Or is it sledding?  One can slide on anything – a toboggan, a board, a piece of cardboard, even a sled.  But the only way you can go sledding is to slide on a sled.  It’s like…..a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square.  In any case, we called it sliding even though most of our sliding was done on sleds.

A block away from our house on Pleasant View, behind the Lutheran Church, was Campbell’s Hill, the highest and steepest hill on our side of town, with a good outrun into a shallower sloped field at its base.  Campbell’s Hill had been a sliding hill for several generations of DeForest kids.  My dad had an eight inch scar on his leg from an encounter with a barb wire fence while sliding on Campbell’s Hill as a teenager.  You could get a long, speedy ride down “the Hill”, but the downside, of course, was a long walk back up to the top.

As seven or eight year olds we were kept pretty much off “the Hill” because it required us to cross one of the main streets in the village.  And, since our back yard was considerably lower than the front and side yards, with a steep slope on the east side of the house, we could get our sliding thrills there.  It was a shorter run, but with a higher frequency.  Quantity over quality was the order of the day.

The contest was to see who could go the farthest.  Once the snow was packed we could go down the hill, kitty corner across the back yard and into the back yard of the neighbor’s behind us.  It was…back up toward the front yard, run as fast as we could holding the sled in front of us, then belly-flop onto the sled just as we reached the crest of the hill.

Howard Abraham, who lived next door and was a year older, held the record for the longest ride off our little hill.  It was the day after an ice storm and everything – streets, sidewalks and yards – was covered with ice.  Howard hit the crest of the hill, flopped down on his sled and was off.  Down the hill he went, across the back yard, into the Johnson’s back yard to their driveway, down the driveway into the street and across towards the Farness and Johnson grocery store.  He had the misfortune at that point to meet a car whose driver was having difficulty navigating the icy streets and the collision sent Howard to the hospital with a broken leg.  But…his record for the longest ride was never broken.

Coincidence?…you decide…

First a little history. The first Sheriff of Dane County was appointed in 1839.  He owned a bakery and the jail was the upstairs floor of the bakery, accessed via a ladder through a hole in the ceiling.  Later that year the County Board advertised for bids to put up a new building as a jail.  The Sheriff won the bid.

In 1927 a separate county law enforcement agency was created – the Dane County Traffic Department – and, by 1934, squad cars were equipped with radio receivers.  Officers could receive dispatches from the central office, but had to respond via telephone.  By the late 1940s the cars were equipped with two-way radios.  The two agencies remained unique with separate responsibilities until they merged in 1982.

Sheriff’s deputies were primarily responsible for criminal investigation, while the Traffic Department handled traffic citations, accidents and, by the 1950s, were responsible for first aid and transport to hospitals.  There were no EMTs or emergency medical services as we now know them.  Traffic officers were trained in advanced first aid and did what they could for accident victims and emergency patients.

In the event they weren’t readily available, a friend or relative hauled you to the doctor’s office or made the trip to Madison to one of the hospitals.  Mom was taking a pregnant friend to the hospital when the baby was born in the back seat of our car.  Dad’s hip boots were on the floor in the back seat and the baby was nicknamed Boots.  But…I digress.

In the mid- to late 1950s, when Dad was the DeForest police chief he was also designated as a Special Deputy for the sheriff’s department.  What that meant was he had law enforcement privileges throughout the county and could ride along and help other deputies, but wasn’t a paid employee of the county.  He often did these ride alongs on his nights off, usually with two deputy friends, Bob J and Bob K, whose patrol area included DeForest and a northern section of Dane County.

What follows is a recounting of one of those nights in the mid-1950s as told to me by Dad.

Ben Alexander, the actor who played Jack Webb’s partner on Dragnet liked to interact with police officers as he traveled the country so he could more closely portray his role as a detective.  He was with Bob J and Bob K on one of those nights when Dad was riding with them.

The deputy working as dispatcher that night was seen by other deputies as being somewhat pompous and eager to be noticed – to the point of occasionally contacting deputies in the field for no really good reason.  Knowing a celebrity was with the two Bobs that night he called them frequently – and they finally just started ignoring him.

