#AtoZChallenge: My Favorite Things C

C for Cows

They are curious and will always look at you, which is good for pictures. Photo credit: Esther Armstrong

Back in the old days…

Often in the late afternoon, when it was time to do the milking, I was sent out to find the cows. Sometimes they would be waiting to be let into the barn (depending on how uncomfortable they were, needing to have their udders relieved). But since they had many acres of grassland on which to feed, they were at other times, nowhere to be seen. I would head off, running or on bike, in the direction they had last been seen, opening gates as I went. The cows tend to follow each other in a line, wearing a path about a foot wide, dotted with what we descriptively called cow pies. Being able to yell in a voice that carried, was also helpful. Our cows answered to “Cum boss!” and we always made the “boss” long and loud like a fog horn.

Once I found them, and got their attention, they would stop grazing and start toward the barn. Slowly I would urge them – we were not to make them run. Cows must think, because the thought of going to the barn would sometimes cause them to let down their milk. Nothing looks more counterproductive, not to mention painful, than to see a running cow with a swollen udder flapping between her legs, spraying milk this way and that as she trots. All in all, they liked coming to the barn where they knew they would get food, water and relief.

Our cows were all named, and they all had their own places in the barn. The barn was always prepared beforehand, with stanchions opened and turned the right way, and hay or silage laid out on the floor in the manger area. The automatic watering cups were checked to make sure they were clean and working and full. The smart cows would walk sedately to their place, stick their heads in the stanchion and begin to eat, waiting for us to come and close them in. The smarter cows would quickly stick their heads in a place other than their own, eat a few mouthfuls and then scoot into their place. They aren’t dumb when it comes to food.

Cows are large, warm, smooth haired with long pink tongues and breath that smells like hay, most of the time. They are very curious and will come running to investigate new things that appear in the field.  After being held in the barn over our cold Wisconsin winter, they would be let out in the spring and race around kicking up their heels, which was quite comical because cows are not the most graceful animals. They just aren’t.

Today I was taken back in time, as I once again went looking for the cows. I had a file on my pc, and wanted my favorite cow pictures for this post, because, yes, I had enough of them to have favorites. The cow file was nowhere to be found. This digital age has given them too many pastures in which to hide, except for these few stragglers who have finally heard me yelling “cum boss!”

These were the only cows I could find. They knew I was taking their picture and would have been on me in a second…

So, who has ever accidentally landed in a cow pie?

#AtoZChallenge: A Few of My Favorite Things B

For this year’s A to Z Challenge I’m being Julie Andrews and going on about my favorite things. I suppose there are people young enough to have no clue who Julie Andrews is or when she did this. Seriously, you need to watch “The Sound of Music”. It’s part of classic movie knowledge. Remembering your favorite things will keep you from being afraid, and who doesn’t need some of that these days…


I am seriously in love with old barns, wherever I find them. I love their muted colors. I love their changing shapes as they age, sag, and fall. I love the stories that are hidden in their walls, stories of people working, of animals taking shelter, stories of changing culture and times past.  When driving through the Midwest particularly, I have been known to brake suddenly and pull off the road to get a photo of a ghost of a barn so picturesque that I could not pass it.

One time visiting my parents in northern Wisconsin, my dad wanted to show me a barn he thought I would like. He didn’t know who it belonged to but it looked abandoned. And indeed, it was. Dad stood by the gate as I trespassed  investigated the barn inside and out with my camera.  The memory of that time will always be burned into my memory, with the help of those photos.

Dad waits
Dad, keeping watch while the photographer was busy
Old Barns
This was an unusual barn with angles I couldn’t figure out.
Old Barns
Hinges, latches, distressed wood beauty
Barn and daisies
Countless views in this field of daisies
And just as beautiful in other seasons. I couldn’t resist going back.

I think the fascination comes from my own childhood, growing up on a working farm, and gradually seeing the barn I knew well change roles. It contained the hayloft that was at once both the perfect playground and the source of my scariest dreams. It was the dairy barn where I learned to milk cows and hunt for new kittens. Later it was the storage place for furniture and machinery no longer in use. One section of it became the hen house for our flocks of chickens. As the leaks began and it leaned a bit, it was propped up with braces and attempts were made to put metal on the steep sloping roof. And then one night, in a storm, it went down completely. We weren’t ready for that and it was shocking.

One storm, and it was a pile of rubble…

One of my favorite barns is still in our family. It belonged to my grandfather, and is now a landmark in the greenspace surrounding my brother’s small housing development. Photographers sometimes pay to take pictures there.

