Sunday, August 30, 2009

From One Generation to the Next

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

In early August, we posted a blog entry about tobacco growing in Wisconsin. Last weekend, we returned to tobacco country (around Edgerton and Stoughton) to photograph the harvest. Most of the tobacco barns had their side vents opened up and some of them were full of drying tobacco, while others were awaiting the hanging of the tobacco.

Along the way, we discovered an antique tobacco setter and stopped to ask the owner, Sandra, about it. She was very gracious and gave us a detailed explanation of how the setter worked. There was a water tank with a seat on top of it. This is where the driver of the horse team sat. Later, the setter was converted to be pulled by a tractor. Then the seat on the top of the water tank was used by kids who wanted to ride along. On the back, very low to the ground, were two seats for the tobacco planters. Sandra said she sat on the left and planted with her right hand and her mother sat on the right and planted with her left hand.

As I talked with her, a car pulled in and her daughter got out and joined us. Sandra explained that I was inquiring about the tobacco setter. “Did you work in the tobacco field too?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she said, “I remember planting tobacco with that setter. Mom sat on one side and I sat on the other.”

In our blog post entitled “August Meanderings,” we mentioned our visit to the Cooksville General Store. Sandra told us that they used to buy tobacco seed that had been sprouted in wool socks at the Cooksville Store. She also showed us a very old and worn ax that was used to chop the tobacco plants off at ground level and several hand-made spears. The spears were placed over the end of the lath board and then 5 tobacco plants were speared onto the lath, which was later hung in the tobacco barn for curing.

Shortly after our visit with Sandra, we discovered a tobacco harvest in progress and another gracious owner, Dan, allowed me to photograph the process. He told me that it was very hard work and that he was only doing it because it was “in his blood.” Dan grew up raising tobacco and now continues the family tradition. He stressed to me that tobacco growing and harvesting hasn’t really changed in all these years. It’s still a very manual process, but today he hires a lot more help for the harvest than his family had when he was growing up.

As we mentioned in our previous Tobacco Time post, although we do not in any way advocate tobacco smoking or chewing, tobacco growing is a significant part of Wisconsin’s agricultural history. Therefore, we honor and respect the tobacco growers who toiled long hours in the tobacco fields to support their families.

Happy Shunpiking!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Richland County Vortex

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

We love to shunpike in Richland County. It’s not too far away from home for a day trip, yet it gets us into the hills and valleys of western Wisconsin that we love. We make a lot of trips there, so we have covered many of the roads in every season of the year. Each season has something to offer, but we just love to go to Western Wisconsin in the fall.

When we are out shunpiking for a single day, my goal is to navigate us in a circle so that at the end of the day, we are close to where we began. We usually drive the highway until we get close to Richland County and I try to pick a different “jumping off” backroad every time we go. Then we make a big shunpiking circle photographing the many barns and old buildings on the backroads. When the light has faded or we have physically had enough for the day, we hit the highway again for the drive home. Anyone who has heard of our adventures knows that it is usually because the light has more than faded, and we are physically exhausted as well!

For several years now, every time we are in Richland County and Joann says, “Is there a park near here where we could have lunch?” I look at the map and find we are only a few miles from Pier Natural Bridge Park. It has become a joke for us, since whether we eat lunch early or late, we always seem to be near this park when we decide to stop.

The park has interesting rock formations, a natural bridge where two branches of the Pine River meet, a man-made tunnel through the rock, wooden steps leading to the top of the rock formation for a view of the surrounding countryside, and a few picnic tables. It’s a very small but special park.

Several years ago we started to call Richland County “the vortex” because we were so often drawn to photograph there, but since we began ending up at this park for every picnic, the park itself has become our Richland County vortex.

If you’re near the area, pack a picnic lunch and take a drive. See if you’re drawn to “the vortex” as much as we are.

Happy Shunpiking!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summer Memories

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

Several times every summer, on our travels along the rural backroads, we are treated to the smell of fresh-cut hay. And this always takes us back to our childhood and baling hay on our dairy farm.