Frustrated over not getting any answers he kept calling – “Car 54 come in…car 54 come in”  and finally “Car 54, where are you?”

“Car 54, Where Are You” appeared as a TV series in 1961.

Do you want the cheap fix…or the expensive fix?…

Before transistors and microchips, before LCDs and LEDs, electronic apparatus were run using vacuum tubes.  They were the heart of radios and television sets.  The earliest computers were room-sized and larger, and all used vacuum tubes.  Tubes were fragile in terms of their life span and generated lots of heat.  The SAGE building at the Madison airport, part of a computerized early warning network for NORAD was a windowless, concrete building air-conditioned year around because of the heat generated by the tubes in its computers.

Many common vacuum tubes looked like this.

Vacuum Tube

Grandpa Karow often had a wry sense of humor and he also knew who the DeForest area cheapskates were.  Most adults were products of the depression and by nature had learned to get the most for their money, but a few were genuinely cheap.

One day, when I was about 13, one of these cheap souls came into Grandpa’s radio shop carrying a radio which had stopped working.  The usual reason radios and TVs of this genre stopped working was because a tube had burned out just like a light bulb, and most generally just replacing the burned out tube fixed the problem.  After determining which tube had failed, Grandpa asked the man, “Do you want the cheap fix or the expensive fix”, knowing full well what the answer would be.

What had happened inside the tube was that the connection from one of the pins to one of the tube’s elements had failed.  What the customer didn’t know was that that element inside the tube was connected to not one, but two different pins.  However, only one of those pins received power when the tube was plugged into its socket.

So…instead of replacing the tube at a cost of six or eight dollars, the cheap fix was to wrap a wire around the pin that received power and connect it to the pin that normally didn’t receive power.  Then, when the tube was plugged in, the pin that was still connected inside the tube was able to power up the tube and the radio worked like new.

There was a lot of blustering and the guy said “All you did was wrap a piece of wire around it”.  Grandpa’s reply was “It works, doesn’t it?  Two dollars please for the cheap fix.”

Memorial Day…

…used to be on May 30th.  Originally celebrated as Decoration Day as a way to remember the soldiers who died in the Civil War, it was so named for the decorating of soldiers graves.  In the early 20th century the honor was extended to include all military personnel who died in the service of our country and the more common name after World War II became Memorial Day, although Grandma Karow continued to refer to the day as Decoration Day.  In 1968, Congress decided that every Memorial Day should offer up a three-day weekend and, along with three other Federal holidays, designated them to be celebrated on certain Mondays.

Celebrations in DeForest began with a parade, starting at the high school, going west on Holum Street to Main Street, around the main business block to Commerce Street and ending at the Firemen’s Park.  Parade participants included the high school band, members of the American Legion post who were veterans of World War I, World War II and Korea, local businessmen in decorated vehicles and generally anyone else who chose to bring up the end of the parade.

At the park several crosses representing graves in a military cemetery had been set up near the flagpole and those who had watched the parade now gathered around them for a short ceremony.  The flag was raised, then lowered to half-staff, the Gold Star Mothers were recognized and the Legionnaires fired a rifle salute.  Closing the ceremony, two trumpet players, representing buglers, played Taps.  The first bugler, near us, began playing.  The second, playing from the other side of the park, began when the notes of the first bugler reached him, presenting the audience with a haunting, far-away echo.

Afterwards, lunch was available at the log cabin, served by the ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary and a ball game was scheduled to close out the afternoon.

Peas, peas, peas, peas…

The end of June usually marks the harvest of the first crop of peas.  Stop to watch today’s pea picking and you’ll see a harvesting process much different from the 1940s and 50s.  A machine, similar to a corn combine, is pulled down the field cutting the vines, ingesting them and spitting the vines and empty pods out the back.  The ripe peas gleaned from the pods are deposited in a hopper to be unloaded into trucks and transported to the canning factory.

