"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 11: The Seefeld Somo Farm
The story of the Seefeld farm begins at about the same time as the United States entry into World War I. Dad had registered for the draft, (he was 42) but, having a wife and son to support, he wasn't drafted. However, he and Mom both wanted to support the war effort, and thought they could do so by growing food crops. Besides, Dad had grown tired of his ten hours a day, six days a week job at the sawmill, and wanted to try working for himself for a change. So the Seefelds bought a forty acre piece of cut-over land from the Bradley Company (who else?) and began the long process of trying to make a farm out of it.
The legal description of the land that used to be our farm is: the southeast quarter of the southeast quarter of section thirty, township 35 north, range 6E., Town of Bradley, Lincoln County. All this legal jargon means that the eastern boundary of the farm is exactly one mile from the western boundary of the City of Tomahawk, and that part of the southern boundary is the Somo river, less than a half mile from the M.T.& W. bridge which crosses it. I have in my files the original deed, which states that the folks finished paying for it ($450.00!) on May 1, 1920. The farm was accessible by road, but since we had no car, we went back and forth by motorboat. This meant that when we worked on the place, all the tools and so forth that we used had to be carried from the boat landing up a long steep hill!
This forty-acre tract was divided right down the middle by an east west glacial ridge, left there by a glacier that went back for more rocks and soil, and, fortunately for us, forgot to come back. The top of this ridge, which extended beyond our farm to both east and west, was where a logging road was built years ago when all that good timber was harvested. This road was still usable for about half a mile past our place to the west. Beyond that it was pretty well overgrown by young pine trees. On the south side of the ridge, where we built our house, there was probably about three acres of tillable land. On the north side, there was perhaps an additional twelve or fifteen acres. So altogether less than half our land was good for farming. In one place that ridge was quite narrow, and on the south side sloped very steeply right down to the river, and on the north side sloped down just as steeply to a swampy, marshy area which covered at least ten acres, and was one of the results of the flooding caused by the Tomahawk dam.
For two or three years we still lived in our house on Prospect Avenue, and chugged out to the farm in our boat, while Dad cleared a few acres of workable land. For tasks too heavy for Dad to do, he hired a horse which dragged stumps and so forth into piles to be disposed of by burning. This is when I was introduced to the "stone boat." Far from being a boat, this device is more like a sled, made with two round logs shaped into runners, with boards nailed on top to form a platform. Big rocks, impossible for us to move otherwise, were rolled on to this "boat" which was then hitched to a horse and dragged off somewhere out of the way.
One of the first crops we planted was potatoes. Dad hired a team of horses and plowed a field and then raked it with a horse-drawn harrow. Then all three of us planted potatoes in long rows in this newly plowed ground. After that came a waiting period while the seed potatoes sprouted and developed into plants. But then our work began in earnest. In that part of the country, potato plants had a vicious enemy, the potato beetle, or, as we called them, "potato bugs." The mature beetles laid eggs on potato leaves, and when they hatched, the larvae could strip the leaves from a large field of potato plants if not controlled. And so the plants had to be sprayed periodically with a solution of either lead arsenate or "paris green", a bright green compound of arsenic and lead. Guess who was elected to tote this five-gallon spray can of bug poison between all the rows and spray the plants? Me, of course.
After two or three summers of constant commuting from our town house to the farm, Dad decided we needed a house on the farm so we could live right there all summer and avoid all this traveling back and forth. So he set out in his boat and gathered all the stray logs and "deadheads" he could find, towed them to the sawmill where he had worked, and had them sawed into lumber for a house. (A deadhead is a log which has soaked up so much water that it almost, but not quite, sinks. So it sits there, one end usually on the river bottom, and the other end protruding an inch or two from the water, practically invisible with ripples or waves on the water, but plenty hazardous to motorboats.) I don't remember how he got that lumber out to the farm, but I know it was too much lumber for one man to haul out there by boat and then carry all the way up that steep hill, so I rather think he had someone haul it out there by road. Anyway, the lumber was there, and I helped him build the house.
This house was a simple frame building, perhaps sixteen by twenty feet with one home-made door and several windows. The interior was divided into three rooms by wooden walls which extended upward as high as walls do, but then just stood there, frustrated, because there were no ceilings. A real "open house!" One wall separated the kitchen-dining-living area from the bedroom area, which was further divided into a room for Mom and Dad, and a smaller one for me.
