Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in Small Towns

December of 2008 was the beginning of a very snowy winter. Record snowfalls were recorded here in Wisconsin, and Joann and I made a record number of winter photography trips.

One Thursday, rather than head far out into the country, we decided to spend the day capturing Christmas scenes and snowy scenes in the small towns around us.

We photographed some creek scenes and historic buildings in the small towns we visited for most of the day and then towards dusk, Joann asked if we could go to photograph Christmas in a small town. She wanted to catch buildings lit up and the town’s Christmas tree as the lights came on.

It had been a cold day even though the sun had been shining, and as the sun set, it became bitterly cold. Joann is a die-hard. I am not. She took quite a few pictures around town and then we headed to the park for the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree sits on the side of the park near an old mill.

As she was photographing the tree, she noticed that there were reflections of the mill and a little shed in the big shiny ornaments. As she was trying to get the mill reflecting in the large shiny ornaments, she got an idea. An awful idea. Joann got a wonderful, awful idea. (Sorry for the Grinch reference, but I couldn’t help myself). She would take a close-up of herself reflecting in the big shiny bulb and use it for her Christmas card.

She asked me if I would come out and take the picture when she got herself reflecting in the ornament. We tried everything we could think of as we both got colder and colder, but there were so many reflections that no matter where I stood, the tripod and me were reflecting right along with her. And baby, it was cold outside! I returned to the car to wait, while she braved the cold some more, determined to end up with a Christmas card.

The end result was as it should be since it was a picture of Joann and her tripod reflecting in that big shiny bulb. The photographer and her equipment reflected back in the glow of that Christmas tree.

We hope your Christmas holiday has been safe and happy and, as always, Happy Shunpiking!

Photos in this blog post can be purchased as wall art, paper prints, downloads, phone cases, and keepsakes by clicking on the photo. You will be taken to the gallery website where you will see a big blue "BUY" button. Or to see all photos available, click on the "Browse Galleries" button on the menu at the top of this page. Thank you for your interest!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

All I Want For Christmas Is…

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

This week, I am departing a bit from our usual backroads stories, and I'm telling a story from my childhood. If you've read any of our "About" pages, you know that Ruth and I grew up in a small rural community and we lived the "backroads experience" every day. These childhood experiences brought us to where we are today, so we will be telling them now and again on this blog. I hope you enjoy them. Now for my story...

It was December, 1960 and I was five years old. My mother had taken us downtown with her so that she could do her weekly grocery shopping. The usual routine consisted of Mom going into the store and us kids sitting in the car picking fights with each other. There were five of us then, all under the age of nine, and it was a very different time than it is now.

John F. Kennedy had just defeated Richard M. Nixon to become the youngest person and the first Roman Catholic ever to be elected president. The Civil Rights Movement was heating up, with demonstrators holding sit-ins at lunch counters and other public places.

The radio was playing hits from Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and Elvis Presley. The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons debuted on TV that fall and westerns were extremely popular. Every week, we watched shows like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and Bonanza. Little Joe, the youngest Cartwright on Bonanza, was my favorite.

It was rare for my mother to let us go into the store with her, but that day she decided that we could join her. Maybe it was because it was cold out or maybe it was because she knew something we didn’t. Whatever the reason, into the store we tromped in our hand-me-down winter coats and boots. Mom started shopping and as we followed her around the end of the aisle, there was Santa Claus! Wow, Santa Claus himself, right there in our grocery store!

He bent down and put his arms around me and asked, “What do you want for Christmas this year, little girl?” Times were lean then, and we usually received one and only one gift from Santa on Christmas Day. So I knew I had to ask for the one thing I wanted most. “I want guns,” I said, “you know, two pistols in holsters, like the ones Little Joe wears.” Santa looked dismayed. “You’re a little girl,” he said, “you want a doll, don’t you?” “No,” I insisted. “I want guns.” Then he repeated, laughing as he said it, “No, you want a doll.” Clearly, he didn’t understand, and I walked away very disappointed in the man in the red suit who didn’t seem to know that he was supposed to bring me what I asked for, not what he thought I should want.

