A Farm Boy Remembers

Tongue On The Pump Handle

Larry ScheckelHow come your tongue sticks to a cold pole or pipe? is a question that has come up several times for my newspaper column Ask Your Science Teacher. This silly and stupid deed was made famous in the A Christmas Story movie. Recall that nine-year old 'Ralphie' Parker wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas if only he can convince Santa Claus, his mother, and his father that he won't shoot his eye out with it.

A danger for little kids was the tongue on the pump handle or in the movie scene, a flag pole. There was always some dummy who would do it, especially on a double dare. A kid just can’t chicken out on a triple dare!

Tongue on the pump handle.

Of course, every Scheckel boy tried it on the pump handle or uprights on the windmill on the Seneca, Wisconsin farm sometime in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We all lost a bit of tongue skin on those episodes.

So, scientifically, what is going on? The moisture on your skin or tongue can freeze and bond you to any metallic object. This fusing of skin to metal will happen when you touch a metal surface. Metals are excellent conductors of heat.

There are three methods of heat transfer; conduction, convection, and radiation. Conduction is a molecule to molecule process. If you put an iron rod into a fire, the end you are holding will soon be very warm. The heat, which is the movement or jiggling of molecules, was transferred from one molecule to the next. This process is like lining a bunch of people up right next to each other and then each person nudges the person next to him or her. The jostling  travels down the line of people. The molecules on the heated end of the rod started jumping and bouncing around. This shaking of molecules travels along the rod and pretty soon you're holding the jumping molecules, which is heat.

Convection is heat transfer by currents. Most people heat their house by convection currents. Gas or oil furnaces heat air which travels up the ducts. Radiation is solar, light, or electromagnetic waves. If you let the sun hit your face, you can feel the warmth. This is radiation.

If you touch your kitchen countertop, you would say it is feels fairly warm. But, if you touch the kitchen faucet, you say it feels cool. Actually, the countertop and the faucet are the same temperature. The faucet feels cool because it conducts heat away from your hand. Your hand loses heat, so you say the faucet is cool. Ever wonder why toilet seats are made of plastic or wood and not made of metal? By the way, bed pans in hospitals are made of stainless steel which happens to be a poor conductor of heat.

When your wet hand or tongue touches very cold metal, heat is conducted away from the skin quickly and the moisture on your skin or tongue freezes, bonding your skin to the cold metal. Haven't we all, as youngsters, been told not to go out on a cold winter day and put your tongue on the pump handle? Of course, most of us probably gave it try.

When I was growing up on a farm in Crawford County, our mother gave us some good advice. She said to never stick your tongue on the hub cap of a passing farm pick-up!!

Midwest Harvest

Larry ScheckelIowa is in harvest mode. The soybean and corn crop is coming in from the fields. My main squeeze, wife Ann, and I traveled to our Scheckel heritage site of Springbrook, Iowa on Thursday, visited some cousins, and motored west on the Highway 30, the Old Lincoln Highway.

The countryside is a sea of golden brown as far as the sky meets landscape. Some fields are harvested, lying fallow, waiting for the winter snows that are sure to come. In other fields, those green monster machines, John Deere combines, can be seen moving across the land. A cloud of dust, shredded stalks falling to the ground, tractor-pulled grain bins and semi haulers waiting for the shelled corn or protein-rich soybeans. It’s a beautiful sight.

We stopped our Dodge Caravan south of Marshalltown, Iowa and pulled over on the side of the road to take a few pictures. Our good luck, a John Deere 9S70 STS (with Bullet Rotor) just happened to stop by our car. The farmer got out of his climate controlled cab, comes with a radio, climbed down the steps and moved around to the front of the cutting head and reel. 

He was cleaning some stalks that had wrapped around the rotor head. I ambled over and we started talking. “Pretty big machine,” I opened with. “Well, actually it’s one of the smaller ones, only a 25 foot cutting head,” he replied. I was probing, “I heard that these combines harvesters go for a half million dollars." He replied, “And more.”

John Deere combine in Iowa field

I helped him unwind some soybean stalks. A Case IH tractor pulling a grain wagon moved alongside the combine. Time to unload some soybeans. He’s doing 55 acres today. He tells me about the Golden Key program. “When you buy a John Deere combine over in Moline, Illinois, they take you on a behind the scenes tour. You walk right along the assembly line watching your machine being made. At the end of the line, they give you the keys, and you climb up in the cab and start the combine for the first time. Your sign your name on the green machine itself. And they give you a very nice lunch.”

