Memoir excerpt from Norman J. Olson

Older white man in a black collared shirt and glasses.
Norman J. Olson

Memoir, a Useful Woods

by:  Norman J. Olson

my childhood was spent in a world far different, not only from the world that I live in today, but also from the world that most baby boomers knew…  I was born in 1948 in Baldwin, Wisconsin and lived the first 11 years of my life on a small failing dairy farm 6 miles south of Baldwin and about 4 miles from Woodville, Wisconsin…  this area had been settled a generation or two before my time by mostly Dutch and Norwegian immigrants… on the streets of Baldwin in the early 1950s, it was still common to hear both Norwegian and Dutch spoken by the old folks and there was much talk about “the old country…” 

the stores had Norwegian and Dutch names, Vandenburg, Rudysal and Erickson, for example… my mom came to the area as a country school teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota, about 40 miles away…  my dad’s family was mostly Norwegian although, my grandma’s brother had married a Dutch woman… which was considered quite unconventional…  the Norwegians considered the Dutch to be wildly eccentric…  the old saying was certainly common among the Norwegians who would exclaim, “well, if that don’t beat the Dutch” whenever something absolutely unbelievable was described…  what little I knew of the Dutch was that they thought the Norwegians were pretty much a bunch of introverted stick in the muds…  well, truth be told, anybody from more than 40 miles away could not have told them one from the other, except some of the Norwegians were red haired…  there was one small grocery store in the town run by Sam Rosen…  who was neither Norwegian or Dutch…  and to me, it seemed very exotic… it was just a small store, much like what would be called a convenience store today, but I remember my parents went there to buy fresh produce… I remember the owner as a smiling, portly gentleman with thin, black slicked back hair…

I remember the old farm houses as being absolutely neat with lace doilies on the arms of the couches and easy chairs, not to mention on every other flat surface…   and the barns were kept clean and fresh with lime and fresh straw…  the farmers seemed to love what they did and there was a sort of reverence for the animals that I have never seen in the modern world…  an animal that was raised for meat and destined for slaughter was treated with kindness and respect until the time came to butcher…  animals were usually not butchered on the farm anymore, although all of the old timers knew how to butcher an animal because it was not too many years since all of that was done by the individual farmers who would help each other out with tasks that required more than one person…

while most of the farms had indoor plumbing and central heat or at least gas or oil heat, our farm never had either…  there was a large wood burning cookstove in the kitchen with a well on the side that was kept full of water and was our source of hot water…  in the summer, the kitchen was very hot when the stove was in use, baking bread or cooking meals, but in the winter, the kitchen was the coziest room in the house…  there was always a pot of coffee on the stove and to me it looked like tar…  especially after it had been sitting most of the day…  but the farmers would drink it on the hottest days, usually half and half with cream…  they would pour the coffee from the cup onto the saucer and slurp it from the saucer if it was too hot to drink from the cup… 

instead of central heat, we had what we called a “parlor furnace”..  this was a big square stove, like a pot bellied stove except squared off, that had an isinglass window in the door which was translucent, and made, I think of mica, so you could see if there was a fire in the firebox or not… I remember cold winter evenings when I was very young, before we had a television, listening to music on the radio and watching the dancing glow of the fire through the isinglass…   

in the winter, this stove was kept going night and day…  they burned oak and maple wood that was harvested from the woodlot across the road from the rest of the farm…  the farm was 120 acres of which 40 acres was wooded…  the wooded area was pasture for the cattle in the summer and was a source of the wood that was used to heat the house…  much of the woods was hard maple which we called “sugar bush” because you could make maple syrup out of the sap…  actually, my brother and I did that for a few years when I was 8 to 11 years old…  we had an old sled that we put some old metal buckets on…  we had an old hand auger, we called a “brace and bit” that we would use to drill a hole in the maple tree…  we had found a box of old wooden taps in the upstairs storage area of the granary…  we would drill a hole in the tree, pound the tap into the hole and then hang a small bucket from the tap…  we did this on a bunch of trees and then every day, in the early spring, we would go around and pour the sap that had collected in the hanging buckets, into the larger buckets on our sled…  this had to be done just at the right time of spring when we were told the sap was rising after the tree had been dormant all winter…

we would then put the sap we had collected in a large boiler and when the season was over and the sap had stopped running, we would build a little fireplace of old discarded bricks and light a wood fire under the boiler, which we would keep watching and stoking until the sap boiled down to the thick consistency of syrup…  I remember that took overnight, but I don’t remember how long it actually took…  we would then bottle the syrup in Mason jars…  in the bottom of the boiler there would be little chunks of maple sugar which we called maple candy and which was so sweet it made our teeth ache…

during the spring, my dad and his cousin Erick who lived on a farm nearby would go into the woods and cut firewood for heating the following winter…  oak and hard maple were the preferred trees for this…  they would select mature trees, fell the trees and cut them into fireplace lengths…  they did this with a long two man saw called a “crosscut” saw…  by the time I remember going with them, Erick had purchased his first chain saw…  this was a huge clumsy two man affair…  but, they loved how much easier it was to put up firewood with the chain saw than the old crosscut…  it seemed like every year Erick got a better chain saw until the last years when the chain saws I remember where much like the modern ones…  when my brother and I were in the woods with them, we had to stay further away from the tree being felled, by a good distance, than the tree was tall…  I remember the men cutting the tree, hammering wedges in to keep the saw from binding and cutting a notch that would control where the tree fell, but that was always an inexact science and I remember them dodging out of the way of an errant tree more than once…

