1918). The sound of a lumber wagon bumping across the loose boards on that bridge was something to hear! In those days before automobiles were numerous, quite a few people owned motorboats, in which they cruised up and down the rivers, especially on Sundays and holidays. Each of these boats made a distinctive sound, unlike the rest, and a person with a practiced ear could tell whose boat was out there without even looking. In winter, the horse-drawn wagons used for delivering groceries became delivery sleighs, and some of the horses' harnesses were equipped with sleighbells, which made delightful jingling sounds as they trotted along the streets.
And then there was music. On Sundays, the church organ played and the congregation sang. In the movie theater, since the movies were silent, a pianist played music calculated to interpret the mood of the picture. Some families had pianos in their homes, and one could sometimes hear a more or less willing child practicing piano lessons. The city park department sponsored a small brass band, which played in July Fourth parades and afterward in the band stand at Bradley Park. Sometimes they gathered on the grassy grounds of the city hall and gave a short concert there. At home, we had two kinds of music. One was Mother's singing. Hard at work at kitchen chores, she would sing songs like "Meet Me In Saint Louie, Louie" (Saint Louis had a World's Fair in 1904) and "She's Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage." And then there was organ music. As you learned earlier, Grandmother Seefeld lived on the other side of a locked door which divided our house in more ways than one. Sometimes Grandmother sat at her foot-pumped parlor organ (which was just the other side of that door) and played classical music. And sometimes, when she was perturbed or angry about something, she would sit at that organ and play it just as loudly as she possibly could, and always the same music. I didn't know what it was at the time, but have since learned that it was Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. Guess what comes to my mind when I hear that music!