When we were young, we had a baler that produced rectangular bales that were stacked by hand on a flat rack hay wagon. It was hot, dusty, and noisy. One of us kids would drive the tractor and Dad would stand on the wagon and stack the bales as they came out of the baler. The noise from the tractor engine and the thrashing of the baler would drown out Dad’s voice (much to his frustration as he tried to holler out instructions to the one driving the tractor).

I began driving the John Deere tractor with the baler and flat rack behind it when I was in third grade. I remember not being tall enough to push the clutch in without standing up. I also remember wishing that my third grade teacher, Mrs. Wipperfurth, would drive by on the highway and see how grown up I was.

When we were in middle school, we moved to a much bigger dairy farm and Dad bought a throw baler like the one pictured here. This eliminated the need for more than one person in the field. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean we got off easy. It meant we were back at the barn trying to unload heavier bales that had been jammed into the wagon by the force of the throw baler.

Today’s balers produce a much bigger bale. Some are rectangular and some are round and they must be transported by machines because they are too big and heavy for a person to lift. Years ago, a friend of mine told me that she loved seeing the fields full of big round hay bales. She also told me she was pretty sure that they changed places by rolling around in the middle of the night. Who knows, maybe she’s right.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

August Meanderings

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

Saturday morning, Ruth and I left my house at 5:00 am to catch the early morning light in the Stoughton, Wisconsin area. It was a beautiful morning with a cool breeze and fog nestled in the valleys. As the sun began to rise above the horizon, we saw this birdhouse scene with heavy fog in the marsh below it.

By the middle of August, there are signs of the end of summer and the upcoming autumn season. The wild grapes and elderberries are turning purple and there are little splashes of orange in the vegetation. The cornfields are tall and the stalks are starting to turn a golden color. We’ve been down most of the backroads in Dane County, Wisconsin, but occasionally we come across one we haven’t yet traveled. This barn, with its mature corn crop, was the first thing we saw on one such road.

Around 9:00 am, we made our way to historic Cooksville, “the town that time forgot” when it was bypassed by the railroads in the 1860s. The Cooksville Historic District consists of around 35 historic buildings and sites and is listed on both the National and State Historic Registers. We are always pleased to find that the Cooksville Store, which has been operating since 1846, is still open.

As I stepped out of the car, a little black cat, who had been basking in the sun on the porch of the store, came over to greet me. After playing with the cat for a few minutes, I went into the store, walked the length of the creaky old wooden floor, and bought Sasparilla and Birch Beer sodas for the trip home. When I returned to the car, there were two kittens watching me with caution from under the store owner’s car.

As I got back into the car and started it up, Ruth and I had another one of our silly conversations:

Ruth (motioning with her head): “Check out the parking lot over there.”
Joann (looking around in confusion): “What parking lot?”
Ruth (pointing next door): Right there.
Joann (still confused): Huh?
Ruth (pointing again): “Right there…the kiddie parking lot.”
Joann (shutting off the car): “Oh, I get it; I guess we’d better get a picture of that!”

Happy Shunpiking!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's What Sunflowers Do

by Joann M. Ringelstetter

Sunflowers are native to North America. While North Dakota leads the country in the production of sunflowers, you can find some fields of sunflowers in Wisconsin. If you notice a bright yellow field in the distance in late July or August, there’s a good chance it’s sunflowers.

Stumbling upon a field of sunflowers in Wisconsin is always a treat. Their bright yellow heads follow the sun, so your best views will be on the eastern side of a field in the morning or on the western side in late afternoon.

We found this field of sunflowers growing in Columbia County at the end of July last year. We were in the same area this year at the end of July, but the sunflowers were just beginning to bloom. Sadly, we haven't made it back to see them in full bloom.

Helen Keller said, “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It's what sunflowers do.”

And, as always, Happy Shunpiking!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Tobacco Time in Wisconsin

by Ruth A. Ringelstetter

The tobacco plant is beautiful, and seeing the rows of bright green tobacco in late summer signals the beginning of autumn. Autumn happens to be our favorite time to go shunpiking, so August always gets us excited about the fall color viewing that is to come.

