Curl on up to this one. More on the Eastern WI front for your perusal. A little long, but what the hey.
Peter III - Maternal Grandfather
Prologue: My dad died when I was one year old. Although they owned their home free and clear in Sheboygan, my mom and dad didn’t invest a great deal in insurance. The need to care for a one year old and the competing need to earn enough to eat on, prompted my mother to move in with her parents in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. She took various jobs including chamber maid at the resort hotels, kitchen help at a restaurant and as a maid for a well-to-do family by the name of Laun in the village. When the war came, mom moved to Sheboygan to work in a defense plant and came home on weekends. As a result, I grew up with Peter and Emma, my maternal grandparents, in Elkhart Lake. This is where I came to know this guy.
Peter’s father, Peter II, immigrated to the United States with his father and mother. My grandfather was born in the Town of Rhine in Sheboygan County. They were self-sufficient farmers. They ate what they grew and they bought only that which they couldn’t make themselves. The Town of Rhine was well named. During that period the township, county and most of the eastern rural part of Wisconsin from Milwaukee to Green Bay was settled by Germans. Some scattered Dutch settlements came later but in the late 1800s, the settlers were German. They moved to the United States and carried their culture, values and language with them. All business and social discourse was conducted in German. The only language spoken in schools, churches and business was the German language. Later in the early nineteen hundreds, as the rural population interfaced with the city folk, some English crept into the language. As the old timers retired some moved into the surrounding villages and the need to learn some English prompted a change in this. It really didn’t have much of an impact until the First World War. At that time, there was a lot of pressure for the immigrants to standardize on English. It worked on the younger generation but the old timers hung tough with German. Of course it really wasn’t true German anymore. By the time I was born in 1934, the German they spoke in an around Sheboygan County had evolved. The local English language that was spoken socially had incorporated so much of the German that it became a hybrid. I had the benefit of a purer form of German which I learned from my grandparents, but it was still a long way from the language of the Fatherland. In retrospect, the English spoken by the oldtimers was a real kick. I thought everyone sounded like that until I started traveling. Things like, “what for you hit my dog in the ass mit a stone, did he do you something?” or “you better go home now, your mother is hollering the window through at you”. Even my generation spoke a weird form of English and if you listen to anyone that still lives there, you can hear it.
So when I was one year old, we moved to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and moved in with Peter and Emma. They had sold the farm to their son who continued the farming tradition. In town they bought a house across the street from a large woods. The house had a lot of the stuff you don’t see anymore. The basement had a cistern that collected all the runoff from the roof. Grandma used this water to wash with because it was soft water compared to the “limestone enriched” city water we had. The first floor had a huge back porch which was unheated and held a lot of things. Also on this floor was a full bath, a bedroom, a parlor that was closed off, a large dining room with built in buffet that had large drawers and glass fronted cabinets on the ends. The staircase to the second level was along one interior wall of the dining room. This staircase covered by wooden paneling make up of 2 X 2 foot panels outlined in moldings. Across half of the front of the house was a sitting porch facing the woods. This porch was part of the living area and when the doors to the parlor and dining room were open, this room was heated. The second floor had four more rooms and a full bath. One of the rooms had a sink and was laid out like a second kitchen. I suspect the builder was making a two family home. The second kitchen was where my mother stored all her stuff she moved out of Sheboygan.
My favorite place in that house was the kitchen. It had a wood burning/gas stove along one wall as well as a refrigerator. There was a space about three feet wide between the two and when the stove had a wood fire going, this was the place to be! The house had hot water heat but the radiators were kept turned down to conserve on coal. Wood was free from the son so we always had a fire in the woodstove. In the morning I would rush down to the kitchen with my clothes and get dressed and warm up next to the woodstove. Grandma could cook or bake and with either the wood firebox or use the gas section. She was very skilled at the woodstove and could do almost anything she needed with it. In summer, she used the gas because it didn’t heat the house along with the coffee water. They used the refrigerator although they lived like before refrigeration. Leftovers were stored on the back porch in the colder months, the basement had many different kinds of sausages and hams hanging from the rafters to eat during the summer. In the fall after butchering the beef was frozen in the refrigerator and later in a freezer and pork was kept in brine in a 20 gallon crock in the garage or on the back porch.
What my grandparents had was a four bedroom house with two full baths. A bit large for two retired farmers you say? Remember that Elkhart Lake was a resort in the summertime. The German-Jewish immigrants and their families would travel to Elkhart Lake each year on vacation. Loll around on the beach, play cards and Mahjong, dance to Latin music and talk German to their friends. They came from Chicago and Milwaukee and felt at home in this quaint little village of 356 people that spoke primarily German. Yiddish is only a Matzo ball away from German anyway so the people in the hotels were talking their language. They could choose from: The Schwartz Hotel, The Siebkin Hotel, The Osthof Hotel and Pine Point Hotel in order of class and cost. This was usually the full European plan with meals included. And when they blew it and didn’t reserve in time, they rented a room in town. Peter and Emma lived about two blocks from the Schwartz Hotel and they entered into an agreement that they would rent overflow rooms. The guests would still take their meals at the hotel and were able to use the beach and other facilities but slept with my grandparents. They also rented rooms to guests on their own but much of the business came from the hotel. When the season was good we had people everywhere. Grandma and Grandpa had their room, me an my mother shared a room upstairs and we had two rooms rented upstairs and the parlor was converted into a bedroom downstairs. With two rollaway doubles in the parlor, they could put up eight people. Nine, if someone wanted to put up with a single cot in one of the rooms.
