"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 14: Island Summers (1922-1923)
Early in the summer of 1922, I had just finished my junior year at Tomahawk High, and was looking forward (?) to a summer of hard work on the Seefeld Somo River farm. And then fate intervened and led me to the first step of a chain of events which was to ultimately bring me to the Pacific Northwest twice, the second time to stay.
As you already know from previous chapters, my dad had built motor-boats in his "spare" time. He sold one of his boats to Elmer Foster, eldest son of George Foster, a locomotive engineer for the M.T.& W. railroad. When I fist knew Elmer, he was a successful lumber broker in Tomahawk, who had married Ruth Field, the younger daughter of Eugene Field, the poet, whose "Little Boy Blue" and "Wynken, Blinken and Nod" became childrens' classics. Elmer and Ruth had two children, Jean and Bill, and lived in a large river-front home in the south part of Tomahawk.
Ruth Foster had an older sister, Mary French Field, whom the family called "Trotty" and who had married a Chicago business man named William Englar. The Englars lived in Kenilworth, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, but maintained a summer home on an island in the Wisconsin River, across the main channel from Bradley Park. Access to this place was strictly by boat, so the Englars had a motorboat (not one of my dad's) and employed a combination boat operator and handyman during the summer months.
At the beginning of the 1922 summer season, the boat jockey the Englars had employed in previous years was unavailable, since he was a "guest" of the state, having thrown a brick through the window of Wallis's jewelry store, and had been convicted of robbing the place. Since the Englars weren't very well acquainted in Tomahawk, they asked brother-in-law Elmer Foster to find a new boat driver. And Elmer, having bought one of Dad's boats, knew I had grown up around boats, and offered me the job. And so I became the skipper of the "Auween", at the munificent salary of thirty dollars a month plus board.
The Englars didn't have a room in their house for a handyman-boat-jockey, so for a short time I slept in a small guest house they had on their property. Then one day Dad appeared with some building material, and together we put up an eight by ten foot one-room house, with two small windows and a door. We put in a single bed, a small table and a chair, and I had a house. After my second summer on the island, and I was working elsewhere, my house was still there on the island, but belonged to us. So my dad moved that little house from the island to the mainland, and then to the Seefeld Somo farm, where it was attached to our existing house and became an additional bedroom. I didn't see that move take place, but sure wish I had, for it was moved at least two miles across river and land, up hill and down, and must have taken quite a long time and a lot of energy and determination, both of which my dad had in abundance.
The Auween was an open cockpit motorboat about fourteen or sixteen feet long, was powered by a Gray two-cylinder four-cycle gasoline engine and equipped with a reversible propeller. Having no electric starter, it had to be cranked by hand. When I reported for work, Elmer showed me how to operate the engine and propeller controls, and then took me over the two routes I would normally follow. One was from the boathouse on the island down river to the Foster place south of Bradley Park. The other was to a small municipal pier near the Marinette depot and the entrance to the park. In traveling this latter route one day I discovered a navigational hazard in the form of a floating island. I hadn't even known there was such a thing, but there it was, an island perhaps fifty or seventy-five feet across, where there hadn't been an island before, right in the middle of my normal route. Fortunately there was plenty of room to go around it, so it didn't really bother me, but I did watch for it after that, especially after wind storms.
In two summers of operating that boat I encountered only two potentially serious problems, both involving important controls. Not long into the first summer, I began to notice that with the propeller control in "neutral" the boat wanted to back up, and with it in "full forward" it was going a good deal slower than normal. I reported this to Elmer Foster and he had me run Auween down to his boathouse, where we could hoist her out of the water. Our examination revealed that a loose set screw had allowed the whole propeller to slide back on its shaft far enough that it was in danger of coming off and falling to the bottom of the river, perhaps twenty-five down! We restored the prop to its normal position, tightened all the setscrews, and never had that problem again.
