The value of re-writing history

I have found in an ancient file the beginnings of a novel I wrote when I was 13, shortly after the 4-H debacle when my calf behaved so despicably at the county fair and I was horribly humiliated. It’s fiction, so my heroine is doing everything right with her calf and winning a blue ribbon at the fair. I can see that I was trying to make everything “right” by writing it right. I realized this may be the reason for much writing by many novelists. Anyway, after all was well at 4-H with my heroine, she wanders in the fields at night enjoying the moonlight and watching a storm approach, sees lightning strike the barn and manages to sound the alarm, all animals are saved, etc., etc. Talk about compensation! And then the novel petered out and I remember at the time not knowing where to go next. I’d saved my psyche, I’d saved the farm, where else was there to go? Too young for sex.

I’m putting this pic back in because it’s of my calf and me at the fair. This too I drew at about 13, but showing the problem, not solving it.


a short history of ice

I’ve just been writing about ice. In my milk delivery days, we used to carry ice in the trucks in the summertime covered with heavy canvases. Actually ice in the summertime, or in mild climates, has only come about with the invention of refrigeration. In England from prehistoric times, you can see a passageway in Cornwall that catches the wind and game was hung there to keep it cool – called a fogue. I have a book of letters by E. Parmalee Prentice, where he quotes Sir Walter Scott in 1822 saying that he built an icehouse last year and could get no ice to fill it, so this year, he says, “I packed it full of hard-rammed snow, which in March was already melting.” My sister owns property on a remote lake in New Brunswick, only a mile from the ocean, and all during the 19th century, ice was harvested from it, skidded on long wooden tracks to the shore and shipped to Boston and New York for summer use in hotels. In my own childhood, we cut ice from the river and kept it in an icehouse covered with sawdust, and it lasted most of the summer. There were big icehouses on the river. Many memoirs talk about following the ice man and gleaning shards of ice to suck. My elderly generation still often refers to an ice box instead of a ‘frig. Well enough about ice. Daylights savings time and (dare I say it?) spring are upon us.

winter still

In my book Taste of Spruce Gum (1966), Libby’s stepfather spent the long icy winter evenings doing what he called his knittin’ work. This could be to sharpen saws blades or mend logging equipment. We’re not over winter yet – still snowbanks over what I trust are my snowdrops. Do they bloom underneath the snow? Funny to go into daylight savings time with snow, and robins blowing on the tips of their wings to keep warm. It’s hard to know what farmers do now, the big factory farms and CAFOs operating all year regardless of weather. Of course, they aren’t farmers…

A question for the sages

When I published Taste of Spruce Gum back in 1968 or so, I used actual names gleaned from Grandma Vi of people who lived and worked on top of Shrewsbury Mountain in Vermont in 1905. To my surprise, I got letters from people knowing those folks and telling me what happened to them! So this is something I’ve had to be aware of in using real names. Current problem: In Vol. 4, I have a lovely chapter of my dad in the 50s traveling Wisconsin with a young Swede, visiting seed-corn salesmen. He has written this trip up in a lively letter to his kids. At one point, he describes having lunch with a family: “the father, a widower, married a school teacher. Together they added a half-a-dozen more children to the ones he already had.” My dad describes the house as “dirty,” the former school teacher as “blowsy,” and the children as “absolutely beautiful.” The last name is distinctive and he gives the town. So, I looked up that name in that town and find the area is absolutely crawling with this family. If this chapter is published as is, there’s a likely chance this unusual name will be recognized and the adult kids will read Dad’s description. Question: Do I change the name in the book? Or, do I let that extensive family know how beautiful they were? Of course, the house was dirty – so is mine. Of course that overworked mother was blowsy! This might sell a lot of books. So what would you advise?

