The excitement has built to a crescendo. Thousands are lined up at newsstands (whatever a newsstand is). Without further ado, here is the Annual Weeds Vacation Guide! Please, stay in line, no pushing and shoving.
Once again we begin with a hearty recommendation to vacation Sleepy Eye. Sleepy Eye has a lake and a water park. A lake, a water park, and endless fun! I mention our lake and water park knowing that tragically there are places that don’t have a lake and a water park. Some of these are cities not that far from Sleepy Eye, cities that consider themselves kind of a big deal.
There was hope for these unfortunate places when our president promised during the campaign to, “Make America Fun Again.” He vowed to build a water park and dig a lake in every city in America. Crowds roared their approval when he announced that not only would every community have a lake and a water park, but that Canada would pay for it! (Don’t ask me, I’m still trying to figure out how we’re getting Mexico to pay for a wall.)
The House passed the “American Happiness Act!” (AHA!). Then came the news that 23 million Americans would still be without a lake and a water park. The president said the bill was mean, and a new version got tied up in the Senate. Since, the president has turned his attention to…oh look, a squirrel.
So Sleepy Eye remains a top destination. When you’re in the area, be sure to check out Brown County’s other vacation mecca. I’m talking about the grand old city of New Wallum, located at the confluence of those two great waterways, the Minnesota River and Ruheheim Creek.
A trip to New Wallum is like a trip to the Old Country. You know, the one our grandparents all left. New Wallum embraces its German heritage, and if you doubt that, they’ll gobsmack you over the head with it. New Wallumers are defiantly German. New Wallum was originally settled by “Chermans.” Chermans are the most serious and stern branch of Germans.
When you’re talking about German tradition (ignoring those nasty little wars), you’re talking about beer. When in New Wallum, be sure to hoist a tasty Mel’s Beer. Mel’s has been synonymous with New Wallum since its founding. It is the second oldest brewery in America owned by a guy named Mel.
(Of course, we all know Mel’s Brewery in New Wallum should be number one. Mel’s Finest out in Schenectady was actually owned by a cousin named Stan for a while in the sixties when young Mel ran off to live in a van with some floozy flower child named Melodious.)
The beloved brewery has survived all manner of plagues and pestilence. Mel’s made it through Prohibition by selling soda pop, near beer, and some things out the back door and some other things out the cellar door. In anticipation of Prohibition’s centennial, Mel’s brew masters are working on a near beer they are calling Faux Beer. Faux Light will especially appeal to the health conscious. It will be an empty can.
The hard-working brewers at Mel’s are also excited about their new line of sauerkraut beers. A special off-site brewhouse had to be built because of the danger of the sauerkraut tainting the other Mel’s beers. Melania IPA is another new offering honoring our nation’s first lady. It is attractive yet mildly hoppy, a quiet beer that seems to be able to tolerate a lot of stupid behavior.
Mel’s fans are excited to know that Mel’s Brewery looks to be in good hands for years to come. The owner, Mel, is bringing his three sons into the business: Melvin, Melton, and Melville.
While a Mel’s “schmeckt gut” any time, it is especially so during one of New Wallum’s gala festivals. There is a long tradition of New Wallumers putting up a tent, cranking up the band, and festing till the wee hours of the morning!
Many of us fondly recall Hereticfest. For years the fest grounds echoed the oompah-pah of old time music and the Mel’s taps flowed steadily, as heretics from across the nation gathered. Heretics have been unfairly stereotyped as a stodgy, not-so-fun group. But they let loose every year at Hereticfest! When New Wallum’s own Discord Singers took the stage at the end of the night, everyone was up and dancing.
It turned out to be a bit too much revelry. Heretics aren’t used to that much fun. Luciferians and Nestorianists with a few beers in them often got out of hand. Alas, Hereticfest was cancelled. Undaunted New Wallum replaced it a few years later with Contrarian Blast. Turns out contrarians can handle their beer. Arrests and faulty inferences through deductive reasoning were reduced dramatically.
Contrarian Blast is just the tip of the festival iceberg. Of course, no German community would be complete without Octoberfest. New Wallumers wondered why stop there? Novermberfest and Decemberfest were huge successes. Unfortunately, the taps froze during Januaryfest.
