"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 21: Life In Tomahawk (1931-1936)
When I went to the hospital after my entanglement with Clint's motorcycle, Joyce, Caryl and I had been living in the Wiley house at 19 West Lincoln Avenue. By the time I left the hospital, though, Joyce and Caryl had moved in with my parents at 119 Prospect Avenue. So that's where we lived while I hobbled around on crutches, and where I learned to walk again after the cast was removed from my leg. I'll always remember the night after Doctor Baker took off that cast. I had been lifting that heavy cast into bed every night for quite a few weeks, and so when my brain told my hip muscles to lift that leg into bed, they thought the cast was still there, and lifted mightily. As a result the leg went straight up toward the ceiling, and then the knee muscles, weakened by long disuse, couldn't hold the leg straight, so it buckled at the knee. This stretched the long inactive knee ligaments, causing the most severe pain I experienced during the whole episode. I did that only once!
I couldn't just sit around twiddling my thumbs while my leg was healing so after some thought I remembered the lenses I had "salvaged" from our ancient box camera. Years before I had taken the main lens apart and used the concave element together with an old eyeglass lens to make a Galilean telescope. I still had the double convex element and the little lens from the viewfinder, and after experimenting a bit, decided they could be used to make a crude microscope. So I gathered together pieces of brass tubing and other metal pieces and went to work. I had only hand tools, but I had plenty of time, so I sawed and filed and soldered things together until, to everyone's amazement, including mine, I had a gadget that didn't look much like a microscope, but acted like one and magnified perhaps fifty times.
After the cast was off my leg, the ankle joint was quite stiff, and some people thought it might stay that way. I was determined, however to make it as near normal as possible, so I worked at exercising it. One of the best exercise machines for my ankle was Mother's sewing machine. I sat at that machine for long periods, working the foot treadle with my right foot. While that ankle has never recovered its original range of movement, I credit what it has to the old Montgomery Ward machine Mother used in her dressmaking days. When I started getting around on two feet again, my right foot and ankle muscles were too weak to raise me up on my toes, so I walked with a pronounced limp. When they got stronger, though, my gait returned to normal, and I doubt if many of the people I've associated with in the last sixty-three years knew I had an ankle problem.
One day when I was just beginning to walk around with some degree of confidence, I got a phone call from Alden Extrom, who had been in my class in high school. He was now chief chemist at the Tomahawk Kraft Paper Company laboratory, and asked if I was interested in a job there. Silly question! If you've read the last chapter you know a little about my work there, so in this chapter I'll concentrate on happenings away from the job.
After I had earned a few paychecks, we started to think about finding another place to live. We settled for a little furnished house on Fourth Street, across from the high school. This house was owned by Mrs. Anderson, who was the mother of Mrs. Houns, the dentist's wife. These were depression years, and Joyce's dad, a carpenter contractor, was getting very little work and couldn't keep all of his children at home, so Joyce's sister Violet was living with and working for Doctor Houns and his wife, who had two small boys. We had heard that the Houns were thinking about adopting Vi, but her dad didn't want her to be adopted, and Vi didn't like the idea either. So, since I now had a steady job, and because for Vi living with us would be a lot more like living at home, we asked her to come and join our little family. Vi had just turned thirteen that July.
We lived in Mrs. Anderson's house the winter of 1931/32, and then in the spring, four days before my birthday, Ralph was born. His birth took place at home, of course, and was assisted by Doctor Rowe Baker and practical nurse Marie McCarthy.
One day in 1932, someone at work handed me a copy of the current Merrill Daily Herald and called my attention to the column of marriages reported by the registrar at the county courthouse. And there in black and white, nearly three years after the fact, it stated that Lyle Seefeld and Joyce Wiley had been married! And we already had two children! We never asked Mr. Heddon about this, but he must have forgotten to give the courthouse a copy of our marriage certificate, and had found it and reported it later.
Later in 1932 we bought Mrs. Anderson's furniture and moved into what was called the Wilder house on North Third Street. This was a little square one-story house which faced to the west and the Wisconsin River. Not a particularly good place for a house in snowy and windy northern Wisconsin. This house had a small cellar which was accessible through a trap door in the kitchen floor. This cellar was an ideal storage place for the canned fruit Joyce had prepared that summer and fall and we had quite a supply. We must have had other varieties, but I remember only the canned peaches. That's because one day I was hungry for canned fruit, so I got a small can of peaches from the cellar, and, I guess, ate most of the contents. A few hours later I experienced the consequences, having broken out all over with hives, large itchy welts which persisted two or three days, if I remember right.