What now takes place inside one machine used to be a series of four separate steps.  First the vines were cut, similar to mowing hay, followed by a loader that picked up the cut vines and put them into a truck.  The vines, laden with full pods were hauled to a couple stationary machines (I don’t know a formal name for them, we just called them “pea viners”), where the pods were separated from the vines and the peas removed from the pods.

The “viners” were located on North Street in DeForest, on the west side of the railroad tracks, making it easy to load the peas into trucks for shipping to local canning factories or into railroad cars for shipment to other canneries.  Trucks headed for the viner from fields south of DeForest came north on Main Street and had to climb Campbell’s Hill, downshifting, slowing and lumbering over the top.  By the time they reached the crest of the hill they were going slow enough that we could run behind and pull armloads of vines off the truck to be taken back to that day’s play area where we could open the pods and have fresh, raw peas.

Grocers did not enjoy the year-round availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, and generally vegetables for meals were canned.  Fresh veggies were available only when in season.  During pea season, parents could go to the viners and buy peas by the pound for dinner, fresh from the field that day.


…was just the neighborhood kids getting together and deciding to do something.  It might be just two or three of us, or a larger group.  There were no organized sports until High School.  No T-Ball, no soccer, no flag football.  If we wanted to play football or baseball, someone would produce the football or baseball and bat from home.  We would “choose up” sides to divide the group into teams and off we would go – either to someone’s house where there was a large back yard or a couple blocks away to the Fireman’s Park.

Nearly every kid had a scooter or a bicycle, or maybe both.  Pleasant View St was not well traveled but the block we lived on was bordered by fairly busy streets – Main St on the west, Commerce St on the north and Market St on the east – so we generally stuck to the sidewalks to go from our home area to the downtown business block.

On that business block, if we had some money, we could buy what we thought were some of the essentials of being a kid – ammunition for our BB guns and caps for our cap pistols from the Marshall-Wells hardware store, snacks at the Farness and Johnson grocery store (Hershey bars-5¢, ice cream bars and ChoChos-10¢), and if we were really flush with our money, to Nordahl’s Drug Store for a chocolate malt or sundae (25¢ and 20¢, respectively). An occasional trip to Meixner’s Novelty Shop, on the corner of Main and Holum Streets yielded firecrackers, but they were generally reserved for the days around July 4th.

It was on Market St, when I was about seven that my scooter and I nearly met our demise.  George Balcom, the railroad depot agent, and his wife Anna lived on Market St and had a steep, concrete driveway just made for high speed scooter travel.  Unfortunately one of my trips down that driveway took me into the road and into the path of a car driven by a 19 year old young man with extremely fast reflexes and much better brakes than those on my scooter.  He was so shaken by the experience that he sought out who I was and reported the incident to my parents.  Lesson learned…I never went back to the Balcom’s driveway.


Grandpa Karow was a Ham…

No, not one of those people who goes on stage and over acts; an amateur radio operator.  Amateur radio was the early 20th century version of today’s internet.  It wasn’t as widely available to everyone as the internet is today, but, to a few intrepid pioneers of radio, it allowed worldwide communication.

I don’t know the exact years he was actively doing this; I think he started sometime in the early 1920s and continued into the late 1930s.  I have 500+ post cards (QSL cards) verifying his contacts with other hams around the world with dates ranging from 1924 through 1938.

As I sort through the QSL cards I see mostly contacts in the continental US:  Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, California, New York, Florida, among others.  International contacts included England, Australia and New Zealand.  All done with relatively low powered radios using Morse Code.

Equipment was all pretty much home made.  You could buy many of the component parts but had to assemble and wire everything yourself.  I remember Grandpa telling me on his early radio sets, the tuning coils were hand-wound on oatmeal boxes.  Antennas were single wires, cut to match the wave length of the radio frequency you were using (usually 40 or 80 meters, sometimes 20 meters), strung from the house to a pole or between two poles set in the yard.