That leaves quite a few weekends left, and New Wallum is resolute in festing as many of those as humanly possible. Besides, there is a lot to celebrate if you use your imagination.
Toothbrush Fest draws legions of fans of the orthodontic arts every year. The flossing competition attracts a big crowd. Gravity Days packs ‘em in to the fest grounds. Who among us doesn’t appreciate gravity? Try to imagine drinking a beer without gravity. Pretty messy, huh? Dish Towel Jamboree, Lawn Ornamentapalooza, Summer Sausage Carnival, New Wallum celebrates them all!
Even things that others might perceive as a downer, New Wallum can turn on its head and have a party. Lack of Affordable Housing Fest has been a bigger hit than anyone could have imagined.
After the last census, New Wallum was noted for being the second most ethnically homogenous community in America. (Number one was…darn it, I can’t remember now.) New Wallumers want the vacationing masses to know that doesn’t mean all aren’t welcome. To highlight New Wallum’s inviting and cordial attitude, the newest and biggest festival yet was announced: New Wallum Celebrate Diversity Days.
Festival organizers want the public to know EVERYONE is invited. Lefthanded people, people with blue eyes, people in baggy shorts, come one, come all. New Wallum is open to all types. Cat owners, people who drive Fords, guys that wear their baseball caps backwards: New Wallum accepts them all. Never let it be said that New Wallum doesn’t embrace diversity!
Traditionally men passed their occupations to their sons. Cobblers raised cobblers and millers raised millers. We picture Jesus working with Joseph in the carpentry shop until he was called to his larger work.
That happens less today. There is one occupation where the old pattern holds. Most farmers learn farming from their fathers. Most of us work for a time with fathers and some of us with sons. There is something good and natural about that. But the transition from one generation to the next isn’t always smooth. Growing up a couple of decades apart means father and son can have different ideas. Control and decision-making can be tugged on for some time.
My own father and I had our moments. Looking back, there was probably a time I thought I knew more than I really did. We had a few good arguments. Like arguments in a marriage, there was often more to it than the issue on the surface.
I saw a cultivator in a field the other day, an increasingly rare sight. It reminded of a story the Kretschmers told. Bart and Katherine Kretschmer farm out south of us near the Cottonwood. They shared this when Pam and I got together with them after Hugo Kretschmer’s funeral a few years ago.
Hugo was Bart’s dad. Hugo and Irene moved into town after Bart came home to farm with wife Katherine. Hugo drove out to the home place most every day. It was what he knew. Bart might have wanted a little more independence, but he appreciated the help.
On a typical day, the jobs made themselves known. Pig chores and raising crops each had their duties. For the most part Bart and Hugo worked well together. One day, an odd sort of conflict rose up to disturb the peace. This was a wet year back in the 1980s. Bart had banded Lasso herbicide on the corn with the planter. Getting weeds cultivated out between the rows was essential. Steady rains meant the weeds were quite vigorous.
The Kretschmer’s had an old 4-row cultivator back then with C-shanks and wide sweeps. They also had an 8-row Danish tine. The 4-row was slower, but Bart thought it was needed with the bigger weeds. Hugo thought the 8-row would work fine. That was the last piece of equipment Hugo bought, and he felt a special affinity for it.
The seemingly minor disagreement grew into an argument. Who knows what all went into the stew that day? The weather, but there were other tensions. This was the eighties; there wasn’t much money in farming. Bart had taught for a few years after college, not sure if he wanted to farm. Then he chose the worst time to go into agriculture. There wasn’t a lot for Bart and Katherine to live on, and Hugo and Irene were trying to figure out how much to help them.
Katherine was working in the kitchen with the windows open. She had put two-month old Billy down for a nap. She could hear the men outside, especially since they were raising their voices. Small disputes were common, but this one was escalating enough to make Katherine cringe. They were coming up to the house where Bart wanted to get some feed slips.