The Wilder house was just across the back fence from the big house on River Street where Martin Thompson lived. I remember on March 4, 1933, Inauguration Day, Martin brought his radio out into his back yard and all the neighbors crowded around to listen to Franklin Roosevelt give his first inaugural address as President. This was the last presidential inaugurational held on March 4. A constitutional amendment ratified in 1933 changed the inauguration date to January 20. The Wilder house was too small for a family of five, so, later in 1933 we moved into a big house owned by Herman Hartwig, who also worked at the Tomahawk Kraft mill.
The Hartwig house was located just south of the Tomahawk city limits, on the south side of Highway 86, about a mile from the paper mill. It was a two story house with a big basement and the yard was large enough for a good sized garden. There was a wood furnace in the basement, and in the fall and early winter most of the space down there was occupied by piles and piles of wood, good birch and hard maple from the north woods. This house had one major disadvantage, no city water and consequently no bathroom. We were back to the old fashioned iron pump on the back porch! We did have a telephone, the old fashioned on-the-wall party line variety, and so it rang a lot, most of the time for somebody else.
We had neighbors on both sides. To the east was a little house owned by Harry Kind and his wife. To the west, on the other side of our big garden, was the Pfeiffer house. Karl Pfeiffer worked at the paper mill, and he and his wife had two children, Walter, about Caryl's age, and Barbara, a few years older. Across the road to the north there were no houses, only an area of trees and bushes and then the Wisconsin River.
The big garden area between our house and Pfeiffers' was put to good use while we lived there. It was too much to spade by hand, so each spring we had it plowed, and then planted the usual vegetables, some for immediate consumption right out of the garden and some to be canned for winter use.
We celebrated Christmas of 1934 in the Hartwig house by having all the Wileys over for Christmas dinner. All the Wileys, that is, except their father, who sent his regrets, saying he would be otherwise engaged. We had a great dinner and were enjoying various post-Christmas activities when the phone rang. For us! It was William A. Wiley, who announced that he and Christina Heminger had just been married!
One day at work, Kermit Olson announced that he was about to buy a new car, and offered to sell his old one for a hundred and twenty-five dollars. I didn't have a hundred and twenty-five dollars, but was able to borrow it from The Bradley Bank, and bought the car. So suddenly we had transportation in the form of a sporty looking Ford Model "A" four door sedan with wire wheels and two spares, mounted in wheel wells in the front fenders. Now we were able to take Caryl and Ralph out to Grandpa's farm and let them get acquainted with the cow and the chickens, and maybe even some pigs.
Sometimes we left Caryl and Ralph with Grandpa and Grandma Seefeld while we went elsewhere. One Sunday Joyce, Vi and I packed a lunch, borrowed the Seefeld rowboat, and I rowed us up the Somo River about two miles to a good spot I knew about where we enjoyed a picnic with the Somo rolling by only a few feet away. Hard work, but a pleasant change from paper mill work! On another Sunday, all five of us drove up north to Copper Falls State Park. I had seen much bigger falls in Yellowstone, so this one seemed quite small. But for the rest of the family this was their first waterfall experience, and I enjoyed their reactions. There were good, wide trails on both sides of the river, and we walked what must have been nearly a mile on one of them. Then, not wanting to go back the way we came, we waded across the river only to find a long patch of poison ivy on the other bank. And, not wanting to wade across the river again, we waded through that, too. Of course we paid the price. For days our legs were covered with itchy poison ivy rash until I discovered that hydrogen peroxide rubbed into the skin deep enough to oxidize the poison stopped the itching and started the healing process.
The paper mill, of course, ran twenty four hours a day, requiring a laboratory technician to be there at all times. So I started working rotating shifts, which, as in most continuous operations, rotated counter- clockwise. This meant that one week I worked days (8:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.) the next week the "graveyard" shift (midnight to 8:00 A.M.) and the following week the evening shift (4:00 P.M. to midnight) and so on around the rotation. So not only was I unable to adjust to any pattern of sleep and family activities, but at every weekly shift change I lost eight hours of "off time."
