91-year-old farmer says: "I lived in the best years"
ELKHORN – Stan Muzatko still sits at the old wood table where his mother and later his wife fed many threshers. Spread across the long table are photos of the stone barn between Lodi and Roxbury, Wisconsin, where he milked cows and hoisted hay so many years ago. He remembers the hard physical work of farming in depression years but he says, “I think I lived in the best years.”
Farming has changed drastically since Stan milked cows by hand in a 15 stall barn in a time when the farm did not have access to electricity. He recently visited a friend’s barn in recent years to marvel over cows being milked by robots. And, at the age of 91, Stan believes he has seen it all.
Stan was born in 1930 to immigrant parents who came to Wisconsin from Czechoslovakia in 1910. As a new immigrant Stan’s dad worked for a street car shop in Milwaukee but on his days off he went up to Medford to clear some land he hoped to homestead.
“He really wanted to farm but when he took my mother up there she said it was nice but she would never live there,” Muzatko says.
To satisfy his desire to farm he took a job where he could work on halves. He supplied half of the livestock and the labor. The farmowner supplied the farm and the other half of the livestock.
Finally Muzatko’s parents were able to buy a farm of their own in Dane County. It wasn’t a big farm but it was big enough for the family to get along.
He says, “It was depression years and Dad couldn’t afford a tractor so we farmed with horses. When I was about 15 I started plowing with the horses. My dad did the cultivating because it was hard to keep the cultivator in the rows.”
In fact, he says his dad carried corn seeds in his pocket and if any corn plants were cultivated out, he stopped the horses and replanted the seed.
“When farmers cultivated with horses they were going slow and always looking down,” he notes. “That’s when they would find things like Indian artifacts in the fields.”
Muzatko remembers using the horses to hoist loose hay up into the haymow of the barn, too.
The barn on his family’s farm was unique. It was built entirely with stone. On the end of the barn the year 1902 was chiseled into the stone along with the initials J.S. He believes the initials stood for Joe Stamm who built the barn.
He says it wasn’t a very efficient barn. The structure had 9 stalls on one side and 6 on the other with the cows facing one another. There was also a bull pen, room for 3 horses and a calf pen.
He said in summer the easiest way to get around in the barn was to go outside and around to the other side but in winter they either had to go out in the cold or carry the milk cans through the tight quarters inside.
Their farm did not have any electricity until 1946. Before that they used lanterns and had to be very careful not to burn the barn or house down if the lantern tipped over.
“There were six farms in our area who petitioned Madison Gas and Electric to extend service to them. It was all around us but not out on the farms,” he recalls. “I believe it was Roosevelt’s electrification program that finally helped us get electricity.”
When electricity finally came to the farm, they ran just one wire to each room of the house because copper was so expensive and they had limited funds.
Their farm house was equipped with a gas system that they used at times.
“We dropped calcium carbide pellets into a tank to create a gas,” he recalls. “It was expensive and we had to be frugal so we only used it for special occasions.”
“It had a flint and when we turned gas on we could use the lights and the gas stove,” he says. “Mother also had a wood stove that she used for everyday use.”
Stan says his father used the residue from the pellets in the water to spray the barn, and called it the "original white-washing.”
They heated their house with stoves located in three rooms of the home. To kindle the fires for their stoves Muzatko remembers picking up the corn cobs left from the pig feed and soaking them in kerosene.
To supplement the family larder, he says his family raised chickens for meat and eggs.
“Every year Mother ordered baby chicks and the mailman delivered them. She also raised chickens for a local hatchery. They brought out some special roosters for breeding to get the particular type they wanted.”
At the end of the week, everyone in the area traveled into Lodi on Saturday night. While there, his mother visited the grocery store where she traded eggs for other groceries. Rural customers brought a list to the counter and the store keeper fetched the items for them.
Stan remembers the grocer using as long pole to reach items on the high shelves. While his mother shopped, his dad stopped in at the bank and then played euchre at the tavern. The young fry were treated to a movie at the price of a 11 cent admission.
While growing up, Stan says he attended a one-room country school near the farm where there were only 3 in his graduating class. He describes the structure of the school as "unique", built of stone that was laid up and down rather than flat. The school has long since been converted into a private residence.
“My dad was 40 years old when I was born so he really needed my help,” he recalls. “He was good to me though. I went to Sauk City High School for a couple years and then to Lodi because I wanted to participate in school activities and their schedule fit that better. I think he would have liked me to be home but he let me do it.”
When Stan graduated from high school in 1948 he immediately joined his dad on the farm but only after his dad agreed to replace the horses with a tractor.
He and Margaret were married in 1952 and four years later they officially took over the farm.
The house on their farm was partially constructed of logs. It was equipped with a cistern pump in the kitchen but no running water, so their first remodeling task was to install a bathroom and running water.
Margaret had grown up on a farm at Waunakee so she was familiar with things like sewing with material from feed bags, butchering hogs and making sausage, and feeding a hungry threshing crew.
Six families worked together during the harvest season. Stan says as a child, his first job was to control the blower on the machine to build the straw stack according to the direction of the stackers on the ground.
“It had to be shaped just right so the water would run off,” he says. “When I got big enough I hauled bundles.”
Four of their 5 children were born on the farm that eventually wasn’t big enough to support their family. They decided to sell it and move to Walworth County where he managed a Girl Scout camp and later spent 10 years employed at Old World Wisconsin in maintenance.
Stan was also involved in the local community, serving as the chairman of the town board and as a member of the county board for ten years. He was also active in the local volunteer fire department and served an EMT.
“I’m glad we lived when we did,” he says.
Margaret agrees, “It was a wonderful life. On the farm we knew all our neighbors and people worked together. When we moved here, people thought we’d buy new furniture but I don’t care about that. My furnishings were just fine. We don’t need all the boards in this threshing table but it has a lot of memories and it’s good enough for us.”