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Portrait of a century farmer

Writer, artist teamed up for unique look inside these long-running farms

In the year 2000, artist Nancy Leasman and I were fortunate enough to receive a grant from the 5 Wings Arts Council in Staples. Our plan was to interview, and draw the portraits of, members of the families living on Century Farms; especially those in Todd County where we lived. I had been writing newspaper articles about Century Farmers for some years and Nancy, as an artist, had drawn the portrait of one or two of them. We planned to use the money from 5 Wings to cover our costs to visit the families and to publish a few copies of a book we intended to publish. We self-published A Stranger in This Place But Once: Portraits of Century Farmers the following year. The book, produced on Nancy’s computer, contains a dozen stories of Century Farms and the portraits of many of the family members that were living on the farm at the time. We named the book A Stranger in This Place But Once because, although we did not know many of the farmers prior to our visit, we were always welcomed and we always left feeling like we had just made some wonderful new friends. The following story, taken from the book, is about two of those friends. September, 1999 Mike Maschler used to make ice on his farm at Wintergreen Lake in Little Elk Township in northeastern Todd County. He’d hitch the horses to a bobsled at the farmstead on top of the hill. Then, it would be in February or March, he’d head down onto the marsh trail that his father, Joe, and his grandfather, Lucas, had built and maintained over the years.  With oxen, and later horses, the men cut gravel from the hillsides and made a firm all year trail to the lake, the sawmill, and the fields beyond.  When ice-making Mike got to Wintergreen Lake he’d find a spot on the ice and start cutting. He’d use a big wood cutting saw – like the ones he and his brother Laurence used for making popple and oak cord wood – to cut first one side and then the other side of the ice blocks. He says, chuckling, nobody was on the underwater end of the saw even though it was a two-person saw.  “I’d use a chisel to cut the other ends of the blocks,” he says. “There was always a spot you could hit just a couple of times and it would come free.” It seems like this could be wet and dangerous work on a cold winter day. Did Mike ever fall into the lake? “They did come home wet sometimes,” Mike’s wife, Josephine (Dudek), remembers. “We fell in more often when the weather was warm,” Mike, who says he was sort of crazy when he was younger, says.  Mike and Jo met at the house parties that used to be held in Little Elk when they were growing up.  “How did you hear about he parties if you didn’t have a telephone,” I ask Jo. “A neighbor would ask if he could have a party at his place. Of course nobody ever said no. So he walked around the neighborhood and told the others there would be a party,” Jo remembers. People went for the live music and the waltzes, polkas and schottisches.  There were games like fox and goose for the children and cards for the older people.  Everybody, young and old, went.  Mostly in the winter. “There wasn’t any hay to put up then,” Jo says. They walked to the parties through the snow wearing warm clothes.  “We did all of our courting on foot,” says Jo. But then a little walk was nothing for Mike.  “Didn’t you used to walk into Browerville to get tobacco for grandpa?” daughter Barbara, a graduate of Pine Island country school and Browerville high school, asks. The truth is Mike, who is one of three children of Joe and Caroline (Pechan), was a walker of grand proportions.   “I didn’t care how cold it was,” Mike says. “I’d take a sugar sack, make a hitch for it, throw it over my shoulder and walk to Browerville to get groceries.” Browerville is a ten-mile jaunt. If Mike was bored he might decide to walk 15 miles to Cushing instead. Or maybe twenty to Randall.  “I could walk faster then the horses with a sled or a buggy,” he says.  It’s not that the Maschler’s were backward. Joe Maschler, Mike’s dad, bought a Chevrolet car in 1917. He just couldn’t use it on the county roads in the winter, spring or during rainy times in the summer or fall.  When electricity finally made it to the farm – in 1949 – the Maschler’s built a new barn and ran electricity to it. They’d been milking Holsteins in the barn Lucas built, around 1882 or ‘83, but running water and electric lights were a gift. Lucas’ barn was taken down 100 years after the short pipe smoking man put it up.  “With electricity you had more time on your hands,” Jo says. “You didn’t have to spend so much time filling the kerosene lamps and cleaning the lamp chimneys.”  Mike and Jo bought their first tractor around the time of the coming of electricity. It was a 1948 Allis. They bought another Allis in 1972. They still have both of them.  “If you take good care of something it can last you a long time,” Mike says. They had no qualms getting rid of the horses.  “They wouldn’t come home,” Joe remembers. “The tractor didn’t have that problem.” “Well, did you have any favorite horses. Do you remember their names?” I ask. Mike thinks a long time.  It seems there was a Dick.  Maybe a Bill. “We called them lots of things. But it wasn’t their names,” Jo says. “I can’t repeat it now.” Bringing the horse and cows home wasn’t so bad, though. “Someone would spot a hollow tree full of honey. They’d bring it home and it would be used to cook or bake with or put on the table,” Jo remembers.  Over the years the Maschler farm had every crop and manner of livestock imaginable.  