When Christmas morning dawned, I rushed to the Christmas tree to survey what was lying beneath it. There were five gifts and Santa apparently couldn’t afford wrapping paper because each gift simply had a name taped to the box. And sure enough, there it was -- the stupid doll that Santa thought I should have. As I scanned the other gifts, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a box with a cellophane top, and in the box were two shiny silver pistols with “ivory” grips in a double leather holster.

Now, there was cruelty at its finest. Not only did Santa stick me with a useless doll, but he had the nerve to bring my brother the very thing I had asked him for. Just as I was sinking into the depths of despair, I realized that MY name was on the box of pistols and the doll was for my little sister, Ruth. That was the best Christmas present I ever received from Santa Claus and I never doubted his judgment again.

Here’s hoping you get everything you’re wishing for. Merry Christmas!


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Winter Wonderland

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

If you live in the Midwest and were lucky enough to be at home this past Wednesday, you were probably inside (at least when you weren’t shoveling or snow-blowing), watching the snow pile up outside. Me, I had to work. The drive home around 2:30 PM was the best part of the day. There was little traffic on the roads and the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds. As I passed through the wooded area near home, the trees were loaded with snow making it look like a Christmas card winter wonderland.

Whenever we receive a big snow like this, our thoughts turn to winter photography. We would be perfectly content if we got a lot of snow in December and the snow stayed on the ground until March with a few small snows every now and then to keep it looking fresh and white. Whenever the roads are clear enough, we try to get out on the weekend to capture Wisconsin in its blanket of white. It’s a welcome sight after the brown of November.

Two years ago, we had a very snowy winter and we went out photographing almost every weekend throughout the entire winter. We didn’t stray too far from home most days, and often we only went out for the morning, but it was a glorious winter for photography. Joann was taking a break from her corporate job that winter, so on one of those snowy winter wonderland days, she headed out to catch the snow clinging to the trees.

I had to work, but I reminded her of a wagon I had seen set against some pine trees between her house and mine. I thought it might make a good snow picture. She went out photographing in the country near her house, and then decided to see what the wagon looked like. She called me at work to double check where the wagon was.

I thought I had given good directions for where the wagon was located, and I thought that she had understood what I had explained. I’m sure you’ve had those kinds of conversations. I was surprised a little later when my phone rang again and it was Joann. And the conversation went something like this:

Joann: “I’ve been up and down this road several times from one end to the other and there’s no stinking wagon anywhere!”

Ruth: “Well, I haven’t gone that way in a couple of weeks. Maybe they moved it.”

Joann: “But I didn’t even see a row of pine trees like you described.”

Ruth: “Which end of the road did you start on?”

Joann: “I came from the west end all the way down and then I went back to make sure I hadn’t missed it.”

Once again I went through the directions for where the wagon was. As it turned out, I was giving directions coming from her house and she was receiving the directions as if she were coming from my house.

Ruth: “Well, where are you now?”

Joann: “I’m sitting at the crossroad, you know, the road coming from your house.”

Ruth: “Okay, and then you took a left and went all the way down to the end?”

Joann (sighing): “Oh man, I thought you said to turn right.”

Ruth (laughing): “Yes, but that's if you were coming from YOUR house. So turn LEFT and keep going east and you might have to go down to the end and turn around. It’s kind of hard to see unless you’re heading west.”

She did find the wagon, sitting right where I had seen it, up against a line of pine trees that were covered in a heavy coating of snow. The pictures are even better than I imagined when I first saw the wagon without snow on the ground.

There’s no doubt about it – Wisconsin winters are long and hard sometimes, but there are many advantages to winter. The world slows down and the blanket of snow buffers the usual noise making everything quiet and still.

