ElkFarm Stories

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Category: Stories (page 2 of 2)

Residents at the Blalock Asylum

Finally I found this 1910 photo  that shows everyone who was in the Blalock Asylum in Port Edwards at that time. Keep in mind this is a mixture of staff and citizens, sometimes hard to tell the difference. The couple in the middle, they’re not the directors. The couple standing behind them are the ones in charge. And the older lady to the left, she’s the prankster who pokes people in the eye when they look through the hole in the fence. Innocent looking but the sparkplug behind most of the shenanigans that take place at the Blalock. Judith, never Judy. Just call her Judith. More to come about this unique collection of personalities.

Consumption Hits the Blalock Mansion

Deathly illness at the Blalock Mansion in the mid-1890s. The family had enjoyed the mansion for nearly 10 years, but divorce, infighting, and petty jealousies made the house especially cold and hostile.
Rebekkah Blalock hung in there even though husband Frederick was gone on business more than he was at home. Becky and only daughter Barbara seemed to fight the world, together. Barbara came down with TB, and the doctor said he couldn’t do much for her. Just keep her comfortable, help her cough up what she can, and keep “pouring soup into her.” Lots of chickens lost their lives in their fight against this prolonged illness, and you can see soup on the small wood stove. The two of them took over one large downstairs bedroom, closing it off from the rest of the mansion. Tuberculosis spreads quickly and easily, and they wanted to seal themselves off to fight this together.

One remedy for consumption, as it was often called,  had sick patients sleep outside on cold nights, covered with mounds of quilts,  hoping the cold air breathed in would neutralize the nasty germs. Becky hadn’t tried that yet and was not sure she wanted to. More on this later.


The Blalock Orphanage

Once the Great Depression began, a number of orphaned children showed up at the Blalock Mansion. The Wood County Orphanage,  one of the larger ones, at one point held almost 40 children ages under one to 16. Girls and boys on different floors, staffed by public employees as well as one nurse present at all times. The groundskeeper Clint Miller acted as the resident grandpa, knowing all their names and even their temperaments.

Here Jane and Marv pose for a photo 3 months after they arrived, and here they are ready to go out into the local community with parent sponsors. They’d take them for the day, often a Saturday or Sunday.

When a grieving mother dropped them off in March, placing them at the door, ringing the doorbell, and running away, the kids didn’t cry. Confused and cold, they hurried into the wood heated entryway to the welcoming arms of Mrs. Wheeler. They came skinny, but as you can see in the photo they’re plump and healthy looking. More about them  later as they grow up and later move on from the orphanage.


Unique Children at the Blalock Orphanage


The children taken in during the Depression years at the Blalock Orphanage in Port Edwards were a bit like that Peregrine lady’s kids you might have read about and seen in a recent movie. Peculiar might be a fitting description. Here most of the kids didn’t fear the beasts and creatures, they welcomed them and made them feel accepted. Little Wally often read a book to the ackdorack (flying one) in order for the creature to fall back to sleep under Wally’s bed. When the orphanage began, it was the creatures under the beds who feared the humans. More on that later.

Dandelion Wine: Summer Begins

Douglas stayed at the home of his grandparents on the most delightful day for a kid: the first day of summer vacation. His bedroom is high center right, third floor, where he could survey the town.

Dandelion Wine, a 1957 novel by Ray Bradbury, related some of his summer memories as a kid in Waukegan, Illinois. A little fantasy in the stories, and often each chapter in this book may be read as a separate story. One of the scariest stories ever, for me, deals with a mysterious lonely one in the area.


It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .
“Boy,” whispered Douglas.
A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.
But now—a familiar task awaited him.

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Haying Time–A Gathering Storm

At my mom’s home place, the house of her birth, my godmother Aunt Ann and her husband hung a framed picture over the fireplace. The name of the painting is the name of this post, an 1881 painting by French Artist Julien Depre. The picture I grew up with was black and white, a copy, but it fit so well in that farm that my Grandpa Ole Larson and his wife Julia created to make a living for themselves and their eight children. A grandson of Aunt Ann has the framed picture hanging in his living room, and Steve has a nagging suspicion that if it disappears, that he’ll first come looking for it by finding me. The storm idea has plagued farmers for centuries, and if you recall the Norwegian letter from a few days ago, their hay wasn’t drying because of too much rain. Not only did these farmers have to load the hay but also had to get it into some kind of covered storage area to unload. Lots of feeling, lots happening in this painting of French farmers.


Yum Yum, Castor Oil


The Blalock Mansion on 7th Street in Port Edwards was an orphanage in the tough years of the Great Depression, the mansion held as many as 30 kids. Boys and girls, each on a separate floor. It was in the interest of Wood County to keep them healthy, and what better way to do it than a daily dose of castor oil.

Nurse Constance gave a special hoot, a yippy tai aye, and the boys lined up.

“Stay on the line, stay on the line. Remember to keep the spoon clean, so after you take the castor oil, I’ll rub the spoon front and back on your sweater to get rid of the germs. If you drop the spoon, wipe it on your socks before giving it back to me. Stop giggling, you act like this is your first time.”

The group, nervous and excited, lined up but always had to look to see if anyone gagged or spit it out.

Jessie, Brad, Rick, Timmy, Dan, Jack, Wayne, Ralph, Amos, Luke, Mark, and Richie were all there. Karl was still sick, laying in the med room. Nurse Constance told the boys that Karl didn’t always swallow his medicine so that’s why he got sick.


