Join my dog, Nobu, and me on a car tour of Ashton, my home town. Along the way I share some of Ashton's history and my thoughts on the changes that mark today's rural life and landscape. Remember to buckle up!
The dog jumps on the couch next to me to begin his begging dance – sitting back on his haunches, flailing at the air with his front paws, and whining, which would be cute if it weren’t so irritating because I don’t know what he wants.
Nobu, a Scottish Corgi-Mexican Chihuahua mix with a Japanese name meaning “trust,” was my son Adam’s dog. Nobu lives with me now on my Ashton farm and we’re still trying to figure each other out.
Nobu continues his begging. It can’t be thirst: his water dish is full. It can’t be hunger: he’s picked through his beef-and-chicken lunch. It’s not lack of exercise: he’s retrieved his favorite squeaky toy so often that my arm is getting pitcher’s elbow. I’ve already taken him out for his Doggerel Duties No. 1 and No. 2. So what is it, Nobu?
He wants a car ride. I’m not a dog whisperer. I figured it out when he jumped off the couch and barked like a mad dog after I asked, “Go outside?” I had meant, “Go for a walk outside?” He had heard, “Go for a ride in the car outside?” Only a car ride gets him this excited. I make a mental note to be more precise next time. I gather his leash and beef-jerky treats, and then I lead him out to my Subaru SUV. I lift him onto the front passenger seat because he’s too short to get in by himself. I connect the seatbelt to his safety harness, scratch his hairy chin, and then give him a treat as we begin today’s tour of Ashton, an unincorporated spot-in-the-road three miles northwest of Middleton, Wisconsin, where my German Catholic ancestors and neighbors have farmed since the 1850s.
We take a left out of our driveway and head west on County Road K, once called The Ashton Road, where foot and horse traffic were so light that you could take naps in the middle of the road without worry. Today you would be smushed by a caravan of cars heading one way to work in the morning, then re-smushed by them as they returned home at night.
First up on our trip today is the Kalscheuer family farm, one of the small farms still active in Ashton. The family supplements its dairy and hog business by marketing pumpkins and vegetables. Featured products today at the “Kalscheuer Pumpkin Patch” roadside stand are sweet corn, melons, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, and cucumbers. I would pick up a melon now but Nobu can’t abide the half-dozen barn cats that sometimes gather around when I stop. He would attack the car window with such vigor that I worry he would hurt himself. Small dog syndrome, I call it. A friend calls it “Alpha-wanna-be” syndrome. The cats would ignore him if I stopped, but I decide to get the melon later, by myself.
We continue to head west, up the hill from the Kalscheuers, where we enter Ashton. We slow to 35 mph, about one mile per hour for each of its buildings, including garages. We ease past the former home of my great grand aunt, Mrs. Catherine Klein Thomer, who in 1924 at age 89 was featured in the Madison daily newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, as the “remarkable old lady” of “quaint” Ashton. I wonder if the current home owners have heard of her.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
We pass Ashton’s only drinking establishment, Connie’s Home Plate, named by Connie Grob, former major league pitcher from Cross Plains who bought the bar from Peter Dorn after retiring from baseball in the 1960s. The original bar burned down in 1936, replaced I'm told by a converted chicken coop, which explains its small odd shape with ceilings barely seven feet high. Years ago, whenever my dad, Hubert, known for his flexibility, entered the bar, patrons would beg, “Kick the ceiling, Hebby!” which he did into his 60s. It was their entertainment. Today they watch sports on large-screen TVs.
