Saturday, September 22, 2007


Ellen DuRell Tess, about 1933

I love this photograph of my aunt as a child. Is the sun in her eyes? Is she crying? Playing hide and seek? There's no way to say for sure, and that's a part of the picture's charm. Grandma took boxes of pictures; her shadow is at the bottom of many of them. The original photograph is very small, about two by three inches. By scanning it, and repairing a few tears and tape marks, I can see why it was saved for seventy-five years.

by Cynthia Zarin

My heart, my dove, my snail, my sail, my
milktooth, shadow, sparrow, fingernail,
flower-cat and blossom-hedge, mandrake

root now put to bed, moonshell, sea-swell,
manatee, emerald shining back at me,
nutmeg, quince, tea leaf and bone, zither,

cymbal, xylophone; paper, scissors, then
there’s stone—Who doesn’t come through the door
to get home?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ranch Life, about 1909

Threshing wheat on the Smith and Co. ranch, Franklin Co., Washington, about 1911

Jack rabbit round up, Smith and Co. "Big B" ranch on Columbia Flats

This is another excerpt from my grandmother's autobiography. Her father and mother divorced, and her mother had to find a way to support herself and her little girl. This section describes how they came to live on a ranch in Washington. The top photo is of harvest on the Smith Ranch, and the bottom shows a jackrabbit roundup.

Mother advertised for a job and this time she added practical nursing, though she had no experience in it. This wasn't good, because I couldn't be with her and had to be boarded out at various places. That was a very unhappy time in my life. I was five years old, very shy, and it was agony to be put in strange homes with strange people...

After nearly a year my mother's divorce was granted and she answered an ad for a housekeeper for L.D. Smith. He came to Spokane for the interview. Mother got the job, and even if she had misgivings, we could be together.

We took the train to Mesa, where a hired man was waiting to take us to the ranch. It was fifteen miles of sagebrush and sand, slow going. hot and dusty. Mr. Smith was not pleased to have a child along with a housekeeper, but made the best of it. The house had only one bedroom, and Mother and I slept there. Mr. Smith had turned his living room into a bed-sitting room, with all his possessions... There was a small kitchen area and a huge dining room to accommodate all the hired men. There were from six to eight men most of the time.

It was a strange lonely world. No grass. No trees. No flowers. Just miles and miles of sage brush and sand. Sand seeped into everything, even the food you ate. Your shoes and hair were always full of it. When the high winds blew it was not safe to be outside.

Our first weekend at the ranch was marred by a tragic event. Some poor man, desperate and down on his luck walked miles to find a roof high enough from which to hang himself. He found it in our Mill, where we ground wheat and had the deepest well in Franklin County.

We raised wheat on the ranch, a special strain that could grow without much rain. The ranch was huge, four sections, each section a mile square.

I had very few friends as our nearest neighbors were six miles away. That's not far today with cars and good roads, but we had no roads, just cleared strips of sand that drifted like snow and was even harder to walk through. I remember the hired man saying "You take one step forward and slide back two."

The few families that made up our social life were desperately poor and resentful of the huge Smith ranch with its acres of wheat, hired men, livestock, and a well. We had all the water we wanted. The homesteaders could not afford to drill wells. Wells had to be very deep in that dry country, and were very expensive. As a result people came from miles around with their wagons to buy water. The water wagons were buckboards, with big barrel containers built on them. Some of them leaked, and I wondered how much of the water made it back home.

In the fall we had butchering. One cow and several pigs were killed and processed. We smoked our own ham and bacon in our smokehouse. The rest of the meat was fried, then packed in grease to keep it airtight. It kept pretty well through the winter; we had no refrigeration. Summertime we ate lots of chicken and canned meat. I still hate canned corned beef and salmon. My biggest treat was to go to Hanford to buy wieners and get ice cream.

We had hundreds of huge jackrabbits, but they were not considered fit to eat. Along with coyotes and rattlesnakes, they were constantly waged war upon. Every so often the farmers would come with their guns and have a jackrabbit shoot. They would spread out in a solid line and flush out the rabbits as they walked. Hundreds were killed this way, crated up and sent to Spokane for cat and dog food. The ladies always provided a hot meal, and it was one of our few social events.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

School Days 1909

Bernice Adams' first school near Mesa, Washington

The new, larger school

I thought I’d share a little bit about my grandmother’s early school days. She left a couple pictures and a brief description in her autobiography. The time she describes is about 1909-1915.

