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!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco – Treat Yourself to the Best

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

Many years ago we found our first Mail Pouch Tobacco sign on a tobacco warehouse next to the railroad tracks in Edgerton, Wisconsin. It was a sign in very good shape, but it was on a warehouse which was not as picturesque as the barns we had seen paintings of, so we decided to look for some barns with the same logo.

Our first trip to look for Mail Pouch barns was in 2001 to Indiana. I had gotten a textual list of where these barns were located in Indiana and had marked them on our Indiana gazetteer. There were no accompanying photographs so there was no way of knowing what condition the barns were in. Unfortunately, we were sadly disappointed. We drove up and down the roads where the barns were supposed to be, and only managed to find one Mail Pouch barn, with a sign that was all but faded away. You had to stand in exactly the right spot in order to see the faded Mail Pouch wording on the barn. We took photos, but they were nothing to write home about.

Since that time, the Internet has improved to the point of being able to find photographs of almost anything, so I can now see the condition of a barn before we travel long distances to hunt it up.

The home of Bloch Brothers, who were the original sellers of Mail Pouch Tobacco, was in Wheeling, West Virginia. Beginning in the late 1800s, they hired barn painters to travel the countryside and contract with barn owners to display the Mail Pouch Tobacco ad on the sides of their barns. These barn painters didn’t paint the entire barn. They only painted the side or sides of the barn that displayed the ad.

Mail Pouch Tobacco signs were painted on barns until 1965 when the Highway Beautification Act was passed which attempted to preserve the scenic beauty of the highways. At that time, all but one of the Mail Pouch barn painters was laid off. The last barn painter, Harley E. Warrick, continued to paint the barns on secondary roads that were not covered by the legislation.

In 1974, after much debate, the Highway Beautification Act was amended to accept some types of outdoor advertising including those painted on the sides of barns because they had become part of the American folk heritage.

This spring, we took a trip to southeast Ohio to find some Mail Pouch barns. Our path took us close to Wheeling, West Virginia, and the barns were plentiful. It was a joy to turn a corner on the highway and see the Mail Pouch wording on a barn in the distance.

As time marches on, these barns are fading and falling or being lost to development. Luckily, you can still find them in many states, so if you’re out driving the secondary highways, keep your eyes open and you might find advertising on the side of a barn. If you’re lucky enough, it might be an ad for Mail Pouch Tobacco.

Happy Shunpiking!