Even If you don’t think you are much of a winter person, look around as you drive to work and back or as you run errands or visit family over the holidays. If the roads are clear, try taking a backroad to your destination. It’s a sure bet you’ll see many beautiful winter scenes unfolding before you.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Fremont Store (Minnesota Blessing Number 2)

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

In 1997, at the end of August, on a photography trip to Minnesota, Ruth and I discovered an old general store in Winona County called the Fremont Store. It was Sunday and, much to our disappointment, the store was closed. In those days, I was shooting with two Canon film cameras and, due to the cost of film and processing, I was very careful about how many times I pressed the shutter. So I took a couple of pictures of the outside of the store and we moved on.

This year, in early October, Ruth and I finally returned for three days of photographing on the backroads of Minnesota, and this time I was armed with a digital camera, which allows me to be more creative and capture more compositions. It was Saturday morning and, as we arrived in the little crossroads town of Fremont, we were blessed with a lighted “OPEN” sign in the window of the Fremont Store.

A steady rain was falling as I set up my tripod while holding an umbrella over my camera equipment. The gray day was a perfect match for the weathered gray wood of the store building. There is a weather-worn but sturdy wooden porch in front and two large multi-paned windows, one on each side of the door. The front of the building contains both Coca Cola and 7-Up signs; the side, a large and rusted Pepsi sign.

When I’d finished capturing the outside of the store, Ruth and I went inside. In the early days, this store, which dates back to 1856, sold food, clothing, hardware, tires, and gasoline to the community of Fremont and the folks of the rural township of Fremont. Today, the shelves that line the outer walls are sparsely stocked with food and there are no free-standing shelves in the center of the store.

As we walked across the creaky wooden floor, we were surprised that there was no one in sight, not even the store’s owner. But after a few seconds, a door opened on the side of the store and a young girl stepped out.

“Hi! I’m Tammy!” she said with a big smile on her face.

“I’m Joann,” I said, “and this is my sister, Ruth.”

“Do you want to meet my grandma?” she asked, excitedly, then quickly headed towards the back of the store. “GRANDMA! We have customers!” she announced. Her grandmother then came out from a door at the back, walking slowly with the help of a walker. She was wearing a baseball cap that said “Fremont Store” and a warm smile that would take the chill out of this damp day. We introduced ourselves to Martha Johnson, owner of the store.

“Ask my grandma how old she is!” Tammy said with great enthusiasm as her grandmother leaned on the walker with a sparkle in her eyes.

“Well, that wouldn’t be very nice,” I responded.

“No, just ask her,” Tammy repeated, “she likes it!”

“Okay, how old are you?” I asked.

“I’m 93!” she said. She then told us that her son, Don (Dony, as he liked to be called) ran the store for 20 years, but died from complications of muscular dystrophy in 2003. She said she was told when he was young that he would probably only live to be about 17 years old, but he had lived to age 68.

She then told us that, after Dony died, she didn’t have the heart to close the store because he loved it so much. “I don’t make any money at this,” she said, “but I keep it open in his honor.” She also told us that when they purchased the store almost 30 years ago, it took 18 boxes of Spic and Span and 20 gallons of paint to clean up the building. “There were 25 people in Fremont when we moved here; now there are 15.”

As Martha continued to talk with us about the history of Fremont and their lives there, we checked the antique cooler for some old-fashioned bottles of soda. We also purchased a Fremont Store bumper sticker and a photo of the Fremont Creamery.

Martha’s husband Martin was a buttermaker for 40 years and managed the Fremont Creamery, which is still standing across the road from the store, but it is no longer in operation. He was a lifelong friend to Frank Root, who purchased the Fremont Store in 1921, and ran it for over 50 years.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit an old general store, you’re missing out on a real down-home treat.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

“Mom, Meet Scrawn”

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

When Joann and I were in high school we admittedly gave our mom a hard time about the Christmas trees that she chose. They were not quite Charlie Brown trees, but they were not the full beautiful trees that we imagined they should be. We were sure we could do better. Who could blame her, though? She was taking care of seven children and working on the farm, so there wasn’t time for a leisurely hunt for a Christmas tree. She usually picked out a tree in a few minutes in the lot next to the local grocery store. But we gave her a hard time anyway.