The patchwork tin roof, where my grandfather regularly risked his life fixing leaks.
My favorite view from inside the barn

Barns stand for a way of life that is becoming less common. People used to build their barn before they built their house because it was a priority. Now they are more likely to be adornments on the “gentleman farms” of the wealthy. I am afraid they will become extinct. And that is why I take pictures of these beautiful reminders of the past.

What part of the past do you like to photograph, to keep alive?

*All photos are property of Shirley Dietz. May be used with permission.


A to Z Family Stories: T for Tractor

The symbol of power and efficiency on the farm – the tractor. We grew up watching our dad and the hired hands use farm machinery, and probably even more time watching them fix farm machinery, so it was natural that we longed for the day when we’d get to drive the tractor. Driving the tractor meant you were old enough to really help out. A mixed bag, according to my brother Ron (Stubby, at that time) since after he learned to drive the tractor, he had to drive the tractor, even when everyone else was doing things that were more fun.

One of our chores, before the days when hay was baled and shot into a wagon by the baler, was to go out in the field and turn the bales. They were round bales and if the grass was a bit green when baled, or if it had been rained on, the turning allowed more exposure to the sun for drying. Our first tractor driving lessons were always in the open field, pulling a wagon while “big people” walked alongside and hoisted the dry bales up in stacks. All we had to know how to do was push in the clutch and steer, and pay attention. Dad usually put it in the right gear until we learned how to shift. Since that season required all hands on deck, I got to help make hay. Other seasons, like plowing, planting and cultivating didn’t involve as many people so I didn’t get much of those experiences, but my brothers did.

I like all colors of tractors.
I like all colors of tractors.

I probably inherited a partial tractor gene from birth. Dad had it for sure. His idea of shopping, according to my mom (who would know) was spending several hours in an implement yard looking at machinery. At first it was tractors, but as he got into the excavating business it was bulldozers, front end loaders and dump trucks. Unlike Dad, my version of tractor love involves less grease and gasoline smell. I appreciate the lifestyle behind the tractor, and the clean, solid feel of a well engineered toy. Don’t get me near a John Deere store. (Yes, I collect.)

Ready to gas up...
Ready to gas up…

Even now, I am in awe of the work that can be done by a man on a tractor, whether it be plowing a garden or pulling a car out of the ditch. And every time the Smith men get together there will probably be some talk of “the Alice”, or the old “Massey-Ferguson” or the “A” or whatever letter-name tractor they liked best. Me, I stick to coffee table books, just sayin’…

My idea of a coffee table book. Call me "farm girl".
My idea of a coffee table book. Call me “farm girl”.

A to Z Family Stories: P for a couple different things

Picture board

Mom has been sorting through her pictures for years now, organizing them into albums for each of us kids and albums on different subjects.  She has so many printed pictures because she has lived so many years when printed pictures were the only option – there were no digital cameras.  .

My first camera was a Brownie box camera.  There were little, square lenses that you could take out on the top. In fact, you could take the whole camera apart and put it back together again. It was that simple.  You bought rolls of film with only 8 frames on them, put them in the camera and turned a knob to roll them into place.  If you were lucky you got black and white photos several weeks later when you finished the film and sent it away to be developed.  If you weren’t lucky you got underexposures, over exposures, pictures with no subject in them, pictures of your fingers over the lens, etc… There were so many things that could go wrong, and commonly did.  This was the only way to preserve memories of important times, but it resulted in lots of terrible pictures.

Color film came along but was much more expensive.  Then cameras improved and film had 24 and 36 frames so we took more pictures.  Still, there was no way to know if the picture was good until after it was developed and printed. And it still had to be sent to a developer for the prints (expensive) because few people knew how to process their own films.  Now we have digital photos and don’t know how we ever managed without them. We only print the best, for special reasons, and store the rest on disks or hard drives.

Mom’s photo albums show this history of pictures, from the small black and whites to the present near-perfect digitals.  In addition to the albums she has made picture boards of her favorite family pics.  She is not afraid to crop them, trim them up with decorative edges, and paste them on a cardboard.  Her philosophy – get them out where people will look at them more often.  If they sit in a box or a drawer forever, no one enjoys them and they are forgotten.

I found myself in this pic with my brothers
I found myself in this pic with my brothers

The picture boards hang in the guest room of her house.  Everyone loves to look at them and see how many times they can find themselves.  We see how we all have changed over the years with growth spurts, changes in hairstyles, added weight, and more recently, the wrinkles.  It’s not fancy, or expensive.  There are no real frames or glass (which would be alright too) and it doesn’t seem to matter.  We all love looking at pictures of our crazy, lovable extended family.