One ham friend, who lived close to DeForest was Willy Forest.  Willy went on to own and operate a commercial radio station – WIBU, “High atop radio hill in Poynette, Wisconsin”.  Grandpa and Willy collaborated occasionally by doing remote broadcasts from DeForest, connecting to the transmitter in Poynette via telephone lines from DeForest.  I remember Mom telling me as teenagers in the mid-1930s, she and her cousin Alice would sometimes do a musical program from their living room.  Mom would sing and Alice would accompany her on the piano.

World War II brought the shutdown of all amateur radio in the US.  Grandpa went on to teach Morse Code to aircraft radio operators in the Army Air Corps at Truax Field (now Madison Municipal Airport) as his contribution to the war effort.  By 1950 he was firmly ensconced in radio repair and beginning to learn about a fledgling new medium called television.

I think about the changes in communication that he saw in his lifetime – from growing up when radio was nonexistent through the proliferation of color television, and I wonder what he would think to see us communicating, complete with video, with someone  a thousand miles away, using a wireless gadget the size of a comic book

Grandma Sorenson had asthma…

Born January 2, 1890, the disease did not manifest itself until she was in her mid-teens, and continued for the remainder of her life.  Her constant companion was an atomizer filled with aminophylline.  When breathing became difficult, a couple squeezes of the atomizer bulb as she inhaled the mist of medication usually made it easier.  The sound of her using that atomizer was unique unto itself; 50 plus years have passed and I would still recognize it.

If she had a particularly bad asthma attack, an injection of adrenalin would be in order.  When she was alone during the day, she would self-administer the prescribed amount.  If a nighttime attack was severe enough to need an injection, Grandpa Sorenson would do it.

After Grandpa’s death she had no one to help during the night.  She couldn’t phone for help – at that time homes only had one phone and that was usually in the kitchen.  Dad and I installed a bell in our house and a switch in her bedroom, with an overhead wire between our houses.  Then all she had to do was flip the switch, the bell would ring, and I, at 14 or 15 years old, would go to her house, administer the injection of adrenalin and stay with her until the asthma attack had eased.

The severe attacks were usually pretty intense, leaving her gasping to get her breath and trying to get enough air to stay alive.  She told me that during one of those, even though she was having trouble breathing, a sudden, unexplainable calm came over her.  She said after that incident she had no more fear of death.

A Word About Houses…

Three houses were, at one time or another, ours between 1940 and about 1970.  All were literally built by Dad, either partly or completely, with him doing most of the construction, except for the masonry work.

104 N Stevenson St

The house at 104 N Stevenson was completed in early 1940 and Mom and Dad moved into it as newly-weds as soon as they were married.  It was to this house that I was brought home from the hospital in October 1941 and we remained there until some time in 1943 or ’44.  The main part of the house was a building from the Wiese farm near Verona and moved to DeForest by Oliver Midthun, a local house mover.  It was set on a foundation larger than the original building and then expanded to its current size.  Dad told me the basement was excavated using a team of mules pulling a large scoop.

120 Pleasant View St

We moved to 120 Pleasant View from Stevenson St. and my early years of playing with friends and family are from this house.  Grandma Karow’s brother and sister-in-law, Bill and Ethel Johnson, with cousins Howard, Bob and Jayette lived across the street on the west corner of the block.  The Ellingsons, with children my age, lived on the east end of the block.  Next door to the west of us was the Abraham family and kitty-corner across the back yard were the Johnsons and the Emersons, all of whom had children about my age.

720 Yahara St

In 1951 Dad finished our third house and we moved to 735 Yahara St (now 720 Yahara).  The long low building that morphed into Grandpa and Grandma Karow’s home was still a chicken house with a wooden slatted corn crib at the east end.  One of my earliest memories of the Yahara St house is being able to sit in the north window of my room and shoot rats that were raiding the corn crib.  This house was to remain my home until 1964 when Karen and I married and remained in the family until the early 1970s.  After all these years, I still wonder if any of the residents of my old room have discovered the “secret” compartments Dad built into my closet.

“Harolds version of “A Christmas Story”…

starring me as Ralphie.