Of course, if we were going to live out there, we had to have a well. And as the first step in putting in a well, the folks' called on a man who lived in the neighborhood who, it was said, was a good "water-witcher." He cut a small forked branch from a nearby bush, whittled it to his liking, and, grasping one end of the fork in each hand and pointing it out in front of him, he walked around the area, and when the branch twisted and pointed down, that's where he said there was water. Science pooh-pooh's this idea of water-witching as mere folklore, but, when we put a pipe down in that place, put a pump on it, and moved its handle up and down, we got water!
It sounds simple, but putting that pipe into the ground deep enough to reach the water wasn't easy. The first step was to dig a square hole about four feet across and four and a half to five feet deep. To keep the sides of this hole from caving in, wooden walls were built, supported by corner posts. This was to be a "driven" well, which meant that the pipe had to be pounded into the ground. The key to a successful driven well was the "well-point," a piece of pipe two or three feet long, closed at the bottom end by a long tapered cap which ended in a point, making it easier to pound into the ground. Of course, when it got down to where the water was, there had to be a way for water to get into the pipe. So there were many good-sized holes in the sides to let the water in. To keep sand and other undesirables out, the holes were covered by brass or bronze screen, on the inside, so it wouldn't be scraped off on the way down.
Another piece of pipe was coupled to the top end of the "point", and the top end of this pipe was closed by an extra heavy iron pipe cap, screwed on real tight so the heavy hammering it would receive couldn't damage the threads. Now the point was stuck into the ground in the center of that square hole, and held upright while it was pounded down. This required many blows with a heavy, heavy hammer Dad called a "maul." It was like a sledge hammer, but much larger and heavier, with a long wooden handle.
When the pipe got down so far that hammering on it became difficult, the cap was removed, and another piece of pipe added (with the cap now on it). The pounding resumed, and the pipe was extended several times before everyone agreed that the point was down far enough. Then the pipe cap was removed, and the pump cylinder (with pump attached) was coupled to our pipe-in-the-ground. Water was poured in (river water?) to prime the pump, someone moved the handle up and down in approved fashion, and what do you know! Water came out! Dirty, muddy water at first, for some fine sand and soil had made its way through the screen on the way down, but after enough pumping, it cleared up, and we had an abundance of clear, cold water. Now all that remained was to cover that square hole in the ground with planks, and we had a well.
Right here I'm going to have to stop and interject the story of an incident which in due time made it easier for us to make the summer move out to the farm and back. I think it was the summer of 1921 when some men came to Tomahawk and organized a systematic harvest of fresh-water clams. I was told the clam shells were to be used to make buttons, but I never knew for sure. Anyway, the men and their crew made Mrs. Johnson's boarding house their headquarters. (In front of that boarding house is where I was standing when I saw that airplane crash I told you about.) The only equipment of theirs that I saw was a small motorboat and perhaps a half dozen small barges used to haul clams. Every morning I would see this parade of boat and barges go up the river, and every evening I would see them come back with loads of clams.
The clam harvest went on for what seemed to be many weeks, but then suddenly stopped, I suppose for lack of clams. The men left town, their boat and barges disappeared, and the story would end right here if it hadn't been for Ed Marquardt. Ed was in about the middle of a string of eight Marquardt offspring, lived only about two blocks away, and had participated in some of the games we played in the neighborhood, so we knew each other quite well. One day Ed and I were poking about on the river bank, looking for something to do, probably, when he suddenly said "Look, out there by the weeds!" I looked, and saw one of the clam barges, at least half full of water and resting on the shallow bottom by the weeds.
I guess we both thought of the same thing at the same time. I know it brought to my mind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and their raft adventure on the Mississippi river. But here was something much better than a raft, and I could envision us paddling or poling that barge as we explored all the bays and islands along the river. Whoa! That barge didn't belong to us, and we didn't know who it did belong to. But we knew who to ask, so we went to the boarding house where the clam crew had stayed and asked Mrs. Johnson. She said the barge wasn't hers, that the clam crew had apparently abandoned it, and there was no reason why we couldn't have it!