Mike and Jo made a list. Crops:  Rye, barley alfalfa, wheat, oats, buckwheat, corn and millet. Livestock: Oxen, horses, sheep, turkeys, chickens, geese, ducks, pigs and cattle. Two aunts, Rosie and Julia, had spinning wheels. They made yarn from the wool. Then they knitted socks, mittens and sweaters for the family.  The Maschler’s also ran the neighborhood sorghum mill. People from around the neighborhood, like Jo’s father, would bring horse drawn wagon loads of sorghum cane.  “The press was turned with horses,” Mike remembers. “Then they’d cook it in a wood fired boiler.” The sorghum syrup was something like maple syrup and was used instead of sugar. Barbara Maschler remembers the garden.  “You couldn’t get along without a garden,” she says.   Indeed, the Maschler fruit cellar still brims with “put up” food.  Tomatoes, pickles canned meats and other canned products line the sturdy rock foundation walls of the basement that Lucas Maschler erected so many years ago. Joe still marvels at the construction project. “He was such a little man. Yet he got these huge boulders in place for the foundation. All he had were his hands and the oxen,” Jo says standing on the packed earth floor of the basement fruit cellar. “He must have been strong and smart like Mike.” The centerpiece of the basement is a seven and a half-foot tall hand hewn oak pillar. It is narrow at the base and gracefully thickens at the top. That pillar has been the main support for the home’s floor for more than one hundred years. Over the years that floor has borne many Maschler comings and goings.  First there were Lucas and Agnes who started it all.  From Germany they brought three children – John, Julia and Rosie. Joe was born in Little Elk. Then John and Caroline married and lived above that strong oak pillar. Their children were Loretta, Laurence and Mike. And Mike and Jo married. Barbara, their child, married Dennis, from Big Lake.  Barbara’s children come to the farm to hunt and visit. And now her grandchildren – Matthew and Mitchell – come to play and sleep in the house above Lucas’ strong pillar. “It’s so peaceful here,” Barbara says as she and her parents watch a white tail doe and her fawns out the big picture window. Last year they saw a black wolf on the ice on the lake.  This summer there was a bear and her cubs. Those are the things that kept Lucas and Agnes from moving on all those years ago. “He stayed because of the trees – the white pine and the oak,” Mike, who doesn’t seem to remember rocks as being a problem on his farm, says. “He liked the hunting and the trapping.” November, 2000 It’s been over a year since I’ve seen Jo and Mike. Today a bright blanket of early snow covers their long driveway and the quiet barnyard. It’s cold early this year. Jo greets us, Nancy and I, at the door in her slippers. “I like to walk around the house barefoot,” she tells us, “But I put slippers on for guests.” In the little Maschler home you are met at a door just inside of which is a bedroom. The bedroom has shiny floors and a neatly made up quilt covered bed. The quilt is in pastels.  Today Mike is embarrassed to see us.  In September 1999, this man who could walk faster than a horse, met me at the door with a large – Mike’s smile is a prominent geographical feature – smile. He was leaning on a walker that day while he smiled at me.  The bitter pill of old age keeps him from leaving his room on this day.  Jo finally gets him to come out. He’s lost his memory. He can’t remember who visited yesterday even as Jo prompts him. He does remember this story. “I’m going to tell you something amazing,” he says. “Once I was in Montana and I saw a girl crying by the train — she was just a-crying — so I went up and talked to her. It turned out she was from Indiana, she was only fifteen years old. She was homesick.  I rode back to Indiana with her to her house. She had three sisters and her mother. Sometimes the mother would send one of the girls away.” “That must have been interesting with all those girls around,” Nancy teases.  Mike hears her but from far away. “It was for awhile but after three days I left and took a freight to the West Coast and I went up as far north as I could. It was a hard life. There were a lot of men working the fields and riding the freights in those days. Sometimes one of them would start crying and I would have to hold him.” Jo doesn’t like this story but she loves Mike. “Once he fell,” this strong woman says.  “And I had to take him to the couch. No way we’re going to sell. My son-in-law would kill me. The realtors fly over with airplanes and then call.  Mike they’re here to talk about the farm. They don’t want to buy it.” Jo Maschler, like Lucas Maschler’s hand hewn oak pillar in the fruit cellar of this house, carries a lot on her shoulders. “He doesn’t talk much now so we feed the deer and he watches them,” she says. Before he’d leave after the crops were in and not come back until fall. Sometimes he earned $500.  I ran the farm with his dad and Barbara when she was older.” “We ate squirrels, ducks, pheasant — wild game.  My family wasn’t deer hunters. In the winter we would eat beef and pork. We couldn’t in the summer because of no refrigeration,” Jo says. This year Jo Maschler raised 85 broiler chickens. Some are in the fruit cellar in jars. Most were given to family members. Today, in the living room, are dozens of embroidered dishtowel she, born in 1919, sells at area craft fairs.

Authors Note: Mike Maschler died shortly after our November 2000 visit. Jo is currently in the nursing home recovering from a stroke. The family, however, still owns the land the Maschler’s have treasured for generations.

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