Barb and Al Schrank: Christmases used to have to more snow
By LeAnn R. Ralph
GLENWOOD CITY — Barb and Alfred Schrank say they remember Christmas used to have much more snow than in recent years.
The Schranks live on a farm on the southwest side of Glenwood City that is, in fact, the farm where Barb grew up.
“I remember the snow being so deep in the yard,” Barb said.
“I remember my brother and I building a fort out here on the corner. And the snow was at least four feet deep. My dad built a plow for his tractor, and he would push the snow. Ed and I would go out and build a fort in the snowbank,” she said.
Barb is the daughter of Harold (Jake) Gobeli, who farmed from 1936 until the fall of 1958. After that, he operated the Glenwood City slaughterhouse until 1973. He died in December of 1981.
“I remember one year at Christmas, we were in school, and a couple of days before Christmas, we were living in Hammond, and Dad came and got us from school,” Al said.
“We didn’t go anywhere for five days. Mother made a great big Christmas dinner. We had all these people coming. She made up all the trimmings for Christmas. But nobody came. They couldn’t go anywhere (because of the snow). So we ate it. We couldn’t get out. And nobody could get in,” he said.
Al has two brothers and a sister. He likes to joke that he grew up in jail. His dad, Walter Schrank, was the St. Croix County sheriff in the 1950s.
“The thing I remember the most about Christmas, is my dad would go up north deer hunting, and he would bring the Christmas tree home,” Al said.
“He would set it in a five-gallon bucket of water, and we’d keep it that way until Christmastime, and then we’d decorate it. That’s what I remember most about Christmas. The trees went from big to small over the years,” he said.
Al’s father hunted by Brule in northern Wisconsin near Iron River.
“I remember my dad talking about spending a night in the post office at Brule. They got caught in a snowstorm, and they couldn’t drive,” Barb said.
“It wasn’t the post office. It was the telephone office. That’s where we spent one year,” Al said.
“That must have been before Thanksgiving. They couldn’t leave,” Barb said.
For Christmas “we usually got a toy, overalls and a shirt. School clothes. That was about it,” Al said.
“We have nine-foot ceilings in here. Dad was six-foot-four, so the Christmas tree had to be at least eight feet high. We had big Christmas trees,” Barb said.
“I remember the year my brother got a train for Christmas. He set it up under the tree, and he must have been up until midnight, playing with it, laying tinsel on the tracks so it would derail. He did everything a boy could think of!” she said.
“I remember my mom cooking and baking cookies. My mother made a spiral cookie with figs in it. They were absolutely delicious. And I didn’t get the recipe,” Barb said.
“Those were good cookies,” Al said.
“Whoever would think of figs. She would roll the dough out and spread the figs and roll them up and slice them and bake them, and they were just delicious. Absolutely delicious. Mom was a really good cook. She liked to make lemon meringue pie, too,” Barb said.
When Al was growing up, Christmas was not Christmas without the special bubble lights.
“We had two strings of bubble lights. They had a little base to them (and a column of glass). I remember putting those on the Christmas tree. We had to have the bubble lights. It wasn’t Christmas without the bubble lights,” Al said.
“I can remember decorating the tree, and mother had these great big balls. She had about a dozen of them. We used those until they all got broke. We had little bells, too,” Al said.
Barb also remembered having bubble lights.
“They were pretty. They’d heat up, and pretty soon the bubbles would be going up and down,” Al said.
Barb remembered putting tinsel on the Christmas trees. Al said they didn’t have tinsel. But they did use garland.
“I think we didn’t have tinsel because we would have made too big of a mess,” he said with a laugh, pantomiming how he and his brothers would have likely thrown the tinsel at the Christmas tree.
“I remember after taking the tree out, the needles everywhere. The tree only lasted a week (before it got dried out),” Barb said.
“Then we got the fake tree. No more needles. You could have it up for a month. You could put it up after Thanksgiving and leave it up until after New Year’s. Before that, we’d put the tree up the week before Christmas and take it down after Christmas,” she said.
“I remember when Jess was young, we’d go out and get the tree. There was a place at Wilson. We would go down and get the Christmas tree,” Al said.
“She was six when we moved here,” Barb said.
