"Home farm" memories always remain

John Oncken
The Oncken farm in its heyday before some buildings were removed. The tobacco shed and oat house are just to the left of the barn.

Who would have believed that the world would ever come to a near stop in the year 2020? A year when communication is instant via computer and cell phone and you can buy what you want, when you want, over the internet? It’s also a time when people can travel far and long with an electronic ticket and have all the details arranged from their living room couch.

All well and good, but pretty much useless when something like the coronavirus enters the picture and all previous plans are off – cancelled or postponed, and people are urged or ordered to stay home – which apparently most people are doing.

Remembering is OK

No three hour baseball, basketball or hockey games on TV; no spring or summer college sports to attend; no nothing, except reading and talking with friends, relatives (and strangers) in what we now refer to as social media. And, of course, there is the old reliable activity known as thinking and remembering. Both of which I’ve done a lot of in recent months, and probably not too unusual – a lot of that thinking or remembering centers on my days growing up on the family farm in Dane County.

There’s something about the "home farm" that stays with farmers and former farmers forever. The old saying "once a farmer, always a farmer" may or may not be true in fact, but I’ll bet it’s very true in spirit. 

Climbing the 36-foot silo to install the filler pipes (and take them down) each fall was my biggest fear – I still cannot climb a ladder or use a chair to change a light bulb.

Ask a former farmer

Just ask a former farmer. Maybe one who left the farm when he or she was an all-knowing teenager for the glowing future of college or immediate work, anything to get away from milking those damnable cows, feeding those pigs or making hay and is now a famed doctor, lawyer or business leader. Maybe even a retired farmer, now in a nursing home or at a condo in Florida or Arizona or near Lake Wisconsin.

Maybe a still-working farmer who has long ago moved away from the piece of land where he or she was born to new opportunity.

The real home

Ask them about their real home – I’ll bet it was that old home farm, one on which they spent their early years. Not the modern city house in which they raised their children or the big farm to which they moved decades ago and made into a mega-operation.

My dad (also John) spent well over half his 84 years of life on the farm near Stoughton that he and my mother purchased when both were in their 30s and after Dad and his brother ended their family partnership and went their own ways. But, until the day he died, his "home farm" was on Oncken Road near Waunakee where he grew up.

My home farm or home place still remains that 80 acres on Highway 138 near Stoughton, although I only lived there full-time for a dozen years or so. So who cares about those home places? I think maybe lots of folks.

Firstly, we constantly hear of the passing of the small family farms across the Midwest. The farms that are too small and inefficient for even the most ambitious young farm family to make a living on. The small farms that are combined into big operations with new barns and houses. 

At some point the old farm buildings are perhaps sold as a rural estate or hobby farm, remodeled into something totally different or even burned to the ground. But it will still be the "home farm" to someone because the memories are still there, and they will know where the barn stood, where the old house was, where the old farm dog is buried. Yes, an important part of life is gone, but not really.

Shocking oats was a hot, miserable, but necessary, job each summer.

Why even mention the subject? Because, during a casual phone conversation years ago, my brother Don, a Madison stockbroker, mentioned that "we’re going to take down the tobacco shed and corn crib on the farm at the end of the week." This was a logical move considering that my brother’s daughter and son-in-law, who had long owned the place, didn’t use the buildings, and as every farmer knows, unused farm buildings tend to begin falling down.

That simple revelation that these two old buildings were about to go got me to thinking:  the farm was changing. Tobacco sheds were never marvels of exotic construction – just big poles set on unstable rocks built to be airy (to cure tobacco) and often unpainted (too much surface, too much paint) but seem to stand forever in the face of wind, rain and snow.

This one did have two sliding doors on the front (long gone) which provided the backstop for thousands and thousands of balls (any kind of rubber ball) that Don and I took turns pitching to each other for batting practice.

It had a dirt floor on which we played marbles and "war" (with our toy soldiers) for hours, days and months during our young years. That same dirt floor provided easy digging for a variety of varmints, which old Teddy (our first “cow dog”) would happily chase and dig for. Its knotty sideboards offered hundreds of holes from which I aimed my Red Rider BB gun at sparrows perched on the nearby barnyard fence.

I so remember the day when Don and I were doing some repairs (regular repair was a must) on one of the support braces and on which my ladder was braced, when a pole broke under my brother, who on the way down grabbed the ladder which dropped me into a pile of old lumber and cracked my wrist bone severely.

Only seven bents (about 15 feet between the foundation uprights) long, the shed was small, but it looked so big when full of tobacco. By the weekend the shed was but a pile of ashes and tin, yet decades later I can see it clear as can be.

Melva and John H. Oncken, John F. Oncken's parents. John H. was raised near Waunakee, Melva in Madison.

No more corn crib

Same thing for the nearby corn crib or granary, which we always referred to as the "oat house." It, too, was doomed for oblivion. That’s where threshing crews hoisted grain sacks through a second floor door up to the grain bins. Corn cribs were built for a time when ear corn was shoveled right or left from the wagon in the drive-through. That was hard work for young boys and their dad – I don’t guess you could hire help at any price to do it today.

For many years, an old fanning mill used to clean seed oats resided in the upper floor of the oat house – I think it was sold at the farm auction in 1980 and is probably in an antique display somewhere.

Both buildings are long gone, but recently, as I pondered those days, now so long ago, I see them as clear as can be, as I’m sure Don did (even until his death four years ago) and sister Audrey, now in Minnesota, does. 

The Onckens' first tractor was a Farmall Regular (painted red), similar to this one on display at a recent Rock River Thresheree. It wasn’t powerful, but better than the horses it replaced.

The good and not so good

I also will never forget hitting myself in the head with the tractor crank as I (too hurriedly) tried to get the old Farmall started. I remember clearing the sweat from my eyes on that very hot summer day  and coming away with a hand full of blood. I can’t remember how I stopped the bleeding, but the scar remains.

I remember much about those growing-up days – both the good and the bad on the farm – old farmers always do! After all – it was the "home place."

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-572-0747 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.