when the tree was starting to fall, it would make a loud cracking noise and the men would yell “timber” and the tree would fall with a whoosh and a roar…  then we would use our axes to help the men trim the small branches from the tree…  the axes were kept sharp and we were taught to use them very carefully as they could be quite dangerous…  once the wood was cut up and loaded on a wagon, it would be hauled across the road to the woodshed which was next to the house…  there, it would be split and stacked and stored to dry for the coming winter…  all of the splitting was done by hand using an axe or a splitting maul which was just an axe with a wide heavy steel head… we sometimes had to pound in steel wedges on the larger pieces… the hard wood split pretty easily but it was all hard heavy work…  swinging the axes, piling the wood, pounding in wedges, etc… 

the woods was also the source of fence posts which were made of green oak…  the men would fell an oak tree but instead of cutting it into stove lengths, it would be cut into about five foot logs…  then each log would be split, using mauls and wedges, into fourths, or more  than four pieces, if it was a thick log…  then the fence posts would be sharpened…  to do this, there was a large circular saw that attached to the front of the tractor and ran on a belt from the pulley on the side of the tractor… the men would use this saw to cut a point on one end of each fence post…  that was a very dangerous operation…  but they were careful as they could be, always trying to stay clear of the saw…  I can still hear the whine of the saw and see the sawdust  flying as a point was ripped onto one of those oak fence posts with a strong man tightly holding the post to keep it from kicking back…  face grim with concentration… and covered with sawdust…

the fence posts were used to make fences around the various fields to keep the cattle in or out…  to put a fence post in, the farmer would use a heavy iron bar of the sort which is called a “digging bar,”  a maybe five foot long heavy steel bar with a wedge point…  the farmer would raise this bar up and drive it into the ground making a hole that was cone shaped…  then the pointed fence post would be set in the hole and pounded in with a heavy sledge hammer…  once the poles were installed, wire would be stretched from pole to pole, barbed wire, electric wire or netting, depending on the kind of fence…  using what we called a “come along” which was a small ratchet device with a handle you could work to pull the wire tight…  my grandpa who was too old to do much of the farm work did much of the fence mending and I remember helping him string the wire and nail it to the fence posts…  after my dad had installed the posts… we would drive out into the field in his old black 38 Chevy…  with wire and fencing tools in the trunk…  Grandpa chewed Copenhagen snuff and he thought it was pretty funny to offer us children a chew…  the look and smell of the stuff was not even a little bit pleasant…  Grandpa was a tall fair haired guy…  I remember him always wearing striped overalls and a fedora hat, working on the fence humming softly to himself…  he was a gentle and kind person and although I worked with him and spent time with him, he was very quiet and I never really got to know him…

that 40 acre woods was sufficient to provide firewood and fence posts on a self sustaining basis…  maple syruping did not hurt the trees and in the fall when all those maples turned fiery red and yellow, on a sunny day, the woods across the old gravel road glowed with color…  it occurs to me that today, that oak and hard maple wood would be so valuable that nobody would think of burning it for heat…  it would be made into guitars, hard wood floors, or fancy furniture…

since cattle were pastured in the woods in the summer, their trampling and nibbling kept the underbrush down, so the woods was open like a park…  we loved to play in the woods and we knew every corner of it from the wetland area where the one basswood tree grew…  to the old birch tree, to the big butternut tree by the pond way at the back corner of the woods…  to the berry patch where an acre or more of wild raspberries grew…  neighbors would come in the summer and pick buckets full of the tiny sweet black berries to make jam…  my brother and I used the old crosscut saw to cut down the small trees that my dad called “ironwood”…  that were considered nuisance… 

we knew where the jack-in-the-pulpit flower grew, there was only one in the whole woods…  we knew that the violets would come up in the spring, among the budding trees, poking through the last of the snow and then later, the woods would be carpeted white with trillium flowers…  we knew the two wet areas where the yellow flowers we called “cowslips” grew…  we could find crayfish in the small man made pond and made small wooden boats that we sailed on the pond…  although we played winter and summer in the woods, there was also, an aloneness, about being in the trees that sometimes seemed scary… 

so, here it is the year 2020…  the old farm has changed almost beyond recognition…  when I go out there and drive by, the only things I really recognize are the hills and fields which have not changed and the old barn which is still standing but has been added to until it is not really the same…  all the sheds are gone along with, I am sure, all trace that I was ever on that land back in the 1950s…  my life took me in 1959, to St. Paul, Minnesota and then to Maplewood, where I live now…  but my dad and his cousin are long dead…  the old trees I knew are probably all gone or at least lost to me in any real way…  I doubt if anybody in the past 50 or 60 years has actually used the trees for heat or fence posts and since the woods is not used for pasture, it is now mostly impenetrable brush, but driving past there in the fall, the scarlet and golden colored maple trees still glow like the inside of a magic lamp… and as the poet said, “something is lost and something is gained in living every day…”

One thought on “Memoir excerpt from Norman J. Olson

  1. A valuable piece of history from a different time and place. As someone whose childhood was in the late forties and fifties, so much of how we lived then is being lost.

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