Memories of Winter in Wisconsin

Indulge me with a ramble from my youth.

The weatherman is telling us it is bitterly cold outside tonight.  Well, for a fact, it is cold, bitterly cold I question. Truthfully, I am glad to be inside and that my gas furnace is functioning.  Something just grates on me, however, when I see school delays due to the frigid weather.  Why?  Well here’s why.

Back about a hundred years ago when I was a kid, I lived outside of a little town in Central Wisconsin.  My dad was a dairy farmer and like many of our neighbors who were also dairy farmers, the cows had to be milked twice a day regardless of the temperature outside.  Life just moved on.  When the Upper Midwest is blanketed with snow or -30 degree weather, they just brace themselves and work through it.  Midwesterners figure out a way. Snowplows run to keep the roads manageable.

It was so cold in our farmhouse that I could see my breath in the room when I jumped out of bed and into my clothes for the school day. Such cold teaches a child to be organized about clothing choices. My dad had, of course, been up early and stoked the bed of coals left from the overnight “bank” of firewood and the downstairs was starting to get warm.  I remember dashing downstairs in sock feet and into my outdoor four-buckle farm boots and into a warm coat just to run to the outhouse.  One didn’t stay too long on those sub-zero days.  “Business” was done in a hurry!  My mom was in the kitchen which was warming up nicely by the cookstove and she was making hot oatmeal.  On lucky days, we had hot cream of wheat.

Since I lived two miles from the one-room school house where I attended classes for six years of my life, (the school closed in 1952) I walked on nice days but if it rained, snowed, or the temperatures were below thirty degrees, Dad would take me to school.  I wasn’t a praying Jesus girl back then, I just crossed all my fingers and toes that the car would start so Dad would drive me to school.  Even if Dad had to hand crank the car, he always managed to get it started. Snow drifts were an adventure to my dad!  Dirt roads didn’t seem to get icy.  Maybe because there was dirt for traction for spinning wheels eventually. We did get stuck now and then and those were not happy times.

The school house was also heated by a big pot-bellied wood burning stove.  It was the responsibility of the school board to make sure the woodshed was supplied with wood for the stove.  They took turns starting the fire in the morning before the teacher arrived and then it was her responsibility to keep the fire going during the school day.  I am sure she was underpaid considering that she taught all eight grades, kept the fire going on cold days (which were plenty in Wisconsin), kept the water bucket full for drinking and hand washing, sprinkled the wonderful smelling sweeping compound on the hardwood floors and swept, and kept the chalk boards cleaned and full each day for each class.  The school had no telephone.  If we had a genuine emergency like the day Dale Yohn nearly bit his tongue in two on the teeter totter, one of the “big boys” in the eighth grade ran to the nearest house and called for help.

The only time I remember school closing was when all of us got the chicken pox at the same time. Since we all drank from the same water “dipper,” I suppose that’s how it came to be that every single one of us had chicken pox about the same time. There were days when the road I lived on was not plowed early enough for me to go to school; the school was open for those who lived close enough to walk.

So, school started on time even in the weeks when it would be below zero for days on end.  Wind chill?  We didn’t know about wind chill!  We played outside in the snow.  We all wore snow pants in which we girls tucked our skirts.  We were wrinkled, but then, everyone was wrinkled! In those years before tights, we girls wore long cotton stockings held up by garter belts.  The boys wore longjohns. Our feet were clad in shoes and overshoes. We built snow forts and had teams for snowball fights.  Sometimes the sissy girls played a snow game called “Fox and Goose” instead of being in the snow fight.  I was usually behind a fort making snowballs for the big boys!  Our brave Mrs. Jenks, about whom I wrote earlier in a blog, threw snowballs with us or refereed Fox and Goose. It was also the only time she could use the privy in peace.

I don’t know if those were the “good old days” or not but none of died and were seldom sick with bad colds.  I think the fresh air was good for us!  Our education did not suffer.  Many of us graduated from high school and several of us went on to college.  Two or three of my friends from the Chain O’Lakes School even have written books.  I own three of Gerald Apps’s books he authored.  My mom bought me a signed copy of his book called, One Room Country Schools:  History and Recollections from Wisconsin. I have the book stuffed full of newspaper clippings.  One of them; has a header titled:  “Help, David threw my shoe down the toilet hole!”  Yes, I attended school with David Kolka.  His older sister was the teacher for one year.  She graduated from the teacher’s college with a two-year certificate, lived at home and taught me my fourth grade year.  Her nickname was Dolly and we all knew her but didn’t dare call her anything except Miss Kolka.

So, now you know why it unnerves me when school is delayed because the temperature is below 32°.  My dad would claim those kids are pansies.  I don’t know if it is the kids, or the parents, but someone needs to send those kids to school cold or not, and for a full day!

My grandchildren will be in school, on time, regardless of the cold weather.  They attend classes through Pensacola Christian Academy via computer in a room specifically set for classroom.  Their mother is a teacher. They will go out in the 1° weather in morning about 4 A.M. and deliver more than 100 newspapers.  They have some of their grandparents in them!

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1 Comment

  1. Sounds like “Little House on the Prairie,” Karyl. Thanks for this wonderful picture of life back in the good old days 🙂

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