As soon as Joann got her license and we could drive ourselves, we found an ad in the local paper for a “Cut Your Own Christmas Tree” place and badgered mom into letting us go. I think she let us go because she wanted us to know how hard it was to pick out a good tree. We climbed in the truck and took off.

What we found was not so much a tree farm as woods that a farmer was trying to clear. We parked the truck and walked across a field to the woods. There were trees that were very mature and too big for anyone to cut down for their house, and there were the little scrawny Charlie Brown trees. We must have walked around the woods for hours that day and it wasn’t until it was almost dark that we gave up and picked the least scrawny tree. What we ended up choosing was a tree that looked surprisingly like the trees mom always came home with…..only worse. It was a sad, pathetic looking tree with very sparse branches – in other words, SCRAWNY!

All the way home we practiced our speech. When we got home, we pulled that pathetic tree from the back of the truck and took it to the back door. We rang the doorbell and waited for Mom to come to the door. As she opened the door we said:

“Mom, meet Scrawn”

“Scrawn, meet Mom”

“Mom, Scrawn”

“Scrawn, Mom”

And then we burst into laughter. We told her how it was not a true tree farm and how hard we had worked to come home with something better than what we had teased her about. And then came the not so surprising look of satisfaction on her face.

And that year while decorating the tree, I think we felt exactly like the Charlie Brown gang as they decorated their pathetic little tree. It doesn’t matter how sorry the tree, it’s the love that goes into decorating it.

These days the choices at choose-and-cut tree farms are amazing. The prices are very reasonable, and there is a wide variety of trees available. They are planted in rows and groomed over the summer. You have your choice of many pine, spruce, and fir tree varieties.

As you walk through the rows of trees, you can hear families laughing as they try to pick out the perfect tree for their home. Sometimes there’s a mitten or glove hanging on a tree to mark a possibility so it can be found again.

And after you cut your perfect tree, there might be hot apple cider or a Christmas shop to explore. It’s a great way to get in the spirit of the season.

Our favorite choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm is Summers near Middleton, Wisconsin, owned by Judy and Bill Summers. They have a large staff of friendly helpers and their Christmas shop is the best-kept secret in Dane County.

If you haven’t tried cutting your own Christmas tree, go out and give it a try. It's a chance to create a Christmas memory or two and maybe a new family tradition. And who knows, if you visit Summers Christmas Tree Farm, you might just catch Judy Summers singing a Christmas carol as she goes about her work.

Happy Christmas Tree Hunting!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pass the Cranberries, Please

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

This coming Thursday, we celebrate Thanksgiving – a day of gratitude and thanks for the many blessings in our lives. And at most Thanksgiving tables, there will be cranberry sauce or a cranberry salad to enjoy.

In early October of this year, Ruth and I decided to head to Wisconsin cranberry country near Warrens to photograph the cranberry bogs. We figured the cranberry harvest would be in full swing and we’d be able to capture the bright red cranberries floating in the deep blue water.

But it was a very cold morning and we were disappointed to discover that the irrigation sprinklers were running in all the bogs we passed and the bogs were totally iced over. We didn’t understand this process, but took a few photos and then decided to go into Warrens to visit the Cranberry Discovery Center.

On the way into town, a splash of red color caught my eye and I turned the car around to investigate. Hallelujah! There they were, millions of bright red cranberries corralled in the corner of the bog. I set up my tripod and began to photograph the colorful scene. As I snapped the shutter, I saw a bright red truck (cranberry-colored, of course) way off in the distance and heading towards me.

A couple minutes later, the truck pulled up beside me. As soon as the man stepped out of the truck, I said, “I need a cranberry lesson.” He kindly replied, “Okay, what would you like to know?” He answered several of my questions, including the reason the bogs were iced over. He said that the water gives off heat as it freezes and as long as the water continues to run, the cranberry plants will be protected from the cold temperatures.