One night, when I was working the "graveyard" shift, thunder and lightning announced the arrival of a rainstorm, so Joyce and I were upstairs looking for my rubbers. Joyce was sitting on a blanket covered metal cot we had in a spare room, when there was a loud bang like a cannon shot, Joyce felt a shock from the metal cot, and the lights went out. I groped my way to the hall window and looked out to see if the Millers' lights had gone off too, and was surprised to see light in their window. To me this meant that our service wires from the transformer pole must be down, so I examined them as well as I could, using a flashlight. They appeared to be intact, adding to the mystery. I went to work that night puzzling over the seeming selective pattern of lightning damage.
When I arrived home the next morning I tried phoning the Millers but got no answer, so I went upstairs to bed. That afternoon I was sitting on our front steps, when I saw the Millers drive up into their yard. A few minutes later, they both walked over to our yard, and Lucy was in tears. The lightning bolt that had shocked Joyce and knocked out our lights had struck their house! We went over to survey the damage, which was considerable. The lightning had hit a tall steel pipe radio antenna support standing next to the house, gone down the pipe, jumped into the house, scorched one end of their couch, disintegrated a corner of their rug and had thrown a framed picture they had on the wall across the room to the piano, and there was broken glass everywhere. In the kitchen, the electricity meter which had been on a wall was now in small pieces, scattered in every direction. On the outside of the house, several pieces of siding had been ripped off where the lightning went through the wall. The mystery light in their window? I knew you'd ask about that. The lightning had set fire to the cloth shade of a floor lamp and it had burned completely without igniting anything else! Although their house and belongings had been damaged, the Millers could be very thankful they weren't at home that night.
I think it was early in the summer of 1935 when I decided to overhaul the car. I remember grinding the valves, replacing the piston rings and connecting rod bearings, and even put in a new laminated plastic timing gear. After I had it in good shape mechanically, I just had to do something about its faded blue color. Spray painting was in its infancy, and just not available to home mechanics like me, so I had to paint it the old fashioned way, with a brush. Fortunately there was a relatively new product called NuEnamel which leveled out streak-free no matter how sloppily it was applied, so it turned out quite well. At the same time I attached a box-like trunk to the back of the car where the spare tire was normally kept, and painted it too.
Later that summer we left Caryl and Ralph in Vi's care (she was 17) and, with Joyce's sister Beryl and her boyfriend George Neubauer we drove north for a vacation near Lake Superior. With tent and other camping gear in the trunk, we drove northwest on what was then State Highway 91, but which is now County Road CC, west on Highway 8 to Prentice where we turned north on 13. At Mellen we turned off on the road to Copper Falls State Park, where we found a campground and set up our tent in a forest of tall trees.
The next morning we broke camp and drove on through Ashland to Bayview, where we camped on the shore of Lake Superior. (In the same place where my cousins Herman, Otto, and Alfred, and I practically froze the night of July 4, 1925!) This year the weather was beautiful, though, and the next day we took a boat trip on Lake Superior along the shores of Chequamegon Bay. It was an open boat powered by a diesel engine, and the wind was just right to blow the exhaust right into our faces, so I doubt if any of us enjoyed that trip very much.
The next day we decided to visit the Porcupine Mountains, in Upper Michigan on the Lake Superior shore. So we drove south around the bay toward Ashland where we turned east. On the way to Ashland, we came upon a big factory-like place that turned out to be a dynamite plant, with a gate and a guard out by the road. George asked the guard (jokingly, I think!) if they allowed visitors. The answer was negative, of course. But then the guard introduced us to a young spotted fawn that had been orphaned and was being raised by plant personnel. And her name was Joyce!
We then went on through Ashland, entered Michigan at Ironwood, drove east about thirty miles and then turned north to Porcupine Mountain Park. If I remember correctly, we camped in a valley campground that night, and the next day we hiked up the trail up to the top of the ridge between Lake Superior and Lake of the Clouds. From this ridge we not only had a beautiful view of the small lake below, but we could see an occasional ship far out to the north, probably ore carriers loaded with iron ore from the Mesabi mines in Minnesota. This was such a nice spot that we moved our camp up there and stayed that night on what was then thought to be the highest point in Michigan. It was quite a chore to lug everything up that ridge, but we enjoyed it anyway. Besides, the huckleberries were tasty and plentiful. Since then another peak some sixty miles to the east has been found to be a few feet higher.