We were a family of hunters – birds mostly – ducks, pheasants, grouse, partridge – so much so that I got my first 12 gauge shotgun for my 9th birthday.  But unlike all my friends, who grew up in hunting families and had rabbits as their quarry until the end of January, my hunting ended once bird season was over.  Why??  Because all I had was a shotgun, and everyone knew it wasn’t “sporting” to hunt rabbits with anything but a .22 rifle.

Even though I had proven that I could safely use a .22, Dad always dragged his feet when I approached him about getting one of my own.  That is, until the Christmas after my 15th birthday.

The day before Christmas he asked if I’d like to have a .22 for Christmas and without waiting for much of an answer, we piled in the car and drove north out of DeForest to Lloyd Grinde’s farm.  Once there, Dad made a deal with Lloyd to buy this old, beat-up single-shot .22 from him for $15.00.

There was my Christmas present for that year…the most wretched looking .22 I had ever seen, and a single-shot to boot.  Not exactly what I had been hoping for in a .22, but I smiled, showed it to Mom when we got home and put it in the corner, behind the curtains, behind the Christmas tree.

The next morning, after all the other gifts were opened Dad asked me if there was anything else I had gotten and suggested I get it out and show everyone.  I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to call that gun my own, but figured it was mine and I’d better get used to it.  I slipped behind the tree, pulled back the curtain and found the old, beat-up single-shot had been replaced with a brand new, Winchester Model 74 .22 automatic.  Needless to say, Mom and Dad got a good chuckle at my expense knowing full well how hard I was trying to hide my disappointment over becoming the next owner of Lloyd Grinde’s gun

Foxy was…foxy…

Sometime in the summer of 1954 Grandpa Karow decided Jill and I needed a pony.  The pony came from a customer of Grandpa’s in Dane, WI and its arrival may have been just another of Grandpa’s “deals”, of which he had many.  In any event, there he was and we needed to decide what to do with him.

No animal should be without a name, so that was the first thing to accomplish, and, since we already had a dog named Queenie, Prince seemed like a good choice.  Prince had been ridden little, if at all so it became my job to get him to allow someone on his back and to teach myself how to ride an animal, all at the same time.  In all the time we had him, he never let himself be saddled, so I quickly became good at riding bareback, and, in fact, ultimately preferred that to riding in a saddle.  Prince was a short pony and my feet nearly touched the ground when I rode him so we looked a little ridiculous, but that summer and the next we did have a good time together.

So…what about this Foxy guy?  Fritz Chase owned the lumber yard in DeForest and was one of the more well to do businessmen in town.  At some point he decided he should own a horse which he could then ride in parades. His horse of choice was an American Saddlebred, 17 hands high with a white blaze face and four equal white socks, which he named Foxy.

EPSON scanner image

He lived up to his name in many ways.  He developed a reputation for being un-rideable, even after Fritz had spent hundreds on training.  He frequently got out of the fence where he was kept and roamed the streets of DeForest, usually at night.  Since Dad was the only cop in DeForest, he would get calls at all hours of the night and would have to catch Foxy and return him to his corral.  One night, in the early summer of 1956, he just put Foxy in the pasture where we kept Prince and called Fritz to let him know where his horse was.  Fritz said he’d send someone up the next day to get him.

A week passed and no-one came.  Dad stopped at the lumber yard to see Fritz and Fritz said since his horse seemed to like our pony so much, he’d pay for the feed and upkeep if we’d just keep Foxy in our pasture with Prince.  Knowing Foxy’s reputation for tossing riders, he added, “If you keep him, Paul can ride him as much as he wants”.  Little did he know I would make friends with that horse, and for the next three years, until I left home for college, I rode him wherever I wanted, saddled or bareback, sometimes with a bridle, sometimes using just a homemade rope hackamore.

N15676…the other Cub…

An airplane.  To be specific, a 1935 Taylor E-2 Cub that was another of Grandpa Karow’s “deals”.  Norm Curtis lived outside of Poynette and had two of these Cubs.  So he and Grandpa made a trade – the airplane for a radio-phonograph combination – the 1955 equivalent of a hi-fi with a retail price of about $200.00.  The idea was now that we had this airplane, Norm would teach Dad and Grandpa how to fly.

