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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — For Don and Rayola Herman, family is of the utmost importance.
“Family is so important. It’s really a big deal. I think so, anyway. Don is Slovak, and I’m Norwegian. To put those two families together, all the things we’ve grown up with, was quite something,” Rayola said.
Don and Rayola are residents at the Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center. Don grew up on a farm north of Boyceville with his grandmother. Rayola is from Menomonie. They started out their married life on the Boyceville farm, and then they farmed southeast of Menomonie. The Hermans recently celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary.
“He drug me up there (to Boyceville) when we first got married. Then we had a farm south/southeast of Menomonie,” Rayola said, noting that they had milked 50 Holstein dairy cows.
“We had different foods for the holidays. Kolachies and streusels and poppy seed buns. Of course, the Norwegians had lefse and rosettes and fattigman and all that good stuff. In fact today, we made lefse here (at CHRC). That was fun. But we ate too much,” Rayola said.
One Christmas Don and Rayola will always remember is the Christmas of the Secret Santa.
Don and Rayola have four daughters.
“One year, it was our turn to host all of Don’s family for Christmas Eve. We had quite a crew. We had a lot of cars in our yard. We lived on the farm south of Menomonie. And someone was at the back door, so Don went to let him in,” Rayola said.
“And here comes a jolly old Saint Nicholas, all dressed, the whole nine yards. Don looks at me and winks. And I’m looking at him, and he’s winking. I’m thinking, ‘What a smart man, I’ve got.’ And Santa came in, and he says, ‘Hey, Rayola.’ And I said, ‘Yah.’ And I thought, ‘Don must have said something to him,” she said.
“Santa says, ‘I think I’m supposed to come and help you deliver packages off that beautiful tree.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, Santa. Come in and help.’ So he did. He’d read off the names and try to get a clue from what was going on. We thanked him very much. We gave him some candy canes. And in fact, he’d brought candy canes for everybody there. And when he left, and we’d shut the door, Don says, ‘Ray, were you ever smart to do that.’ And I said, ‘Yah, so were you.’ And he said, ‘I never knew who that was.’ (As it turned out), neither one of us had called him,” Rayola said.
“Later on, we found out, it was a guy who went through the country and found homes with a lot of cars around, and he must have figured, they believe in Christmas, or something, and by golly, he came in. Neither one of us found out for months who that guy was. You wouldn’t DARE do something like that today. I was thinking Don had hired somebody, and he was thinking I had hired somebody, and the kids were thinking they’d had a great time. That was one Christmas I won’t forget,” Rayola said.
“Tell her how we found out who it was,” Don said.
“A couple of months later, someone said, ‘Did you know that Kistner boy was going around being Santa when he saw all the cars in the yard?’ And I said, ‘So THAT’S who it was.’ I mean, I knew of him, but I didn’t know him. That was a surprise,” Rayola said.
One Christmas tree early in their marriage gave Don and Rayola a good laugh.
“Don and I were kind of dimwits when we first got married about buying trees. We lived in Boyceville, and I think we got the last tree on the lot, or maybe it was the first one, and we said, ‘Well, let’s take it home, and that will be our Christmas.’ So we took it home and set it up, and we didn’t have a lot to put on it. And I’m thinking, if we have a tree, we’ve got to have something under the tree. So I put a few packages underneath it,” Rayola said.
All was well, at least until after the Hermans were trying to fall asleep later on in the evening.
“That night, we heard, ‘ting, ting, ting.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And Don said, ‘I think it’s a few needles falling off the tree.’ I said, ‘Did we put enough water in there?’ And Don said, ‘Yes, we did,’” Rayola said.
“The next morning, I cleaned up the needles. And that day, there were more needles on the packages. And all night long, it was ‘ting, ting, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling.’ It was terrible. We laughed, and we laughed,” she said.
“We left it up until Christmas. By then, all we had was bare branches and the light bulbs. We thought it was funny. But it was the ugliest looking tree you ever saw,” Rayola declared.
“Then the next year, our neighbor said, ‘We have a beautiful lot of trees, and you are welcome to come and get one.’ So, okay. We got our old truck going. And my sister came, and Don, we were in the Slovak hills. I don’t know if you know about Boyceville at all. But there’s a Slovak church up in the hills. We had our saw with us,” Rayola said.
“The Slovak church is north of Boyceville,” Don noted.