As the argument spilled into the house, Katherine gave them a big, “Shhhhh! Billy’s sleeping!” Bart and Hugo were standing in the entry way now. Suddenly Bart raised the ante from mere cultivators. “Maybe I should just get out of here and go back to teaching. Then you can cultivate. However. You. Want!” He was retreating outside and slammed the door for emphasis.
The porch was down a couple steps from the kitchen. Suddenly it was Katherine and Hugo in silence. Hugo had spent forty-some years in that house, but he never knew how to be in there since Bart and Katherine moved in. Slumped, Hugo sat down on the steps. He used to sit in that spot all the time to put on his shoes and talk to Irene. He hadn’t sat there since the new occupants.
Katherine wasn’t sure what to say here. Finally, “Hugo, you want some coffee?” He looked up, “Sure” and turned his eyes back to the porch. Katherine shuffled around the kitchen as the coffee maker bubbled. A minute or two passed which felt like an hour to Katherine.
Hugo broke the silence. “You know, Katherine, I’m right. I’m right about the cultivator. But I’m wrong. I’m wrong this time.” Now his eyes came up. “Katherine, you know it means everything to Irene and me to have you and Bart here. But I miss things. I miss how it used to be.”
“Sometimes I want Bart to be little again following me around the farm. And I want Irene to be here in the house so I can eat dinner with her and the kids here in the kitchen.” Hugo made sort of an apologetic look. “I suppose that means you’d still be a little girl in Bloomington.”
Katherine smiled, “That’s OK. Sometimes I think that wouldn’t be too bad.” The coffee was done. Katherine brought two cups over. Handing one to Hugo, she sat on the step next to him. She never quite knew what to say to her father-in-law; now she thought it best to not say much.
Hugo cradled the cup in both his hands. “You know what I miss, Katherine? We made a little ballfield out there west of the machine shed, where we had a pasture. Me and the kids played games after chores that used to last hours. I pitched all the time. I was Warren Spahn. Bart was Rod Carew. That was his favorite player. The girls all wanted to be Roy Smalley cause they thought he was cute. Once in a while Ma came out and played, too. She was Eddie Mathews, cause we used to be Braves fans before the Twins came.”
“I miss that. Irene and I was talking the other night about memories like that. She said it was time for you and Bart to make memories on this place. I know that’s the way things are supposed to work. Ever since Bart was little, I wanted him to take things over. I know that, but I get sad sometimes. I remember my dad used to sit on a bucket down in the barn and just stare out the door. Now I know that he was probably sad this way.”
Hugo glanced over at Katherine. She was looking down at the floor, too, a little tear in the corner of one eye. Then she offered, “You know Hugo, you can play ball with Billy in a few years when he grows up.”
“I don’t know.” Hugo made a crooked grin. “I’m not sure old Warren Spahn’s got too many pitches left in his arm.” He felt a little misty, too.
Bart chose then to walk back in to the house. Seeing his wife and father sitting on the steps like that, he had a “What the hell?” look on his face.
The good news is that son and father usually let things fall away quickly when they disagreed. Bart wanted to put the argument in the past. There was too much to do to dwell on that. “Hey Dad. We need to get sweeps at Miller Sellner. They got sauerkraut at Eddie C’s today. You wanna go? We can call an executive meeting there about the cultivator.”
He looked at Katherine. “Is that OK, Kath?” On the baby monitor they could hear little Billy stirring. Starting to get up, Katherine said, “Sure, you two go ahead.”
As she walked out of the kitchen, she turned. “Billy and I might go play ball later. He could be the next Rod Carew.” Hugo grinned as Bart gave a “Huh?”
Early in the morning I was paging through one of the farm magazines that pile up this time of year. I came to a photo of a driverless tractor. Case IH is calling it a concept vehicle. All the equipment companies are experimenting in this brave new world. I sent the photo out to some friends with the comment, “I guess I’ll be looking for work pretty soon.”
I have spent a large share of my career driving a tractor. It’s mildly disconcerting to see something you know so well, only you’ve been cut out of the picture. The tractor is an odd-looking beast. When you remove the cab from a tractor, it begins to look like an animal without a head.
