The catalpa tree in the front yard of our family farm is still living today. As far as we know our parents planted the tree.
There are six of us. Pa and Ma referred to us children as “first and second crop hay” as they had two girls and a boy (like first cutting of alfalfa), and then again they had two girls and a boy (like second cutting of alfalfa). Those of you who are familiar with farming will understand that.
Our parents, George and Olivia Napientek who married in November of 1938, purchased an 80-acre farm in the City of Franklin (at that time it was the Town of Franklin) at 10233 W. Ryan Road sometime in 1941 from Charles and Elizabeth Miller.
Prior to their purchasing this farm, they lived with my father’s parents, John and Angeline Napientek on a 160 acre dairy farm located at approximately 4800 W. Oakwood Road. Pa was the youngest boy of 11 children. We heard many stories about the farm – family picnics, catching and eating large crawfish from the Root River that flowed through the farm, and planting and harvesting potatoes – these were only a few of the stories.
Grandpa Napientek had a butcher shop in Milwaukee before purchasing the 160 acre farm, and he taught my dad the skills of butchering and farming. Pa only went through 8th grade in school and Ma went through 7th grade. Children, in those days, were needed to do farm work. Ma’s parents, Frank and Harriet Stepke had an 80 acre farm at 8672 S. 51 Street in Franklin. Ma was one of 5 children.
In many ways, when you think about it, our entire farm was a garden. There were the planted crops, the vegetable and flower gardens, and the woods as we called it. The woods is where our dairy cattle and horses grazed, and was about 20 acres in size. The Ryan Creek flows through the woods and was a source of drinking water for the animals. The woods contained many species of trees and shrubs like burr oak, pin oak, hawthorn, elm, willows, cottonwood, and our most favorite the hickory nut trees. We picked many hickory nuts. We would sit on a large flat rock that sat atop a ravine overlooking the Ryan Creek where we would use a small stone to crack open and eat hickory nuts. Many hickory nuts were brought back to the house and we spent hours cracking and picking out the delicious nut meat so Ma could make cookies with them. There were also chokecherry, honeysuckle, and elderberry bushes, wild roses (pink and white flowered) to name a few. There were wild black raspberries that were picked for pie, fresh eating and freezing for winter. Wild strawberries grew along the fence lines, they were small but sweet. Wild grapes were plentiful and there was an apple tree with the most delicious apples at the far end of our woods. Besides being a pasture for our cattle and horses the woods was one huge playground for us kids. Especially the large cottonwood tree that was knocked down by wind or lightening. This tree was near the Ryan Creek and a good portion of its roots remained in the ground so the tree lived. We played for hours in the huge branches and especially enjoyed when the “cotton” (the seed) would mature and fill the air with what we called snow in summer. Wild flowers were abundant - violets, buttercups, shooting stars, may apples, trilliums, columbines, daisy, wild phlox, orange day lilies, wild iris, Queen Anne’s lace, wild chicory, wild geranium, chamomile, goldenrod, cornflower, dandelions, cattails, and milkweed.
Pa’s planted crops consisted of oats, wheat (usually winter wheat), corn, and sometimes soybeans. These grains were used for seed for the following year, feed for livestock and poultry, and some to sell. One of the dreaded jobs was fanning the grain (wheat and oats) for planting. This was done with an electric fanning mill that removed straw, chaff, stones, dirt and dust, weed seeds and light immature seeds from grain with a fan that blew air across the sieved shelves. It was a dusty, disgusting job, but had to be done to ensure good quality seed for planting the crop. Corn was also made into silage (and stored in our silo) to feed the dairy cows. Brewers’ grains, the by-product of beer brewing was obtained from either Schlitz, Miller or Pabst, can’t recall which one, but the dairy cows sure loved the brewers’ grain and boy did they produce milk as result. Plus an added bonus, when Pa or Ma went to pick up the brewery grain, they always got a glass of beer fresh from a large vat at the brewery. As kids we all had a sip of Milwaukee’s finest if we went to pick up the brewery grains with our parents.
Ma’s vegetable and flower gardens were prolific. With all the animal manure, our vegetable and flower garden soils were very fertile. Ma planted tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, dill, green beans, radishes, onions, beets, sweet corn, carrots, muskmelon, and eggplant. Ma always said that her mother served breaded eggplant during the great depression because meat was scarce and the eggplant tasted somewhat like a breaded pork chop. Apples for applesauce and pie came from Pa’s orchard. Two sour cherry trees on the front lawn near the Catalpa tree provided many cherry pies. And of course there was rhubarb.