One year, we were parked beside a tobacco field, and Joann was taking close-up pictures of the tobacco plant. I leaned out of the window and commented on how much I enjoy driving around looking at the tobacco fields, but hate the smell of it. “You can smell the tobacco?” Joann asked. When I said “Yes, and it stinks,” she stopped and sniffed, and finally noticed the smell. This is another example of her being so in the zone when she’s photographing that she’s oblivious to the sights, sounds, and smells around her!

In Wisconsin, tobacco is harvested by hand. The plants are cut with a special axe by workers in the field and laid flat. Then they are pierced with a spear and tied to lath boards, which are loaded onto wagons.

The wagonloads of tobacco are brought back to the tobacco barns where the tobacco is hung by the lath boards to dry. Special vents along the sides of the barn are opened to help with the drying.

When these vents are closed, it is sometimes hard for the casual observer to distinguish a tobacco barn from a shed or other outbuilding. But looking closely, you will see rows of hinged boards on the long sides, which are opened when the tobacco is hung for curing. You also might notice rows of vents along the top of the barn instead of the usual one or two. These vents sometimes look like little metal smokestacks.

Tobacco barns are as distinct as the areas in which tobacco is grown. The tobacco barn above is the typical style of most Wisconsin tobacco barns, which are spread throughout the southern part of the state. Commercial tobacco growing began in the 1850s here in Wisconsin. At its peak around 1920, there were 47,000 acres of tobacco. Today, there are only about 1,000 acres grown. In our backroads travel, we’ve seen the most tobacco fields around Stoughton and Edgerton. If you’re in the area and you see barns with open slats on the side, slow down and take a whiff. Chances are you’ll smell tobacco.

Although we do not in any way advocate tobacco smoking or chewing, tobacco growing is a significant part of Wisconsin’s agricultural history. Therefore, we honor and respect the tobacco growers who toiled long hours in the tobacco fields to support their families.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mystical Butterfly Encounter

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

In 2008, Ruth and I began our fall photographing on September 28 in Vernon County, Wisconsin. Around lunch time, we headed down a quiet backroad that we love to travel. There is an old house on one side of the road and an old garage on the other.

On the side of the garage is a large sumac bush that turns blazing orange in the fall. It was a bit too early for the blazing sumac, but we were rewarded with some brightly colored Raggedy Ann Zinnias instead. We pulled to the side of the road and, as I was grabbing my camera and tripod, I suggested to Ruth that she locate a park where we could have our picnic lunch. Then I headed over to the flowers for what I thought would be some fairly quick shots.

After capturing several images of the zinnias, I realized that a Giant Swallowtail Butterfly was sitting on one of the flowers in the back. So I ran back to the car to get a different lens. By the time I returned, the butterfly had flown away. I was just about to head back to the car when I realized that it was circling around and coming back. For the next hour and a half, I stood there in awe as this butterfly did its work of drinking nectar from the brightly-colored flowers for a few seconds and then taking flight, very slowly making a huge circle, and returning to the flowers for more nectar.

What was so amazing to me was that the butterfly was totally engrossed in drinking the sweet nectar and didn’t seem to be bothered by my presence. I was many times only an inch away, looking into its face as it worked. We’ve explained on the “About Shunpiking” page that when we’re on a backroad and not one single car goes by for an hour, that’s our version of heaven. Well, that’s what this road was like – quiet and peaceful, with only the sounds of nature in our ears. And, call me crazy, but at one point, I swear I heard this butterfly slurping the nectar from the flower. I told myself that it was my imagination, but then I moved ever so close and I heard it again – a definite slurping sound. It was both mystical and amazing.

Thank heavens Ruth is a very patient person because we were both very hungry by the time we left (and in desperate need of a restroom, I might add). And, although this butterfly was tattered and torn (a rather appropriate condition considering the Raggedy Ann Zinnias it was visiting), I never even noticed this until later when I was processing the images on the computer. To me, it was one of the most beautiful butterflies I've ever encountered and one of the most mystical experiences I've ever had.

Happy Shunpiking!