I thanked the farmer, strolled back to our car, watched the soybeans being unloaded, and the beautiful John Deere 9S70 combine go back to work. We moved west and every few miles we spotted a John Deere, or Case IH, (one New Holland), harvester move across the Iowa countryside, bringing in the harvest.

The Old Threshers Reunion

Larry ScheckelIt is one of the great antique, old iron, farm shows in the country – the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. It’s held each Labor Day weekend, a five-day extravaganza of museums, antique agriculture equipment, steam engines, stage shows, parades, and food to die for. More than 100,000 visitors attend every year.

I was a new attendee this year. A very hot day on September 3, the first day of the Reunion. We parked in the shade of the local church, those nice Lutherans, walked across the narrow street to the northeast entrance, got a ticket for my wife, Ann, at $15 and a reduced veterans price of $10 for me. We thought it was a bargain.

We amble over to the main entertainment tent. A gospel-bluegrass family, the Wissmanns, was belting out the familiar "Rock of Ages."

To get the complete layout of the area, we hop on one of the tractor-pulled wagons that shuttle folks around the grounds. Has to be several hundred acres. There are 60 acres reserved just for campers. The Midwest Electric Railway is a trolley system that heads out to the campgrounds. The Midwest Central Railroad runs a narrow gauge track and steam train around the display area.

We meet with Leslie McManus, chief editor of Farm Collector magazine. We do a bit of writing for them. She and her assistant, Teri, took us to lunch in the nearby food tent.

After lunch, I start down the long lines of tractors, every make and model and color ever put out by American farm machinery manufacturers. The green John Deeres, red Masseys, orange Allis Chambers, and red Farmalls. The oldest ones really didn’t have much color, more like battleship gray, you know.

The Old Threshers Reunion 

The parade of antique tractors, the Cavalcade of Power Parade, passed by the ample stadium stands. Starts at noon and goes until 1:30. Two rows of tractors roll by at the same time, the announcer booming out the name of the machine and its owner/operator. Those old steam engines were not environmentally nice and big puffs of black smoke bellow from their stacks. The wind was just right to get a good whiff of old iron. Leroy Van Dyke and Barbara Fairchild will perform in the evening, when the smoke clears.

I watch the guys cutting logs at the sawmill, the grain threshing and corn shelling; visit the Colfax school, the Prairie Gem Church and blacksmith shop; see hit and miss engines; tried the ice cream from the Methodist food stand; stopped by the saloon-reminding me of the Gunsmoke TV series; and witnessed a bank robbery and train holdup and jail break. Couldn’t believe they had so much lawlessness in eastern Iowa! Did a bit of walking among the hundreds of vendors.

We spend five hours at the Old Threshers Reunion. But we’re heading West to visit the Wessels Living Farm Museum at York, Nebraska, before motoring into the Rockies in Colorado.

Do visit the Mt. Pleasant, Iowa Old Threshers Reunion next year.

Crawford County Fair

Larry ScheckelIt is one of the smallest county fairs in Wisconsin, but in one of the most beautiful settings in the United States. Gays Mills lies in the bosom of the Kickapoo Valley that slices through Crawford County in the hill country of the southwest part of the state. Green hills rise up on all sides of the narrow dale.

I arrived at the fairgrounds at 9 a.m., the sun burning off the last of the early morning fog. I grew up on farm a few miles from here, near Seneca. I headed straight for the dairy and cattle judging barn. A circle of nine Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys were parading around the judge.

This middle-aged bovine referee is studious, balding, wears dark slacks, sports a tie and a sheriff-like badge on his right chest area. Surprisingly he carries no clipboard. He softly barks out, “Set ‘em up,” and dutifully each young lad or lass halts the young cow, using a halter hold and show stick to get all four feet set up square on each corner of the animal’s body. The youngsters know the rules of showmanship. “When standing still, the animal's front feet should be squared with each other while it's back legs should be open to whichever side the judge is on to show the teats if the animal is a heifer. If it is a cow, then the animal's legs should be closed to whichever side the judge is on to offer a full view of the cow's udder.”