Mom's picture board collage
Mom’s picture board collage


We had a single milk cow.  For some reason which I do not recall, we named her Peanut.  This was the time in my family history that my dad was almost finished with farming, but it was still nice to have a cow to provide milk for the family.  She was a Holstein and a pretty good milk producer.  One cow is not enough to justify having a milking machine so my brothers milked her by hand morning and evening.  I might have done it a few times too but I was now away at college so I didn’t know Peanut very well.

There was enough milk that we also provided some to neighbors, which required that it be pasteurized for safety. The milk was heated in a metal pasteurizer, a gallon or two at a time, in our kitchen.  When it reached the right temperature it would shut itself off and we would cool it as quickly as possible.  Sometime our refrigerator would be so full of glass one-gallon jars of milk that there was little room for anything else.  As the milk sat in the fridg, the cream would rise to the top and we would skim it off and make butter. Peanut butter. There was also plenty for making ice cream, and just for drinking.  We were known as the farm where you could get Peanut milk.

There is something good about the memory of leaning up against a big,warm animal and hearing the rhythmic sound of that stream of milk filling the pail.  There’s a good dose of nostalgia in remembering the fun it was to try to squirt the cats when they came running by. It was good to live on the farm… just sayin’.

A Holstein, just like Peanut was.
A Holstein, just like Peanut was.

A to Z Family Stories: O for (ahem…) Outhouse

An outhouse wasn’t just something found in old cartoons and jokes. People actually used them and considered them a step up from … well, a chamber pot. I remember outhouse days.

My parents moved to a farm the year I was born. It had a two-story house, a barn, a sheep shed and an outhouse. The only water was in the barn and mom called it orange water because it was that rusty. Drinking water and water for washing clothes was brought out from town in large cans. There was electricity in the downstairs of the house only, and of course, no running water or plumbing. No bathroom. Mom was just thrilled to have a house of her own. The kitchen was where all the living was done. There was a bed in the corner. It was a safer time then – no locks on any doors.

The outhouse was one of the best structures on the premises, according to mom. Located just a short jaunt away from the house, it had one small high window for ventilation and a chair height bench inside with two holes, plus a child sized bench with a smaller hole. It was a deluxe model. The door had a hook and eye fastener on the inside and a wooden block handle on the outside that swiveled to hold the door shut.

When I was two and a half, before my brother was born, a bathroom was added which opened into the kitchen. A shallow well was sunk into the basement (dirt) floor and running water was brought into the house. Now there was orange water in both the house and the barn. However, the outhouse was still a common retreat, especially as the family grew. It had it’s own charm.

The farm had been bought from the Olson family. They had a son, Billy or Bob (we’re not sure), who went on to be an artist and a sign painter. Although we can’t be sure, we give him some credit for decorating the outhouse walls. Penciled here and there on the inside were caricatures of people and animals that were really showed quite a bit of talent. I remember looking at those walls, hoping to find a drawing that I had missed, wondering about the artist who had put them there. There was a supply of whatever paper could be spared, mostly catalogs and newspapers. Dad remembers what a treat it was around the time of year when peaches were sold, wrapped in tissue paper in crates. You can guess where the tissue paper went. I remember sweeping the floor and cleaning the outhouse and occasionally hunting down a spider or swatting down a hornet’s nest – not your present day bathroom hazards.

The outhouse stayed for a few years even after it got very little use. Eventually it was in the way and was taken down, the hole filled in, covered over. Another remnant of the past, no longer to be remembered, except of course in an occasional blog post. Just sayin’…

A to Z Family Stories: M for Milk Route

MDuring part of my father’s farming days he supplemented his dairy business with a milk route that carried milk from neighboring farms to a creamery in a nearby town. In those days dairy farmers put all of their cows in the barn at once and milked them with a vacuum system, one or two at a time.
The milk was poured from the milking machine into 10 gallon cans, covered tightly with a lid and cooled in a water tank. Full, the cans weighed 100 lbs. The cows were milked two times a day, which meant a farmer might have five to ten cans or more to be picked up every day. My dad’s job was to drive a truck to all the farms on his route, load the cans in his large truck and drive it to the creamery. Think back breaking work, seven days a week.

We didn’t see dad a lot when we were little – we weren’t usually awake when he went out in the morning and we were in bed already when he came home at night. For this reason, it was a real treat when we got invited to go along on the milk route. Probably because we were prone to bicker with each other, only one of us could go with him at a time.