Next on the left is St. Peter’s, a stately neo-gothic Roman Catholic church built of native limestone in 1901 and 1902 with the labor and financial support of my ancestors and their neighbors. Since Nobu sits too low to see it, I tell him that the second church at this location is always described as beautiful. I would agree. I love its stained glass windows, towering tabernacle, and steep vaulted ceiling. I felt privileged to serve mass there through my high school seminary days. I seldom go to church now except for weddings and funerals, but I’ve noticed how much the service has changed. Mass is in English, not Latin, a language I studied and still love. The priest and main altar face toward the congregation, not away, which takes away some of the mystery of the mass for me. A guitarist, not an organist, sometimes leads the singing. In the middle of mass, congregants smile at each other, shake hands, and say, “Peace be with you,” and during the Lord’s Prayer, some hold hands. I admit that both these gestures are sweet, but I find them foreign. In the old days, you would never touch or bother a pew-mate. He could be taking a nap or be deep in thought about the weather or a cow calving in his barn. Gone, too, are the old parishioners with limps so bad from “milker’s knee” that they could no longer genuflect before entering a pew. I miss characters like Louie, who once with a chew in his cheek, could not make it through service without a spit-too, which “splotched” on the church’s floor, then maple, now covered in carpet. Few paid attention to him. I'm sure no one said anything to him. After mass, while fellow farmers, housewives, and kids gathered outside to catch up on local news, Louie might quench his thirst at Dorn’s tavern, pouring enough salt into his eight-ounce glass of beer until it erupted like a volcano.
Nobu and I take a left onto Church Road and head south. We take an immediate left into the parking lot of St. Peter’s Catholic School, the fourth school building in Ashton’s history. When my ancestors attended school here, all spoke German, including the teachers, until the language was banned around 1920 during post-WWI hysteria against the "Huns." Though teachers taught first through eighth graders then, many kids never graduated, needed at home to work on family farms. My dad didn’t finish sixth grade because his dad was dying of pernicious anemia, a deadly lack of Vitamin B12. In 1986, lay teachers replaced the Franciscan nuns who had taught here since 1905. Today, they teach pre-school through fifth graders from as far away as Madison, Sun Prairie, Fitchburg, and Verona, few of whom live on farms. Interactive white boards have erased the need for black boards and chalk. The school also promotes a “Young Saints” program. Thinking back to my 1950s school days here, I chuckle because I can’t recall a single kid, including me, who would have qualified.
Next to the school is St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery. As Nobu and I drive through its main gate, two concrete angels, painted white and standing atop 10-foot columns, greet us with their raised trumpets to remind us that we are entering a sacred place. I estimate that 1,000 souls are buried in this cemetery, which dates to 1856, including my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and too many aunts, uncles, and cousins to keep track. Nobu stretches his body to its maximum length to look out the passenger-side window, and then he relaxes back down to his seat. He’s been here so often with me that he considers this his second home. Some day it will be mine and maybe his, too.
We can tell the new section of the cemetery from the old by the condition and design of the tombstones, the complex computer-generated etchings on the new monuments, and the flower bouquets and memorabilia left recently by loved ones. Ashton’s pioneer family surnames dominate the old section: Acker, Adler, Bernards, Bollenbeck, Brabender, Bronner, Dahmen, Doll, Dorn, Dreesen, Esser, Fischnich, Hellenbrand, Helt, Hensen, Kalscheur and Kalscheuer, Kessenich, Koch, Laufenberg, Maly, Meffert, Meier, Meinholz, Noltner, Radermacher, Ripp, Schwab, Spahn, Wagner, Wipperfurth, and Ziegler. Family surnames less familiar to me can be found throughout the new section: Breburda, Fargen, Frey, Funnemark, Hallman, Hanousek, Hindman, Kipley, Kjorlie, Marty, Phillips, Radtke, Sather, Schlosser, Seekings, Smith, Strassburg and Taylor. But I'm very familiar with one of the new names, Tracy, as in Jeff, my brother-in-law. His marker lies next to the service road that winds through the cemetery. My own burial plot lies across this road from Jeff's. When it’s my time to join the others here, I’ve asked my family to bury the ashes of my favorite cat, Tiberius, in the casket with me. I tell Nobu if he’s good, he can join us, but “no fighting with the cat.” His ears perk up as though he understands. Good boy, Nobu.