The cattle move forward, each with a snug fitting halter to which is attached a lead strap to which is attached the young show person. These young people, most between the ages of 10 and 17 have been well coached. Don’t let that lead strap drag on the ground. One hand on the lead strap, the other holding the show stick. Keep the show stick pointing down.

Crawford County Fair  

I ask a young lady waiting to show her springer calf, “What’s the dress code? “We have to wear white pants and something that looks nice for a shirt or blouse tucked in, no baseball caps, no gum chewing,” she replies. Each show person wears a bib with their competition number.

One of the nine humps and poops on the pea gravel floor. Will that count against her? A farmer quickly grabs a swoop shovel, gathers together the bovine waste, scoops it up, walks it out of the ring. “Nice job,” a spectator tells the man.

Parents in the bleachers lean forward, apprehensive, a few biting nails, whispering to a spouse, or no one in particular. A few handle camcorders. It’s a time of high tension. Sibling youngsters are fidgeting and squirming. A John Deere Johnnie Popper passes the cattle barn on a nearby road, heading in the direction of the antique tractor pull being held later at noon. A rooster from the next door poultry barn breaks the tension. A baby cries. One of the contestants pushes down the tail of her young cow. Who is more nervous, the young lad or lass parading the cow or their parents watching in the stands? Will all that training, washing, clipping and grooming pay off?

They are from the 4-H clubs of Crawford County: the North Clayton Cardinals, Steuben River Runners, and Eastman Cloverleafs. A few are associated with schools, such as the Wauzeka FFA. The names are familiar: Kramer, Payne, Nagel, Mezera, Boylan, Klema, Oppriecht and Achenbach.

The judge stops, asks the show youngster a few questions, moves on to another. Each youngster has been coached on possible questions: what is your cow’s name, age, birthdate, sire, dam, breed, and weight.

Finally, the judge walks over to the table, picks up the microphone, and intones a few positive comments about the class of cows in general, then announces the first and second prizes.

This class leaves the ring as another is about to be announced. A 14-year-old girl takes the lead, her first-place Holstein obediently trailing behind. A beaming freckled face, pigtails with red ribbons, she glances over to proud parents on the third seat of the wooden bleachers. Mom takes a photograph and her dad gives her a thumbs up.

Driving Old Iron

Larry ScheckelOne of the finest Fourth of July parades in the Midwest can be found in Tomah, smash dab in the middle of Monroe Country in southwest Wisconsin. The small city of 9,000 folks supports a 10 a.m. parade of more than 120 units, moving right down the main street of Superior Avenue.

You have your usual floats: Cranberry Queen, Butterfest, Knights of Columbus, VFW, American Legion, about 20 in all. My favorite is the Tavern League. They have a live band playing country and western favorites, mixed with a bit of patriotic, gospel, honky-tonk, and bluegrass. The Tomah High School band always marches. Youngsters rush out to grab candies tossed by float riders. The Saddle Club is always the last unit in the parade. You might guess why-no need to walk in some of that “pony exhaust.”

A large number of restored tractors are distributed amongst the units. Red Farmalls, green John Deeres, Persian orange Allis-Chalmers, prairie gold Minneapolis Molines, and maybe a gray 8N or 9N Ford.

We have plenty of farm machinery collectors and restorers here in the Driftless hill country. They know the thrill of searching, finding, and final rescue of tractors that go back nearly a hundred years. They know the pride and satisfaction of turning a piece of rusty old junk into a good-as-new machine. One such miracle worker is Larry Baribeau.

Larry allowed me to drive one of his International Harvester tractors, a 1958 diesel Farmall 560 beauty. This is the tractor that brought great sorrow to the International Harvester Co. The Farmall 560 experienced problems due to the final drive not being strong enough to handle the power of the engine. A new rear end was offered by International in mid-1959, and the company sponsored a massive replacement program. Enough overtime was earned by some IH workers, they could buy a house. John Deere took the lead in farm tractor production.

Larry Scheckel drives a Farmall 560 tractor in parade. 

Larry Scheckel drives a Farmall 560 tractor in parade.

The Scheckel family had a Farmall 460 gas-powered model on the 238-acre farm outside of Seneca, down in Crawford County. Dad traded in a Massey Harris ’44 for the 460 when I was in high school, right about 1958.

I had not driven a Farmall for more than 50 years and what a thrill it was to climb aboard the 560, check out the shifting, try the torque amplifier, toot the horn, and feel the power of that 4.6 L, 6 cylinder, 55 horsepower diesel engine.