So we borrowed a rowboat, towed that barge to shore, and bailed the water out of it. We then pulled it up on the river bank and turned it bottom side up so we could examine it for damage. Fortunately it was easily repaired, and soon we had it back in the water, our own deluxe version of the Huckleberry Finn river exploration craft. As I said, it was a small barge, perhaps four feet wide, not more than twelve feet long, and had sides something like a foot high. We had hardly finished repairing the barge and re-floating it when suddenly all our plans for lazy exploration of the waters around Tomahawk came to a screeching halt. It was Seefeld migration time, and our craft was commandeered for hauling household goods from the Prospect Avenue house to our house on the farm.
After being piled high with things indispensable for life on the farm, the barge was tied alongside our trusty old one-cylinder motorboat, and we putted down the Wisconsin and up the Somo to our landing. From there, everything had to be hand carried up that steep hill, even our heavy old kitchen range, which Dad took apart for the trip and reassembled in our new house. We moved this way, twice a year, until Dad bought a Ford roadster. I think it was a 1923 model, but he didn't buy it until 1924. An open air single seater, it had a small "turtle back" behind the abbreviated body, with a lid to cover the storage space inside. A car "trunk" in 1924! Dad soon removed the turtle back and replaced it with a long shallow wooden box and thereafter we moved by "pickup" truck. One day Dad drove this car to town and back, and just as he neared the house, one of the front wheels came off! He was going quite slowly at the time, so there was no other damage. In those days, automobiles were shipped from the factory to dealers in railroad box cars, and in order to crowd as many as possible into a boxcar, the wheels were removed for shipment and put back on by the dealer. Apparently a mechanic at the local dealership had neglected to secure the wheel nut with a cotter key, and as it was the left front wheel, driving forward had unscrewed it.
OK, so we had a car, but no telephone, and no electric power. So the only light we had at night was from kerosene lamps and lanterns, and a little later, Coleman gasoline lamps and a lantern. These gasoline lamps produced a lot more light than the kerosene variety, but they had disadvantages, too. For one thing, gasoline was a much more volatile and dangerous fuel than kerosene. Also, they couldn't stand much of a mechanical shock or vibration, because the light emitting material was a "mantle" which was merely the ashy remains of a cloth bag tied over the business end of a blowtorch. Two more things: they roared like blowtorches, and they used up the oxygen in a room, replacing it with carbon dioxide and other combustion products, so after an evening of reading or studying by Coleman light, our eyes started burning and tearing.
Although ours was a "no-horse" farm, we did have other animals. I think the first ones were chickens. In acquiring chickens, Dad started small. From an ad in Capper's Weekly, Successful Farming, or some other farmers' magazine, he ordered a hundred day-old chicks, which arrived at the Tomahawk Post Office in a noisy cardboard crate. We kept them in a kerosene heated "brooder" which kept them warm until they were mature enough to roost in the hen house Dad built on the hillside near the house. Later on that year, our food supply was augmented by fresh eggs, and an occasional chicken dinner.
When we built our house on the Somo we already had neighbors, the E____ family. They lived in a house on the farm just across the road from our place and had cows, horses, and chickens. Mr. E____ was much more of a show-off than a farmer. One year he planted a plot of potatoes, and when the plants were about half grown, they were attacked by potato beetles which proceeded to eat off all the leaves. So of course, he didn't even get enough of a crop to replace the potatoes he had planted.
But when he built a new house, it was a big two-story house. And when he built a new barn, it was a huge building. I remember watching with interest as he put up this barn. The walls went up first, of course, and then the roof. and here is where it got really interesting. He put up a pair of rafters at one end, and then added pairs of rafters at intervals along the length of the building. But he neglected to put in any "collar ties," cross members to keep the walls from being spread apart by the weight of the roof. So as he proceeded, the outside walls spread farther and farther apart. Then the roofing boards were applied, and then the roofing material. By the time his barn was finished it had a pronounced "sway-back" look, and after a few deposits of winter snow it got worse. I wonder how many winters it survived before it collapsed.
