If you enter the haymow of our barn, the initials “J.K.” are carved neatly into the wooden post to your left, just above the electric light switches. You would have found his initials on a wooden stanchion in the basement, too. J.K. either had too much time on his hands or he did not want to be forgotten.
J.K. was Johnny Koch. He and his brother, Frankie, were eccentric German Catholic bachelor farmers who were our neighbors to the east. Johnny was born in 1909, Frankie in 1912, the same as my mom and dad.
Johnny was a hired man on our farm in the ‘40s while my dad, “to make ends meet,” worked at Oscar Mayer’s in Madison, putting USDA inspection stamps on hanging pork and beef carcasses. We know at least two of the years, 1944 and 1945, because Johnny carved them right below his third set of initials in the granary.
Of the two brothers, Johnny was the talker and Frankie the silent one. In fact, Frankie was seldom seen, except in the fields of their 120-acre farm. During the spring, Frankie plowed the fields and planted the corn with the family’s only tractor, a small orange Allis Chalmers. When it was time to cultivate the corn to kill the weeds, Frankie would ride his tractor all day, except for breaks for meals prepared by his bachelor uncle, also named Frank. This went on for weeks until his corn grew too tall to fit beneath the cultivator shields.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
I believe Frankie had the cleanest cornfields in Dane County. He started cultivating when the corn was barely an inch out of the ground. Though the shields were designed to protect his young corn plants from dirt tossed by the cultivator shovels or teeth, Frankie took added precautions. He drove his tractor so slowly that it was hard to tell that it was moving. He stopped every 10 feet, then turned to inspect. If any plants had dirt near them, he would reach back with a long stick to gently nudge the dirt away. When not cultivating the weeds between the rows, Frankie hoed the weeds within the rows, concentrating on those along County Road K, the rows people noticed as they drove by.
Though these plants were clearly his babies, Frankie did not brag about the corn on the Koch farm. Johnny did that. His corn always exceeded expectations, with plants taller than knee high by the fourth of July. You would think that Johnny had done all the work.
Frankie did speak out once. He was cultivating his corn along the road, across from our granary where my dad was working. It was quiet, dad said, when Frankie yelled out, “That God-damned Eisenhower!” Ike had become president in 1953. Frankie was upset at a Republican in office. Like many local farmers, Frankie was a New Deal Democrat after President Roosevelt helped rural America out of The Great Depression. If you asked Frankie his political leanings, he wouldn’t say, but he could not help shouting them out if he thought no one was listening.
Frankie also emerged from his shell during summer haying season. The Acker Brothers owned one of the balers in town. Either Buddy or Herbie would call the Koch and Brabender farms to announce the day when the baling was to begin. The Ackers treated our two farms as one so we could work together on the harvest. At the Koch farm, Frankie would mow the hay – a clover, alfalfa, and timothy mix heavy on the clover. Weather permitting, three days later he would side rake the drying hay into neat windrows, ready for the baler to gobble up and spit out perfect 60-pound rectangles of cow feed bound tightly with yellow twine.
On baling day, a crew of teenaged boys recruited by the Ackers would descend on our farms to help us load and unload the hay wagons, and stack the bales in our barns. During breaks between loads, the crew would gather in the shade for a pop, a beer, or a cold drink of water. It was then that the young work hands would pick on Johnny, who was clad in his straw hat, patched overalls, and worn out work shoes whose soles were attached to the tops with hog rings, which were normally applied to the snout of a pig to discourage rooting in soil. A hog ring was a short piece of copper wire with needle-sharp ends, which were pinched together into a ring with special pliers. Johnny used them to prolong the life of his shoes, a matter that the teens found amusing. Johnny tried to ignore them by forcing a smile or a laugh and reporting some news he’d read in the Capital Times newspaper, repeating what most of us already knew.
They snickered at Frankie, too, for his habit of spitting his chew into his bib overall. He would deftly clutch the top of his overall, pull it out two inches from his chest, spit, and then release, all in one motion. He did it so fast that it was easy to miss, but you couldn’t ignore the tobacco stain that grew on his chest. Frankie seemed oblivious to the stares and the chuckles, at least I never saw him glare back in anger. I certainly never heard him say anything.
The last time I saw Frankie was early summer 1977. I hadn’t seen him in months. I had heard he was sick. I was taking a walk near the woods on his farm, as I often did, when he raced his Allis Chalmers across his field, aimed directly at me. When he finally stopped, a skeleton with agitated eyes stared me down.
“What are you doing on my property?” he demanded.
“Frankie, it’s me. Wayne,” I said. “I’m just taking a walk. It’s so beautiful out here today.”
Shortly after, Frankie died of cancer on August 6 at age 64. On August 8, I attended his funeral at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, along with many Ashton neighbors. The priest said nice things about Francis Xavier Koch, that he was a “hard working, quiet, and gentle man.”
He might have added “humble,” because Frankie, unlike Johnny, would never have carved his initials, anywhere.
But it’s Frankie, not Johnny, whom I remember today.
Author’s note: I upload posts as I complete them, so one written about a recent event may precede posts about earlier events. The introduction to each post shows where it fits into the history. For an introduction to my memoir, visit Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story.
This blog is a book in the making. If you're a new visitor, read Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story. You can also find a copy in Prologue.