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

Jackie’s Promise

I thought I started the Round Barn book by telling Grampa when I was 15 that I was going to write it – I’m not quite finished with it yet. But I’ve just found in an old notebook from my room at the farm that I wrote, at 13, a note to myself saying “Grampa I am going to give you a book of my drawings for Christmas. I will call it ‘Being on the Farm’” This one I really followed through on. I have that little book with a cover I made in art class. A few of the drawings I like are of myself; the ones I did of others are mostly sloppy cartoons of detasseling. I wish I’d tried to draw Grampa. But here are a few of mine:






If I didn’t have deadlines, all this Round Barn work would be total fun and absorption and interest. But with the amount of material I have, that lopped over Vol. 2 into Vol. 3, now ditto into Vol. 4, I really have to get Vol. 4 out and finish up this project, especially since it’s been advertised as out last year. Just got a phone call from John Onken up in Madison, Wis., who publishes the Agri-Dairy Newsletter, and writes a column in another dairy publication, informing me that Farm Progress Day of 1961 was held on the Dougan farm and 160,000 people came, and how come I haven’t written about that? Did I know about that?! Well, of course, I’ve known, and I told him that Vol. 4 has three chapters, rich with pictures, on Farm Progress Days. Well, he wants to write about it NOW. And so we have had to send him pictures and other data, even though I tried to dissuade him til Book 4 was out. So, deadlines and I’m not getting any younger…

Here’s how old I was when I began this book: jat006

Here I look now: sol-1102

I’m heading to Nevada to put Book 4 together, with my “staff,” before this is my deadline:


Speaking of tombstones, my friends have come up with the epitaph to go on mine: “It’s around here somewhere.”

kitchenpoem #2

The room above the double doors is specifically intended to catch flies!
The room above the double doors is specifically intended to catch flies!

(originally published October 19, 2006, in the Illinois Times)

if you’re wondering how to
get rid of a pesky housefly
turn off all the lights open
the fridge door he’ll fly right into
the sudden brightness slam the
door later on open it cautiously
in his numbed state he’s easily
dispatched with a napkin but
be sure you’ve covered the butter
my grampa had the idea earlier
his cows entered the round barn
through a dim passage a hanging
blanket brushed the flies off their backs
the only light a bright slit overhead
they flew up crawled through
into a closed room all windows
no way out no sense to crawl back
through the now dark slit a farmhand
would sometimes enter the room and
shovel up a bushel of desiccated
bodies not many of us have cows
these days but most of us have fridges
maybe I should send this household
hint to heloise I wonder if she pays

The little red cupola

How can you see me in living color and talking, too? How did the Round Barn become part of Illinois? Listen, my children, and ye shall hear –
I’d heard that Illinois’s two major museums: the Illinois State Museum and the Abraham Lincoln — were into a big oral history project on Illinois farming. So of course, I ignored it. However, I attend an archaeology lecture once a month at the Illinois State Museum, and one night after the session, a man approached me holding the Northwestern “Stories from the Round Barn” and a colorful map of Illinois marked off into counties, and on the very top – Illinois makes a straight line – a little red square cupola. I began to laugh for it was obviously Rock County, Wisconsin: from our back field, you can spit into Illinois with a high wind. The man laughed, too. It turned out that Illinois wanted to incorporate Rock County, Wisconsin, into Illinois for the purposes of their oral history, for I had more going back than anybody. I figured Rock County wouldn’t mind, so I didn’t ask it, but the oral history project recorded me talking for nine hours (yes, we did it in two sessions) and I still have a half hour to add because their last question was important and took me by surprise (I’ll write about that later). You can find the whole interview at the Illinois State Museum’s Audio-Video Barn along with a lot of other interesting interviews, but of course, none so interesting as mine. 🙂 Another reward of all this activity: the museums had a show at the State capitol, their booth right in the middle of the rotunda, huge television screen – I walked in and there was me, talking away. I found me rather fascinating, but needing a hair cut.

Fish soup

No, not that Norway  (JJ on far right)
No, not that Norway (JJ on far right)

About that last post, I had a package of soup mix with directions in Norwegian, from a San Francisco store—Marie Lang-Ree gave it to me. But you can make it this way: make a good sized roux of butter, flour, and gradually add a can of fish broth; I got mine at a fish store. Poach fish: cod, tilapia, or whatever you choose, until barely tender, and add to that the broth, too. Same for scallops. Use cooked shrimp. Small size, or maybe medium size (you don’t want the great big fatties.) Have ready some small peas and small cooked carrots – for color. Maybe one chopped potato. Add in lots of whole milk or cream til you get the right consistency. Cook until hot, but don’t overcook – you don’t want your fish tough. Sprinkle chopped chives on top. When I made it, I made several visits to the fish store and six calls to California. If I count the trip to Norway, this soup cost me some big bucks, but I can take it all off my income tax.