I remember standing with my mom one morning as we watched dad walk to the truck. I was not happy that I wasn’t getting to go with him and was probably showing some attitude. Suddenly my dad changed direction and was running back toward us and I knew I was not in for anything good. I don’t remember the spanking – just the moment of terror when I realized I had pushed the limit and there was no going back and no hiding. Oddly enough, both parents now say that we were very good kids and they can hardly remember giving spankings at all.

The milk truck was the biggest machine on the farm and when I sat on the wide bench seat with dad it seemed REALLY high, probably because I was really little. One of the best things about the trip was lunch. There were no McDonalds or fast food places. Lunch was made at home by mom, was often egg salad sandwiches (my favorite) wrapped in wax paper, and they always smelled delicious. Mom has always been a food genius when it comes to packing food for people. There would be a little jar of pickles, some fruit, and homemade cookies, always cookies. We usually ate lunch in the truck and it was gone by the time we reached the creamery.

After all the milk cans were unloaded, emptied, washed and reloaded into the truck there was another ritual treat. This particular dairy had a cooler near the entry that was always full of packages of butter, and small cartons of chocolate milk. If we had been good, we got the chocolate milk to drink on the way home and it was the best!

My grandfather also worked delivering milk at one time and my father remembers the same kind of treat would be given to him – it was a family tradition. It was country life. Not many kids get to live the country life, but I did and it was pretty good.


A to Z Family Stories: L for Lamb

These stories are part of who we are and I want them recorded. Not all of them are pretty, but that is ok.  This is a collection of family stories that are told repeatedly anytime the Smith clan congregates during a vacation or a holiday.  I’m sure some of them are told more from my perspective than others but I welcome added insight from those involved.

“The farm”, those words will always mean one place to me and my brothers. It was a 320 acre plot in Sawyer County, Wisconsin about 8 miles from the small town of Hayward. My parents moved there shortly after they were married and my father started trying to make a living being a farmer. He tried numerous types of agri-business while we children were young, before he finally gave it up to become an excavator. The northwoods isn’t conducive to most kinds of farming.

One of the first attempts was the raising of sheep. I was too young to remember much of the actual work and this era probably didn’t last very long. What I do remember and what we sometimes talk about is our pet lamb.

There were times when an ewe (mother sheep for you city dwellers) would either die when giving birth or perhaps she would have twins and reject one of them, which would leave a lamb in need of rescue. The lambs were born in spring or early summer – and you know, lambs are really cute when they are little, really cute. I mean really cute. I won’t say that my brother and I were given this lamb, because we were too young to be responsible for it, but we were regularly allowed to feed it. We regarded it as ours. We named it Lambey Dammey. I know, but we were kids and it rhymed.

Our lamb, let’s just call him LD, was so cute (I did mention that they were cute, right?) and so much fun for us. When it was time to feed we would be given a bottle of warm milk with a special nipple and told to go find LD. We would call him loudly as we walked around the barn. I know people say sheep are dumb animals, but he would always come running. I think the promise of food makes anyone smart smarter. I was the oldest so I would hold the bottle, at least that’s what the pictures suggest. Much of my early memories are fed by the pictures I’ve seen over and over, and the stories I’ve heard. Here is a picture of me, my brother Ron and LD, the cutest lamb ever. Just sayin’…

PhotoScan (16)

A to Z Family Stories: C for Cat Tamers

This is a collection of family stories that are told repeatedly anytime the Smith clan congregates during a vacation or a holiday.  I’m sure some of them are told more from my perspective than others but I welcome added insight from those involved. These stories are part of who we are and I want them recorded. Not all of them are pretty, but that is ok. 

Young ones growing up on a farm had an important job. It was taming the kittens.

Cats are an essential element on a farm. Barns and other farm buildings are like hotels for mice if there are no cats around to keep them in check. Most of our cats were not the pampered, brushed and combed, vaccinated and neutered kind that are fed fancy food. Barn cats were and are excellent hunters who feed on small rodents almost exclusively and travel around the farm at will. And even if some cats were neutered or spayed, there was no guaranateeing that the neighbors cats were, therefore … kittens abounded.

You found them in the hayloft. You knew to look because a cat who had been looking kind of hefty for a while was suddenly skinny. We loved going into the loft to look for kittens because it was the ultimate scavenger hunt. You could follow mama cat if you were wiley enough to not let her know, otherwise you just had to start searching the crevices between the bales and hope you got lucky. The prize was finding that sleeping pile of gorgeous kitten fur, four or five of them most of the time. They were often a variety of colors and patterns, tiger stripe, calico, orange tiger, black and white, or maybe even solid black. It was best to find them when they were very young and let them see you often as they grew, but sometimes the mother would be skeptical of motives and move the family to a new hiding place. So the hunt would resume.