Ma canned and preserved tomatoes, tomato juice, pickles, pickled peppers, beets, carrots, corn, peaches, pears, applesauce and cherries. She canned meat, especially pork that was so delicious and handy for a busy farm wife who had to prepare so many meals. Pa went mushroom picking in the fall and Ma would can the mushrooms, they were so delicious fried with onions. Ma raised chickens for eggs and meat. She had an egg route and sold eggs to customers in Milwaukee as well as to those customers who came to the farm. When the laying hens needed to be replaced every couple years she butchered and sold them as soup chickens, she never had enough to keep up with the demand. Pa and Ma raised hogs, ducks, turkeys, and cattle for milking and meat. We had good fresh food.
Ma always had beautiful flower beds and planters of hollyhocks, lilies, petunias, geraniums, snapdragons, marigolds, ageratum, salvia or firecrackers as she called them, sweet alyssum, morning glories, and vinca vines. Ma planted lilacs (one lilac bush is still there near the catalpa tree), peonies, blue spruce and other evergreens, crabapples and many other trees. It was important to keep the free ranging chickens out of the flower beds and a good farm dog was available to help with that as well as just being a good watch dog.
Pa and Ma had three hired men who lived with us during the time my parents farmed – John (who drowned in the marsh along Ryan Road west of our farm-he was walking back to our house at night from Marak’s tavern at Ryan and Loomis Road that was about ¼ mile from our house), and the “always happy” Jimmie, and the last hired man was Paul, who was only 14 yrs. old when his parents dropped him off at the farm and never came back for him. Paul became part of our family.
Pa and Ma practiced good conservation – there was no weed spray or “roundup” in the wheat or oat fields, we kids did the weed control in the crops like sticking thistles (we used a tool with a long wooden handle that had a blade on one end so the thistle could be cut at the ground), hand pulling mustard and other weeds. The corn fields were cultivated with the tractor and cultivator attachment every few weeks until the corn grew too tall for the tractor to pass through. Every spring we picked stones from the fields to be planted using Pa’s homemade “stone boat” a flat, wooden sled with no wheels that was attached to the tractor and pulled through the field so stones that would interfere with germinating grains could be picked from the soil and tossed onto the stone boat to be hauled away and stacked on a stone pile. Also, these stones could get picked up by the combine as the grains were harvested and cause mechanical problems. Often while doing weed control in the grain fields we would come across arrowheads of various sizes that we could add to our collection.
Everyone had chores to do beginning at age 5 yrs. Milking cows, feeding the calves, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, providing fresh straw for cows to lay down on (or as we called it “bedding the cows”), weeding flowers and garden, painting, cleaning chicken coops and pig pens, driving tractors and trucks as needed for baling hay and combining grain, storing hay and straw in the barn for winter feed and bedding and many other chores involved in farming. Everyone in the family chipped in to help out. We had plenty of fun too, it wasn’t all work. Pa and Ma took all 6 of us to the 41 Twin Outdoor Theatre on S. 27th Street in the summer in the old Nash Rambler. Ma always brought a pail along because there was no concession/rest room stand and with 6 children, well you know! After evening chores we fished on nearby Little or Big Muskego Lake using homemade drop lines (a drop line was basically a 4”x5” flat piece of wood with a fishing line tied to it with a hook and sinkers on one end of the line. We dug earthworms, and grub worms from the manure pile as bait, we caught our share of bluegills, perch and crappies. We learned to swim at our neighbors, Joe and Jayne’s house. Joe made his own swimming pool. We spent endless hours riding our horses and ponies – Ma brought one orphaned pony colt (named Peanuts) home in the back seat of our car. We played in the woods, swam in Ryan Creek, ice skated, went sledding, caught minnows in the creek, caught tadpoles in the marshy areas, the boys made huge straw forts in the hay mow, we jumped from the barn ropes into hay piles Pa made for us, oh we had so much fun.
To this day all of us have vegetable and flower gardens, some of us have smaller gardens because of our advancing age, but we all love gardening and nature very much. Some of us raise chickens, cattle and sometimes hogs. You could say farming is in our blood.
It has been many years, and that old Catalpa tree is still there in front of the old farmhouse. It is magnificent in bloom in summer, it is majestic in its winter garb, it has been there through all the memories we have had since 1941.
-Story contributed by: