49 Easters Ago

The last time Grandma and Grandpa were up at the farm for Easter, the week was sunny, relatively mild, with birds singing from the trees and the Sandhill cranes calling from the pasture. Mom, and Kara were out all day with Grandpa, changing the oil in the tractor, tuning up the golf cart, fixing the leak in the John Deere, and such duties as need attention this time of year. I was inside with Grandma, excavating one of the only two closets that came with the old farmhouse that had been built in the 1940’s after the original log cabin burnt down.

Grandma and I made piles on the quilt-topped bed—what to be kept, what to be donated to a local thrift shop, and what to be thrown away. There were old shoes and clothes Grandma had squirreled away for helping with farm chores, board games I hadn’t seen in years, homemade sweaters, old table cloths, and extension leaves for the dining room table to accommodate the occasional influx of relatives staying at the farm.

By the time that tiny closet was cleaned out, the bedroom was filled with bags and boxes of old things ready to haul away. It was time for a new chapter in the story of this little room in the old house that had seen so many other changes over the years.

By morning, the winter fairies had been back at their work, and the ground and trees and rooftops were coated in heavy snow. I’m not sure if it was being together for Easter dinner, the snow the morning after, or thinking about the past from cleansing the bedroom closet, but it was time for some of the farm’s early stories to come out.

“You know,” Grandpa offered, sitting at the dinner table. “It was Easter when we bought the place. It snowed the next morning, much like this.”

Grandpa had his medical practice down in Platteville, and the two dentists in the community (the Waites and the Bottrells) already had property right next to the Fullington Farm. Lloyd and Wilma Fullington’s children had grown up to take jobs in town, and the couple was ready to retire and build a place in Hayward. They had received an offer from a group of hunters from Milwaukee for the property, but when Grandma and Grandpa came up to see the farm and talked about having it be a family retreat, the Fullingtons decided that they’d rather see the place go to the Steidingers than the band of hunters.

Grandma, Grandpa and their three kids—Mark (14), Ann (12), and Jon (9)—drove up in their gray Ford Sedan Galaxy and stayed at Sheer’s Resort on Ghost Lake when they came to see the farm. Grandpa remembers the whole lot of children, including kids of the Waites and the Bottrells, hunting for Easter eggs in the woods at the resort. With this cluster of properties all next to each other owned by friends and colleagues, it seemed a great fit for a family getaway.

The year was 1968, and a price for the farm was settled. Lloyd and Wilma stayed on at the house until their new home was completed in town, which took about a year. In the meantime, they kept the lawn mowed and lived with the mess of the new fieldstone chimney being built in the living room. Changes were coming to the homestead.

Grandpa and some of the boys came up that autumn for bow season, staying in the unheated upstairs of the farmhouse, while Wilma cooked for the crew. It had been a long while since the dairy cows had been part of the farm, and even the beef cows were gone. For some time since the kids had moved away, Wilma had taken in hunters at the house to earn a little money in the lean time of the year. It was mighty cold upstairs, though, with the men all bunking together. And the snow was so deep that when Grandpa made the mistake of stepping off the trail, he sunk in up to his chest!

One of the first projects was to plant the red pine plantations in the scruff pasture areas and a few trees about the barnyard. An old snowfence along the northern rim of the yard helped buffer the tumbling drifts coming off the long field to the north, but that was supplanted by a row of hedges. The hedge plants that were in the old pig pen always grew better than the rest! Cutting wood and yardwork was managed when the family was up. Haying was overseen by Jess Ross, a local farmer who had cattle to feed.

The goal was to be able to land the family’s Cessna 182 in the field, but that would take a bit of work. The neighbor farmer Jack Metcalf’s brother came with big equipment to move soil—leveling off a hump and a swale. Grandpa remembers riding about with a roller behind the tractor to pack down the dirt. A windsock was erected on the top of the barn (it’s been replaced several times over the years), and the outhouse proudly sported the sign “North Star International, Elevation 1065 feet.”

But the old outhouse wasn’t fated to live very long. The Allis Chalmers B tractor that came with the farm was popular among the boys as they grew up. Gib Waite’s son John was taking it through the barnyard one day when he accidentally hit the outhouse head-on. The building exploded into a pile of sticks, knocking the radiator off the Allis and crunching the front grill. Guess boys have to learn somehow.

Later, the family thought they’d try their hand at baling hay, so Grandpa and a Platteville farming friend purchased a baler, a hay wagon, and an elevator, hooked them to their cars, and crawled all the way up to the farm going 25 to 30 miles an hour. We still have the hay wagon and the elevator, but we’re onto a different (though still cantankerous) old baler.

Mark was driving the tractor while Mom and Grandpa were stacking the bales on the hay wagon. The baler must have slipped a notch on the chain, causing the timing to get out of whack and CLUNK—the baler seized, shrapnel spewed back all over the wagon, and the force of the stop killed the tractor. Mark worked to put the pieces back together and weld the broken parts while Mom and Grandpa spent days trying to get the timing of teeth, plunger, and auger to agree. A couple summers of that and the haying went back to Jess Ross for a while.

One summer, the barn roof was looking in need of repair. It was getting pretty rusty, with leaky nail holes. Mark and a friend were up, and they thought they had a pretty good idea of how to fix the roof. First, they hooked the big hay rope up to the tractor, then managed to get it over the peak of the barn. Mark tied the rope around his waist, and the friend pulled him up the roof by driving the tractor forward. Mark brushed off the rust and painted the roof with thick, aluminum paint. All was going well until the friend didn’t stop the tractor soon enough and almost pulled Mark over the top! They then moved the tractor to the other side, tossed the rope over to tie securely, and used the tractor to lower Mark down the other side. Sounds a little crazy, but it got the job done.

Grandma, however, wanted to have a bird feeder. There was only one problem, though—bears. Put the feeder in a tree, and they’d climb up and get it. Put it too close to the ground, and they’d get it too, destroying the feeder. So Grandpa went and got a telephone pole and cut it to the size he thought a bear couldn’t reach, dug it securely into the ground, and put the feeder on top.

Well, the bear climbed the pole and down came the feeder. So Grandpa wrapped the pole in metal so the bear would slip down. That worked for a while until an especially tall bear came and…well, there went the feeder again. Grandpa spliced two more feet of the telephone pole on top, wrapped more metal, and the bears were finally defeated. Not that they didn’t try, which is attested by the many claw marks on the metal wrapping. It’s an odd-looking birdfeeder arrangement (and takes a very tall ladder to fill with seed), but it’s outsmarted the intrepid squirrels as well. Now and then one will try to get to the feeder from above, leaping into the air like a kamikaze, but to no avail. Fortunately, they usually wait for a good snow before trying that daring stunt.

And, of course, there’s lots more stories looking back across 49 Easters. Outside, the snow from last night is melting, but the stories of how the farm got to now still linger in the telling. Next year, this homestead will have been in our family 50 years! Happy Easter to everyone from down on the farm.