family history, History

Week 16: Negative

It’s week 16 of 52 for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks genealogy blogging challenge! This week’s topic is “negative” family history. I’m going to be bringing my writing closer to the present but still a few years before my lifetime. This is the story of my folks being thrust into a negative situation when their dairy barn burned down. They took a negative event and turned it into an opportunity for a positive outcome.

Kenneth & Mildred Frederick Farm, Juneau, Wisconsin. Circa 1950

My grandparents bought a farm on April 1, 1948, in Juneau, Wisconsin. Ten years later my dad was born, and this is where he grew up. Farming runs deep in the Frederick family. My brother and I are the first in our line to break with tradition. Back then it was a family affair. Farm families made their living on the farm and sustained the family from the food they raised and grew. The family farm is fading quickly into the past. They are being annihilated by factory farms and the sad state of affairs for the dairy industry. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the iconic Wisconsin dairy farms falling into disrepair.

Kenneth Frederick milking his cows. 1951

Grandpa Frederick milked cows up until 1969. He had an auction on January 18 of that year and sold his animals and farm equipment. It wasn’t long after the auction that he bought a cow for my dad to milk, because Dad wanted to have fresh milk for breakfast. They were drinking powdered milk–yuck! Then Grandpa bought a few more cows and then many more. By age twelve Dad was milking over twenty cows. “I had to milk, feed, and clean the barn all before 7 am,” Dad remembers. “Grandma would come out and help me milk so I could get to school.”

Grandpa and Dad on the farm circa 1963

Dad was primed to be a farmer at a very young age. It’s what he grew up doing, what he knew, and how he earned his living. After my folks were married in May 1978, Grandpa split the profits and expensed seventy/thirty with them–you can guess who got the short end of the deal. Dad owned the cattle, but Grandpa owned the farm. That arrangement did not provide a stable income for my folks, so Dad asked Grandpa to sell the farm to him. On January 1, 1979, they entered into a land contract with Grandpa to make the 144-acre farm their own.

Dad was twenty-one years old when bought the farm. I can honestly say that I would have never been able to take on that sort of responsibility at that age. Farming is more than milking cows or driving tractors. It’s living at your job without being able to take a sick day or vacation time on a whim. It’s a massive investment in machinery, tools, and supplies to do the job and maintain the business. There are animals that need to be cared for; you depend on them as much as they depend on you! It’s being at the mercy of Mother Nature. It’s hoping that the economy will bring fortune and not ruin you. It’s an investment of everything you have to make it successful. It’s a gamble. Farming is not easy. Then there is the added pressure to support a family. Despite the challenges the profession brings, Dad did what his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did before him and took over the family business.

Mitch & Donna Frederick Farm. circa 1985

My folks said times were tough, and they struggled early on. By the mid-1980s they would have earned around eleven dollars per hundredweight of milk they delivered. Milk was picked up every other day, and they received two checks per month. Dad doesn’t have any paperwork left but figured they made about $100 per day or about $3,000 per month–equivalent to $7,600 in 2022. Dad recalled a few months when they only had twenty dollars or so left after all the bills were paid. Nonetheless, they persevered and kept their heads above the water when many others lost their farms.

Despite some of the tough times on the farm, my folks always had the means to provide for the family. They always made sure there was a roof over their heads, food was on the table, and they nurtured a family environment. My older sister was born in 1980, and my brother in 1983. My older siblings talk about the barn cats they played with, their pet goose, and the walks with Mom and Dad into town to get ice cream.

Everything changed on one fateful evening on July 14, 1987. It wasn’t a terribly hot day for July; it only reached a high of seventy-two degrees that day. My mother said that there was a strong wind out of the east that particular day. It was like any other day on the farm where the day’s tasks were done from sunup to sundown. Dad made his way out to the barn that evening to milk his heard of dairy cows. Unbeknownst to him, it would be the last time he would do chores in the barn he grew up in.

A few weeks prior, Dad and Grandpa had chopped and blown marsh hay into the haymow of the barn. “I cut it one day and usually waited three days for it to dry,” he said. “Grandpa said it was dry enough the second day.” Grandpa insisted that it be done even though Dad had reservations about it. I can just imagine Grandpa using one of his coined phrases, “plenty good!” Dad did as his father said, and they put the marsh hay in the mow. “I should have listened to the little voice inside of me,” he said. “Don’t chop it yet not dry enough.”