“So why didn’t YOUR cranberries freeze last night?” I asked. “Because I had flooded my bogs earlier,” he said. I then explained to him why I was photographing his bogs, and I told him that we have always found cranberry folks to be some of the nicest people. I gave him my card and he introduced himself as Jack Potter, fifth-generation cranberry grower. “My granddad bought this marsh in 1912. I own about 50 acres of bogs here and another 30 over in that direction (and that’s just the vines, not the dikes in between).”

He told me that Wisconsin is the largest cranberry producer in the country, supplying about 60% of the nation's cranberries.

I told him we were going to the Cranberry Discovery Center next. He said, “My wife used to be the director of the center. Before that she was an editor for The Country Today." This is a newspaper that Ruth and I read regularly. As I was leaving, he gave me permission to drive down his bog dike road where there was water on both sides of the road and beautiful fall color in the trees. See what I mean about cranberry folks?

When I returned to the car and started filling Ruth in on the conversation I had with Mr. Potter, she said, excitedly, “Did you ask him if he just got married?” “Why would I ask him that?” I said, looking puzzled. “Remember, I told you about a woman who used to work at The Country Today and then at the Discovery Center and then she married a cranberry grower?” she said, wondering how I could have forgotten that so soon.

The drive down the dike road was breathtaking and we even saw two swans floating on the water and enjoying the beautiful fall day. We drove for what seemed like a mile or so and then turned around and headed to the Cranberry Discovery Center. When we returned home, Ruth dug up the article she had read and, sure enough, it was Jack Potter and Lorry Erickson-Potter. Their wedding took place on August 28, and featured a cranberry theme.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Jack Potter for his knowledge-sharing and hospitality. I’d also like to thank all of you who faithfully read our blog and visit our photo galleries. Wishing you many blessing this Thanksgiving season.

And, as always, Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is our Car Still There?

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

Years ago, when Joann and I traveled, we tried to stay in big name hotels with elevators, luggage carts, and high room prices. We thought the beds would be better, but we were often disappointed.

We would arrive at the hotel around supper time, leave most of our gear in the car overnight, and spend the evening reading or watching TV. Then we would get up early (well, what we used to call early) and be the first people in the breakfast room. Then we’d hop in the car and head out. By this time, the sun was usually up in the sky and the lighting was already a challenge.

As the years passed, Joann purchased several more cameras and lenses, and we knew we had to start hauling all the equipment into the hotel at night. So we would load the equipment onto the luggage cart and then unload it in the room. In the morning, we would do the reverse before they started serving breakfast and then we’d leave after breakfast.

During the past three years, we have evolved to a whole new routine. Now that we leave our motel in the dark well before dawn and we don’t give up photographing until after dark sometimes, we’ve relaxed our standards. We need a bed to fall into, and if the room happens to come with a microwave, all the better since we haven’t eaten most nights before we get to the motel. While Joann unloads and backs up the digital photos from the day and cleans her camera equipment, I make us a quick supper.

And we’ve discovered how easy it is to stay at the mom and pop motels. I’m talking about those one- or two-story motels where you park your car at the door. We try to call ahead and get a room on the first floor where it’s two steps from the back of the car to the room with your luggage. And for us, luggage means lots of camera equipment, laptops, clothes bags, research literature, etc.

With this new thinking, we’ve stayed at some interesting motels. In Kentucky, we found an awesome motel for just $39.95, and that included a free hot breakfast for both of us at Aunt B’s Family Restaurant.

In Arkansas, we were in an area with no cell phone service and no towns of size around. We did manage to use a phone at a ranger station and call two nearby small mom and pop motels. One of them still had one room available for the night so we took it sight unseen. It was turkey-hunting season, and apparently the area was popular with turkey hunters. As you can see by this photo, their mammas raised them right!

Several years ago in Michigan, after capturing the last rays of light over Lake Michigan, we drove another hour and then pulled into town to find a motel. As we drove down the main highway through town, I remember thinking to myself that this was not a good section of town. It was very late and we were very tired, so we stopped at the first motel we saw with outside doors. It was a lesser known chain of motels that we had stayed at before with satisfactory results. And, hey, the sign said they had WiFi, so Joann went in to register for a room. As I sat in the car watching what was going on in the parking lot, I remember thinking to myself that we should have driven farther to find a motel in a different part of town.

