Category Archives: Family Stories

The World Needs More Nellies

In the first volume of the Round Barn saga I talked about Nellie Needham, my grandfather’s second cousin, who loaned money for the building of the barn after Grampa’s brother-in-law, the esteemed president of a Methodist seminary, spent the money he’d promised Grampa —spent it and lost it on a pecan grove, hah! In Volume Three, my editor had a blank page at the end, and put in the “Nellie” poem I wrote for Illinois Times, where I have a weekly spot. We didn’t have a photo then —but I have since found one, among the heaps of material I brought from the farm. Here she is, in her 90s, turning over the first spadeful of dirt for a new Methodist church in Watertown, Wisconsin —she donated her land for the edifice! I met her at about that time —perhaps 1943. I was a kid, she was old, wrinkled, spry.

nellie poem #1

nellie needham a spinster schoolteacher
my grampa’s second cousin loaned him
money in 1911 to build the round barn it
was paid back very slowly over the years
during the depression she lowered the
interest to match the federal land bank
wouldn’t take no for an answer my dad
inherited the debt told nellie he’d pay
interest and some principle every due
date but only if she first wrote to him
she did but never mentioned money a
lively correspondence ensued over many
years I met her once in watertown I was
fifteen she was over ninety tiny wrinkled
spry bright eyed she said the chariot had
missed her door if it didn’t swing low
soon she and her friends were going to
charter a bus she also said every day
she raised her kitchen shade if it stayed
down her neighbors would know she was
in trouble when my father paid the last
installment she returned it wrote that of
all the family she’d lent money to he and
his father were the only ones who ever
paid it back I have the file of mutual
letters it is sweet reading she says old
age has been kind to her with health
home friends what more can she need?
nothing, but the world needs more nellies

“Wash on Monday…”

Farm women hanging laundry in 1917
Hilda (left) and another hired woman hanging laundry in the Big House yard, with Bob, the dog, for company. Circa 1917.

Now that good weather is finally here, I should be hanging my laundry outside, to get that fresh and sunny scent, save on energy, and get the exercise. But recent improvements to my house have placed a washer-drier conveniently in the kitchen, and it’s too easy just to throw all the wet stuff in the drier and push a button. Before, the only danger to outside drying was in mulberry season —then I was lucky not to get a big purple splash on a favorite blouse.
When I grew up on the farm my mom, in the Little House, used an old Maytag in the cellar, bluing and everything; and on wet days the wash was strung all over the downstairs and slapped you in the face as you threaded your way among all the hanging sheets and towels and underslips and the various quaint clothing of the thirties. All the windows were steamy and we drew pictures on them with our fingers.
Washday over at the Big House was spectacular —water heated on the stove, the big washing machine and wringer, the scrub boards now seen only in museums, loads of huge copper rinse tubs, and overalls, long johns, white coats for barn and milkhouse, sheets for all the hired men, work towels and rags —a much more formidable wash than ours. A spectacle, but Grama said we were no help, to “get out of the way!” Winter days the farm wash hung in the basement where the fat furnace with octopus tentacles provided billowy heat, all other seasons it was hung outside to dry in the Wisconsin air.
I’m glad I live in a modest economic section of Springfield where there is no law against laundry display. Homeowner’s associations with such prohibitions seem unnecessary —who cares that your scanties are on view, if other families’ are, too? And hanging up clothes can make for friendly talk across the fence with your neighbor hanging theirs –although we can’t count on Mondays anymore.

Research takes us many places!

Megan wrote, “What about Grama’s sister Kate? There’s something about her and Father Divine and then we don’t hear anything else. What happened to her?”

Well, I remember meeting Great-aunt Kate when she came through Wisconsin and stopped at the farm and was all full of Father Divine, an African American religious sect leader of the Great Depression and after, and was on her way to some big gathering I recall as being in Michigan – but I was a little kid, maybe 6 or 7. I do recall that over the years, there was conjecture by my Grama and other family on the farm as to where was Kate and what had happened to her. She just vanished after that visit and nobody ever heard from her again. There are darling pictures of her baby son in old family albums; did any adult write him and say “Where is your mother”? If so, there’s no record. This has put me looking up Father Divine, too. He had an infamous history. Kate settled in Washington state, where Father Divine had followers, mostly white. I learned he also had followers in California, France, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia. Apparently one of them was Jimmy Jones, of Kool-Aid fame! I’m sorry I can’t write all this up in Round Barn, but I guess it’s peripheral anyway. He did not come to the farm, as did the daughter of General Booth, who held a rousing service in the living room of the Big House, and rates a whole chapter in Vol. 2, “La Maréchale.”

Beautiful and mysterious Aunt Kate
Beautiful and mysterious Aunt Kate

Richest Black

Nature Photography

on bitter nights when deep drifts
blocked our long country lane we
hiked up left the car on the road
snowpants boots our white breath
searing our windpipes we followed
daddy’s tracks as he pushed the way
to light and warmth I loved those treks
the sky its richest black and the stars!
the stars so bright so close you could
swipe down handfuls in your mittens
in your arms hug the frozen milky way

Many of you know that I write a poem a week for the Illinois Times; it’s on the Letters page and you could look it up if you want to at I’ll put this one here because so many people have gone out of their way to tell me how much they like it (many of my poems do not receive comments).

