2005: Long ago or just yesterday?

John Oncken

On occasion I get lost in the past and start remembering subjects I’ve written about during the near 23 years of this weekly column. It happened again last weekend when I was searching for a photo amongst the 100,000 or so stored on my computer hard drive.

I went back to 2005, the first year the Wisconsin State Farmer began using electronic photos. Prior to that I sent 35mm negatives for my columns and articles.

Here are some of the things I wrote about 12 years ago that seemed interesting then and still are today (at least to me). Perhaps you remember.

A general store

March 2005 - I first visited John Verwey three years earlier when his new dairy west of Fresno, CA, was just a hole in the ground and a year later when he was just starting to milk in the new facility. In 2005, he was in the second year of milking his 3500 cows in a rotary parlor.

The Verwey Dairy in Fresno, California, sets a high standard -- with ponds and palm trees -- for a 3,500-cow farmstead.

I remember my visits vividly: On my first visit I lost the roll of film I’d taken of the construction and on my third visit I couldn’t believe the view the dairy presented. The Verwey dairy facility is the most beautiful landscaped dairy I’ve ever seen with a pond, palm trees and green grass alongside one of the freestalls. It makes the farmstead look like a golf course.

August 13, 2005 - “For Sale: General store built in 1872 with many original fixtures. Eligible for National Historic Register...loyal customer base.”

This advertisement signifies another blip in the 133 years that the Utica Store has stood at the junction of Highways W and B in the township of Christiana in southern Dane county.

It also means a major change in the lives of Richard “Barney” Lambert and Jackie Sperle who have owned the unique establishment for 27 years. How can it be that after “only” 27 years the husband and wife team that has served this rural community and travelers from afar are moving on?

“It’s just time,” the couple agreed.

Who can blame them? After all, the store has been a six-day per week (closed Thursday), 13 hours a day (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.) life for a long time.

Jackie Sperle and Barney Lambert  in 2005, when they put the Utica Store they had operated for 27 years up for sale

Of course they want to do some serious traveling and relative-visiting. And, ‘I need about six months of rest,’ Barney says. ‘Time to just reflect and think. This lifestyle provided little time to just do nothing.’

Update - Barney’s Utica Store was eventually sold to three men who didn’t have the acumen and rural/people wherewithal to make the business go. It stayed open for while then closed, never to open again. Barney and Jackie have lived in the Stoughton area ever since -  doing what they want to do and currently that happens to be working at Bellbrook Farm, Brooklyn, raising Aronia plants.

Working through the heat

July 23, 2005 - “When the temperature is in the 80s and the sun is beaming down, health authorities recommend that older people seek a shady spot or air conditioned room, drink lots of water and limit their activity.

Eighty-year old Vernon Dunn, Oregon, took a different approach to the near 90 degree July heat on Monday when he began combining a seven-acre oats field on his son Donald’s farm near Oregon. He was assisted by his 85 year old brother, Gerald Dunn, Fitchburg.

The Dunns were using a 1965, Model 30 John Deere combine with a seven-foot head that was pulled by a 1969 John Deere 4020 tractor. Their early 50’s grain wagon was pulled by a 1955 Allis Chalmers WD 45 tractor.

Ninety-degree weather in July 2005 didn’t stop (left to right)  Gerald Dunn (age 85), Donald Dunn, and Vernon Dunn (age 80) from combining oats  “for  fun.”

The Dunns could have hired a custom operator who would have finished the seven-acre oats field in little more than an hour. It will take Vernon Dunn two days to do the job. Why work so hard in the heat and with such old equipment? ‘What heat? This is nothing compared to the days when we pitched bundles into a threshing machine and stacked straw,’  Vernon says. ‘This is our fun!’

(Note: Gerald Dunn died a few years ago, Donald still farms and his dad Vernon is 92 years old and still retired.)

Wisconsin plowing

January 20, 2006 -  Jack Everson, Belleville, had never seen or heard of anyone in Wisconsin plowing farmland in January, so he thought he’d try it.  Thus, on Jan. 16, 2006 with a temperature in the 40’s, Everson rousted his 1957 Massey Harris model 555 tractor out of its winter sleep, hitched up his three-bottom International Model 60 3/16 plow and went plowing.

Jack Everson, Belleville,  plows on a balmy day in January of 2006.

"The soil turns real nice," Everson said. "Just like in early spring." He admitted his soil was a bit on the sandy side and that he was not in any real hurry to get into the field. But, the balmy weather and sunny skies beckoned, he couldn’t pass up the once in a lifetime opportunity.

Everson rents much of his “Little Sugar Dairy” to a neighbor. But he still enjoys farming and collecting tractors...especially Massey Harris tractors — he has a shed full — and enjoys using them for their intended purpose — working farmland. But who would have ever thought of plowing a Dane county field in January? Not Jack Everson, but he did it and will never forget the event.

Bicycling cross-country

July 9, 2005 - “Since the summer of 1989, my annual vacation(?) has been spent on a bicycle traveling 400-500 miles somewhere in the Midwest. My fellow cyclists in the rather informal group called the Wright Riders pick what we think will be an interesting place to visit.

A route is selected, detailed maps are made and motel reservations secured. Since I have been involved, the group has cycled in Minnesota, Indiana, Ontario, Canada, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois and of course, Wisconsin. This year we revisited Michigan — for the fourth time.

John Oncken biked over 400 miles on the 2005 annual  week-long tour with the “Wright Riders.”

Our trip began with a four-hour ride on the SS Badger car ferry from Manitowoc to Ludington, MI on Saturday, June 18. Our route in Michigan led us about 400 miles from Ludington to Charlevoix and back. Daily  mileage ranged from a high of 75 miles to a low of 40 miles. As usual we traveled without a following vehicle, carrying our clothes and supplies in panniers over the back wheel.

As for me, I wondered if my body could survive a 400-mile bicycle ride 12 weeks after undergoing a three-hour operation, which included taking in 14 units of blood, losing three and a half feet of colon and adding 30 stitches down the middle. It did.“

(Note: After biking some 2,000 miles a year for over 20 years, I parked my Bianci about four years ago and haven’t ridden since — life changes.)

Many other rememorables appeared in this column in 2005-06: the August tornado at Stoughton; the “Cow Parade" in Madison; visiting California dairies, Dairy Expo and more. A long time ago or just yesterday, but time passes.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at