An Interview With Charlie Jenkins
Ellen Piehl, Accredited Genealogist
Recently Ellen Piehl interviewed lifetime Seymour area resident Charlie Jenkins. For many years he farmed in Section 31 in the township of Seymour. The family farm was located a mile and a tenth west of Seymour on Highway 54. He reflected on many things including growing up, farming, the Great Depression, WWII, and local events. This article represents a portion of that interview.
My grandfather owned the farm first and my dad, William, was born there in 1889. He married Mary Dunbar and raised my two sisters Mildred and Mary, and me. I was born in 1924 and remember back to the late twenties. My father died when I was 20 years old, and in those days, it was customary for the oldest son to take over the farm. I really didn’t have a choice. WWII was taking place and farming was considered an essential industry, so I was granted a deferment.
My sisters helped on the farm, but the women usually took care of household tasks and the chickens. They would trade eggs for groceries. They would get on the phone and call Pasch’s, Wolk’s or Huth’s store and find out what they were paying for eggs. If one was paying a half cent more a dozen, that’s where they would get their groceries.
Many area farmers sent their milk to the big Morning Glory dairy plant in Seymour on the corner of Elizabeth and Morrow Streets. At one time, they were shipping 20 semi-loads of milk weekly out of here to Texas. My milk went to the North Osborn cheese factory south of Highway 54 on French Road. Ralph and Roy Puls operated that factory for many years. That is where Seymour was first settled. It was known as Lime Rock. There was a quarry, a limekiln, general store, gristmill, and several other buildings. At first, I took the milk to the factory, but that was too time consuming. Eventually they picked the milk up. Cheese factories were located every several miles all over the county. When the railroad was built through the valley, the businesses moved to be closer to the main means of transportation.
The Depression Years
During the Depression years of the 1930s things were tough. My uncle John Bunkelman ran the hardware store on the corner of Morrow and Main Streets. At Christmas time it was fun to look around. We didn’t have much money, but we could look. Ice-skating was a popular activity. Eventually, I got some shoe ice-skates. Up to that time, I had the kind that you clamped on your shoes. They usually pulled the heels of your shoes off. We skated in that quarry on French Road. We also swam there until the water got bad from cows grazing in the area.
There was also a nice rink in downtown Seymour where Don’s parking lot is located. The warming shed was in an old boxcar. One year my parents must have had a better year on the farm and I got skis for Christmas. We didn’t get many gifts because there wasn’t much money. My dad was pretty handy and he built us a bobsled, a toy wheelbarrow and other things. I was pretty proud when I got a used bike. Dad brought it for $18.00. We played baseball and other games, but didn’t have Little League or any organized activities. A bunch of kids just got together and you would have a ball game or hockey game.
Threat of Foreclosure
Banks were foreclosing on farms left and right. There was no money. A full-grown pig might bring four dollars. My parents worried about losing the farm to the bank. They needed $75.00 to pay the taxes and didn’t have it. They brought a new Ford car in 1929 when things were going good. The car cost $750.00 and two years later, they sold it for $75.00. On the farm we had food to eat, but no money to buy things. My dad managed to get a national farm bank loan and was able to pay off the farm eventually. Farmers helped other farmers, neighborhoods stuck together.
Back in those days they would have dances in the gym after the basketball games. That is where I met my wife. Marjorie Prey was teaching English at the high school. I think she came to Seymour in 1944. She was from Wausau and graduated from the college at Stevens Point. During her first year, she stayed at Bill Reese’s and the next year at Ed Murphy’s on the corner of Factory and Main Streets. Since the school was located on Robbins Street, she didn’t have far to walk. She made $1,400 her first year which was considerably more than teachers in the rural schools. We were married in 1946.