“We’d go and get the Christmas tree and put it up. We never had any bubble lights, though. They were out of style by then,” Al said.
“I can so clearly remember my brother laying on the floor, watching that train go around the tree and around the tree. Then one year he got something that you could put water in. A steamer of some kind. He burned it up,” Barb said.
“The thing I really wanted was one of those little ovens with the little pans. I had those little pans for years and years and years. It had the two little pans that you could make a little cake with. The oven had a lightbulb in it,” Barb said.
“But I really remember that the snow was so deep back then. We’ve got pictures of the county plows and the snow deeper than the plows. The milk trucks would have to go out and plow. The roads would drift right shut,” she said.
“I can’t say it was Christmas, but I remember St. Croix County had a bulldozer with a V plow on it. And it had a bar across the top and a wing on each side, and they’d open up the roads with that. My dad stood on top of that. The telephone lines along the road. The snow was as high as the telephone lines,” Al said.
“I can remember walking up to the corner to go to school. Twenty-eight below. It was so cold. Now if it gets down to 32, they are warning that it is going to get cold,” Barb said.
The train tracks running next to the farm provided Barb with a string of memories.
“I remember the train. A steam engine. It would get down here — chug — chug — chug — chug-chug-chug-chug. And boom. Out would come a big puff of smoke. It would go into town and stop, and then it would back all the way out,” she said.
“The train used to go up to the co-op. I used to help unload lime. There was a tin building where Cenex is. We would unload barn lime there. They would take the car out after a couple of days. One time, the train derailed right down here,” Al said.
“We must have a picture someplace of Jess standing down there waving,” Al said.
“I waved to the guys on the train from the time I was five years old. I figured she ought to do the same,” Barb said.
“One time when the train was coming in, our dog took off, Rusty. He goes charging down and couldn’t stop and went right under the train. The train rolled him over and over and over. We waited and waited. And here he comes, limping up. He had a black mark across his forehead. He didn’t go down there again. He’d stand up here and woof-woof-woof. But he wouldn’t go down there,” Barb said.
The house where Barb grew up was built in 1903.
The year Barb’s parents were married during the Great Depression, there was severe drought.
“It was a really bad drought. They were herding cattle up to the lakes. The cows were eating weeds. Nothing was growing. They were married in 1936. Ed was born in ‘41, and I was born in ‘44. They were still here when Al and I got married in 1975. We lived down on Maple Street. Then my mom was here alone, and we bought the farm. We’ve lived here since 1985,” Barb said.
“The railroad came right down here (below the house). There was a depot up on the corner. My dad used to ship cows out on the railroad cars. He would hang hay up in them so they could eat on their way to wherever they shipped them to. He was a farmer, and later on, started slaughtering and built a slaughterhouse. Got rid of the cows and did the slaughter. He would go out to the farms and bring the animals back — and then take them up to the (meat) locker,” Barb said.
The cement block building that her dad used as a slaughterhouse still stands on the property.
Barb says when she was growing up, the “big shopping trip” for the year was a journey to Eau Claire.
“I remember Mom and Dad used to go to Eau Claire. Going to Eau Claire was a big deal. Once a year, they would get a babysitter, and they’d bring home these little light brown candies. They would bring home a pound of that for us. It would be gone by the time we went to bed that night,” Barb said.
“The town (Glenwood City) was different back then. There were stores. People shopped in town. They didn’t go to Menomonie. They didn’t go to Eau Claire. The town was so alive. The stores were open on Friday night. Then they changed it to Saturday,” Barb said.
“Friday night was a big deal. We’d go to Baldwin. Mom and Dad would bring eggs and would trade them in for groceries,” Al said.
“We had those big crocks, and we’d fill them with white sand and put carrots in them. Everything else was canned. The meat was grown on the farm,” Al said.
“They’d buy sugar and flour. The staples. I think my mother had something like $5 to buy groceries on a Friday night,” Barb said.
Nowadays, instead of an eight-foot Christmas tree — or a Christmas tree from northern Wisconsin — the Schranks enjoy a small artificial tree at Christmas.
And instead of the deep snow in the yard, they enjoy the all-season porch they built on the east side of the house.