Monday, December 26, 2011


Richard and Emma Kalms with grandchildren
Richard and Helen Purinton. Photo taken around October, 1948

Washington Island, Wisconsin 

Today, we'll dip into some family history...

Richard Paul Kalms, born Feb. 16, 1885 in Leutmansdorf, Silesia, Germany (now Poland) and came to this country in 1902, sponsored by a brother, Gustavus Adolph Kalms.   He died January 27, 1967.   He married Emma Hoefert Staver  who was born Feb. 10, 1889 in Pomerania, Germany. She came to the U.S. at age of three.  Emma had two daughters with Albert Staver from a previous marriage (he died of pneumonia), Esther and Viola, and together Richard and Emma had six more children:  Martha; Frieda; Walter; Mabel; Hilda; and Leona.


Grampa Kalms was what I might call a Door County peasant farmer, a first generation immigrant who, along with his wife, Emma, raised their family of eight on an Old Stage Road farm.   This was a part of Liberty Grove Township referred to as “the German Settlement.”

Here, stone fences ran in long rows at the edges of the fields, waist high to me when as a kid our family visited my grandparents’ farm.  We went “up north” when we left home in Sturgeon Bay, the county seat and largest town.  The drive was about 35 miles, but it took just under an hour because many of the side roads were graveled, and my father loved side roads. 

Each trip was a major event, through Sevastopol, Valmy, Jacksonport, past the cemetery next to where two bachelor brothers lived in a ramshackle, two-story, clapboard farmhouse with no paint set in a sandy field.  

A most memorable day was in early spring when we spied grayish union suits hanging from the wash line, arms, legs and tail flapping in the breeze.   My sister Helen and I shouted and laughed from the back seat.  This was one of the most unusual experiences on a drive that otherwise seemed long and boring (“When will we ever get there?”).
Grampa’s face featured a thick, dark moustache.  Sometimes in winter he grew a full beard.  Otherwise, he shaved only once a week, as was his habit.  He used no disposable blades, plastic throwaways or electric razor.  Instead, his facial stubble grew from Sunday to Saturday, until it was again time to shave his cheeks and dimpled chin smooth using a straight-edge, stropped generously on a leather.  His shaving routine followed a standard morning breakfast of oatmeal topped with cornflakes and applesauce, eaten after he finished the chores of feeding the pigs and chickens or milking and feeding the few cows.

A round mirror on a heavy nickel stand was placed on the kitchen table oilcloth before him.  Gramma dipped hot water from the wood stove reservoir into an enamel metal bowl and set it down in front of Grampa.  He wetted a towel and patted his face before covering his beard in foamy shaving soap mixed in a ceramic mug made for that purpose.  He applied the cream with a short bristled brush.  When he started to shave, his thin razor made a surprisingly loud scratching, a scrape of sharp metal edge against the stubble whiskers of his face. Residue of soap and whiskers were washed from the razor's edge in periodic dunking before being swiped against the towel.
When only a few soap specks remained and his skin was smooth, he dipped the end of the towel in the hot water once again and wiped his face clean.  Putting his razor away in a slim box, stowed high over a mirrored cabinet, he’d then pull up his two suspender straps that hung down around his hips with his two thumbs, and guide them over his shoulders and over the long-sleeved, cotton underwear he wore.  This was a one-piece suit, top and bottom combined.

Richard, as his friends and his respectful sons-in-law called him, seldom spoke, but  when he did it was with a heavy German accent.  Even with Emma, his wife, there was little conversation between them.

Their kitchen was formerly a shed-roof addition to a pioneer log home, and it had been first used for animals.  At some point it became a living space, a kitchen complete with a nickel-plated wood stove that dominated the southeast corner, a hot water reservoir to one side, warming ovens on top, and circular lids for access to the wood fire Gramma relied on for cooking.  She kept a bed of coals glowing over cold winter nights, for easy restarting in the morning.   

In later years they had a Jungers oil stove in their living room, thanks to installation by only son Walter, who worked installing and servicing heating units as a part of his job with Jungwirth Hardware of Sister Bay.   But the Jungers heater was lit only when it got really cold, and I can’t recall ever seeing my grandparents using the living room, except as a path to the bedroom.  They were always in the kitchen, near the stove, pantry and kitchen table.   You dressed for cold, wearing many layers, and if you sat nearer to the stove, you took off one or more layers.   Gramma wore a grey wool sweater buttoned over her flower print dress.  She also wore flesh-colored stockings that were pulled to the knees over heavy, thick-veined legs.  

One of the few times I can recall my grandfather speaking to her was to admonish her for scratching her legs, a habit she had, something about “starch and eating too many potatoes.”  In her prime, Gramma’s weight was estimated to have exceeded 300 pounds.  Obesity, fairly common in members of our family,  although Grandpa was of average height and weight, was always associated with Gramma.  Late in their years, both of them struggled with diabetes.

In the corner of the kitchen that opposed the stove, between the entry where wood was stored a window with small panes of wavy glass, was Grampa’s rocking chair.  This corner of the kitchen was his den, library, office and smoking room.  When he wasn’t outdoors working or seated at the kitchen table for a meal, nearly all of his indoor time was otherwise spent in his rocking chair relaxing, sometimes snoozing, feet propped on a foot stool.