This is not a surprise to us farmers. There have been tremendous leaps in agricultural technology over the last decades, and this one is predictable. With the combination of GPS, auto-steer, and guidance systems, the driverless tractor is a logical next step. Almost assuredly, you will see a driverless tractor in a field near you soon.
There are “early adapters” as technology moves out of the lab and on to the farm. I am not one of them. I still actually steer my tractor. That puts me in the minority of farmers right there. My rows still have embarrassing wobbles in them. The wobbles might indicate taking a sip of water or checking my phone. Regardless, I can see my dad Sylvester shaking his head from the beyond.
It humbles me to have to admit that the neighbor’s rows are straighter than mine. Those straight rows may be mostly cosmetic, but auto-steer does point to the future. In that future, there is no doubt a next-generation farm operator can be more efficient than me. I could make a go of it partly because I’ve put off purchases and used my labor instead, farming on the cheap. But as modern machinery investments get spread out over thousands of acres, my advantage slips away.
Even if I’m a “non-adapter,” I can’t help but be impressed by the possibilities. Drones will go out and relay information about crop condition, weeds, insects, and diseases. Then precise amounts of fertilizer and pesticides can be applied exactly where it is needed and no more. The environmental benefits are apparent.
What happens to labor requirements on farms in this rapidly approaching future? The answer to that is obvious. A farm operator with a few workers and the capital to purchase top of the line technology will literally be able to run a county. Or two.
Of course, it wasn’t always so. Go back just a few generations, and there were families working on 160 acres all across the middle of this continent. Big families had an advantage because there were more workers.
A century ago, it took twenty hours of labor to produce a hundred bushels of corn. Today, that might be down to minutes. There aren’t many of us who would choose to go back to live and work on a farm in 1917. It was tough, physically demanding work, dirty. Often it was dangerous. In addition, it wasn’t that lucrative. For most of our nation’s history, farm families accepted twenty per cent less income than workers in the city.
For all of that, there was something unique and worth commemorating about what we had in the United States. Our ancestors, really, most people who ever lived on this planet, wanted nothing more than a place of their own to live and work and raise a family. Being able to own a piece of land was something generations wished for but few were given the opportunity. For most of human history, land belonged to the pharaoh or king or whoever held power.
When America came to be, there was a whole continent to divvy up. (That is if you ignore the Native people who were here, which is no small matter.) For all its flaws, America offered a chance to live on a piece of land that the worker owned. Thousands of families spread out across our nation, both citizens and landowners. They had a stake in the land, which meant they had a stake in the future.
Again, it was not perfect. There are myriad stories of abuse, alcoholism, and dysfunctional families on the frontier. It was not perfect, but it many ways it was as close to perfect as human society has come. Now, we are giving that up.
There is little doubt that less and less people will be needed in this future of driverless tractors. It is part of the American story that the economy is always churning, ever changing. Jobs constantly become obsolete.
I was talking with a few friends around my age who farm. All of us grew up on the diverse labor-intensive farms of a half century ago. Those were places where manure making its way from barn to field usually got there aided by a pitchfork. Weeds were often pulled by hand. Feed for livestock was shoveled or baled. There was work for a whole family and then some.
A couple of us have a son or daughter interested in the farm, but nothing very settled. As we imagine the future of our farms, it’s hard not to see drones and driverless tractors in them. But not so much a farmer. If a next generation is going to work these farms, it probably will require an off-farm job. Or perhaps it will mean joining somehow into one of the larger operations.
But as we head down that path, it’s good to remember where we came from. We will continue to produce food in these fields that surround us. It will be with less labor, and it will be efficient. But it won’t be the same.
I hate Garrison Keillor.
Okay, I don’t really hate him. I’m jealous of him. He’s an uncommonly gifted writer, and I’m not. When I spend time with words, vanilla comes out with specks of chocolate. Keillor’s words come out in bright, colorful flavors.
Granted, Keillor is a “writer,” and I write a little bit. Unfortunately for me, we plow the same ground: small towns, fields, gardens, church, and the people in them. We poke around these places looking for humor and a bit of meaning. About a million times listening to Garrison, I have said to myself, “I wish I had thought of that.”