Older kittens were more difficult to deal with. They would instinctively hide and bite and scratch, but if they weren’t tamed they would grow up wild and too many wild ones would result in a cat population growing way out of bounds. Our job as children was to find, tame and help the kittens be people friendly so they could possibly go to a new home.

One time, my brother Stubby (we don’t call him that anymore) had been working on an older kitten and was making some headway when he heard of a family in need of a cat. He very much wanted them to take this kitten and was able, with difficulty, to get it into a box. With glowing reports of how pretty this kitty was he took them to the barn to see their new pet. Unfortunately, every time the box was touched it exploded into a shaking, jumping, growling, banshee shrieking package that was not very inviting. Amazingly, they took it.

As a young mom, I was able to live once again on the farm where I grew up. My own children learned the art of cat taming just like I had. They carried kittens in their arms, dressed them up in doll clothes, put them to sleep in dresser drawers (which was the first place we looked when one was missing) and in general subjected them to all sorts of handling. They were gentle and bomb proof by the time they were grown. Caring for them provided many lessons and so much fun for my own two cat tamers.

Esther and White Necklace (they always had descriptive names)
Esther and White Necklace (they always had descriptive names)
Julia and Rebel, asleep for the moment.
Julia and Rebel, asleep for the moment.

Round Lake

I grew up on a small farm in northern Wisconsin – a place where  nature is not all that friendly to farmers.  Summers are short and cool, winters are seem endless with lots of snow and cold weather.  The area is kept alive by tourism and is a playground for hunters, fishermen, outdoor sports enthusiasts and others who just want to get away from the larger cities in Wisconsin and nearby Minnesota.  I is a land of lakes and I have been on many of them, but my favorite is Round Lake.  Others will say the same.

A road winds past my childhood home, around a small pond and climbs a wooded hill. I spent a lot of time looking at that hill from the front yard and from my second story bedroom window.  At some early point I must have seen some people on horseback riding up the hill at a gallop because I recollect a romantic notion of there being a castle up there waiting for knights to arrive on their steeds.  My family later became friends with the people on the hill since they had children close to our ages.  The hill became Kendall’s Hill and we also came to know their cousins who did indeed visit them on horseback.

For some reason today I started thinking about that hill and the nearby geography and wondered why I had never thought of it in the bigger picture before.  The centerpiece of it, to me, is a beautiful, deep, spring fed lake with a very unimaginative name – Round Lake.  Parts of it might be kind of round, but I would never have named it that.  In many places it has a very rugged, high and steep coastline. People owning those pieces of lakeshore have their log cabins that we can see through the pine trees and long stairs zig zagging down the bank to their boatdocks.

There is another outstanding feature of the lake and that is a peninsula of high ground that circles out into the lake and back toward the shore.  It had to have been connected at one time because there is a sand bar across the narrow space where it doesn’t connect. It has to be dredged for boats to safely cross into Hinton Bay. Hinton Bay, by the way, is almost perfectly round and maybe that’s the part someone was looking at when they named the lake. I would love to know what kind of geologic activity has gone on to form this lake, and its surrounding hills.  I know there was a lot of glacial activity that gouged out some pretty crazy river beds and valleys and  left a lot of rocks of various sizes. Once I found a fairly large Lake Superior red agate in the lake so I’m suspecting a relationship with the Great Lakes chain.

But there are also some fairly flat lands where people have attempted to farm, as my family did.  The pond between my house and the hill had a couple of springs that were probably fed from the same underground reservoir that feeds the lake. We children who skated on the pond in the winter were always afraid to go too near those places we could tell had frozen over last. The pond has gradually become more marshy and filled in with sediment – it may disappear someday but I probably won’t be alive to see it.

Last month I visited the hill and took another one of many pictures, looking out over the pond to my old home. I’m always hit with nostalgia at the view. What a privilege it was to grow up in such a beautiful place. I spent many years drinking that clear, cold well water and eating food grown in that soil so it’s pretty safe to say it is in my bones. I will always be “from” Round Lake and Hayward, Wisconsin.


my old home from the castle on the hill


Reader, blogger, and essayist Andrea Badgley is collecting “Show Us Your State” stories for her Andrea Reads America website. Submission guidelines are here if you would like to participate.