I’m from Wisconsin

cheesecurdsSome people can trace their lineage hundreds of years back to the old country. I cannot. My story begins in Wisconsin.

My husband’s family on his mother’s side can follow their roots to a little farm near a fjord. His ancestors, who made their way to Iowa, held tight to their relatives in Norway, a direct connection his family continues today.

I know a little bit about my ancestors, thanks to my aunt’s genealogical detective work. What she’s discovered is interesting: German immigrants, an orphaned boy, steadfast farmers, and a family broken by tuberculosis and logging accidents. But from what I can tell, when my branch of the Sternweis family came to America sometime around 1850, they kept their past behind them and started over.

So for me, everything begins a bit later, about 1907, when my paternal grandfather purchased the original 80 acres and began my Sternweis family’s farm in central Wisconsin. And it still is my family’s farm — those 80 acres and quite a few more — because members of my family are still farming it.

Yes, I come from America’s Dairyland, home of cows and cheese, bratwurst and beer, and a particular farm on the Marathon-Wood county line. That’s why I don’t need my DNA swabbed. I have no desire to know the percentage ethnic breakdown of my forebears. I already know my ancestry. I’m from Wisconsin.

Laura Sternweis

Riding Side Saddle

side-saddleI wasn’t riding shotgun in my brother’s big blue tractor. More like riding side saddle is how I’d describe it. Riding shotgun implies having a protective function and a clearly defined task. I had neither. I was in the small jump seat to the left of his driver’s seat. Close enough so we could talk, yet far enough to be out of his way while he drove.

When I was back home playing farm on a recent June afternoon, my brother invited me to ride with him as he prepared a field for planting soybeans. I live in Iowa, nearly 350 miles from the home farm in Wisconsin, so I don’t get quality or quantity time with my big brother very often. These opportunities only arise every couple of years. So I accepted his invitation.

I’ve never been any good at field work. My long-passed tractor driving experience is limited to a Cub Cadet lawnmower and an old Allis-Chalmers tractor that wasn’t much bigger. But I still like tractors and I love my big brother. So when he offers, I go along for the ride, on the side.

Laura Sternweis

Something New at the Farm

siloThe silo behind the barn was new once, but it’s old now. It’s an example of changing technology in American agriculture in general, and my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm in particular. The silo stands alone, its two companions having been dismantled stave by stave and carted away. Their former foundations are all that remain to prove their existence, just two concrete crop circles, lonely labyrinths that lead nowhere.

Technology comes and goes on the farm, as it does elsewhere in life. Whenever I return to my rural roots, I’m likely to be greeted by another change. I’ve been coming home to something new at the farm for nearly 37 years.

I left home for college in 1980, when plans were underway for the farm’s first milking parlor. Each time I came back for a visit that fall, there was something new to see — the double 8 herringbone milking parlor, a freestall barn with a slatted floor over a manure pit, new silos by the barn. Because I hadn’t witnessed the day-to-day progression, the farm’s transformation seemed all the more pronounced.

Since then I’ve lived away from the farm — graduating from college, working in central Wisconsin, and moving to Iowa. During the intervening years two new freestall barns have been built, along with a larger milking parlor. Older tractors have been traded for newer tractors. Older buildings have been repurposed. A small calf barn went up, worked hard for several years, and now is being replaced by a larger structure with modern automatic feeders. New silage bunkers have been added and old tower silos have been torn down.

A few days ago I travelled the circular paths of the old silo foundations. I wandered through the framing of the new calf barn under construction. And I walked the farm, contemplating the past and the future. With each visit home to the farm, I remember the old, but I look forward to the new.

Laura Sternweis

Songs in My Head

old-radioAlthough I’ve never been to L.A. International Airport, I know that it is “where the big jet engines roar.” I didn’t know I knew this until I experienced a road trip revelation. When I heard that classic country song on the radio, to my surprise I started singing along. I didn’t recall being much of a Susan Raye fan, good 1970s singer that she was, but I knew the words to her airport lamentation. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

As I sang along with Susan, no longer was I in the car, tooling down a Midwestern highway with my husband. Instead I was transported via audio back to the dairy barn of my youth. Evidently L.A. International Airport imprinted on my brain back when I used to milk cows, feed silage, and carry out other farm chores with my father and my family, all while listening to the barn radio. Whenever my dad was in the vicinity, that radio was tuned to the country music station.