The next day, after hauling everything back down the trail to the car, we drove east along the lake to Ontonagon. Here we turned south, went through Watersmeet and re-entered Wisconsin just four miles from Lac Vieux Desert, the source of the Wisconsin River. If I had known about it then, we would certainly have visited that lake too. We drove on down through Land O' Lakes, to Eagle River, where we looked up Reverend Heddon, and visited for a while with him and his family. You remember him, he's the preacher who married Joyce and me, and then forgot to report it until after we had two children! And from Eagle River it was an easy jaunt back to Tomahawk and home.
I think it was that same summer when one hot Sunday we drove north a few miles to Clear Lake. I think we had a picnic, and I know we enjoyed swimming and wading in the lake. The water was so clear we could see the bottom as far out as we could wade, and could watch the fish as they nibbled at our toes! I was working "swing" shift (4:00 P.M. to midnight) so we started home in the middle of the afternoon. On the way home signs of an impending thunder storm threatened us, so I hurriedly drove the family home and then reported to work. I had just walked through the laboratory door, when the rain began to pour. It was raining in the open window on one side of the building, so I hurriedly closed it. Then I discovered rain coming in a window on the other side of the building, so I closed it, too. But it was raining in through the windows on the other two sides, too, so I figured that something unusual was going on. Rain doesn't normally come from all directions at once! Later on I learned what had happened. A tornado had demolished Harry Herman's big dairy barn about a mile to the west, and was probably whirling overhead just as I walked into the lab!
The winter of 1935/36 was an especially snowy one in Tomahawk. I don't know how many times I shoveled out the path to the garage and the driveway to the road. Our mailbox was of the large rural variety and stood on a post across the road from the house. After an overnight storm which left perhaps a foot and a half of snow, the county snowplow came along and removed the snow from the road, all right, but deposited it along side the road in two continuous piles about four feet high and miles long. Our mailbox was completely buried. Once again I dug out the driveway (which was short, thank goodness!) and considered the mailbox. I had done enough digging, so I merely took the snow away from the front of the box and for the rest of that winter we got our mail from a door in the snowbank! I think it was early one morning of the same winter that I looked at our outdoor thermometer and discovered that it was forty-eight degrees below zero! Brrr!
The next summer was exceptionally hot and dry. One day that same outdoor thermometer told me it was a hundred and eight degrees in the shade! I was, of course, working those rotating shifts, and in the weeks when I was working nights I found it almost impossible to sleep during the hot days. The coolest place in the house was the basement, but our beds were all upstairs. One hot afternoon I was in the living room trying to read or something, when I heard a child cry for help. I searched the house, but found no child. Outside, I circled the house, and finally saw Ralph under the back porch, crying. I crawled under there to him and found him hanging on to the power line ground rod, apparently unable to let go. I carefully pulled him loose and got him away from the porch, apparently none the worse for his experience. This ground rod was supposed to be long enough to reach into moist soil, but with moist soil in short supply that dry summer, the ground current took any path it could find, in this case through Ralph.
At this time I was still trying to learn everything I could about pulp and paper, and was intrigued by the things to be learned by microscopic examination of paper fibers. I was especially interested in a method of differentiating between fibers prepared by different processes. This, it appeared, could be done by first treating them with the proper dyes and then examining them under the microscope. Fibers from different pulping methods reacted differently to the dyes and could be distinguished by their colors. Fascinating! I still had the microscope I had built while my broken leg was healing, but it wasn't adequate for this kind of work, so I rebuilt it, using standard microscope objective and eyepiece lenses. Once again, I had only hand tools, so it was rather crude, but serviceable. When I left my job, I sold it to the company for $25! Many's the time I've wished I had it back.
About this time I was involved in an episode which, although extremely frustrating at the time, was at least partly responsible for our move to Washington and my long career at Boeing. The previous chapter has the entire story, but I'll review it here so you won't have to look it up. Part of the process of recovering used chemicals for re-use in cooking pulp involved adding lime to the solution, mixing, and then letting the precipitate settle so the clear liquor could be drawn off. The lime came by rail in boxcar quantities. One time they got a shipment of lime which caused no end of trouble. It was so finely divided that when it was mixed in, much of the precipitate remained in suspension and wouldn't settle. But pulp had to be cooked, so they used the cloudy liquor anyway.
