December spurs memories of holidays on the farm

John Oncken
With winter break looming on the horizon, students in one-room schoolhouses prepared for their big night, the annual Christmas program.

There was a time, not too many years ago, when the period between Thanksgiving and New Years was sort of the "quiet time" on many 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.

A long time ago

Why bring up thoughts of decades ago?  Simply put, the Holiday 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.)

All good

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 don’t 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.

Each year, there was standing room only as families gathered in the one-room schoolhouse to witness the annual Christmas program, the 'event of the holiday season' in rural communities across the state.

The school program

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.

Always great

No matter if Jingle Bells was sung off key, or 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?

A decades old “sampler” made by the writer for his mother  some 75 years ago.

Gifts for mom

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 and has hung in my bedroom for the decades since her passing.)

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.

Tying a 40-50 pound bundle of tobacco.

A working vacation

The Oncken family school vacation always started with us three men (Dad, Don and John) cleaning the school (seemingly the job of the school clerk - my Dad) - a most depressing job after the evening of fun.

From then on our days were  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.

Afterwards our days consisted of farm chores and the rather boring job of stripping tobacco. This meant an opportunity to do lots of talking and listening to the radio. 

Steam kept the tobacco moist to prevent crumbling and ruining the leaves.

Christmas comes

Santa always came to the Oncken farm while we were attending church Christmas Eve’ After returning home Mother read the Christmas story from the Bible, 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. It was always a grand gathering with all the eating, adults talking and the youngsters with their new Christmas gifts.

Grand gathering

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 (a 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.

Trouble in the barn

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.

Radio was king

On New Years day while still stripping tobacco 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, 40 or more bowl games and all the modern miracles. But, that's OK. My memories are invaluable just as those of the kids of today will be 50 years from now.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. Enjoy!.

John F. Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at