Classic country music accounts for many of the songs in my head — and by classic country I mean mainly 1960s and ’70s country. It’s cow-milking music, the music of my farm-kid youth. It rattles around in my head along with ’70s rock (from when Dad wasn’t in the barn) and ’80s pop from my college years, as well as hymns and gospel music — from church and my parents’ record collection.

But most often it’s that old country music that I’ll find myself singing along to, whether I hear a song on the radio or in a random YouTube video. Sometimes a song starts playing in my mind for no reason I can discern. Then come the memories — of home and farm and family.

Once in a while, a song will trigger a memory strong enough to make me cry, as was the case with L.A. International Airport. I don’t know why that particular song affected me so. Perhaps because I hadn’t heard it in decades. Maybe when I was a kid I had liked the song more than I realized. Or possibly the repetition of the last line of the chorus — “I won’t see him anymore” — was enough to spark my tears. (My dad died 12 years ago.)

Although L.A. International Airport and the other songs in my head occasionally give rise to tears, they do not lead to sadness. Instead the songs in my head transcend space and time and reconnect me to days gone by.

Laura Sternweis

My Big Brother

me-steve-shep-1963I cried at my big brother’s wedding in 1974. I was newly 12 and he was nearing 20. I cried because he would be moving away. Granted, he was moving only to the next farm, a short jaunt across the field, but still. No longer would he be living in our family’s home, in the room just across the hall from mine. I was reminded of this last week, upon the occasion of his 43rd wedding anniversary. As they say, time flies.

Back then my big brother farmed with our dad. At first he milked cows on the farm where he lived. But soon a bigger barn was built on the home place, and both dairy herds were combined. Then I again saw my big brother every day, as we worked together on the farm.

For the record, he worked at a far greater rate than I did. He was a farmer and I was his kid sister, and not all that adept at farm work. So I forgive him for that one time he said I should have been a boy — “Larry” rather than Laura — because maybe then I’d be more useful. However, I guess he didn’t mind my inability too much, because he didn’t even yell at me that time when he was teaching me how to rake hay and I nearly knocked him off the Allis-Chalmers tractor, as I learned the importance of the clutch.

Overall, he looked out for me. When I was in 8th grade, he lent me his roller skates so I could practice before a class trip to the town roller rink. His skates were a little big, but they fit good enough that I could learn to keep my balance as I skated laps across the cement floor of our machine shop.

When I fell out of the hay mow and landed, screaming, on the barn floor, he ran to my side ready to offer aid, along with Dad and the veterinarian, who happened to be in the barn at the time. Luckily I was bruised but not broken, and needed no special care from the vet or other medical practitioner.

Otherwise, we milked cows and baled hay and fed calves and scooped silage and whatever else needed to be done — just being a farming big brother and his kid sister.

Then I left home — first for college, then a job, then marriage and graduate school, and a career at Iowa State University. For nearly 29 years I’ve been making a life in Iowa with my husband and kids, some 340 miles away from my big brother. But I keep coming back to the farm. And big brother and his family always welcome me home. Guess he’s still looking out for me.

For that I thank you, big brother. I hope you had a happy anniversary. I’ll see you again on the farm, and soon.

Laura Sternweis

Oh, the Power!

book-desk-windowWhen the electricity goes out on a dairy farm, all hell and milk break loose. I was reminded of this during a recent Sunday morning thunderstorm, when the power went out in my little house in town.

The outage was widespread, affecting more than 5,000 customers in my community. But I had working flashlights and it was bright enough to read and write at my desk next to the window, even on a dreary morning. All in all, it wasn’t a big deal. The power was back on in about two hours.