As I said, the E____ family had horses. But they didn't have a car. Instead they had a real, honest-to-goodness "surrey with a fringe on top!" Every Saturday the entire family would pile into this vehicle and drive to Tomahawk. And, toward evening, we would hear the sound of buggy wheels on the rocky road, and often watched as they came barreling down the hill and turned into their driveway on two wheels, the top with the fringe on it swaying in the breeze!
The road on the top of the ridge on our farm was originally a logging road, and extended westward from our house about another mile. About half way down this road there was what had once been a small one-story house. When I first saw it the roof was falling in, some walls had collapsed, and the whole thing was overgrown with moss and small shrubs. I didn't try to go inside, it looked altogether too dangerous. This was about 1920, and the ruin looked like it must have been there at least fifty years. There is probably an interesting story about this house, but it will always remain a mystery to me.
The old road beyond this place was overgrown with pine trees about twice as tall as I am, which should enable some genius to determine how long it had been since that road was last used. One day I fought my way through this young forest and traced the road to where it comes to the Somo River. At this spot the logging road made a sharp left turn, and crossed the Somo to the south shore on a short bridge. Most of the bridge had disappeared, but there were enough pilings and timbers left to indicate where it had been. Years later, Joyce, Vi and I borrowed a rowboat from the folks and rowed from the farm to this spot and had a picnic lunch with the Somo rolling by.
On another day I explored some of the area north of the logging road, and discovered a beaver dam. This part of the Somo River had been affected by the building of the Tomahawk Dam, and large areas of it were quite shallow with many bays and inlets. Across one of these inlets which must have been at least a hundred feet wide, beavers had built a dam of poplar trees and branches which they had harvested from the forest right next door. The trees and branches which made up the dam had sprouted and now supported poplar trees up to fifteen feet tall or taller. Being an adventurous teen-ager, I worked my way across on this dam, and explored the area beyond until I came to civilization in the form of Lamberts' farm. Not knowing what would happen if I were discovered on their property, I turned around, recrossed the beaver dam and terminated my explorations for that day. I never did see any beavers, but saw many poplar stumps bearing the marks of their incredibly sharp teeth.
Closer to home, on the other side of the ridge north of our house, I often visited a spot where I could get right down to the edge of a swamp. Here there were lots of my old friends, the cattails, and many lily pads. If I watched long enough I could usually see a frog or maybe even a small turtle sunning himself on one of the round green "rafts" nature seemed to have put there for just that purpose! At the right time of year, of course, there were water lilies in bloom out there with no one to appreciate them but me! And there were polliwogs (tadpoles) and occasionally even a snake, as at home in the water as I was on land. In a class all by themselves were the "water striders." These were long-legged bugs which took advantage of the surface tension of water, making little dents as they walked (even ran) on the surface without getting their feet wet!
And in the air there were the dragonflies, which Mother called "darning needles" and of which there seemed to be two varieties. The smaller one, the "Piper Cub" of dragonflies had a wingspan of about two inches, while the big one, the "747" variety was about three to four inches across. And then there were the mosquitoes. That swamp, which was so interesting otherwise, was a perfect home for mosquitoes. And they showed their appreciation by visiting us every evening about sundown! Of course we had screens on all the windows and doors, but for quite a time after we finished the house and moved in, we still had mosquitoes in the house. Then we discovered that these resourceful insects were making use of all the knotholes and tiny cracks in the walls, so for a time we all three engaged in a "search and stuff" mission, eventually making the house mosquito-tight. One positive note: I was bitten by so many mosquitoes in Wisconsin that I developed an immunity to their stings. So, while we have a few in this area [Washington State], and occasionally one bites me, I can brush it off and forget about it, since it causes neither swelling nor itching.
We had several kinds of insects in Wisconsin which don't seem to live out here on the coast. One was the cricket, which decorated the evening silence with rhythmic chirping. Another were the grasshoppers, which sometimes flew up in great clouds when I disturbed them by walking in the tall grass. There was a larger variety of grasshopper, too, which I suspect were locusts. They, too flew up when disturbed, but made a "snapping" sound as they flew. But the most interesting insect was the firefly, or "lightning bug" as some people called it. Sometimes there would be swarms of fireflies flying around, embroidering the evening darkness with their miniature fireworks displays.