“Mother and I arrived at the ranch in the summertime, and that fall there was no school for me to go to. This was finally solved by sending us to Hanford, a little town across the Columbia River. The river was about ten miles from the ranch. and had to be crossed by row boat. This was risky business as the river was very swift and it took two strong men to make the trip across and back.

Once more I was boarded out, this time to a poor Irish family, who needed the money. There was a girl; my age, and an older boy. I learned many things that year, most of them not taught at school.

By the following year a one room shack had been built a couple of miles from the ranch and a teacher was hired. He was fanatically religious and taught us that the world was coming to an end in a very short time. He wasn’t interested in teaching reading, writing, or arithmetic. After all, we would never live to need it! Much later I had to confess what was going on in the little schoolhouse. The teacher was fired and school came to an abrupt halt.

By the following year another larger school had been built. Still one room, but much more substantial than our former shack. We had a new teacher and we all took turns cleaning the school. Whoever got to school first had to build the fire in the big stove. We had from twelve to fifteen students in eight grades, and most of them didn’t show up on a regular basis. Whenever there was work to do at home that automatically came first. We were allowed to skip grades, and that explains why I entered high school at age twelve. I rode a horse to school and he was tied to a post, with a long rope, during the day. He had to be saddled and unsaddled, and fed and watered. Going to school really involved a lot of work in those days.”

Monday, September 17, 2007

Morning Light

I just returned from a short trip to Door County, the peninsula bordered by Green Bay on the west and Lake Michigan on the east. Once or twice a year I drive north two hundred miles to take an art class, visit my aunt, or just enjoy how beautiful Wisconsin is in each different season. The weather turned this weekend, no longer hot and summery, but cool and windy, coming close to downright cold. I brought summer clothing in my bag, and ended up buying a touristy sweatshirt just to stay warm enough to take walks. The house I was staying in is on a dead end country road, so it was quiet, and in the early morning and dusk deer came out to feed. I could see turkeys in flocks of two dozen or more strutting through the field by the road. The sugar maples responded to the chilly nights and sunny days by starting to change from green to yellow and red, though they haven't begun to fall. The farm stands are selling mums, apples and pumpkins, and most of the sunflowers are nothing more than seed feeders for the birds

One of the things I enjoy about September is the quality of light, especially in the morning and evening. I wandered around the house and into the yard and took some pictures, camera in one hand, coffee cup in the other. Let there be light!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More from Nick's Grandview

Here are a few more photos of Nick Englebert's folk art creations. Evidently he started making his art in the 1930's after he sprained his ankle. Over the next twenty years or so he created forty concrete sculptures, and his wife made flower beds to surround them. He even encrusted his house with shards of broken tiles, plates, bits of glass and shells. In 1951, when he was seventy he received a set of oil paints, and he began painting pictures of his creations.

Years ago I was driving home from a trip in western Wisconsin on a fall day, and I spotted the crumbling sculptures in the yard of the little farm house set back from the road. I wanted to photograph them, so I pulled into the gravel driveway, and hiked up to the house, thinking to ask permission. The house was dark and empty. Both Englebert and his wife had died years before. Back then the sculptures were crumbling and falling to bits, and I heard a tornado further damaged some of them. I'm grateful that the Kohler Foundation came in and restored most of Engelbert's work. They have an exhibit in the house, but every time I have passed recently it has been locked up. By looking in the windows I could see some of the smaller sculptures, and the mural on the wall that Englebert painted.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Poetry Sunday

My photo is of a folk art mermaid near Hollandale, Wisconsin. Her creator was Nick Englebert, an immigrant farmer who in the 1930's created a whole yard full of fanciful statues from cement and bits of broken glass after he visited the Dickeyville Grotto. My sisters-in-law and I took a road trip this week and saw both sites.