Groundskeepers at the Blalock

The couple was a mystery. Very few know where they came from, and very few knew them at all. Cassie and Wayne took care of the grounds and the upkeep of the Blalock Asylum from the turn of the century until 1920. Then they simply moved on and new people had to be hired. They mowed the lawn using sickles. They kept the grounds clean and swept the halls after midnight while everyone slept. The citizens, critics call them inmates, were responsible for cleaning their own rooms. Cassie and Wayne hated daylight, and their eyesight was suited only for nighttime hours.

Just a few of the citizens of Blalock knew where they slept during the day. The pair crawled under the front porch, way back in, and even under the house, dug themselves into the dirt that kept them cool in summer. In cold seasons they slept under a blanket and even read their philosophy books in the low light of the mansion’s foundation. The citizens saw them very little, not interacting much. In fact they were frightened to come out of their rooms when darkness reigned.

Working in the Rain

My father loved more than anything to
work outside in wet weather. Beginning
at daylight he’d go out in dripping brush
to mow or pull weeds for hogs and chickens.
First his shoulders got damp and the drops from
his hat ran down his back. When even his
armpits were soaked he came in to dry out
by the fire, make coffee, read a little.
But if the rain continued he’d soon be
restless, and got out to sharpen tools in
the shed or carry wood in from the piles,
then open up a puddle to the drain,
working by steps back into the downpour.
I thought he sought the privacy of rain,
the one time no one was likely to be
out and he was left to the intimacy
of drops touching every leaf and tree in
the woods and the easy muttering of
drip and runoff, the shine of pools behind
grass dams. He could not resist the long
ritual, the companionship and freedom
of falling weather, or even the cold
drenching, the heavy soak and chill of clothes
and sobbing of fingers and sacrifice
of shoes that earned a baking by the fire
and washed fatigue after the wandering
and loneliness in the country of rain.

Robert Morgan

(from G. Keillor’s collection Good Poems)

Special Twins at Blalock Mansion

During the years the mansion operated an orphanage for the state of Wisconsin and for Wood County, as many as 100 kids came through the system. Every room housed orphans, classrooms, and washing / dining operations. The twins Madison and TyAnn came together around 1900, but unfortunately in 1902 TyAnn died of typhus. Madison adjusted poorly to her sister’s death, but eventually she found the pond out front a convenient place to talk to TyAnn.

This photo taken in 1904. The pond held fish and aquatic plants in the summer, then in winter it became a small skating rink for the orphans.

7th Street Port–Intro

Background of 7th Street. Where the house stood now sits an empty lot.

The quiet and sedate street south of the water tower in Port Edwards has not always been so serene. Now with fairly new houses and a varied group of residents, they probably don’t know the history of this peaceful area west of Ripple Creek. Long before the settlement of the Village of Port Edwards, a farm stood in the area of this aging house. From “normal” farm to burial site to orphanage to a religious sanctuary to an odd cult, it saw its share of adventures. “If these walls could talk” is a cliche, but I’m hoping to get some answers, little by little.

Originally the Martinson house, then the Blalock Mansion, and finally the Miller Mortuary and House of Worship, it went through several owners and served a variety of functions. A few portraits remain, such as the Kuhlka family  below–husband Slade, wife Rhonda, and daughter Renee. It appears normal, doesn’t it. There’s just one problem. The Kuhlkas arranged for a photographer for the 12th of September, 1898, but that morning Renee passed away. They had the photo taken nonetheless. Memories. More to come.

Norwegian Generosity

Cousins Elin and Kjell Even in front of nearly 1000 year old church wall.

On our first trip to Norway, Marilyn and I had a wonderful time with the Elkin relatives. Meeting with them on Sunday, I remarked that I enjoyed the cheese they served with the meal, I thought their unique liquor, aquavit, was great, and I mentioned that at home I couldn’t find a good, complete book that showed the unique bunads or costumes of the many areas of Norway.
We left the next day and drove to the west coast of Norway.
When we met with them again the next Saturday, Per Olav and his family handed us a pound of that special cheese, a bottle of aquavit, and a huge yuggge book with beautiful photos of the bunads of Norway. They overwhelmed us American relatives with their hospitality and their treatment of us.
At the Gardermoen Airport while waiting for the flight back to the US, we talked about the gifts they gave us and the good times we had.
“We mentioned something to them, and a week later it was in our hands.” We laughed about that.
Then the “what if” came up.
“And you know what else?” I told Marilyn. “I almost told Per Olav that I enjoyed his large deck and that his car was a great vehicle.”
Imagine that, we thought.
“How in the world would we have gotten a car and a deck back to the US with us?”

The Stalheim Valley, this sight viewed from our hotel window.


Tobacco Farmer

The first time I remember waking up
in the night was in the winter time
when I was about six. Papa had sent
the tobacco crop to Louisville
to be sold, and we sat by the fire
that night, talking and wondering
what it would bring. It was a bad time.
A year of a man’s work might be worth
nothing. And papa got up at two o’clock.
And I woke up and heard him leaving.
He saddled his horse and rode over
to the railroad, four miles, and took
the train to Louisville, and came back
in the dark that night, without a dime.

Wendell Berry

The Saddest Kid Ever

The kid looked like a poster child for depression, a hang-dog look and a stooped manner that silently cried out,
–“I’m miserable.”
While in Cumberland one summer day, having biked there from our Bone Lake cabin, I stopped in a Kwik Trip gas station to refuel with munchies and a soft drink.
–Here he was, probably 11 years old, the kid looking like someone just told him his puppy died. Not knowing whether or not to talk to him, I watched as he wandered aimlessly in the aisles.

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