Previously, “Chores in a one-room country school (part #2)”
Grandpa J.M. Blaska occasionally picked me up after school in his 1950 Ford sedan (“three on the tree”), with which he was known to transport bags of Pioneer seed corn, which he sold, in the back seat. Once he left the rear window open and the moisture — combined with the cow manure, tracked in by hired hands or his four sons — sprouted the corn.
When second cousin Paul Blaschka (a Blaska married a Blaschka) advised his uncle of the corn growing in the back seat, Grandpa bragged, “If Pioneer seed corn will grow in the back seat of my car it will grow anywhere.” J.M. Blaska was an early adapter of hybrid seed. Installed batteries in the basement of the house he build in 1915 to store electricity generated by his windmill. They had electric lights before FDR’s rural electrification program 20 years later.
Their farm was just south of Highway 19 and the next farm south of his is where he grew up — the oldest of 10 children — in the late 1800s. His father, John Peregrine, was one of the earliest purebred Holstein breeders in Wisconsin. John Matthew’s youngest brother, Ben, came along 25 years later and walked hand in hand with J.M.’s first-born daughter — 6-year-old uncle and 6-year-old niece — to Oak Lawn school.
By 1955, my grandfather was in declining health. (Startling to realize he was the same age as I am now!) Kids ran helter skelter leaving the school and Grandpa would bellow “Goddamn kids!” as they ran heedless in his path. Needless to say (but your author says it anyway), the man was intimidating — even to many adults. Not for nothing was he known as “the Bull of the Woods.”
Speaking of bulls
Once while gathering hickory nuts in what is still known as “Grandma’s Woods” she found herself confronted by the dairy herd’s over-protected bull. If you wonder why bulls had brass rings in their noses, here’s why: Rose Schuster Blaska twisted the ring, bringing the huge animal to its knees, whereupon she made her escape with her basket of hickory nuts.)
The world always seems smaller to a child. But farm folk in my grandparents’ times — they married in 1909, the year Mark Twain died — did not venture far for their mates. A trip to town — the village of Sun Prairie — was an occasion. There were more farms then, thus more farm families: an even 200,000 in 1935 Wisconsin (earliest we could find). Those numbers decreased to 155,000 in 1955 and 68,500 in 2017, according to USDA statistics.
Grandma grew up on one such a bit down the road toward Marshall — one of 11 children to Anton and Theresa, nine of them girls. The two boys did not come along until later so she shouldered much of the farm work. All by hand. She could not drive even a tractor. My older aunts in their wonderful memoirs recall bringing the latest arrival to Rose while she labored in the fields so she could nurse them. Rose regretted her lack of education; her husband could not understand why women needed one. They compromised: money for education would come from the tobacco she grew.
Growing up working
It’s all hand labor. I know because we grew it on our farm. Younger brother Bill would drive the tractor while brother Mike and I — seated inches above the ground — “dropped” the young plants into the soil. We began noticing grass instead of tilled soil, turned around to see that brother Bill was taking us into the ditch and headed for the busy highway. He had fallen asleep.
“Rose (“the life of every party — but oh, so few parties” remembered my Aunt Burdette) was acquainted with another young girl about her age, Georgia O’Keefe.”
J.M. had attended Oak Lawn, as did his nine children. One or more of his sisters taught there at one time. The ledger book recording every transaction until the school closed in 1963 (I believe) when Wisconsin schools were consolidated into districts, is kept at the Sun Prairie Historical Museum.
Neither he nor Grandma Rose attended high school, which didn’t stop him from chairing the Town of Sun Prairie, serving 20 years on the Dane County Board of Supervisors, or a single term in the State Legislature. Or her from insisting on a college education — even for the girls, the oldest of whom, Evelyn, became a UW-Madison professor.
Too busy farming
J.M. was defeated for re-election in the Democrat(ic) primary of 1950 by a reporter fired from the Capital Times for his union activities, name of William Proxmire.
Have lost the penny postcard Grandpa J.M. sent his sweetheart Rose in 1904. Showed him as a tiny figure atop he hulking monster of a steam engine he had just purchased. J.M. threshed grain on his and a dwindling number of surrounding farms until the early 1950s when most farmers, including my father, had moved on to self-propelled combines. Threshing crews required a dozen men and a full table for dinner. (More here.)
“Blaska is a well known farmer and a familiar name to the county’s voters but he was too busy with his farm work to do any campaigning,” the WI State Journal editorialized on 09-21-1950. Milking his 30 cows was 365 days a year, twice a day (now it’s hundreds, even a few thousand, three times a day with a hired crew, almost entirely Mexican).
My father Jerome, the middle of J.M. and Rose’s nine children, served as secretary of the Oak Lawn school board and the last keeper of the Oak Lawn School ledger.
Later on, when dad was in the Legislature himself, he would call home to check on the farm. He asked mother “Are the boys working?” Jerome Blaska had but one commandment: “No work, no eat.” He liked to keep things simple that way.