So when I was young, the family would get together at one of the farms for butchering. This was either Peter’s son’s farm, or another relative’s farm or some other farm in the neighborhood. The families would bring their animals and a deal would be struck to trade so much pork for so much beef. The animals were dispatched with precision and hung up to bleed. As the meat was cut into manageable chunks, the ladies would divide it into portions. As they cut and trimmed, nothing was discarded. The hooves and hide didn’t make it but everything else had a home. The scraps were tossed into a huge pot. For the afternoon meals, this was cooked and served. I have dined in a lot of countries on this earth but I will confess, I have never eaten anything that tasted as good as the meat in that pot. Peter was a sausage expert, although there were a lot of excellent sausage makers in the relations. Peter’s specialty was blood sausage. It was his job to collect the blood from the butchered beef animals and the make the Blutwurst. Metwurst, Sommerwurst, Leberwurst, Bratwurst and Sweinewurst were delegated to others, but blood sausage was grandpa’s job. Sausage is normally ground meat, seasoned in a special way and packed into the intestines or casings of the animals that were just dispatched. These were washed and cleaned by the ladies in preparation for making the sausage. Meanwhile the tongue of the beef is cooked and diced along with some pork fat. This is mixed with the various sausage ingredients but is a major component of Blutwurst. The mixture of blood and meat is poured into glass jars, tin cans or put into large casings. The secret is in the seasoning. This is where Peter had the edge. Using freshly ground pepper, salt and other stuff, he completed the mixture. Most other sausages are smoked, blood sausage and I think some others are boiled. This means they need to be refrigerated or eaten quickly. Grandpa solved this problem by putting it up like peaches in a glass jar or canning the sausage in a tin can. These were sealed and boiled at high heat. This way it would last until the next time they butchered. Chickens they did as they needed them, cows and pigs were dispatched in the annual gathering.
Peter was a gruff old fart, but he had a class sense of humor. He would while away his idle hours either playing Pinocle with his retired friends, fishing or watching the Eichekatzen, (squirrels) in the trees across the street. He also had a garden that he and Emma grew their vegetables in. Some time was spent at Heinie Edler’s saloon looking at the trains going by but Peter wasn’t a drinker unless it was very hot outside. Peter tried smoking a pipe, cigars and cigarettes but primarily, Peter chewed. He found that when one chewed tobacco, one didn’t have to worry about keeping anything lit or burning anything down. Peter chewed Plowboy chewing tobacco. He bought it in two pound packages and there was usually a package nearby where Peter happened to be at that time. He was tidy about the process. He would reach deep into the package and come up with a hairy looking wad of rough cut tobacco about the diameter of a golf ball or slightly smaller. This was chewed into a manageable load and tucked alongside his gums. It was difficult to detect that Peter chewed because he didn’t spit and the tobacco didn’t interfere with anything except eating. In those days, one of the things you rewarded little boys and girls with was a penny or a nickel. With this vast sum, one could hot foot it to Wiffler’s grocery store a few blocks away and buy candy. Peter knew a great deal about training animals and small boys. One of his all time favorite tricks was to call me and reach into his pocket for a coin. I would hold out my hand and he would give me the coin. When he had established the routine he would occasionally substitute his used wad of chewing tobacco for the coin. Not often enough to break the training but often enough for him to get a good chuckle at my expense. It should have occurred to me that the substitution of tobacco wad for coin usually happened just before we were to eat a meal. Emma had called us and Peter was getting ready to get at it.