Since we lived right on Highway 54, we got things sooner than people living on the country roads. I know we got electricity in 1929. That’s when the line was being run from Seymour to Black Creek. Highway 54 was still a gravel road and many country roads were dirt. People living off the highway still had kerosene lamps in the 1940s. I remember my dad going out to the barn to do chores and hanging up a lantern. I was only about four and just barely remember that. We had a Model T car that I can remember, and a milk buggy that hauled milk with a horse. Farmers would take old sedans and cut them off to make little pick-ups out of them. We had a telephone from as far back as I can remember. It was one that hung on the wall and you had to crank it. Our ring was three shorts. The next-door neighbor to the north was three shorts and a long. You could call your neighbor by doing that. However, if you wanted to call someone on another line you had to call long distance. You would call the central operator and give her the number.
I walked to Crystal Springs grade school located at the corner of French Road and County G. Three teachers I remember are Marion Schultz (Gosse), Bernice Blake, Corrine Ottman (Karweick). My freshman year I went to the high school on Robbins St. The city kids thought they had a better education than we did, but we did all right. Vernon Lubinski and Bob Melchert were classmates of mine. I played clarinet in the high school band. E. T. Hawkins was the band director. He was also the principal, so he saw to it that the band did all right. I started high school in 1938, the year of the new addition to the school, and graduated in 1942. The gym part was new. Prior to that, they played basketball in the theater across the street. I saw many movies, mostly westerns in that theater. Admission was 10 or 15 cents. Bill Reese was the most important teacher in my life. He was an excellent agriculture teacher, our senior class advisor, and later a good friend. He was a good friend to many people.
Seymour didn’t have a football team when I was in high school. Basketball was the big thing. We were in the Little Nine Conference. Kimberly was our biggest rival. Seymour had a semi-professional baseball team. They played teams like Manitowoc, Two Rivers, Sheboygan, etc. A few players were actually paid. They played at the fairgrounds and were a big draw.
During WWII many things were rationed; gas, meat, butter, and sugar just to name a few. But of course, farmers always had food. You had a big garden and you could butcher a pig for meat. There was a black market and you heard stories about people with 100 pounds of sugar in the basement and things like that. To save gas the speed limit was 35 miles an hour. For gas, you were issued either A books or B books depending on what you needed. R books were for the tractors. Trains were popular. People would take excursions to Bay Beach and people would come from Green Bay to the fair.
There was a German prisoner of war camp at Hortonville and they would bring these prisoners over to the Seymour canning factory to help with the crops. We picked up four or five of them to help with our threshing. Some of the older farmers could speak German, so communication wasn’t a big problem. People didn’t worry about them because there was no place to go if they did escape.
Department of Agriculture
In 1964, I sold most of my herd, kept just 79 acres, and didn’t rent any land. I could see that farming was changing and either I had to get bigger or a new occupation. Our two children David and Kathy had some registered Guernsey cattle. They were in 4-H so I kept a few head of cattle around so they could show their livestock for a couple years. Farms were getting bigger, more mechanized, and the kids were going off to college, it was time to make a move. I got a job with the Department of Agriculture in 1964 and eventually, after two or three years, we got rid of all the cattle. I worked for the animal health division as an animal health inspector. In 1968
meat inspection became more thorough and I managed to get a job as an investigator for the meat inspection division. I went to school at night at Fox Valley Tech until I got an associate degree in Police Science Technology and held that job until I retired.
I’ve seen many changes. It boggles the mind. A way of life has disappeared, really, where neighbors helped each other and worked together. It has all disappeared. Where I lived on Highway 54, back when I was farming, starting with the farm up on the end, where Jeanette Kimball is across from the high school, to Black Creek there were 17 farmers with driveways onto Highway 54 that had cattle. There’s one now. Other bigger farmers are renting the land.
In the 1920s and 30s coal, cement, shingles, lumber, etc. those things were sold by a company located near the railroad tracks similar to Miller-Piehl in Seymour. Anything bulky was transported by rail. Farmers would take their horse-drawn wagons to the company where they would obtain their goods and return home with the load. Today, almost everything is shipped by truck. Cement was only 90 pounds a bag, but why did that 90 pounds feel so much heavier? It was like picking up a 90-pound rock. A bundle of shingles was another thing that seemed heavy.