Chores in a one-room country school, 1955-57 (part #2)

Previously,“One Small School Room in the Country 1955”

Most of the kids at Oak Lawn country school in rural Sun Prairie WI came out of small, working family farms. Agriculture was consolidating even in the 1950s. Even then, 80-acre farms provided a living, with maybe a part time job at Oscar Mayer or driving school bus. The average Wisconsin dairy herd numbered 211 cows in 2017 — up from 18 in 1955 (using two different sources).

We still had some old milk cans around the farm I grew up on, although (before my memory) father had torn the milking stanchions out of the little red barn that he bought from Carl Weisensel in 1947, adjacent to father’s home farm. I’m thinking there were 12 stanchions, total.

We had no real farm chores that young but brother Mike, a year younger, was already following Wayne the hired man (who lived with us) around the farm, silently absorbing, imprinting. Mike farmed for many years thereafter.

Back in the mid-1950s, the older classmates at Oak Lawn were assigned chores, one of which was to fill the bubbler from the hand-operated water pump outside. In winter, they left the bucket inside and pumped enough water to create an outdoor ice-skating rink.


Oak Lawn country school 1928. #1 John J. Blaska Jr., #2. (to the right) Jerome L. Blaska., #3 Juanita “Dolly” Blaska, #4. Burdette Blaska. Teacher in back. Bubbler in back of room (center right) looks very familiar to author in 1955-57 when he attended. Boys all wear overalls.

Little Egyptians

After a mid-winter thaw-and-freeze cycle, the snow cover hardened. The older boys drew their American Flyer sled through the culvert underneath the road to a promising vein on the other side, carved out blocks of the crusty white stuff, and ported it back to the school like ancient Egyptians. They constructed a fort incorporating the back wall of the boy’s outhouse. Somehow, they fashioned a roof. Entry was on hands and knees through an opening covered by a gunny sack.

The girls and us little boys (one of their duties was to look after us) constructed their own fort behind the girls’ outhouse. It was a poor affair. Wouldn’t have passed inspection in Bangladesh. The very first ice ball fired from the boys’ stronghold crashed the enterprise down our necks for a freezing shower. Thereupon, the big boys invited us little guys to tour their works. No girls allowed.

It was likely a ritual hallowed through the generations: the older student leveraged the newbie on the high end of the teeter-totter, then jumped off so that the initiate would crash down to the ground. Girls worked the swings to heights above the top bar. We played games that Grandpa must have played on the same white clover and bluegrass in the 1890s: pom pom pull away was one. (How did it go?) 

An older student threw a red dodge ball over the schoolhouse to the other side yelling, “Annie, Annie over.” The object was to catch the ball as it came over the roof, wherever that may be. We would have played hide and seek but there was no place to hide.

Sun Prairie 1950

Sun Prairie c. 1950 looking west from the now-demolished viaduct over Main St. / Hwy 19 across the porcelain factory and (farther left) Oconomowoc Canning Co..

A secret place

Well, there were two places. On the first day of second grade, I got to act as big brother to brother Mike, who was one year (less a day) younger. (Because his birthday came the day before mine he thought he should be older.) Still don’t know why I lost my nerve but we holed up (for that is the word) in the stinky outhouse. 

Mrs. Taylor rang her hand bell to begin class and yet we stayed hidden. Quiet. Then a voice trilled: “Where, oh where are the Blaska boys?”

“We’re in here,” the oldest piped up from behind the wooden door. “Come out, come out!” she commanded and we followed Mrs. Taylor into school, no questions asked, no explanations given.

David on Jerome's tractor

Father’s patient instruction (about 1950) in agriculture on the old John Deere never did take.

Alma Taylor taught 8 grades

Alma Dolan Taylor, I learned only a few years ago, was the mother of Marcella Chase, wife of Ted Chase of Chase Lumber. Mrs. Chase a few years later would be my den mother for Cub Scouts. Later, Mr. Chase was elected mayor and his son Ted Jr. still lives in their grand house on Bristol Street in Sun Prairie. 