Uncle George’s teeth

Uncle George's Teeth
Uncle George

How ‘bout a joke for this last blog entry of 2014; it may be apocryphal. But for a period, my Great Uncle George was a Methodist minister in the Beloit, Wis., church around 1895. He was reputed to be preaching so vigorously that his false teeth flew out and landed in the lap of a parishioner in the front row, whereupon he said, “Would madam please pass the plate?” Now I would have expected this from my Uncle Bert, who was a clever jokester, but Uncle George? Uncle George?? I believe it because I want to. And it’s a family legend!

Christmas lullaby

My mother, Vera, wrote this lullaby for my oldest sister, Vera Joan, on her first Christmas, 1925.


Sleep, little baby, the daylight is fading;
Dim yellow stars the dark heavens adorn;
Once, long ago, in a Bethlehem manger
The little Lord Jesus was born.
Lullaby, lullaby, sleep, little baby, sleep.

Sleep, little baby, my arms are about thee,
A circle of love which enfolds thee secure;
So Mary cradled the wee baby Jesus,
The little Lord Jesus, so pure.
Lullaby, lullaby, sleep, little baby, sleep.

Sleep little baby, thine eyelids are drooping,
Thy warm, tender body relaxing to rest;
Jesus thus slept in the arms of sweet Mary,
His dear little head on her breast.
Lullaby, lullaby, sleep, little baby, sleep.
Lullaby, lullaby, sleep, little baby, sleep.

Click here to download a full page .pdf of Vera’s original score.

More bread, please

My last blog mentioned bread. My mother didn’t bake bread, but we would walk over to the Big House for Gramma’s bread. Once, Craig, the youngest, got sent over just before supper; we waited and waited and waited for his return, and finally I was sent out to see what had happened. I found Craig midway between the two houses; he had made a hole in the side of the loaf and eaten out the entire insides.
Jackie and her baby, and her baby brother
Jackie and her baby, and her baby brother

…breadcrumb trail leads to gold

For Volume 4 of “THE ROUND BARN,” due out early next year, I’ve been scanning photos from (and also reading) newspaper coverage of Farm Progress Days, held on my Grandpa Dougan’s farm in 1961. Here and there, I ran across a mention of Alice in Dairyland. Well, as everyone who’s ever visited Jackie’s downstairs bathroom knows, who could be more perfectly
fitting in a story told by Jackie, than Alice?

Curiosity well piqued, I turned to google, and found this intriguing (sub)header in the June 25th, 1961 edition of The Milwaukee Journal:

Click the picture to read the full article
Click here to read the full article
From the article: “Poised and stunning in a blue gown, Miss Anderson broke precedent a bit when she stayed dry-eyed as the announcement of her victory was made.”

Really– being dry-eyed broke a precedent? Apparently so: it turns out that the role of Alice is Wisconsin’s Agricultural Ambassador, not bad for a “starter” job at age 19. No wonder it was worth mentioning that she kept it together! And look where it’s taken her: I found Miss Anderson’s current name on the Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture website, and from there, learned that Carol Anderson Koby has a radio show out of Madison: ALL ABOUT LIVING.

Carol says, “These programs are built on the philosophy that age is not a
deterrent to being an active participant in a complex world. In fact, leading a full, productive, and happy life is an “ageless” concept.”

Yes indeed. What could be a better description of Jackie, at age 86, than
leading a full, productive, and happy life?

Naturally, I started listening immediately, and that’s how I found this audio program, which might be of particular interest to Jackie’s followers: TRANSFORM YOUR TRAVEL INTO A COMPELLING MEMOIR,
with guest Sarah White, who offers services and help for writers of personal stories at her website, First Person Productions. Sarah also has a blog:
True Stories Well Told, –definitely worth checking out.

For all of you who have been in any of Jackie’s classes (Family Stories writers, especially! give this show a listen!) over the past 40 years, I ask you– who could possibly be more perfectly fitting for the Alice in her story?

And to Carol and Sarah– thanks for all you do! Now, carry on.

Home for the Holiday

I have a story about Thanksgiving at the Big House: Grampa wanted everyone to know that everything on this table had been raised at the farm (we had three lovely baked chickens instead of a turkey). The squash, the potatoes, the milk and cream, of course, and the apples and pumpkins for the pies, etc. — Except my little brother made a comment about the salt, pepper and coffee; nobody paid him any attention. We did all our own baking from the flour, which came in huge sacks and made us sneeze when it was poured into the flour bin. The flour bin was important because it was where we all sat to watch the goings-on in the kitchen; my father would sit there and argue with Grandma about evolution until she was wild, waving her spoon and screaming, “We are NOT descended from monkeys!”

An Educated Man

When I was ten, I visited and got know my Kirk second cousins in Mason City, Iowa. Dorothy is the youngest, in ninth grade. I went to school with her, and pored over her Latin book. I was able to figure out the first several lessons. I decided I’d take Latin when I reached ninth grade.

Back at the Kirk house, I said, “Latin really makes you think!”

Dorothy said, “When I was in Wisconsin, Uncle Wesson said something to me about thinking. I wrote it down in my diary.”

“What?” I asked. “Can I read it?”

“I remember it,” Dorothy said. “We were talking about my future and where I wanted to go to college, and what I thought about life, things like that. And he asked me if I knew what an educated man was. I said ‘No, I don’t.’ He said, “An educated man is one who has taught his mind to think. And his hand to act. And his heart to feel.'”

I, too, thought that was worth writing down. It’s a description of Grampa himself.