“And all of a sudden it started to snow. It was this beautiful snow. And then, wouldn’t you know, the church chimes came at the same time. That was right up the hill. We all just stopped. And we said, ‘This is what Christmas is all about.’ I will never forget that day. It was snowing, and the church chimes were playing, and we were out to cut a Christmas tree,” Rayola said.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church is five miles north of Boyceville in what is commonly called the Slovak Valley. The area served as the main settlement for a number of Slovakian immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The church celebrated its one hundredth anniversary in June of 2017.
In the early years, services were conducted in Slovak, and every summer, “Slovak School” was held in the church basement. The first services in English were held in August of 1943. The church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in June of 1950 but was rebuilt by September of that year.
Don has one sister, and Rayola has two sisters.
Don was raised in Chicago until he was seven, and then he went to live with his grandmother in Boyceville.
“Everybody came back home to Don’s grandmother’s for Christmas,” Rayola said.
“We had candles on the tree. And we had a pail of water, and a bucket of sand. But we never had a fire, though,” Don said.
“I had two sisters and myself. And my mother was caring for my dad. He was in a wheelchair. He had arthritis. So anything she did, she worked hard at it. He was no help. She was always helping him. It was kind of rough. I don’t know how she did it,” Rayola said.
“I remember one Christmas Eve, we were just about to have dinner, and my mother was in the kitchen, and my younger sister went underneath the tree, and she found her name and unwrapped it, and it was a purse. And I said, ‘You’d better put it back. If Mom finds out, you’ll never get it.’ So she wrapped it back up and put it under the tree,” Rayola said.
“We had our dinner. And my mother said, ‘You can open one package, and then we’ll clean up.’ My little sister runs under the tree, and just as she is picking up the package, she says, ‘Thank you for my purse, Momma!’ Little stinker. Mom says, ‘You’ve already been under that tree.’ Yes. Yes, she was,” Rayola said.
Don has always enjoyed collecting John Deere toy tractors.
“Don has quite a collection of John Deere tractors. He’s just got a few here. He had over seventy-five of those little guys. He’s a big tractor collector,” Rayola said.
“Was,” Don said.
“Well, yes. You had to stop sooner or later. But they’re still in your life. When we had to get rid of some of our things, we thought, do we sell? Or what do we do? And Don said, ‘I don’t want strangers to have my tractors. I’d rather have my kids have them.’ So we lined them up, and each family got to pick and choose, so all his tractors are scattered around, but they’re still with the family. So that’s really nice,” Rayola said.
“One granddaughter was pregnant, so we said, ‘Make sure you take one for whatever.’ So they’ve all got their own tractors. One little girl’s name is named Gabrielle Alice, and Don had one Allis tractor. So she got it. He would pick them up here and there. Or the kids would give them as gifts. We had mostly John Deere. He had all the equipment for John Deere, all that stuff you can buy. So they all had something,” Rayola said.
The Hermans have six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“One grandson is as crazy about tractors as Don is. When everybody had got what they wanted, Don gave the rest of them to him as a wedding gift. The girls made a beautiful big, basket, and they put green ribbons on the side … and that was his wedding gift,” Rayola said.
“He’s been married for a year now, and they’ve got a house, and there was one room with a shelf all the way around. I don’t know why. It was meant to be, I guess, because that’s where all the tractors are,” Rayola said.
Don and Rayola say they are so thankful for their family.
“All I have to do is make a phone call, and someone’s here right away if we need them. But I also tell them, we’re safe here. We’re warm. We’ve got what we need. Go and live your lives,” Rayola said.
“We have been very lucky. Our kids are all so good. One of the last few times we’ve had family together to go to church — it’s getting rare these days, the younger kids don’t do that anymore — but we went to five o’clock services, and it was with candle light, and we sang Silent Night with the candles, and then at the end, they turned off all the other lights, and we hummed Silent Night. And it was just beautiful. Everybody had tears running down their cheeks. It was so sentimental. So wonderful. So peaceful. And I think that was our last good Christmas at church with our family. We were just lucky to have a pewful that time of our very own,” Rayola said.
“Christmas is so different nowadays. Everyone is working, and it’s hard to get the family together. It is difficult for all families to get together with work schedules and children and grandchildren spread out,” she said.
“I said, you know what? Listen to what you’re saying. ‘So and so can’t come then because they’re working.’ And I said, ‘Fine. Whenever you’ve got ‘em all together, call it Christmas. Don’t think you’re going to get them all together, because you won’t anymore. The sons and the grandsons. And somebody has a night shift or a day shift, and everybody’s working. Which I’m thankful for. But it’s hard. It really is. Just get a day, and say, ‘this is Christmas,’” Rayola said.
“Family is so important, no matter what day it is,” she said.