Norm had been involved with aviation beginning in the late 1920’s.  He was a pilot and mechanic; had flown for aerial mapping in Honduras in the 1930’s and was a civilian working for the Army Air Corps during World War II training glider pilots.

So here we had this airplane.  The fuselage and tail surfaces had new fabric cover on them and the engine had been overhauled.  All that remained to be done was to cover the wings and ailerons, put all the pieces together and we’d be ready fly.  And part of the agreement was that Norm would teach us how to do the covering and supervise the process.

The Cub was designed and first built by C G Taylor in Bradford, PA about 1930 with the idea being that it would be an airplane inexpensive enough for the average person to buy.  The engine they used in the prototype was a Brownbach “Tiger Kitten” and it was because of the name of this engine, they called the airplane a Cub.  The Kitten was woefully underpowered and, after trying several other engine models, turned to the much more reliable and powerful Continental 40 horsepower engine.

Taylor was frequently short of money and soon a successful businessman named William T Piper bought a partial interest in the company.  Piper eventually bought out Taylor, made some changes in the E-2, which became the J-2 and ultimately the little yellow airplane that everyone knows is a Piper Cub, the J-3.  Over the years Piper engineers morphed the little J-3 into faster, larger airplanes that would carry more passengers.  The Vagabond, the Cruiser, the Super Cruiser, the Pacer and even the airplane I learned to fly in, the Tri-Pacer can all trace their heritage back to the lowly E-2 Cub.

But…back to 1955 and our E-2.  By now what had been the chicken house was remodeled into a living space with the radio/TV shop at the west end, and Grandpa and Grandma Karow had moved there from the big farm house and were renting the big house.  The Cub fuselage was tied down in their back yard and the wings, in the process of being recovered, were kept in a separate outbuilding.

Now, there was almost always some kind of light breeze on “Karow Hill” where we lived.  It could be still as death in the village but invariably there would be some air movement on the Hill.  Except this one summer night when it was hot and very still.  Everyone was miserable.  Grandpa Karow was always one to try to solve a problem – keep in mind his solution to squeezing the juice out of rhubarb to make wine was to run it through Grandma’s washing machine wringer.  So this thought popped into his head that he had, sitting in his back yard, a machine with a large fan on the front.

The E-2 was untied and wheeled into the front yard; cement blocks were placed in front of the wheels and I was told to sit on the tail to hold it down.  The engine was started, the throttle advanced a little faster than idle speed and we sat there, the adults on the front porch and me on the tail, enjoying more breeze on that hot night than anyone else in town.

When it was nearly dark, we shut down the engine and went to our respective homes, with Grandma going inside to discover that our breeze had been strong enough to blow all the pictures off the walls in her living room

Keeping Warm…

Through the 1940’s and into the 50’s, most homes in DeForest and the surrounding area were heated with either coal or fuel oil.  Natural gas pipelines had not yet made their way into what was considered “rural” areas, although an occasional home was heated with propane.  Mostly, though, gas stoves were the appliance of choice for propane.

Coal-fired furnaces, by nature, were machines requiring manual labor to keep going.  Older ones were fed coal on demand by hand, while some furnaces, such as the one in Grandpa and Grandma Karow’s house, had been fitted with an add-on called a stoker.  The stoker had a bin into which you could shovel “stoker” coal; coal broken into chips about ¾  inch in size.  When the house got too cool, a thermostat turned on a motor which turned an auger built into the bottom of the stoker bin which in turn fed coal into the furnace.  This meant you only had to shovel coal into the bin about twice a day.  Other labor with coal burning furnaces included removing the “clinkers” and ash from the firebox and hauling it out of the basement, a job for which Jim and I were often recruited.  The ash was frequently used in place of sand or salt on icy sidewalks and driveways.