The first sign of trouble was that they gave us a room in the corner and there was no way to back the car up to it. After switching rooms and unloading all our gear, we realized that the WiFi we had paid extra for didn’t exist, the outlets were so bad that a plug wouldn’t even stay in them, and the door had a very skimpy lock on it. Yikes! But we decided to brave it and catch a couple hours of sleep, if possible.
In the morning, we had one of our conversations as Joann peeked out through the curtains of the window (I assume to see what the weather looked like, even though it’s a bit hard to tell in the pre-dawn darkness.)

Ruth: “Is our car still there?”
Joann (laughing): “Yes.”
Ruth (also laughing): “Does it have windows?”

So, for us, motel life has gotten easier, but more interesting. By the way, we did recently stay at one of the motels whose sign appears somewhere in this story and it was a good experience. Can you guess which one? And tell us, have you had interesting motel experiences?

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Imagine a Grand Fieldstone Barn

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

"Few buildings of the past remain to speak as plainly of the early American economy as the old stone farm buildings."

From “I Remember America” by Eric Sloane, 1971

At the crack of dawn on October 8, 2009, Ruth and I had the privilege of photographing a beautiful fieldstone barn, located in Oconto County, Wisconsin. In 2007, this barn and the surrounding ten acres were purchased by the Town of Chase and the barn is now known as the Chase Stone Barn. It is listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

I’d like to take you back in time for a few minutes. Imagine that it is the late 1800s and you are living on a farm in a rural area of northern Wisconsin. Life is simple, but there is no shortage of hard work.

You have spent several days behind a horse-drawn walking plow, your hands rough and calloused from holding onto the handles as the plowshare pierced the hard ground. Your back is sore from steering the team and the plow. Your neck and shoulders hurt from the tug of the reins around your neck. But you barely notice because your mind is on the new crop you will be planting and the hope for a better yield this year.

Before you can begin planting, however, there is one more back-breaking job that needs to be done – gathering up the stones that come to the surface every spring as the soil thaws. How can there be so many stones year after year, you wonder.

You harness the team, this time hooking up a stone boat that the horses will drag through the fields as you pick up stones – lifting and tossing the smaller ones onto the stone boat and rolling the bigger ones.

As you gather and toss what seems like a thousand stones onto the stone boat, a vision begins to form in your mind – a vision of a grand fieldstone barn; one with a large arched doorway at each end, allowing you to drive your horse-drawn hay wagon into the barn, unload the loose hay, and drive the empty wagon out the other side.

As you wipe the sweat from your brow and move the horse team forward, you think about how solid and durable the massive stone walls will be. You think about having a stable on one side with wooden feed doors that could be opened to pitch loose hay to the cows. You think about maybe having an interior stave silo some day. And you think about contacting a local stone mason named Wilhelm Mensenkamp.

In 1903, this vision came to life with the completion of the Krause fieldstone barn. The Krause family owned the barn until 1920 and then it changed hands several times. In 1954, the barn was purchased by Casey and Stanley Frysh. These two brothers owned the barn until their deaths approximately 50 years later. The barn has withstood the test of time, but is now in need of restoration.

The town of Chase is developing plans for the creation of an historic park with the barn as the central focus. The large open area of the barn will be a gathering place for receptions, barn dances, shows, auctions, etc. The large stable area will become a rustic agriculture museum where they will display old farm machinery and tools.

If you are interested in learning more about this historic fieldstone barn and contributing in some way to preserving it for future generations, click here .

Our thanks go out to Kris Kolkowski of the Chase Stone Barn Committee for allowing us access to this amazing barn.

In 1971, Eric Sloane, the famous Americana painter and author, wrote, “I believe there is hope for at least a partial survival of the original America.” It is now almost 40 years after Mr. Sloane wrote these words and I still have hope that people will recognize the importance of saving and preserving our agricultural and architectural heritage.

Happy Shunpiking!