(Sun Prairie’s first mayor was an honest-to-god hammer-and-anvil blacksmith, Tony Thomas. Father seemed to find any excuse to take a damaged implement for Mr. Thomas to heat up and then pound upon. Turns out my great-great grandfather, the immigrant, was likely a blacksmith as well as a small farmer.)

Mrs. Taylor, then well into her 70s, regaled her charges with stories from her own childhood in northeast Dane County: real-life Indians traveling along the creek to beg from the white interlopers. With colored chalk she drew highly detailed seasonal scenes — Thanksgiving with its pumpkins, turkeys, and Pilgrims, for instance. A traveling teacher came by maybe once a week to teach music. Us little kids banged wooden blocks together. We were not taught science.

Oak Lawn reinforced the work ethic that we were absorbing at home. Children did not have to speculate; they could see their parents at work.

Next: Grandpa’s seed corn

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Madison car thieves adapt to coronavirus

Is it the new smartphone?

Madison’s teenaged car thieves may be missing school
but they’re 
watching current events!

A citizen reports from Madison’s North Gammon-Old Sauk Road:

We had our car rifled through on Monday night  (04-01-2020). Normally we park in the garage but had left the car out that night. Fortunately we didn’t have anything the thieves wanted except for some change and a bottle of hand sanitizer. It has been reported. Just wanted to remind everyone to make sure you lock your cars and doors. I spoke with a police officer who said you should not leave your garage door opener in car that is parked outside. 

Madison’s Westhaven Trails reports:

I have video of kids going through cars over the weekend on Tempe Drive. They were driving a black Kia Soul. Reported to police. … The kids were also wearing N95 masks. Cop thought that was laughable; good disguise.

How about some encouraging news?

America is about a week away from tests that can determine if you have or have survived COVID-19 thanks to antibodies. “Some experts estimate that more than half of infected individuals show mild or no symptons.” The Wall Street Journal explains: 

USDAWhen fighting a pathogen, the immune system produces proteins known as antibodies that bind to specific molecules known as antigens on the invader’s surface like a lock and key. … Because antibodies linger in the blood, they are especially useful for determining if someone has been infected with the coronavirus.

This will convey immunity — at least to this particular strain. Those whom tests prove to be immune would receive “certificates of immunity” allowing them to return to public life. The UK has ordered 3.5 million antibody testing kits it will ship to households. 

The new normal? — Only 10% of Madison-based employees of the WI Department of Revenue are working from the Rimrock Road headquarters building; 936 are working from home. One hundred percent of the labcoats at Blaska Policy Werkes, the indentured servants at the Stately Manor, and the unlettered field hands at the Experimental Work Farm and Penal Colony are also working from home.

Where are you working?

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Let’s have an election!

Tuesday, April 7 seems about right!

Hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, plexiglass, gloves, and face shields.

Looking more likely a federal judge will allow Wisconsin’s non-partisan and presidential primary election to proceed next Tuesday, April 7. In a blessed display of judicial restraint, the judge said he didn’t have the power to postpone the election (not the least of which, it’s not a federal case!). But the governor and legislature can. But they won’t, as much as Madison’s mayor want it delayed. 

⇒ Wisconsin is the only state holding an election at this stage of the pandemic.

VoteGovernor Evers is saying, “If I could have changed the election on my own, I would have, but I can’t without violating state law. I’ve asked the legislature to do its part to ensure a fair and safe election.” Legislative Republican leaders give no indication they will meet to change the date. Nor should they.

Abe Lincoln held an election in the middle of America’s Civil War, getting ballots to the front lines.No election is perfect. Never mind the presidential primary. That election could be delayed. But county elective terms expire in all 72 counties, as do local school boards. (In Madison, be strong for Wayne Strong.) There’s a major state supreme court race. (Vote Dan Kelly.)

If not April 7, when?

Reduced turnout? Hardly!

The Wisconsin Elections Commission says 1,053,556 requests for absentee ballots had been received in Wisconsin as of Wednesday (04-01-2020); 387,833 have already been returned. Wisconsin has more than 3,300,000 active, registered voters. In the average Spring primary election year, only 14% of eligible voters (roughly 462,000) actually bother to vote.

Even if not all the million requested absentee ballots are not returned, it would be the largest turnout for a state primary in Wisconsin history.