By the mid to late 1950’s, with the availability of natural gas still 5 to 10 years in the future, most of the coal fired furnaces had either been converted to burning fuel oil or replaced with modern oil-fired furnaces.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941…

a date that will live in infamy – the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

These words, spoken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, described to Congress the act which catapulted the United States into World War II – a war in which it is estimated that between 62 and 78 million people world-wide lost their lives, including some 480,000 Americans.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of that event.  Our family’s involvement in the war effort over the ensuing 3 1/2 years was varied – Uncle Bob served in the Army in Europe, Grandpa Karow was a civilian instructor teaching Morse code to service members at Truax Air Base (now Madison Municipal Airport).  Dad worked for about 7 months as a lineman on the construction of the Al-Can (Alaska) Highway in the Yukon Territory of Canada and returned to work as a civilian electrician at Truax.

My “claim to fame” for this date is by coincidence – it happened to be the Sunday on which I was baptized.  Family history relates that Mom, Dad and I returned from church with Grandma Karow and Grandpa Karow announced “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor”.

Hallowe’en 1948…

We were living on Pleasant View St and those are the years I remember most clearly from our time in that house.  We “Trick or Treated” as a group of kids with no chaperones and the only inspection of our treats was when our parents picked out the candy they wanted for themselves. Store bought costumes were non-existent except for the occasional mask.  Most of us were ghosts, wearing an old sheet with eye holes cut in it or cowboys, hiding our identities behind Lone Ranger masks.

A simpler time, maybe.  We knew each other, we were neighbors.  My friend, Henry Ellingson lived on the east corner of the block and my cousins Howard, Bob and Jayette Johnson at the west end.  Across the street were the Haugens, Albert and Grace; he, a rural mail carrier and she, a substitute teacher.  To the east of the Haugens lived the Farnesses, retired from owning a grocery store.  To the west, Ellen Brue, a teacher who, by the time she retired, had taught my father, my mother, my sister and me.

The Haugens always had home made popcorn balls. Before you got your treat you had to sign your name in a spiral bound notebook, I suspect to make sure you didn’t come to their door more than once.  I guess they had a limited number of popcorn balls.

Night seemed darker then.  There wasn’t the proliferation of lights as now.  The few street lights threw a narrow pool of light beneath them and, once out of that pool, it was dark.  Imagine a cool October night, the clouds scudding across the face of the moon, the blustery wind on the heels of a cold front blowing dry leaves past your feet and the back and forth swinging of the street lights ever changing the pool of light beneath them, shadows growing, then receding.  That was Hallowe’en.

October 24, 2011 was a Monday…

As you can tell from the title, this was originally written several years ago.

October 24, 1955 was a Monday, too, the last hours of which I remember in great detail.  I was eight days beyond my 14th birthday and this was the last of a four day duck hunting trip to the woods near Necedah.  There were six of us – Carl Thier and his son Dwain, my Grandpa Sorenson, my Dad and me, and Tony Zins.  Riding home in the car we talked about how enjoyable the trip had been and what a great sunset we had that day. And we had a big laugh when Carl Thier pulled a partly eaten can of pork and beans from the inside pocket of his hunting coat to serve to us when we stopped at a New Lisbon restaurant for supper.

We were unloading the car when Grandpa Sorenson sat down on the slope beside the driveway, put his hand to his chest and said, “Tony, I’ve got that pain right here again.”  With that he laid back on the slope.  Dad was the DeForest police chief and used the police radio in the car to call for an ambulance while I ran into the house to call Dr Grinde.  Doc Grinde arrived within five minutes and the ambulance minutes later.  Doc administered a shot of adrenalin, the accepted treatment for a heart attack back then, but when he looked at us and shook his head we knew there was no hope.  In the midst of this, Grandma Sorenson noticed the commotion in our driveway and knew something was very wrong.  I will never forget the sound of her voice as she walked across the vacant lot between her house and ours calling “Billy….. Billy.”

This was the first time anyone close to me had died and I remember lying in bed later that night trying to imagine what it would be like never being able to see or talk to that person again.  As I lay there, the door to my bedroom opened slightly and I heard my Dad’s voice.



“It’s OK for men to cry.”