As I watched the rain and listened to the thunder that morning, I was transported back to my childhood on my family’s dairy farm. Then and there, losing electricity for any amount of time really was a big deal.

If we were milking cows when the power went out, we had to take action immediately. The six milking machines would fall off the cows’ teats and onto the barn floor. Some of us would quickly retrieve the milkers before the cows kicked them into the manure gutter. Someone else would hightail it to the milk house. Without electricity to run the vacuum pump, all the milk that was flowing through the hundreds of feet of stainless steel pipeline would begin spewing out of the overflow valve in the milk house. It wouldn’t take long before the strategically placed pail under the valve would be filled to the brim. Somebody had to get there quickly to monitor the situation and swap out pails, one full for one empty, as many times as necessary. If we didn’t catch that milk, that meant our family’s income would be flowing down the floor drain.

When the milkers were accounted for and the milk had drained from the pipeline, we waited for the power to come back on. We didn’t have a generator then, so there wasn’t much else we could do. I’d usually head to the house, grab a book, and read. We couldn’t finish milking the cows until the power was restored, even if that restoration took several hours. It made for some late nights in the barn during thunder and lightning season.

In 1975 or so, Dad bought a portable generator. It connected to a tractor and the electrical box on the light pole in our yard. When the power went out (and after we’d taken care of our milker retrieving and milk catching), he’d hook up the generator, start the tractor, and the power would return. We were back in the milking business.

These days when the power goes out, I don’t have much to lose. So it doesn’t bother me at all to sit at my desk during a summer storm, listening to the thunder, watching the rain, and writing stories as I wait for the power to return.

Laura Sternweis

The Tines That Bind

tinesTwenty-eight years ago I stood by a rhubarb patch with my brand new husband and a well used pitchfork. It was the photographer’s idea — the rhubarb and pitchfork, that is.

After our wedding in my hometown Catholic church in Wisconsin, we all headed out to my family’s farm for our reception. When the photographer saw our bright red shed (newly painted for the occasion), he was American Gothically inspired and asked if we had a pitchfork handy. My older brother produced one from the barn, complete with crusty manure on the tines. My husband and I took our places next to the rhubarb patch alongside the shed and held the pitchfork between us, taking care to keep the tines away from my lace dress and his rented tuxedo. The photographer snapped the photo, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The American Gothic image was appropriate because we would be moving to Iowa two days later. I was set to begin graduate school at Iowa State University, and my husband had found employment with a small landscaping company nearby. However, we moved to Iowa just in time for the 1988 drought. By July my husband was laid off — not much call for landscaping when it’s 104 and dry. Suddenly we were scraping by on only my graduate assistant stipend, wondering what the hell we had done.

But eventually it did rain, my husband found other work, and I graduated. I got a full-time job at Iowa State, so instead of moving back to Wisconsin, we stayed in Iowa.

Over the course of 28 years, my husband and I have been through both droughts and floods. We’ve borne and raised two kids, seeing them through the terrible twos, orthodontia, driver’s ed, and college. We’ve had two dogs, three rental houses, and one mortgage. We’ve carried on through six cars, seven pickup trucks, and one nearly severed fingertip (dear husband, 2015). In other words, we’ve lived.

Twenty-eight years go by rather quickly. One day I’m 26 in a wedding dress holding a pitchfork, and the next thing I know I’m 54, gazing at old wedding pictures in a photo album on my anniversary. Damn, it’s been fun. I’m sure looking forward to what the next 28 years will bring.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Be sure to visit the American Gothic House Center in Eldon, Iowa, (yep, husband and I have been there) to see the house that inspired Grant Wood to paint “American Gothic.” Get your picture taken, with or without the pitchfork.

Bringing in the Sheep

burl-ives-recordBurl Ives lives on in my record collection, right next to Iron Butterfly. (I arrange my albums alphabetically.) Some people know Burl only as the voice of the “Holly Jolly Christmas” snowman from the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” holiday TV special. Granted, I watched Rudolph every year when I was a little kid. But I first knew Burl’s voice from my parents’ long-playing albums.