The woods around our place were home to quite a few kinds of birds. There were crows, of course, and they would often roost in treetops and argue noisily, probably about territorial claims! Sometimes I would look up and see a solitary crow being harassed by a flock of blackbirds, most likely having encroached upon their territory. On hot summer afternoons I could hear black-capped chickadees calling and answering each other, and sometimes I imitated their call and they answered me! The bird call of all bird calls, though, is the haunting call of the loon. This bird lives in marshy areas on the edges of lakes and rivers. I have never seen a loon, but have often been entertained by loon solos and choruses. At about dusk, sitting down by the river, I would hear first one loon call from one side of the bay, and then seconds later an answering call from the other side farther away, and sometimes I would hear a whole chorus perhaps including one call from so close by I was surprised I hadn't seen the bird. I hope there will always be loons!
In my solitary explorations of the countryside I discovered quite a number of natural "goodies" such as wild strawberries, which always seemed to be more flavorful than the cultivated ones. And there were wild raspberries, and delicious large blackberries. I remember one year the blackberries were so plentiful that we rowed a short distance up the Somo River, and from my seat in the boat I picked large quantities from the bushes hanging over the water, just waiting for me! Smaller, and much harder to find, were the wintergreen berries. They grew only an inch or so from the ground, were dark red and only about a quarter inch in diameter, and were always pretty well hidden by the dark shiny leaves, but when I found some, they were a tart delicacy indeed.
At the other end of the scale, there were the "June-berries," properly called service-berries. They grew on bushes that were sometimes as tall as I was, and were a dark purplish red in color. And I can't forget the blueberries. There were two varieties, both of which we called blueberries. One kind grew in clusters on bushes perhaps two feet high, and were bright blue in color. The other kind grew on somewhat taller bushes, and were a dark purplish blue, almost black. I suspect this latter variety was really a huckleberry. Both kinds started as small green berries, then turned red, and finally matured to their blue or blue-black color. This probably prompted the "old saying" we often heard, that: "blueberries are always red when they're green."
Some years blueberries were so plentiful that it seemed like half the county's population was out there picking berries, and it was necessary to go farther to find good picking. That's when my dad exercised his ingenuity and skill with tools in a successful effort to get more blueberries. First, to get to the unpicked areas, he devised a third wheel or "sidecar" for his bicycle so arranged that he could ride it on railroad tracks, the bicycle on one rail and the third wheel on the other. Since the M.T.& W. didn't run on Sundays, he could travel quite a distance on the rails without fear of encountering a train. Then when he reached a place where the berries were plentiful, he used his other innovation. This was a wide wooden scoop to the front of which he had fitted a row of slim steel rods to form a coarse steel comb. So when the berries were thick and plentiful, he could comb them off the bushes into his scoop and then deposit them into a bucket. The bucket was quickly filled, and then emptied into a huge wooden box attached to the "sidecar." When the box was full, he turned his rig around and pedaled home with more berries than I had ever seen in one place at one time.
In the fall, after a few frosty nights, it was time to pick hazelnuts. They grew on bushes four or five feet high and hid in leafy green husks which opened part way so you could see the shiny brown nut inside. We picked husks and all, spread them out in the sun till they dried, at which point they were easily separated. Delicious!
Also in the fall, after we lived on the farm in the summers, school started before we moved back to our house in town, so for a short period I had to "commute" to and from school, about four miles by road. Until snow came, I rode Dad's bicycle and parked it and my half-gallon lunch bucket in the house on Prospect Avenue. A few words about this bicycle: It was made for a tall rider, so at first I could just barely reach the pedals. And it didn't have a "coaster brake", so when the bike moved, the pedals turned, whether you wanted them to or not. This meant I had to develop a method of slowing and stopping by applying reverse pressure to the moving pedals, and which also meant that I tumbled off a few times before I got the hang of it!
At first I took the same route as an automobile would, but soon I discovered an interesting short-cut. Instead of taking the loosely graveled highway I rode a narrow trail through the woods, crossed the road, went through Bloomquist's yard and came out on a good smooth road that served the tannery, which was a row of large buildings on the bank of the Tomahawk River. I soon learned to hold my breath and pedal real fast while passing one of these buildings, the one where they soaked the hides! From there I rode past Winker's tavern and dance hall, crossed the Tomahawk River bridge and turned east on what is now called Leather Avenue. This led me to Fourth Street, where I crossed the bridge and took the diagonal road to our house. Sometimes it snowed before we moved back to town, and then I walked to school, taking a shorter route. From our house it was about a quarter of a mile to the M.T.& W. tracks, which I followed east to Jersey City, and then took Leather Avenue to Fourth Street and the school.