The door closed and he was gone

Whoosh…Click, Whoosh…Click. “Faster!!”…

The whoosh was the sound of the burst of water coming from the barrel on the tobacco planter to irrigate the seedling as it was placed in the ground.  The click, the sound of the spring loaded valve snapping shut to cut off the water flow.  “Faster!!”, was either Jim or me telling the driver, usually Uncle Albert, to speed up because we could plant faster without missing a spot.

Tobacco was, and probably still is, a hugely labor intensive crop to grow.  Little was mechanized once the plants were in the ground.

Grandpa Karow had a tobacco allotment of 3.8 acres; meaning he could grow tobacco on up to that amount of land.  He had a Farmall Cub with a one-bottom plow, a seven foot disc harrow to break up the soil turned over by the plow and a ten foot drag to further break up the clods of dirt and level the field for planting.  (The “Cub” had a governor on the engine to keep its speed within reasonable and safe limits.  Jim and I figured out how to disable it making it quite a bit faster to the point of a couple of near disasters.  But…I digress.)

Preparation of the seed bed to start the tobacco plants began with sterilizing the soil to kill any weed seeds that would crowd out the tobacco plants.  Today this is done chemically, but early on it was done by steaming the soil to sterilize it.

Olaf Hansen had a steam traction engine that he used to go from farm to farm steaming tobacco beds.  The engine towed a water wagon for the boiler and he had a team of horses that pulled an inverted box that could be lowered to the ground.  Hoses were connected between the boiler on the steam engine and this box, steam was piped through the hoses and in about 15 minutes the soil was sterilized.  The box was moved and the process repeated until a large enough bed had been treated.

One day Olaf lifted me up – I must have been around five or so – and put me on the back of one of the horses.  I remember looking around and being surprised at how much I could see and how high up I was.

Once the beds were sterilized, a frame was built around them, the seeds were scattered and the beds covered with a thin muslin (tobacco cloth) stretched across the frame.  By the time the plants were 6 or 7 inches high the field prep work was done and the task of pulling the plants from the bed and moving them to the field was begun.  “Pulling” was best done one plant at a time. This made it easier to separate the seedlings when planting them in the field.

From there it was out to the field, get on the planter with a stack of tobacco seedlings on our laps and off we would go; one plant every “whoosh, click”, first Jim, then me, then Jim again until we reached the end of the row.  Our travels up and down the field would continue until we either ran out of plants or the water barrel on the planter was empty.  Filling the water barrel was a job neither Jim or I wanted, but we usually worked out a schedule with me doing the job one time and Jim the next.  A stock tank was kept full of water and we used a five-gallon pail to bucket the water from the tank to the barrel.

The newly planted seedlings are not set very deep in the ground and a heavy rain storm shortly after planting often washed them out of the ground.  Re-planting those empty spots was done by hand.  Up one row and down the next.  Find an missing plant, poke a hole in the ground with a tapered peg, set in a new plant and push the soil back around it.  The field was usually still pretty muddy so going barefoot was the norm.  I can still remember the feel of the mud squishing between my toes as we walked the field setting in new plants.

When the plants were still young it was important to keep the field weeded.  This was pretty easy between the rows; the cultivator on the Farmall could do that job.  Getting rid of the weeds between the plants had to be done by hand with a hoe.  What is now Mabel St was then the lane going out to the field and the field extended from there to the present day Halsor St.  Grandpa paid Jim and me 10 cents a row to hoe those weeds.

The Road to Hell…

…they say, is paved with good intentions.  I began a project like this four years ago and, while I did have good intentions I got sidetracked  and never got further than beginning.  I’d like to think I have more incentive now.  In these four years past, I’ve lost the voices of both Mom and Dad, and, while I remember much of their history, there is so much more I would have liked to hear.  So many questions that remain unanswered.


Will Durant offered this:  “Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage and offer it to our children.”  So…as I begin the trek into my 71st year, I make one more attempt to follow his advice.So…as I begin the trek into my 71st year, I make one more attempt to put some things into some manner of prose about my boyhood in the 1940’s and 50’s.