One record featured folk songs and children’s tunes, which I liked well enough, but another featured old-time hymns and songs of faith. “Shall We Gather at the River?” Burl asked, and he told of “The Sweet By and By” and “The Unclouded Day.” But my favorite song on Burl’s gospel album was farm-related.

Because I couldn’t yet read and my vocabulary was accordingly limited, I mistook the song’s crop harvesting terminology for animal husbandry. For years I thought Burl was “Bringing in the Sheep.” When I realized that Burl wasn’t singing about livestock, and instead was “Bringing in the Sheaves,” I was disappointed.

My family raised dairy cattle, but I knew what sheep were — “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and all that. But sheaves? I had no idea. My dad embraced modern farming technology. He had a swather. Nobody was bringing in any sheaves on our farm.

Sheaves or sheep, I like old-time Gospel music. It speaks to both my faith and my doubt far better than any contemporary “I Love Jesus” Christian pop or praise music. But when I hear Burl sing, I still tend to replace sheaves with sheep — I just prefer the imagery.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Burl’s birthday is coming up soon, June 14. Make your celebration plans now!

Farm Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” was released 50 years ago, but I wasn’t paying much attention. I was 4. Instead I was listening to the sounds of pets and other animals on my family’s farm.

Laura-and-puppies-1966

In 1966 we had a yellow Collie mixed breed mutt named Sheppy, countless cats, and some 70 Holstein cows and their offspring. At about that time we also acquired a pregnant German shepherd who gave birth in our bull pen. (No bulls were penned there at the time.) The puppies were cute and I liked them well enough, but I was a bit afraid of their mother. If memory serves, we kept one of the pups and found good homes for the rest of the family. But the puppy grew up to chase cars and eventually was taken out by a milk truck.

Sheppy, however, lived to be an old dog. At 13 the old cow-herder died in his sleep, in his usual spot just outside the back door of our house. My dad, always the first one up, found him the next morning and took care of the mess.

Sheppy was replaced by a series of strays, and eventually a new puppy my older sister won, thanks to the 25-cent raffle ticket she bought at her high school. (We named that dog Raffle, obviously.)

Barn cats came and went. Every year there were batches of new kittens. When the kittens were old enough to learn, my brothers and sisters and I taught them how to drink milk from a pan. We named them and played with them, held them and cuddled them. Some seemed to have the proverbial nine lives, others did not. A kitten reclining underneath a standing cow doesn’t have much chance when that cow lies down. Neither does a cat that decides to sleep unseen above the wheel of a car and then jumps down at an inopportune time. On the farm we understood the circle of life — and death.

Now I live in town and for the past 12 years have had an in-the-house dog. Old Blue is a Black Lab/Blue Healer/Doberman mixed mutt. My husband, kids, and I adopted him from the animal shelter when he was a puppy. His are the only pet sounds I listen to these days. Sorry, Beach Boys.

Laura Sternweis

Quantity Time

mom-dad-dancingAlthough my mother called herself the Warden, she really didn’t run our home like a prison. Ours was a family of nicknames, and the Warden simply was hers. She called Dad the Governor, claiming we kids might get a pardon from him from time to time. However, as the Warden, she was not going to cut us any slack. That was her story, but in reality, neither she nor Dad was all that tough. But they had expectations.

My parents raised their seven children before the era of “quality” time. Growing up on the farm, we kids had “quantity” time with our parents. We lived together and we worked together — in the house, in the barns, and in the fields. Mom and Dad weren’t as concerned with boosting our self-esteem as much as teaching us how to work, take responsibility, and be accountable for our actions. They didn’t worry about their parenting style. They just loved us and set limits.

The Warden and the Governor didn’t do too bad raising their seven inmates. We all graduated from high school and completed various levels of post-secondary education. We’re all gainfully employed and supporting households of our own. When it comes to raising children, there’s something to be said for quantity time.

Laura Sternweis

Remembering the Warden and the Governor
Marguerite Sternweis, July 25, 1930 – March 14, 2004
Donald Sternweis, March 12, 1930 – March 30, 2005