The second problem also involved control of the boat, this time affecting the steering. One day, while preparing to run the boat into its boathouse, I suddenly discovered that turning the wheel had very little effect on our direction of travel. I could still steer, somewhat, but in very wide circles, making approaches to the pier or boathouse very tricky maneuvers.. Again we hoisted the boat out of the water, and found that most of the rudder had rusted and fallen off. So we removed the remains of the old rudder blade, fashioned a new one from a piece of sheet iron, fastened it in place, and Auween was under full control again.
The Englars did a lot of entertaining, so they had a big house with a huge dining room, a big kitchen, and several bedrooms for house guests. They employed a full-time cook and two girls who did the housekeeping and doubled as waitresses during meals. Besides running and maintaining the Auween, my duties included keeping firewood in the kitchen woodbox to feed the huge cast iron range. One day I was outside somewhere when I heard a series of loud screams coming from the kitchen. I ran in to see what was going on, and there was Mrs. Bratlie, the cook, screaming "There's a snake in there!", pointing to the woodbox. Sure enough, there was a little garter snake trying to hide in the wood. It had apparently crawled into the woodpile for a nap and was in an armful of wood when I carried it into the kitchen.
Another of my chores was to keep ice in the huge kitchen icebox (no electric refrigerators yet!). In the back yard, near the river there was a small ice house. Every winter they had someone cut blocks of ice from the river and store them, buried in sawdust, for use the following summer. So every day or two, I dug into the sawdust for a block of ice, washed it off, and placed it in the icebox. And, buried with the ice, under all that sawdust, there was almost always a round tin of Roquefort cheese, which I often retrieved and re-buried. It may have been a purely psychological phenomenon, but I would have sworn that from the nearby path to the river I could smell that cheese, through its tin can, all that sawdust, and the thick ice house walls!
Besides handling all the routine chores around the place, I was expected to cope with equipment failures, such as a dead telephone or an inoperative water pump. For example, some morning after an overnight thunderstorm anyone attempting to use the phone might be greeted, not by the usual "Number, please" (no dial phones yet!) but by a dead silence, or perhaps a slight hum. Most of the time such failures were caused by lightning surges on the long overhead telephone line to the island. The telephone itself was protected from such surges by a lightning arrestor, which shorted the line to ground, which was just fine except that it remained shorted after the storm, and disabled the phone. So when the phone didn't work, my first move was to the little metal box on the side of the house where the wire went through the wall to the phone. Opening the box revealed two blocks of carbon in a metal holder. When these blocks were removed from their holder, I could see burned spots on their surfaces, the results of large currents from the lightning surges. With my ever-present pocket knife, I scraped their surfaces clean, replaced them in their holder, and voila! the phone worked again.
Sometimes the phone failure was caused by a break in the long wire to the house from the south end of the island. The first time the wire broke, I took the Auween to the mainland, and persuaded the phone company's repair man to go back to the island with me. Together we found the broken wire, and I helped him repair it, using a special splicing sleeve and two pairs of pliers. Then he gave me a handful of those splices and said: "Next time you can do it yourself." So I did, thereby saving the repairman a trip to the island just to twist two wires together, and avoiding two trips to the mainland in the Auween. One morning, after a night-time wind storm had again broken the phone wire, I was up in a tree near the house with a wire in each hand preparing to splice them together, when the operator chose that moment to ring that phone! The ringer current gave me quite a jolt, and fortunately someone answered the phone immediately, so I hung on and spliced the line back together.