Across Church Road is Ashton’s baseball field. Our family’s sports DNA runs deep here. My dad was on the roster of Ashton’s first Home Talent team in 1942. During the 1950s I spent most summer Sundays as scorekeeper for the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) and Home Talent teams. During the 1960s I was a pitcher on these teams. My brothers Sonny, Earyl, and Jerry played here. My first cousin, Gene Brabender of Black Earth, threw a one-hitter here against Ashton before he was drafted into the major leagues, where he would eventually pitch for the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Pilots, and Milwaukee Brewers. As a kid I scoured this diamond for abandoned, waterlogged baseballs and broken bats so we had them to play with at home. During the off-season, kids played football and threw snowballs here. Once, I was with a group that smoked gophers out of their tunnels in the outfield grass. We used an old car that belched smoke from its exhaust pipe, to which we attached a hose. We poked the other end of the hose into a gopher hole. When we revved the car engine, smoke signals told us where the gophers would come out. We didn’t catch any, if I recall, but we sure scared them. If Nobu had been around then, he would have had a ball with us. When I returned to watch Ashton baseball in 2010, I started photographing their Home Talent games. I was lucky to document the 2014 Home Talent season when Ashton won its first and, so far, only league title with a team that starred several Brabender cousins. My ancestors would have been proud.
With a whine, Nobu reminds me it’s time to move on. So, it’s back onto Church Road, heading south again, up and over a steep hill, among the highest points in Ashton, from where we eye the urban development starting to sprawl into the wide valley two miles ahead. I tell Nobu I don’t want to be around if Ashton is eventually overrun with condos, convenience stores, strip malls, soccer fields, and golf courses. “It has the looks of a peloton closing in,” I mumble to myself. I’ve watched enough Tour de France races on television to know that the peloton, the main group of cyclists, always overtakes the few riders who break away and fight to stay ahead of the pack.
We continue south on Church Road for a half mile, and then west onto Schneider Road, named for the pioneer family that owned a string of small farms along this route, from John, Justis, and Ludwig in the 1860s to Fred, George, Henry, Jacob, and Phillip in the 1890s. By the Great Depression their names had disappeared from plat maps. Today the area around Schneider Road features two large farms that produce millions of gallons of milk each year and tons of liquid manure. In fact, these large farms have begun to dominate the Ashton landscape, once dotted with small farms where families milked herds of 20 to 30 cows twice a day inside picturesque red or white barns. Cows on these new large farms are milked in parlors, some operated solely by robots. When the cows enter, electronic devices scan their I.D. tags to record their milk production and manage their feed intake. Little is left to chance – lots of agri-science today. Almost gone are fenced-in pastures where cows graze in lush green fields of alfalfa, clover, and timothy grass. Feed is chopped in the fields now, hauled home in mammoth wagons or semi-trucks, stored in long white plastic “feed bags” or open concrete storage pits, and fed to cows with augers or Bobcat skid steers. Most hay barns and silos, iconic rural Wisconsin landmarks, that still remain, sit idle.
Nobu and I continue west on Schneider, then north on Vosen Road, east on County Road K, north on Ripp Road, east on Riles Road, and north again onto Pahl Road. Along the route have been more signs of change: 150-foot wind turbines and towers supporting high-voltage power lines, road signs advertising genetic seed corn and soybeans, and another mansion rising in a recent development called Saddle Ridge, without a horse in sight, at least not today. I pull over to park on Pahl Road because it is still relatively untouched, a quiet country lane lined with purple chicory, once used by pioneers in place of coffee, and white Queen Anne’s Lace, provocatively pungent when rubbed between thumb and fore-finger. Here, too, while repairing cracks in the blacktop, someone created road art by zigzagging hot tar up and down like blips on a hospital heart monitor. Each visit here to see this natural and manmade art warms my own heart. Today I stop to take photos because the light is right, while Nobu stays inside the car.
As I return to my car, I spot a cyclist racing toward me on his Trek. He sports a sleek black helmet, racing gloves, and padded cycling pants, and a skin-tight yellow jersey loaded with logos. As he passes, I nod and give him a wave, but he ignores me.
The peloton can’t be far behind, I say to myself,
To Nobu, I say, "Let’s go home.”
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.