The resulting pulp looked normal, and there would have been no real problem if they had been making brown paper. But they were trying to make a colored paper that had to be made from bleached pulp. Bleaching this pulp, however, instead of making it a light shade of tan turned it a sickly shade of pale green, making it impossible to make the color desired. I was working one of the night shifts, and, after thinking it over, decided to do something about this problem. From the supply in the paper mill I filled a bucket with starch, carried it to the liquor room, and when the lime was added to the next batch I dumped the starch in with it. After the usual agitation and settling time I returned and found the crew admiring what they said was the clearest tank of cooking liquor they had seen in a long time.
As I said, I was working a night shift, and was home the next afternoon when my boss phoned and asked me to come down to his office. When I arrived, he said something like: "What do you mean by interfering with our manufacturing process?" After listening to a few more sentences of reprimand, I went home, feeling pretty sour about paper making in general and Tomahawk Kraft in particular. Ten years later I saw Kermit Olson on the street in Tomahawk, and he asked me if I remembered being called on the carpet for putting starch in the cooking liquor. I did, of course, and then he said: "You know, they've been doing it that way ever since you left!" How glad I was to be working in a place where innovation and creativity were appreciated and rewarded.
As you know from the preceding chapters I had long been fascinated by radio. When I was going to evening school in Milwaukee I had bought a Weston milliammeter which I had intended to build into a multi-purpose test instrument. I had never done so, though, but now seemed to be an appropriate time to continue the project. So I sent away for resistors, switches and other parts necessary to carry out my design. One day I had the blank panel in front of me on a table and was trying to arrange the parts on it to make it both convenient to use and pleasingly symmetrical, when I realized I had an observer. And Vi said: "You know, that's an art!" Her comment surprised me, as I had never thought of the design process as art, it was "just something I did." But ever since then a little extra effort has gone into my instrument designs to make them appear business-like and capable, as well as practical and convenient to use.
Building that instrument was a lot of work, with lots of drilling, reaming, fitting and soldering, but I enjoyed it, whistling as I worked. One day Vi asked me if I knew what I was whistling. I had to admit that I didn't, so she told me it was part of a famous symphony by Dvorak. This sure surprised me, because I didn't think I liked "long-hair" music. But I paid more attention to it after that, and later, after more encouragement from Vi, it became my favorite kind of music.
Although radio work was only a hobby then, it was a serious one, and so to increase my capabilities in the field, I bought a battery operated signal generator and a set of books containing wiring diagrams and other information on a great many of the popular radios. When the word got around that I had this equipment, some paper mill employees asked me to repair their radios, and in this way I got some experience that was to come in handy later.
Caryl was six years old that year, and in the fall she was enrolled in the first grade. Since we lived outside the city limits (just barely!) she went to the Fulsher School, a small country school about a mile and a half south of our place, down past the paper mill, and rode the bus to and from school.
I was still working rotating shifts at the paper mill, which meant that I worked a different shift each week, and never was able to settle down to any stable routine. Sleeping in the daytime was hard, especially in summer, and with children playing around the house was often impossible. I lost weight, became irritable, and soon realized something drastic would soon have to be done, and I began to think seriously about moving to the West Coast away from the harsh Wisconsin winters and this paper mill!
Many times, during our last summer in Wisconsin, we four, sometimes joined by Vi, sat in our front porch swing and played a little game called "When we go out West." Each of us, in turn, would finish the sentence that started with: "When we go out west I'm going to -----." Sometimes the ideas were fanciful, sometimes practical, but I think they served to prepare all of us for the adventure on which we were about to embark. Slowly the idea of moving to the West became more and more serious, until finally we decided to do it.
So I wrote to three pulp and paper mills in the Puget Sound area, outlining my experience and our desire to relocate in the Northwest, and inquiring as to the availability of a laboratory job. I received polite replies from all three, with nothing favorable as far as a job was concerned, but inviting me to stop by and inquire in person if we moved out here.
About this time, Herman Hartwig, the owner of the house we were renting, probably thinking I was going to be around for a long time, offered to sell us the house with no down payment, simply by increasing our monthly payments from ten dollars a month to twelve dollars a month!
In spite of the negative replies to my job queries, and because of the pressures caused by the climate and my intolerable working conditions, we decided to move to the west coast anyway. So at the lab I told them I was quitting the last of November, and started preparing for a long drive.