Among the unsung heroes are our poll workers. Mayor Satya Conway Rhodes reports that the city expected to issue 6,000 to 8,000 absentee ballots but as of Wednesday had mailed 70,000. Poll workers, she says,”struggled to find enough ballot envelopes and enough mailing labels, and they’ve worked 90-110 hour work weeks to manage the volume of requests, losing sleep and straining their own immune systems in the process.”

UPDATED: Friday 5 p.m. 04-03-2020  is the last day to request an absentee ballot, due to U.S. Judge Conley’s decision. Do it here.
Absentee ballots can be dropped off at Madison’s branch libraries
as well as mailed.

Plenty of precautions

A normal City of Madison spring election puts 1,500 poll workers on the job. Two-thirds of those have called in self-quarantined. The number of polling places is down to 66 from an original 92. Check this interactive map of all polling place.  (Sun Prairie has reduced to one.)


Well, not quite

Madison’s most-excellent city clerk, Maribeth Witzel-Behl, told poll workers, “We well aware that this election is being conducted in difficult, frightening, and uncertain times. 

Public Health professionals are developing the means to reduce risk at the polls.

The City has obtained 500 plastic face shields for use on Election Day. Hand sanitizer will be available for voters. Instead of a set greeter station and registration table, two people at every polling place will be assigned to the “curbside team.” The curbside team will have access to plastic face shields. Prevent too many voters from entering the polling place at one time.

There will be only one poll book table at each polling place, regardless of how many wards are there. It will be equipped with a protective plexiglas shield. There will be one ballot table, with two workers at each location. It will also have a protective plexiglas shield.

Blaska’s Bottom LineGot to think voting — even in person — will be safer than grocery shopping.


How are you voting?

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Returning to one small schoolroom in the country, 1955 (part #1)

When Blaska was younger,
so much younger than today.

We are in the midst (and we hope, not the beginning) of a history-making coronavirus pandemic that could well change America forever, in ways not yet apparent. Will distance learning become the new normal? America work from home? Sporting events in front of the cameras only? Has the simple handshake gone the way of the spittoon? 

In my youth, we thought we would never see as much change as our grandparents, who were 18 years old when the Wrights took flight. Now I realize my generation has seen as much history as they. We admire the scenery of a chosen street in Prague using Google Earth and peered down from the moon. We have put a birth date on the universe’s origin and mapped out genomes, the building blocks of life. We had our own wars but different, against stateless terrorists.

Pardon, therefore, this Old Settler if he recounts a little history of his own. It is of the quotidian kind but so was The World of Yesterday, a Jewish kid growing up in pre-WW1 Vienna. (We’ll concede Stefan Zweig has greater literary merit.) But in many ways, so much remains the same.

Farm kids in a country school

A posting of a 1951 item on the Facebook social media site, “If You Grew Up in Sun Prairie” got us reminiscing. (That’s what senior citz do, isn’t it?) Coach Fran Sheehan posing with his champion high school basketball team, which pictured my father’s cousin Fran Blaska (in a Catholic farm family of 10, his father was 25 years younger than my dad’s father!) and good neighbor John Krebs, whose funeral I attended last year.

The Krebs “home farm” surrounded our little country school, Oak Lawn, on County Road VV one-quarter mile north of WI Highway 19. John’s father, Julius Krebs, home delivered milk. (Mother also had groceries and, separately, bread delivered. Traveling salesmen sold us encyclopedias and condiments.) It was one of the chores of kids at Oak Lawn to walk next door to his dairy for the day’s supply of milk and, on special occasions, orange Creamsickles!

The one-room school was a one mile jig and a jog from our house. In early September 1955, mother pointed across the Schuster’s field to a small building on the horizon announcing that I would walk over there the next morning for my first day of school. Mother could not drive.

Sun Prairie TWP 1953 copy

Thought nothing of walking, even in snowstorms. (“And we LIKED it that way!) In one particularly nasty storm, an old man named O.J. Long pulled alongside in his sedan and offered a ride. Repeated mother’s  injunction against rides from strangers. Mother was obsessed with the notion that gypsies would run off with us six kids. Mr. Long pointed to a nearby house lying between my home and the destination. “But I live right over there.” Accepted the ride and was not exposed to the music of Django Reinhardt until decades later.