I had the opportunity to consider my anemic ability when Keillor was in St. Peter a few weeks ago. He spent an evening in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College, part of what he called The Gratitude Tour. The liner for the program said, “Mr. Keillor has now reached a certain age when you realize how lucky you are and you stop complaining. Complaint is a mainstay of comedy, so he is now experimenting with a comedy of gratitude.”
It was just Garrison walking about the sanctuary, telling stories, reflecting, making observations. There was a podium he didn’t use. He had no notes. Occasionally I’ve been asked to speak to some group. If I stand in front people and try to sound half ways intelligent without writing things down, I will be lucky to sound coherent. Garrison did that for two hours! Songs were interspersed through the program, no instruments, the audience singing along.
My one-way relationship with Keillor goes back to St. John’s University. Minnesota Public Radio was birthed there a few years before I came for schooling. Garrison Keillor was an early hire, broadcasting a morning show from the campus which was the genesis for the Prairie Home Companion Show. The small towns around St. John’s begat Lake Wobegon, Powder Milk Biscuits, good looking men, strong women, and above average children.
While in college I ran around St. Joseph, Albany, and Cold Spring. Pam grew up between Long Prairie and Osakis. Lake Wobegon may have sprung from Keilor’s mind, but it sure seemed that if you drove the county roads up in that region you would come to it.
I became a big fan of the Prairie Home Companion Show. There was an eclectic mix of music and humor bits each Saturday at 5:00. But the core of each show was the monologue. For twenty to thirty minutes, Garrison stood alone on stage with a microphone. Sometimes on a stool, sometimes with his eyes closed, he would tell stories that I felt like I could walk right into. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and the Sidetrack Tap might as well have been Broich’s Piggly Wiggly and the Lincoln Tavern. Father Emil from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and Pastor Inqvist of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church became as real as Father Wyffels and Pastor Freimark.
The stories were always funny, sometimes tinged with sadness. They had a way of revealing the characters’ humanity and vulnerability. I felt like I knew those people; sometimes it felt like it was me.
Keilor is an amazing talent I have admired for forty years. But there have been bumps in the road. It seemed like he abandoned me when he left the show suddenly in 1987 to move to Sweden with his new wife. A few years later the show was recreated as the American Radio Players of the Air and was broadcast from New York. New York? That was as far from Stearns County as you could get.
Later Keillor wrote a satire column for the Star Tribune, wherein he repeatedly bashed then-president George W. Bush. Bush for his flaws, is a good and decent person. Keillor had always made jabs at politicians, but this seemed mean spirited. (Now Keillor writes a column for the Washington Post in which he satirizes the current president. I don’t have the same concerns about our 45th president being a good and decent person.)
Time moves on. The Prairie Home Companion Show came back to St. Paul. I forgave Garrison those indiscretions. For which I’m sure he would not care even if he did know. Besides I wasn’t always faithful. My listening ebbed and flowed with life responsibilities.
I went to see the Prairie Home Companion Show broadcast from the Gibbon Ballroom in 1997, a show which honored polka music and the grand old ballrooms that used to dot the Midwest. I saw the show a few other times in person. Mostly I listened on the radio while making supper with Pam or dancing with one of the children. Those are good memories.
Now Garrison has retired from the show, although it continues with a new host. I suspect he will continue to do stage work like at Gustavus. He is scheduled at the Grandstand at the State Fair. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back on his old show as a guest.
All my adult years I have followed Mr. Keillor’s career more or less. TV and movie stars have never held my attention like this radio star. When I was young Harmon Killebrew was my hero, playing baseball at a level I aspired to but could never achieve. I suppose it is like that with Garrison Keilor in my adult years, writing at a level I can only dream of.
People with exceptional talent are to be appreciated. They can lift us up as we watch them hit a baseball 500 feet or listen to a beautiful story. It is good to have people that push you, even if you can’t match them. I’ve got them all around me here in Sleepy Eye. Tom Larsen is a better singer than me. Scott Demaris is a better runner than me. Tom Hirsch is a nicer guy than me.
There was a country song called, “Pretty Good At Drinkin’ Beer.” I might have to fall back on that.