And then there was the electrical system. Looking back after seventy-odd years later, the electrical wiring on the island seem almost prehistoric. All the wires were out in the open, fastened to the walls and ceilings by porcelain insulators, light switches were of the "turn-the-little-black-knob" variety, and I don't remember any wall outlets. (Not much of anything to plug in, I guess,) And there wasn't even a fuse box, so when one day the water pump refused to run, I took the power company repair man out there, and he explained the mysteries of the system. The fuse for the water pump was hidden in a little metal box on the pump support, and consisted of two or three lengths of fuse wire fastened between two brass screws. Installing new fuse wire brought the pump back to life. Then he showed me where to find the fuses for the ceiling lights. He gave the bottom half of the porcelain lamp socket a counter-clockwise twist, and it came off in his hand. And inside, completely hidden from unsuspecting people like me, was a piece of fuse wire fastened between two brass screws! Before I took him back to the mainland he gave me a supply of fuse wire and said: "Next time you can do it yourself."
In my two summers as skipper of the Auween I ferried a good many people to and from the island. It has been more than seventy years now, and most of their names and faces have vanished from my memory, but I do remember a few. Like the Englars' son Eugene, who was a few years older than I was, had attended a private military-type school, and who had a summer job as steward on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner. And the middle-aged lady from Las Cruces, New Mexico, who made the best chili I ever tasted. And there was a young mother and her three daughters, Ruth (about seven), "Doc" (about five), and "Tiny" (about three). These girls used to follow me around as I went about my work, and when I sat down to rest, they took turns sitting on my lap! But the most memorable person on my passenger list was Eugene Field's widow, Julia Comstock Field. She had married Field when she was only sixteen, had five children, and was only thirty- nine when her husband died of a heart attack in 1895. When I first met her, in 1922, she was, at sixty-six, still a spry little lady. She had led a very sheltered life, and let her family manage her financial affairs. They persuaded her to invest most of her assets in Chicago real estate, and she lost it all in the 1929 market crash and depression. She managed to keep her farm on Crystal Lake north of Tomahawk, and that is where she lived until 1936, when she died of a heart attack, having outlived her husband by forty-one years.
In 1923, when I started my second summer on the island, I had with me the little one-tube radio I had built during the previous winter. If you've read the preceding chapter you probably know more than you ever wanted to about that radio, so I'll spare you the details. Anyway, with a wire strung from a nearby tree for an antenna, and if I had good batteries, I could while away the evenings listening to entertainment from all over the country. Only one of the many broadcasts I heard on that radio still remains in my memory. On July fourth, 1923, I listened to a blow-by-blow description of the heavy-weight boxing match in which Jack Dempsey defeated Tom Gibbons in fifteen rounds, Even the Englars didn't hear that, since they had no radio!
In late July of that year, a traveling Chautauqua came to Tomahawk and set up their tent near the Milwaukee depot. Their programs included lectures, musical groups, travelogues, and other presentations of a "cultural" nature. On August second, on of the events on the evening program was a reading of some of Eugene Field's poems by his daughter, Mary French Field Englar, my employer. I didn't get in to hear her, so I was enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere in the area, when suddenly the merry-go-round stopped. It was real quiet for a minute, and then I could hear the buzz of serious conversations all around me. I asked someone what had happened, and was told that word had just reached Tomahawk (by telegraph) that President Warren G. Harding had died that evening in San Francisco, and that Calvin Coolidge was now our president.
In the summer of 1923, one of the two girls who worked on the island was a Tomahawk girl named Ethel Hanson, who often visited her parents on her day off. On one such occasion I was at her home waiting to take her back to the island, when she introduced me to her brother Norman, who, I think, worked for the telephone company. And Norman, in turn, introduced me to a young friend of his, named Dale Wiley! At the time, of course, I had no idea that knowing Dale would have such a profound effect on the course of my life.
As the end of the summer season drew near, I began to wonder what I was going to do next. I had finished high school, hadn't the finances to go on to college, and faced the prospect of a perhaps fruitless job search. Then, one day as I was leaving the little municipal pier where I had just tied up the Auween, I saw George Piper, the M.T.& W. station agent waving to me from the depot platform. I walked over to learn what he wanted, and, much to my surprise, he told me there was a job opening at the depot, and asked if I was interested. Of course I was, and shortly thereafter I tied up the Auween for the last time and became a railroad man.