There was a time, not too many years ago, when the period between Thanksgiving and New Years was sort of the "quiet time" on the family farms in Wisconsin.
The crops were in the barn and bin, the farm machinery was resting in the shed, school vacation had started and Christmas carols filled the radio air waves. It was sort of a resting time on the farm but no one really rested. The cows had to be fed and milked, the barns cleaned every morning, the hogs cared for and the chickens fed and watered and the eggs gathered daily.
Pardon me if that scenario sounds a bit strange — what Wisconsin farm today raises cows, pigs and chickens?
None, but when I was a farm boy growing up on the 80-acre Oncken farm in the township of Rutland in Dane County, most everyone did. It was also a time when dairy barns were cleaned daily with a fork, shovel and scraper and manure was stored on a pile in the barnyard, silage was thrown down the silo chute with a wide fork and hay was stored loose (or in small bales) in the haymow.
Why bring up thoughts of decades ago?
Simple — because the Christmas season is the time for memories as everyone over about 40 years of age will know. (Don't scoff younger readers, if you are lucky you, too, will reach the age when your youth will come back to haunt you or fill you with pride and good memories.)
My memories of growing up on the farm are all good; it seems I've forgotten the bad things that I'm sure must have happened.
For instance, I can't remember any details of the four weeks of back-to-back measles and mumps when I was quarantined to the house (that was the rule) or the sore throat after having my tonsils taken out.
Nor do I remember the cold , wind and snow when my dad, brother and I carried two, 100-pound, cans of milk down the quarter mile driveway to meet the milk truck that couldn't navigate the four-foot snow drifts that isolated the farmstead for several days at a time each winter.
The good memories about growing up on the farm are so many and more crowd my mind by the minute as I write.
There was the annual Flint School Christmas program when that one-room brick building was turned into the biggest community event of the year. That's when all 30 of we students became singers, actors and public speakers. No mind that most of us had zero singing, acting or speaking talents; our one teacher always went ahead and forged us, after weeks of practice, into a traditional school program that our parents viewed with pride.
No matter if Jingle Bells was sung off key, that Olaf forgot his lines in the play and Willard wet his pants while reciting his "piece," the evening was always a success because we knew Santa (always Lawrence Halverson or Joe Stokstad) would arrive and pass out bags of candy and nuts, apples and oranges and of course the presents.
There was the gift exchange (25-cent limit) among students that was set up when names were blindly drawn from a box several weeks prior. This always made for problems: What does a big, brawny eighth grade boy get for a first grade girl? What if you pulled the name of the cute girl you secretly pined for — do you show your feelings or get something neutral? Will the receiver like it or think you are a fool?
Then there were the gifts the students made for their mothers (never for fathers) —plaques, pot holders, samplers (a decorative piece of cloth embroidered with various designs in a variety of stitches, serving as an example of skill at needlework) and things I've long forgotten. (Note — Strangely enough, I still have the cross stitched sampler I made so long ago that my mother saved.)
At evening's end happiness reigned. The parents proclaimed they really were raising a talented group of youngsters and that the community really ought to get together more often. The students were all happy with their gifts, the candy and the fact that there was no school until after New Year's.
The Oncken family school vacation period pretty much centered on stripping tobacco, which meant taking the leaves off the stems and packing them in bundles for sale. It was done in the strip house, a special building in which tobacco on lathes were piled daily, and a large pan holding water was always steaming on top of the old Round Oak stove to provide humidity to keep the tobacco moist.
The days consisted of farm chores and the major and rather boring job of stripping tobacco. This meant opportunity to do lots of talking and listening to the radio. My dad, brother and I did pretty much talk all the time. I'm not sure this is real common today.
Santa always came to the Oncken farm during the night milking on Christmas Eve: My sister, who didn't milk, was sent outside or upstairs to do other things, so the three of we children always just missed seeing Mr. Claus.
After milking, eating and getting cleaned up, Mother read the Christmas story from the Bible, then we opened presents that were mostly toys (a sled one year, lead soldiers, an erector set) clothes, fruit, candy and usually a game the family could play.
Christmas Day was one of the highlights of the family year. A big noon dinner rotated among my dad's cousins of which he and two others were farmers and two others (hardware store owner and a machinist) who lived in town.
It was always a grand gathering with all the eating, adults talking and the youngsters with their new Christmas gifts. The one gift I remember was the boxing gloves my cousin George had received — and how we learned you cannot have a friendly boxing match.
We were always late getting back home for milking, which meant doing a lot of chores in the dark. It also seemed that those late chore nights also brought with them bad things and messes like a cow having knocked a drinking cup off the pipe making for water-filled gutters and soaked bedding.
I grew up during the radio era — the radio brought us news and music — always country music from long gone WJJD, Chicago during the day and the Grand Old Opry on Saturday nights. In the late weekday afternoons there were the thrilling adventure serials: Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates, Jack Armstrong, Little Orphan Annie, and Superman among them.
While milking we heard Fibber McGee, I Love a Mystery, Bob Hope and a host of thrillers. (You can still hear them on "old time radio." )
We waited with serious anticipation for the New Year's Day football bowl games of which there were only four; Orange in Miami; Sugar in New Orleans, Cotton in Dallas and the day-ending, 4 p.m. , Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Looking back , I realize how different life was before TV, cell phones, computers only 40 bowl games and all the modern miracles. But, that's OK, my memories are invaluable just as the kids of today will say 50 years from now.
However, one mystery remains in my era of growing up — How we attended a school that had one teacher (with most likely a two-year degree) for all grades, very few books, no TV, no computers and cow manure on our shoes and actually learned how to read and write and went on to successful careers in agriculture, industry, education and government.
Merry Christmas and make some great memories.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.