Mom and Dad said a pungent odor hung over the dooryard in the days after putting that hay in the barn. “I went in the silo thinking it was the oat/pealage that had a funny smell but it wasn’t,” Dad said. ” I went in the middle of the pile of chopped marsh hay and it really didn’t smell all that bad but it had an off smell.” Mom also shared her memories of Dad’s suspicion of the marsh hay causing the foul smell.

Dad went in the barn and climbed on top of the pile and with a pitch fork lifted the hay up to see if it was hot. I don’t think he thought it was hot but maybe a bit warm which is not uncommon. Didn’t really think there was reason for concern. We had put up baled hay in the past and it would get warm sometimes for a few days.

Without finding the direct cause of the odor and no sign of any danger, they just put up with the smell. Maybe it was blowing over from the neighbor’s farm, they thought. About a week had gone by since Dad investigated the silos and the haymow, but by July 14 the odor was worse than ever. “We noticed that that pile seemed like it was giving off some steam. Not smoke,” Mom said. “Never smelled like smoke.”

That evening, Dad went out to do the chores. He had fifty cows in his herd, but only thirty-five of the cows were milking at that time. At about 6:00 pm that evening, and halfway through milking, the power abruptly shut off in the barn. “The main breaker was on the electric pole next to the barn, and I thought it tripped,” Dad said. “Got outside and saw the smoke billowing out of the roof of the barn.”

Juneau Fire Department battling the Frederick Farm barn fire on July 14, 1987.

My folks sprang into action. Dad called the Juneau Fire Department immediately, and then he and Mom got the animals out of the barn. After that, Mom darted into the house to Abby and Adam. I asked my siblings what they remember about the fire. Adam was four years old at the time. “I remember the barn being completely engulfed in flames,” he said. “I remember yelling to someone outside to get the fire out.” Abby was a few months away from her seventh birthday. “I remember me and Adam were playing in Mom and Dad‘s bedroom and I remember hearing a pop, ” she said. “That noise came from outside, so I looked out Mom and Dad‘s bedroom window and recall seeing flames on the barn roof.”

Fire department on the scene.

By the time the fire department arrived at the farm the barn was completely engulfed in flames. Dad said the fire was so intense that paint on the nearby buildings began to blister from the heat. The fire department set up a giant pool as a reservoir for the pump trucks. This allowed water trucks to make constant trips to supply water. The crew had problems getting the water pumps working to fight the fire. Finally, they got the pumps running and started hosing down the other structures first to ensure they didn’t ignite. It took the firemen until 3:00 am the next morning to put out the blaze. “I had about 8,000 bales of hay in there that was burning,” Dad said. “I got an excavator out there to pull all the hay out of the barn otherwise it would have burnt for weeks.”

An excavator pulls out the smoldering bales to be extinguished.

The damp chopped hay in the barn had heated up and began to smolder during those couple of weeks it sat in the barn. The wind that day may have been all it took to cause the material to spontaneously combust that July evening. I can’t imagine the heartache and frustration my folks must have felt. They had watched their business and livelihood burn down right before them. To add insult to injury, my Grandpa showed up a few days after the blaze, he was out of town during the fire, and he insinuated that Dad did something wrong to cause the fire. When Dad told Grandpa that it was due to the marsh hay they had chopped a few weeks ago, Grandpa denied it and came up with the explanation that a bird must have dropped a lit cigarette butt in the mow–I kid you not.

As I said, there is no punching out of work on a farm. Despite their barn being gone, the cows still needed to be milked, and my folks were depending on a milk check. Thankfully, they didn’t lose any of their animals. There was a farm nearby that they rented out for milking, and the neighbors helped them move their herd there. Mom and Dad found a temporary solution to the problem of not having a barn.

