During the 1960s and 70s in Wisconsin, farms were everywhere. As you drove down narrow country roads a familiar sight would be large red barns with rich green cornfields nearby. It always looked so serene. Many times the barn would be decorated with symbols above the door for good luck and in the front yard there'd usually be an old wooden swing hanging from a shagbark hickory or an old oak tree.
My family had a few pets and some horses; we even had a small barn, but it wasn't really a farm, it had no size or acreage like one of the many serious farms nearby.
During my junior and senior years of high school I worked for a farm called Oakridge. And this farm was different than most others because it was a demonstration farm owned by the Milwaukee Public School System. Compared to our small family farm, Oakridge had everything. First, there was a big red and gray tractor which we used to plow the driveway, spread manure and load hay from the field into the hay loft. I loved that old tractor. It was the most reliable and dependable piece of equipment on the farm; always starting and always making our jobs much easier. There were the horses, two giant horses, Belgians, I think. Chickens, ducks, sheep, pigs, goats and practically every cow that existed.
I was always amazed at the different personalities of each cow. The Jersey was nuts, just plain nuts. Hyper like someone who had ingested a gallon of espresso and so nervous it would never go to the right stanchion for milking. The Brown Swiss was like a bouncer at a night club; big, stout, not too smart and one you didn't want to tangle with. Of course, we had a Holstein. She was a milking machine who would produce more milk than any of the cows. And finally, there was Raindrop, our Guernsey. Raindrop was the sweetest cow at Oakridge. She was a big, beautiful cow who had light brown patches interspersed with white. She loved to have her head scratched and unlike the other cows, Raindrop always went right to her stanchion for milking when brought in at the end of the day. Unlike the Jersey, she was calm and relaxed...she knew the routine.
And then there were the caretakers of the farm; Dell, Hannah and Amber . They were the family that managed the farm and they lived in a small, red house at the entrance to the property. The family was from Nebraska and Dell had worn many hats during his time out west. Usually serving as chief of police and judge in the small towns where they resided. Hannah was an excellent cook and used the farm fresh produce to make wonderful meals and deserts. We absolutely loved her Cowboy Cake; a deep, moist chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Made with milk straight from the cow, fresh butter and eggs, all from farm. It was very rich, but boy, was it delicious.
Dell was a character. He was tough as nails in some respects, but had a heart of gold in others.
I'll never forget Sunday mornings on the farm. You see, we always worked a full day on Saturday, but on Sunday, you just worked a partial day. That meant you came at 6:30am, let the cows and other livestock out, fed them hay and grain and cleaned the stalls. After you finished this, about two hours later, you could head home for breakfast and then come back at the end of the day to bring everyone in for the night. Many times, I would be extremely tired on Sunday morning. I was at the age where I was staying out late with my friends, drinking and listening to music till the early hours of the morning. The hour of 6:30am came very fast on those nights and the pain was exasperated when the cold winter temperatures and snow had a besieged us. I can remember going to most comfortable place in the barn, the milk house and napping, always keeping an ear open in case Dell decided to come down to the barn to check on me. Then, after everything was done, I would make my way up the driveway and to my car.
On many mornings, I'd see Dell at the door of his house, waving to get my attention. Rolling down the window of my car, I'd hear "Hey Stud, come on over for some breakfast!" As you entered the door, the smell of fresh coffee, eggs and bacon filled the air. We'd sit at their round, wooden table off the kitchen and talk about what was happening in my life. They loved to hear my stories of where I'd been and things I had done the night before. I remember looking over at Dell as I told of my exploits and he had a big grin on his face..."You old stud" he'd say. Even though I was the furthest thing from a stud during those days, I always enjoyed the compliment!
One day, when it was close to -50 degrees below outside, Dell made a trip down to the barn to check on me and my progress feeding and milking the cows. Even though I was inside the barn, it was still very cold and my hands were about numb. When milking cows you have to have bare hands...there is no way around it. And when a little warm milk overflows from the milker onto your hands it is a blessing of warmth. Dell could see I was tired and freezing. As I fumbled with the milker, trying to get the suction hoses onto the teets of an irritated cow, which was ready to kick me into the next county, I noticed Dell staring at me with a big smile. He was amused at my struggle and was trying not to laugh. I looked at him in frustration. And in true Dell fashion, he said "Yah know what Mark? On a day like this, a person should just stay inside and jack off!" Well, I have to say Dell certainly woke me up and made me laugh.
The really cool thing about Oakridge Farm was that it was not your ordinary farm. It was a demonstration farm where kids from the inner city came to learn about farming and where there food came from. Another special thing about that farm was that my Mom was a guide there. She would teach the children from Milwaukee about how milk comes from a cow and eggs come from a chicken. She'd take them on a hay ride and depending on the weather, many times take them fishing at the nearby pond for sunfish. I know for many of those kids, this was a wonderful way to spend the day. Sadly, many of the children were so poor, they didn't have the proper clothing for the harsh weather that occurred. Back then, in my ignorant teen years, I really didn't care that my Mom would bring every old jacket and hat she could find for these kids. She'd buy them at rummage sales, get them from friends and if they needed mending, she'd sew them back together so a child might be a little warmer. I also remember many a time when she would come home from work starving for dinner because she had given her lunch away to a child in need. That was my Mom and you can bet that I am very proud of her today.
A winter sleigh ride at Oakridge Farm.
My Mom to the left with school kids at Oakridge Farm - Dousman, Wisconsin
There was also another part of the job that left a serious impact on me. I was enlisted to work with the Barnyard Friends Show in the summertime. The show revolved around two hosts, myself and a young girl who played the guitar and sang. We were dressed to the hilt in farm clothing; bib overhauls, straw hats and boots. And we drove an old, dark green, 1950s pickup truck into the inner city with a trailer filled full of animals each day. There was a calf, a goat, lamb, ducks and chickens, all toted to two schools per day. As we approached the designated schools, my cohort would turn on the hillbilly music and it would come blaring out of the two speakers over our cab. At this point, I was humiliated beyond belief.
The city kids would run along the sidewalks as we made our way to the school grounds on the narrow neighborhood streets in the heart of Milwaukee. At times we'd narrowly escape a car wreck as I tried to find the right gear, requiring almost a sledgehammer to pull from second down into third. But, somehow we survived and the poor animals did too...even though they were bounced around pretty severely at times with my bad driving.
Tonight, as I search the internet for traces of the farm I remember, I find recent pictures showing school kids and teachers at Oakridge and it makes me smile a melancholy smile. Everyone I knew from those days have either passed on or moved away. And my memories of Oakridge are alone now. Dell passed in 1985 and my Mom in 2013. But, I can still see those days in my mind as if they were yesterday. I can still see my mom taking those children on a hayride with Dell driving the tractor down to the pond for fishing. I can still smell the bacon, eggs and coffee inside Dell and Hannah's home and see that wind-hardened face of Dell's, smiling at me as I speak about my social life. And then, after a pause in my conversation, I hear Dell's old Nebraska accent and the words "you old stud!"