After I was through school and working at the M.T.& W. depot, I rode the bike to and from work the same way, until we moved back to town that fall. The next summer (1924) when I worked at the paper mill office I rode the bike, but only as far as down town, where I joined the office crew and we drove the company car down to the paper mill. In the spring of 1925 I bought a 1923 Ford "touring car" and abandoned the bicycle. All that summer I drove my car to work, but then, that fall after we moved back to town I didn't have a place to keep the car over the winter, so I went down to Tom Kelly's Ford agency and arranged to trade it in right then and there on a new coupe to be delivered the next spring.
Somewhere in this time period, a parcel of land on the north bank of the Somo River and adjoining the Seefeld farm was acquired by a Chicago business man named Charles R. Bull. (Everyone had fun with that name!) He was some kind of executive with the Liquid Carbonic Company, which at that time distributed soda fountain equipment and the cylinders of gas used in carbonating cold drinks. Dad built a big two-story house for the Bulls and I helped a little in my spare time. When Dad finished building the house it was to be stained a dark brown. Mr. Bull, having access to cylinders of compressed carbon dioxide gas, had one of his engineers devise a system for spraying the stain on his house instead of using brushes. So he sent up one cylinder of gas, a pressure regulator, some hose and a spray gun. So we put it all together according to the instructions he sent, and proceeded to spray stain on the house. It worked just fine until we ran out of gas, after covering only a small part of the house. Dad wrote Mr. Bull a letter, advising him of the problem, so he sent up another cylinder of gas and some more instructions. Again we sprayed, and again we ran out of gas, so then we gave up and put the stain on with brushes after all!
One advantage of having the Somo River in our back yard was that it gave us two ideal sites for summer cottages, one on each side of our little bay. Dad built a house on each of these sites, and I helped him when I could. I don't know if these cottages ever paid for themselves, but at least they created a ready market for the vegetables, eggs and milk we had in abundance.
I think it was in the summer of 1926 that I saw another airplane crash, the second I had witnessed. The Marquardt brothers, primarily Edwin and Lawrence ("Butts") had been building this plane for a long time, and now had it ready for taxi tests. Dale Wiley and I knew about this test, and we drove out to the airfield, which was in the area now occupied by the Tomahawk Public Schools. The plane was a small single-place high wing monoplane, powered by a motorcycle engine.
Ed was the pilot, and said he wasn't going to take off, just check things out on a fast taxi run. So Ed was in the plane, and "Butts" spun the propeller to start the engine. Ed revved it up a little, and the plane started to roll down the grassy runway. And then, I don't know if the plane flew so easily that it took off on its own, or if Ed couldn't resist the temptation to pull back on the "stick." Anyway, it took off, and was up about twenty feet when Ed saw himself heading for the swamp south of the field, and decided to turn back. He banked it sharply to the left, and then, because of insufficient speed and altitude, the left wing scraped the ground, and it landed in a heap.
Outside of a few scratches, Ed was unhurt, so the biggest blow was to the Marquardts' aspirations of flying their own airplane. Later (1962) Ed treated Joyce and myself to rides in his Piper Cub and then showed me the twin-engine plane he flew as company pilot for the National Container Corporation, which operated the paper mill where I had worked.
It was during this summer of 1926 that Dale and I were talking ourselves into taking an extended trip through the western states, with the idea that, just possibly, we might find work there and stay. So while I was still working at the paper mill office and living on the farm, we equipped ourselves for the trip, and started west. By the time we got back to Tomahawk, my folks were living in their town house, and I stayed at home there the remainder of the winter.
When the folks moved to the farm the next spring (1927) I moved with them, and helped Dad work on the summer cottage he was building. During the summer of 1926, my cousins Herman and Otto Schmelter, who had been staying with us, had gone to Milwaukee, where they both found work. It began to look as though I should do the same, and so in June, 1927, I boarded the train for Milwaukee.