After meals, he rocked alongside the single-pane glass chewing Plow Boy, or a pipe of Prince Albert.  He preferred his chew with a gumdrop to sweeten the tobacco.  His favorite reading materials were limited:  the Door County Advocate; The Farm Journal; or a western novel.  Richard could read and write, both in English and German, but not Emma, not in either language.  She remained illiterate all of her life, and as far as I know, there was never discussion about teaching her, nor can I recall her having expressed the interest, either.  How did she manage cooking?   She was a great cook, and maybe an even better baker, and she did so without written instructions.  

Richard spent more and more time in his rocking chair as he grew older and arthritis bothered his joints.  This would have started while he was in his mid-60s.  By then, there were no more cows or pigs, and a few years later, no more chickens.  The reasons to leave his chair were minimal: to fetch a bucket of water from the well in the pump house morning and evening;  or shuffle to the outhouse, about one hundred feet from the farmhouse doorway.  The more Richard sat, however, the more debilitating his arthritis seemed to be, until finally, the act of getting up from his chair became a major effort.  He’d need his two canes to hobble wherever it was he needed to be.

But while gazing out of his window on Old Stage Road, chewing tobacco and spitting into a can, or eating chocolate covered cherries, his favorite, neighbors' cars and trucks would drive past, clouds of dust swirling behind them.  You first heard the roar of gravel as a distant whisper, quickly building as the tires rolled closer, throwing stones aside and underneath the floorboards.  Then, just a suddenly it was gone, sometimes with a toot of the car horn.  Left behind was a whitish cloud, fine limestone dust that coated plants and trees along the roadside. 

Occasionally, Grampa tuned in WDOR, the local station,  on his radio.  He listened to news and polka music that followed the noon news.  But he listened sparingly, because his home and farm had no electricity, conserving his radio's battery power.

The older he became, the more padding his rocking chair required, eventually piled with several pillows. The arcs of the rockers and the shifting of his feet wore white spots through the linoleum pattern beneath the chair.  Rarely would he read in the evening.   Kerosene lamps were lit briefly during and after supper, or when there was company.  Most evenings, he and his wife were in bed shortly after the sun went down.

A young Richard Paul Kalms

I can’t remember hearing the question asked of him, either critically or out of curiosity, why he had never electrified his home and farm?  He used a one cylinder gasoline motor to help pump well water for cattle, but he and Emma preferred using the pump handle otherwise.  Simplicity, with modest living.  That was their life as they chose to live it.
By 1965 they had ended farming, and they were physically unable to fend for themselves in winter. Grampa Richard, whose arthritis and lack of daily activity curtailed his mobility, used two canes to support stiff legs when he stood.    

“Ma and Pa,” as their children called them, lived in a farmhouse without insulation, without storm windows, with a wood cooking stove for primary heat, no telephone, and a mailbox out by the road for their only daily, outside communication.  Grampa at one time drove his old truck to the feed mill in Sister Bay, but in later years, he never drove.

Because winters had become too harsh on the farm, they were “passed around” to their daughters’ homes, first Leona and husband Arno, who raised five children of their own but generously shared their farmhouse near Watertown, and then to Sturgeon Bay, at daughters Martha and Frieda.  Two homes were needed, since each of those homes were small. One parent stayed at each home.   Under this arrangement, Gramma stayed at our home, and Grampa at Martha’s.  

In order to be together several days each week, one or the other would be driven across the bay, over the bridge to the other’s home.  Most often, visiting meant just being in the same room together, watching TV together, or sharing meals together. On occasion, they might be given a leisurely ride around town or over nearby country roads.   Once evening came and supper was over, it was time for one or the other to leave, returning to their respective home on the other side of the bay until next visit.

In 1967 they died two days apart, Grampa Richard in the Door County hospital from pneumonia and kidney failure.   

Gramma died two days later, after she had been driven to the Casperson Funeral Home in Sister Bay.  There, family members had gathered to prepare a funeral that would take place one day later.  After Gramma entered the viewing room, she touched Grampa in his casket and fell over, dead.  

Richard’s funeral service was delayed two more days, until Emma was readied for the double event.  

As one of several grandsons who served as a pallbearer on that wintry February, I rode in the front seat of the hearse alongside Clyde Casperson to the Sister Bay cemetery.  Clyde remarked how unusual this circumstance had been, a first in his many years as undertaker.    

The novelty of such circumstance aside, their funeral was a beautiful and fitting occasion, an event that could be observed as tribute to a couple who lived their lives together simply and honestly, and who, in death, had expressed love in a way that words had not.
  - Dick Purinton 


Ken F. said...

I ejoyed reading this blog. My grand parents died three days of each other.

Ken F.

Dave said...

Thanks for the memories, Dick. My grandparents were almost the same vintage and probably had somewhat similar experience until they moved to Marinette in the 20's. They came back to the county in the early 50's

Anonymous said...

What a lovely tribute to them, and a delight to read. Thank you for the glimpse back.

Palm Springs

Tim G said...

Dick -
A great piece of history combined with nostalgia. One has to marvel at how tough those old timers were. Back then (it it wasn't that long ago!) it sure took a lot longer just to sustain life each day.
My farm aunts and uncles lived similar lives in So. Illinois, and as I remember those visits so well, I regret that our own kids and grandkids didn't have those chances.