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A Time To Remember: Gerhard and Ella Hoffman

Schumacher, Cindy. "A Time To Remember: Gerhard and Ella Hoffman." Northwest Blade, 14 July 2011, 6 & 7.


Gerhard and Ella began our visit with their recollection of the dirty 30’s. They said it was so dark in the house in the middle of the day that they had to burn kerosene lamps. One day while out playing with a friend, Gerhard saw a big black lump and they checked it out. It was a fence loaded with thistles and the dirt totally covered it up. Some fences were totally buried in the dirt. There were very few crops. They even had to put up thistles for hay, which they sprayed with molasses mixed with hot water so that the cattle would eat it. The grasshoppers in the sky were so thick that it was just like clouds. There were so many of them that they wiped out total crops. Farmers used a sawdust mixture that was put in a homemade spreader and put on the crops, which the grasshoppers would eat and die.

Gerhard talked about a storm when it got dark as night during the day. There was a wind that was just like a barrel rolling. The family all ran down to the basement, but Gerhard ran up stairs for a flashlight. Just as he stepped in the basement, the glass was rattling and one of the windows broke. He thought, here we go! Cattle were twisted in barbed wire, and there were legs and tongues scattered everywhere in the pastures. The destruction was devastating.

Gerhard said he walked to school as long as the weather was ok. In snow, they had horses and a little homemade enclosed box two-runner sled with the door on the back. Ella said her dad would also take them to school in a sled drawn by horses, which were able to go through blocked roads. The schools were often close by, but Gerhard’s family lived 8 miles from church.

Ella remembers when she would go to Aberdeen with her family, (which was not very often); they would stop and buy a loaf of bread and a ring bologna for lunch. They never ate at a restaurant. Ella’s mother always wore dresses and hose. She never wore slacks, even when she was working out in the field on top of the header stack.

They did their plowing with a two-bottom plow. There were five horses to a plow. The horses were treated very well, always sheltered in the night. They picked rock and corn by hand, tossing them in wagons pulled by horses. Sometimes they filled a wagon before they even had to move.

After the crops were shocked, the threshing crews picked them up by hand and put them in wagons. They had two horse teams for the bundle racks and about six wagons to haul bundles. Usually, you got neighbor boys to help with the threshing. They would do one farmer’s field and then go on to the next. Gerhardt remembers one time when his dad and he were driving to the mailbox at thrashing time. He drove through the chaff and got stuck, just like getting stuck in snow.

Ella remembers her dad taking a load of wheat to Kulm, ND, to be ground into flour. It made 1,000 pounds of flour, which was stored in the wash house. He made a screen cage around it so the mice couldn’t get to it. It was dry out there, so it kept well. It would last until the summer when he would have to take another load up after harvest. Gerhard said his mom would stack bread on a table on bread baking day. When it was cooled, they stored it in a bread box. He remembers his sister slicing bread with a dull knife and there were six or seven hands grabbing it as soon as one piece was sliced.

When you wanted to keep food cool, you kept it in a pail and lowered it into the well. They had four-gallon cans about 8" in diameter that meat was put in that were also lowered into the wells. That’s why the women canned a lot of meat. Some people used meat lockers in town later on, which was inconvenient because you had to run to town to get it.

They didn’t run to town for groceries like we do. They had gardens and canned everything they could to get them through the winter. Ella remembers that they even canned field corn. Food was stored in the basement, pumpkins, watermelons and potatoes in bins. Basements had dirt walls, and sometimes they got rats in the cellar. They would get into the potato bins and eat them. Gerhard remembers he set traps for them and one time when he got home from church, he had a little cotton tail in the trap that had fallen through a window.

Ella said everyone worked hard during the day. At night you were tired and you just wanted to sleep. Gerhardt said his mother would have a good meal on the table when they came in. Then she would stay up and patch clothes until midnight while the family slept.

The kitchen was heated by the kitchen range. Manure was burned in the stoves for heat. Gerhard wanted to explain to everyone how the manure was prepared for efficient fuel.

Mischt blawy (manure pile) is a layer of cow manure which was spread out on the prairie. It was a daily task all winter long as long as the milk cows were kept tied up in the barn. Every morning, we’d load the manure on a homemade dump wagon, take it out to this plot and dump it side by side, trying to make it about a 10" thick layer. Come summer, the first good rain was prime time to form a two-gang team (five horses each), bridles on, and linked together with a short strap. The end of one had a lead rope. These two teams were marched around on that plot until it was very well thatched, (straw and manure), and it then formed about a 5" thick layer.