The terrible news only worsened. The estimated loss of the barn and dairy equipment totaled about one hundred thousand dollars. Dad planned to build the barn back, but the insurance would not cover the full cost to rebuild. Dad didn’t want to go further into debt to do that. My folks were at a crossroads in their career. They had to choose to either build their barn back at a staggering price, quit farming, or relocate. I asked Dad how he felt after that day. He was twenty-nine years old and facing a tough life choice. “I felt a sense of loss…farming was all I knew so never gave it a thought about quitting.” They decided to find a new place to reestablish their farm.

The 1980s were a particularly hard time for farmers, and a lot of family farms foundered that decade. This not-so-good outlook for farmers presented opportunities and challenges as my folks looked to relocate the farm. They said there were a lot of farms for sale at that time, but the problem was the state of disrepair most of them were in. Sometimes the house would be nicely kept, but the barn and buildings were in bad shape. In other instances the barn was great, but the house was a dump. With time running out to use the barn they were renting and winter approaching, Mom and Dad were feeling the pinch to find a place to keep their business going. They found a promising farm for sale, thanks to my late Uncle Tom, near Markesan, Wisconsin.

The farm in Markesan had been in one family for close to a century. The woman that owned it had lost her husband to cancer shortly before listing it, and they had no kids. My folks said the place was in very good shape and kept up well. The house was older inside and needed to be updated but structurally sound. Mom and Dad put in an offer that was accepted. They sold their farm in Juneau to a nearby farmer that was looking to expand his acreage. “What we sold the Juneau farm for and the insurance check we had our new farm paid off in six years instead of ten, ” Dad said. “We had a better farm now than what we sold!”

They moved to their new farm in Markesan, which is about thirty-six miles northwest of Juneau, on November 13, 1987. Dad and Grandpa hitched equipment up to the tractors and drove it all to the new farm. Dad said Grandpa was not very open to the idea of them selling the farm at first, but he came around to it. It was even hard for Dad to say farewell to his childhood home, but he adjusted to the change.

Mitch & Donna Frederick Farm in Markesan, Wisconsin. Circa 1991

Three years and eighteen days after the big move, yours truly was born. Then in early 1993 my little sister, Alicia, was born. Mom and Dad always said they figured that they were starting over at a new place, so they ought to add more kids to the family, too. See, I told you this story had a positive ending!

Dad farmed for seven years after they moved and decided to retire from farming full-time. He had an auction and sold cows in 1994. He sold most of the farm equipment and rented the farmland out. He started a new career for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and was a correctional officer for twenty years. We did do some farming off and on over the years after. My folks had another herd of dairy cows that my brother milked and took care of when he was in high school, and I helped as much as I could at my age. We also milked goats for a short time, too.

Dad kept the farmland back to work for a few years, too. Dad, Adam, and I putzed around with the Allis-Chalmers farm equipment that we started collecting in 2005. That was a lot of fun. Coincidently, making hay was one of my favorites. As itchy, hot, and labor-intense as it was to put hay in the barn, I enjoyed it. There is something about the smell of dried alfalfa and the nostalgia of putting bales of hay in a barn. Well, at least for us farm folk, I suppose. I truly treasure all of the memories that were made on our farm.

Mitch and Donna Frederick Farm in Markesan, Wisconsin. April 2020.

In 2020, just as the pandemic set in, my folks called each of us kids and said they were listing the farm. Well, not the whole farm. The whole farm was about 180 acres, and they were just going to section off about eight acres and the buildings to sell. I won’t lie, that was hard news to hear. That was home. That’s where most of the memories of my life up to this point were made. All of us kids were grown, married, and had kids of our own. I knew I wasn’t going into farming. I know how much blood, sweat, tears, and money my folks put into that place to keep it looking the way it did. Now It was someone else’s turn. A young family bought it from them and moved in June 2020. I think that was the best possible outcome. A young family, very much like they were back in 1987, was getting a start at their own farm.

It’s wild to think of how one day and one decision made in June 1987 changed the entire course of my family’s history. What could my present, if any, have been had that hay had been dried out before it was blown into the barn. We’ll never know. When I talked to my folks and older siblings about the barn fire, all four of them say the smell of the aftermath of that fire is something that is etched into their memories, and that they will never forget. This story of negative consequences, due to my Grandpa’s poor judgment, led to what I think was a very positive future for my family. It’s also one hell-of-a-tale to put in the Frederick Family history book!

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