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!

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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!