Then a Mischt valz (manure roller) was used. This was a homemade roller Gerhard’s dad made out of an old threshing machine cylinder without teeth. A wooden frame was made around this cylinder with a two horse hitch on one side. A seat was provided on the opposite side, so we didn’t have to walk behind it which also added a little more weight. The cylinder itself was filled with concrete. With two horses, it was pulled across this plot in every direction. This process was done immediately after the thatching process. This roller was a primitive looking piece of equipment, but did a very nice, smooth job. We rolled it until it was about a four inch layer. Soon after this process (before it got too dry), it got cut (spaded) into about 14" square pieces and set on edge in windrows for drying.

A Mischt "greitz" (manure cross) was made to finalize the drying process. It was stacked in a shock form starting with however many you desired, then half smaller until it formed a pyramid.

Mischt "scheaver" (manure stack) was the final process, loaded and hauled to a long stack, ready for winter fuel. Come winter, my brother and I had the job to keep a bin in the basement full (a Saturday job) to make sure it was a week’s supply. I might mention, when thoroughly dry, it didn’t have any unpleasant smell, whatsoever.

Schoph mischt (sheep manure) was spaded right in the barn and dried in the same manner. It was hard to work with and was very heavy, but it put out a lot more heat.

Ella remembers playing with empty spice and cocoa cans, because they didn’t have toys. Gerhard got a cork gun for Christmas with toy ducks you could shoot at. When Ella was 7 or 8, she got a doll for Christmas, and her brother got a little wagon. Those were the only gifts each of them remember getting. Gerhardt says that as Ella grew older, she grew more and more beautiful and she looked just like that doll - and then he married her!

They recalled that John D. Rath, Rudolph Haux, and Edwin Schock frequently had barn dances. There was usually an accordion and sometimes, brass. In 1942, Gerhard’s dad built a new barn. He told his boys they could have a barn dance before they started using it, and they took him up his offer. They had Pete Geffre’s 4-piece band come and play and they hired Oscar Maier to play the trumpet. The band charged $10.00, and they started playing at 9:00 in the evening and played until 1:00 a.m. The crowd yelled "more, more," but Pete said 1:00 and that’s it.

Gerhard told a story about a man "as crooked as a pretzel." He asked Gerhard’s dad if he could have one of his two dogs and he let him have one. Days later, the dog came home. They found out he had sold it to someone else and the dog found his way home. This same man traded a can of cream to another fellow for a tire and the fellow took the cream to the Mandan creamery. The man found out later that it was really a can of water when he got a bill from the creamery for the freight for a can of water.

Most everyone went to country churches. The Christmas programs were very well attended. There were a lot of pie socials and basket socials. Sometimes you used a shoe box and decorated it up with crepe paper and made a lunch for two. If you bought someone’s pie or basket, you got to eat it with them. Gerhard remembers once that he thought he was buying a pie that Ella had made when they were teenagers, but he was wrong. Although he didn’t get to eat pie with Ella, it was a really good pie, but he couldn’t eat it all.

Ella recalls that they didn’t have a lot of clothes. Once in a while, she would get a new dress to wear for Christmas and most clothes were ordered from Sears or Montgomery Wards. Gerhard remembers running home to the mail box to see if their packages were there. He always wanted to beat the mail man. Ella said they only got mail every other day and many of the packages were torn when they received them.

Gerhard remembers his dad buying their first radio which ran by batteries that didn’t last very long. They got electricity in 1952, and they had been married 5 years.

They never got vacations or time off. The only vacation Ella’s folks had that she could recall was when they went to visit her injured uncle in Salem, Oregon. Gerhard says his folks went to Pollock for vacation (chuckle). Gerhardt never saw Eureka until after they were married. People didn’t go much further than your own area.

Gerhardt remembers when Long Lake became a town. There were two businesses about two miles north of where the town is today, but it was decided that they needed to be closer to the railroad, so that’s where the town was established. There were five cream buyers, five barbers (haircuts only cost 25 cents), three bars, and a hardware store (no clothing stores). On Wednesday and Saturday nights, the town was full of cars from the Post Office all the way out to the Legion on both sides of the street.

They recalled that in those days, they didn’t have good fire equipment. Once, a farmer nine miles southwest of Ashley burned some hay stacks. Days after he thought the fire had gone out, a violent storm broke out and blew a smoldering chunk of a burned stack. It started a huge fire which burned all the way to Leola and took out almost all the town. Out of 84 buildings, only 5 remained and two lives were lost. Because of the dust and smoke, the people in the town didn’t see the fire coming. Another time, a fire was spreading towards the Hoffman farm. Living a mile from Hoffmans as the crow flies, Sophie Schock (grandmother of Michael Rath of Long Lake) came running out with a pitch fork. She started a fire by a rut road (they didn’t have section lines at that time) so it would burn towards the approaching fire. She single handedly controlled the fire all by herself with just a pitch fork!

Times were very tough and they got by on very little. They both feel that their faith got them through. It has been my honor and privilege to spend a few hours with this humble and interesting couple. Thank you, Gerhard and Ella, for sharing your memories with us.

Story courtesy of the Northwest Blade, Eureka, SD.
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