In the Cold Country
by Barbara Howes

We came so trustingly, for love, but these
Lowlands, flatlands, near beneath the sea
Point with their cautionary bones of sand
To exorcise, submerge us; we stay free
Only as mermaids glittering in the waves:
Mermaids of the imagination, young
A spring ago, who know our loveliness
Banished, like fireflies at winter’s breath,
Because none saw; these vines about our necks
We placed in welcome once, but now as wreath
Against the scalpel cold; still cold creeps in
To grow like ivy over our chilling bodies
Into our blood. Now in our diamond dress
We wive only the sequins of the sea.
The lowlands have rejected us. They lie
Athwart the whispering waters like a scar
On a mirage of glass; the dooming land,
Where nothing can take root but frost, has won.
And what of warmth and what of joy? They are
Sequestered elsewhere, southward, where the sun
Speaks. For all our mermaid vigilance
And balance, all goes under; underneath
The land’s gray wave we falter and fall back
To hibernate within the caves of death.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

First Day of School

It's back to school for students and teachers in Wisconsin today. Wisconsin passed a law to keep students from returning before Labor Day, mostly to keep young workers from abandoning their posts before the last gasp of summer vacations. When I was in elementary and high school we returned to the classroom after Labor Day because the Walworth County Fair wrapped up then, and many of us attended and exhibeted there. Today is only the second time since childhood that I am not returning to the classroom, and it feels pretty good. The morning is cool and the crickets are chirping. It's nice to be here reading the newspaper, planning my day, and feeling rested. Usually the first day of high school teaching meant feeling groggy from getting up and moving faster than usual, and from school anxiety dreams (can't find my classroom, can't find the students, forgot to prepare lessons). Of course there was usually nothing to worry about the first couple days except pointing confused freshmen in the right direction for their classes and the lunch room, and struggling to open their Master Locks on the soon-to-be-filled metal lockers. I wish the all anxious teachers and the confused freshmen the best.

The photo is me on the first day of school, either first or second grade. I attended the same elementary school as my father and grandfather, Millard School. I never attended kindergarten - they just threw me off the end of the educational pier into the deep water of first grade when I was six. I didn't have to walk to school; my parents gave me a ride in the green Mercury, and one memorable winter day when we were snowed in, on the tractor. It was a cream colored brick school with two classrooms and two lavatories (name of former students and the mark of Zorro scratched in the wooden doors) upstairs, a cloak room and boiler room in the basement. One classroom housed grades one through four, the other four through eight. The Big Room and the Little Room. A thick rope descending through a hole in the ceiling of the central staircase and hall led to a bell on the roof, the one that signaled the beginning of school and the end of recess. I remember standing on a chair to pull the rope. We brought our lunches in paper bags or lunch pails, and bought milk each week ahead of time, for daily delivery. You had your choice of white or chocolate in waxed paper cartons, and in the winter the cartons froze, creating a good slush. Physical education involved playing on the swings, rings and monkey bars, or chasing madly around the school building. Our music teacher came once a week, and could play a decent boogey woogie on the upright piano. Most of the time there were about five students in my grade, but I didn't notice the shortage of classmates since grades one through four all sat in the same room, listening to each other's lessons. If you didn't know it all by fourth grade you just weren't paying attention. It is a sorrow of my life that I never finished reading all the books in our little library before our little rural school consolidated with the Elkhorn school system, and I never made it to the Big Room before Millard School closed for good.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Poetry Sunday

The drawing was an EDM challenge, to draw a chain. I found a photo and used graphite and colored pencil.

The Eternal Rebel
by Eve Gore Booth


The phantoms flit before our dazzled eyes,
Glory and honour, wrath and righteousness,
The ag├Ęd phantoms in their bloodstained dress,
Vultures that fill the world with ravenous cries,

Swarming about the rock where, chained apart,
In age-long pain Prometheus finds no rest
From the divine flame burning in his breast,
And vultures tearing at a human heart.

Not yet the blessed hours on golden wings
Bring to the crucified their sure relief,
Deeper and deeper grows the ancient grief,
Blackest of all intolerable things.

Eternal Rebel, sad, and old, and blind,
Bound with a chain enslaved by every one
Of the dark gods who hide the summer sun,
Yet art thou still the saviour of mankind.

Free soul of fire, break down their chains and bars,
Drive out those unclean phantoms of the brain,
Till every living thing be friends again,
And our lost earth true comrade to the stars.