Oak Lawn 1895

Oak Lawn School 1895 J.M. Blaska (with hat on lap) was one of 11 children.

That was 65 years ago this fall (we’ll pause whilst you do the math). General Eisenhower was in his first term as President. Although I did not realize at the time, the Oak Lawn school building that year was 60 years old  — built in 1895 when my grandfather J.M. Blaska attended at age 10 (pictured above).

In the 1955-56 school year, all 24 of us pupils (as they were called then) were country kids; most from farms that stretched back three generations — descended largely from speakers of German, many from the Sudetenland of Bohemia like mine, who replaced the original Yankee settlers — but also some tenants living in the spare houses. 

One of the latter arrived in my second year of schooling, an exotic black-haired creature from Texas named Nancy Tallent, subject of much speculation (but, from what I can remember, complete acceptance). It was said her father was an (American) Indian! Boys played cowboys and Indians in those days. We found sticks shaped like revolvers until Santa brought us Hopalong Cassidy-branded armaments loaded with a roll of caps for sound effects and a whiff of cordite. The term “politically correct” lay off in the Orwellian future.

“I know y’all studyin’ up to be a farmer,” Nancy announced one fine day. “But do you have to wear overalls every day?” Back home, the smitten boy asked mother why he had to wear overalls EVERY DAY! Poor Helen! 

Health scourge of the 1950s

That very first day in school in September 1955 Mrs. Taylor announced that a girl (whose name I did not recognize and never committed to memory) would not be in school this year. She had contracted polio — the same disease that had crippled FDR. 

At some point later that year or the next, we lined up in the new elementary school constructed in 1955 in the village of Sun Prairie (just under 4,000 compared to today’s population of almost 34,000; it did not become a city until 1958) for Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, which he had announced to the world in April 1955.

The wailing up ahead in line only confirmed the foreboding of the dreaded needle. But we didn’t want to wind up like those kids in iron lungs we saw on the TV telethons. Just three years earlier, the 1952 polio epidemic killed 3,145 and left 21,269  with some form of paralysis, including (in a very slight case) my distant cousin and neighbor Jim Skalitzky.

The polio epidemics not only altered the lives of those who survived them, but also brought profound cultural changes, says the Wikipedia entry.

Next: Snowy Fort Oak Lawn School.

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American Gothic 03-31-2020

American Gothic

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Our news just got smaller

Madison and Milwaukee newspapers dim
Will they go dark?

Blaska is an old ink-stained wretch who believes, against some evidence, that a multitude of voices sustains our democracy and the economic ascendance of a free-market system. But this novel coronavirus may be accelerating the demise of our news-gathering organizations.

Big layoffs, furloughs, and wage reductions at Wisconsin’s two largest news outlets. How many more will follow? Including radio and television?

WI State Journa.

In Madison WI

Lee Enterprises owns the WI State Journal. Owner Lee Enterprises CEO Kevin Mowbray said this morning 03-31-2020:

Unfortunately, even our best efforts cannot overshadow the fact that our advertising revenue has been dramatically impacted now and for the near future. To ensure our own sustainability, it’s important that we manage the economic impact to our company. The sacrifices we make now will minimize the long-term damage the pandemic could have on our business

Consequently,we are implementing a combination of pay reductions and furloughs. In the third quarter, the executive team will be taking a 20% reduction in pay on top of a pay reduction implemented in Q1. All other employees will be subject to either a pay reduction or furlough equivalent to two weeks of salary also in the third quarter.

This comes on top of Madison’s Isthmus newspaper ceasing weekly publication.

In Milwaukee:

Gannett will furlough hundreds of newspaper employees across the nation including, according to Dan Bice, “every Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter whose work you read regularly, including all members of the political team — Bill Glauber, Molly Beck, Patrick Marley, Mary Spicuzza, Craig Gilbert, and me.”

Blaska’s Bottom LineWe got two elections coming up? What gives?

How will you get YOUR news?

Posted in Coronavirus, Uncategorized | 5 Comments