Peter being a rural type, didn’t have a lot of time to dally away with peddlers and salesmen. This was during the great depression and the farmers came through it with flying colors. Since they bought very little and could postpone purchases they did well. Peter had little time for people on the dole. If you were hungry, you found a piece of ground and grew your food. He was a big concept guy in that regard, he didn’t want to think about the logistics of the problems. Like where does one find free ground to plant the food? Because this was the depression, there were lots of tramps that traveled by train or just walked from town to town, begging for food. Peter would have none of it and the door would unceremoniously slam in their faces especially if they only spoke English. Emma was an easier touch and if she answered the door, they guy left with some bread and wurst. There was one sort of peddler Peter tolerated and that was the “Jew”. He saved things for him to come and buy from him. These junkmen were poor immigrants that had settled in the larger cities and would go door to door buying cloth, clothing, rags, all sorts of metal and resell the goods, keeping a profit. Many became very rich by hard work and hoodwinking the farmers into thinking they were very poor. They were dressed in large ankle length heavy overcoats with slouch hats and drove a one horse cart full of “stuff”. Junk peddlers were yesterdays answer to many of the land fills. Them and pigs. What you couldn’t sell to the junk peddler, you burned or fed to the dogs, cats, chickens and pigs. I think one reason Peter tolerated the Jew although he looked like a tramp was because he spoke German. Peter always put a high value on anyone that spoke German. German became his ultimate defense against other peddlers and salesmen. In his later years as he mellowed he would be on the porch watching the animals and guests when a door to door sales individual would be observed going from door to door. The person would knock on the porch door, Peter would answer with a cheery hello and listen to the salesmen’s presentation. Peter knew this was an out-of-towner because the local business people knew you didn’t sell door to door. You sat in your business and the people came to you in the fullness of time. Not only that but the door to door types always spoke English. So Peter, who understood English very well, would listen to the presentation. He would grunt meaningfully or say “Ja” at all the right times and the salesperson started to develop a sheen of perspiration on his upper lip from the excitement of the upcoming sale. After the close, the salesperson would be faced with this profound silence from Peter. Peter would, after just the right passage of time, either launch into a German sermonette on the possibility of a late or early frost hurting the oats until the guy just left in frustration or Peter would just say “no” and slam the door. He would then retire to his chair on the porch and chuckle. Peter was a tremendous tease. He would start on Emma and wind up her rubber band until she would break into a volley of German. Once that was accomplished he would stoke the argument until the time was right and again retire to his chair on the porch and chuckle. This was a dialogue they had rehearsed over their lifetimes.
Peter was a fisherman. What he caught, we ate. He would spend the day at the huge marsh about three miles out of town. This was a major water drainage system that ultimately drained into Lake Michigan. In the marsh and rivers that were fed by that water system, were the typical pan fish, bullheads, Northern Pike, Carp and Suckers. Elkhart Lake also had a good fish population but they were much more difficult to catch. Peter used a long cane pole, a line as long as the pole, a sinker, hook and bobber. This was the extent of the “equipment” with the exception of a minnow bucket and piece of wash line used to anchor the caught fish to a rock on the bank. Depending on the season, some fish were tastier than others. Bullheads, (catfish), were skinned and fried like pan fish. These were always good. Carp and Suckers were good in the early spring but even then the best thing to do with a Sucker was to smoke it. Peter had a 5 gallon square tin container for that purpose. One end had been cut off of it and holes drilled in the sides so welding rods from Emil Degnetze’s blacksmith shop could be pushed through the fish and out the other side. This suspended the fish in the container. The can was kept off the ground by small stones and a fire was built inside and smothered with green wood. After some point in time, the fish were cured and eaten. Since this was just a variation of how hams and sausages were prepared, it was straight forward but in a 5 gallon can rather than an outbuilding known as the smokehouse. Northern Pike were baked and the challenge of finding all the “Y” shaped bones kept us busy while eating them. The bait was worms out of the garden or minnows he seined out of small fast moving streams or if really lazy were bought from a bait shop. Peter didn’t like to spend money so he usually caught his own minnows.
When Peter fell out of the haymow early in their marriage and cracked open his skull, Emma fixed him up. They didn’t call doctors unless a limb was lost. She cured bleeding by wrapping wounds in spider webs and cured infections by binding uncooked ham and weed leaves around the infected area. She made her own cough medicine out of honey, caraway seeds, lemon and water. Bad colds were cured with the cough medicine and a rag with camphorated oil worn around the neck. Sometimes in serious cases, the patient had their chest rubbed with the oil first. Of all her wizardry treating the normal ailments, she still had to see Dr. Brickbauer in Plymouth for her heart medicine and take frequent doses of bicarbonate of soda for upset stomach. She couldn’t handle fat at all. This was a burden considering the German diet we ate. I don’t remember Peter ever going to a doctor. Nor can I remember him ever being ill. His biggest ailment, if you can call it that, was constipation on occasion. He had some Indian Herb Pills that were very effective on that score. You just had to be close to the facilities when nature called. Actually, in this case nature didn’t call as much as it hollered. If he was in the garden or away from the house, he returned at full run in extreme urgency. He pulled his own teeth with an old pliers and generally felt he was stronger than anything that would dare to make him sick. He really was a fearless old fart and had managed his draft horse team, the bulls in his cattle herd and anything else that crept, crawled or ran with the same basic principles. The use of a good long “knipple” would cure anything. A “knipple” is a wooden club that when applied to the right area will get even the surly bulls attention.
In 1948, Peter, Emma and I moved into mom’s house in Sheboygan. They were getting on in years and it helped to have someone around. Just as they had opened their house to her she now took care of them. Mom had kept her and dad’s house and rented it out on a long term basis. Peter and Emma found a piece of ground in the back and started the garden. They stayed pretty close to home after that move. Most of Peter’s friends were gone so the card playing stopped. When Emma died in her sleep in 1954, he followed in 1955. He finally made it to the hospital but only stayed a short time and died. We all felt it was because he didn’t want to go on alone.