Best of all? Larry said I just might be able to drive another of his restored Farmalls in next year’s Tomah Fourth of July parade.

Fixing Fences

Larry ScheckelFixing fence on the Crawford County 238-acre Scheckel farm near Seneca was a never-ending job. One that we did not like, but knew had to be done. We seemed to have more fences than we needed, but that was because we pastured the cows, and we didn’t have a silo. Cows grazed in the pastures in the summertime, but were fed hay, cornstalks and ground corn in the winter. 

We cut our own fence posts at the same time we were cutting logs and cutting wood for burning in our furnace. We always had a supply of fence posts stored by the granary. Most were simply large dowel rods, others were sharpened on one end for driving into the ground with a post mall.

The buzz saw was used for putting a point on one end of the smaller posts. The driven posts were used in wooded and rocky areas.

Many is the day when we would hitch the two-wheeled trailer to the Massey Harris ’44, load up fence posts, fence wire, post hole digger, axe, post maul, wood splitter, nail box and nails, hammers, wire stretcher, tamper, and crow bar.

My brothers, Phillip and Bob, and I would be off to fix fence. Bob would remove the old fence post. Phillip would be digging a new hole for a replacement post. I would put in a new post, setting it down in the freshly dug hole, holding it upright while placing dirt evenly around the post, and stomping it down with a wooden tamper. Attach the fence, both woven wire and barbed wire to the new posts. We sure went through a lot of fence staples!

We “drove posts.” Some of our border fences went through woods. In the springtime, we had to “walk the fences.” We couldn’t drive the tractor and trailer with all the tools and fence posts up into the steep hills of Kettle Hollow woods. So we carried our hammer, axe, staple box, a roll of barbed wire, and that blasted 16-pound post maul into the woods. If we needed a new post, we cut one from a nearby small tree.

With the end of the sapling sitting on the ground, the axe was used to give the wood a sharpened point. Dad or Phillip would drive post into the ground. The barbed wire stapled to the new post.

We were careful to maintain the line fences on the Scheckel farm. As the name implies, a line fence separates your farm property from your neighbor’s. Ownership of any line fence was established decades ago and the arrangement was passed down from land seller to land buyer.

 Wisconsin State Statue Chapter 90 covers line fences. Generally speaking, the rule of thumb says that if you stand on your property line, facing your neighbor’s property, you have the duty to maintain the half of the fence on your right, and your neighbor takes care of the half on the left. I guess all the farmers understood that. Property disputes and disagreements were unheard of out on Oak Grove Ridge.

wire fence | Fotolia/Carbonbrain

Photo: Fotolia/Carbonbrain

A Cow Having a Calf In The Woods

Larry ScheckelMost of the time our cows would freshen and have a calf and it would occur in the barn. But sometimes if the cows were in the pasture and there was a woods as part of that pasture, we would have to go look for it. Our Crawford County farm near Seneca, Wisconsin, had three fields for our grazing milk cows. The knoll field was the one pasture that had an extensive woods bordering the tillable field.

One day in 1952, when we brought the cows in for milking, a cow turned up missing. My brothers, Phillip and Bob, and I were sent on a mission to find it. We yelled “here cow, here cow” and got no response. We searched for about 20 minutes before we found the cow and her newborn calf. Cows keep places like this secret and do not like telling anyone where they’re hiding. Giving birth to a calf is very personable to the cow, you understand.

The cow was licking her new born calf, and we pushed the calf along, and carried the calf part of the way, to get back to the farmstead. We knew that if you carried the calf, momma cow trailed real close behind.

I was totally amazed at how soon a calf is able to get up and walk after it is born. Whereas most humans take about a year, calves are up and about in less than an hour. I was only 10 years old, but I figured that calves have four legs and humans had only two legs, so they had a big advantage.

My brothers and I were tired and hungry when we reached the farm buildings. It was only a trek of about a quarter mile, but seemed at the time to be a much greater distance. We put mother cow and her calf in a portion of the barn and walked into the house. We suggested to Dad and Mom that we might want to put a cowbell on a cow that ready to give birth. We pointed out that the Swiss farmers put cowbells on their cows. I believe our suggestion went nowhere.

cow and calf | Fotolia/Dmitry Pichugin

Photo: Fotolia/Dmitry Pichugin