THE SUNRISE YEARS
by Ethel Myli Bergdale
One Woman's memories: Growing up on a Worth County Farm.
Background: Ethel Myli Bergdale, the author of the following article, was born in 1913 to Erick and Clara Myli on the Danville Township farm which Erick's parents, Halgrim and Ingeborg Myli purchased in 1872. Ethel, the next to the last of 11 daughters born to Erick and Clara Myli.
The "Chicago girls" in the narrative below refers to Ethel's older sisters Ruth, Blanche and Alva, who left home for jobs in Chicago when they each, in turn, came of age.
When my father and mother were raising their family, they lived on a farm in Worth Co., or as the Chicago girls would say, on "the" farm in Worth Co. as so often they have said that the Iowa moon and the Iowa sunsets seemed different than the moons and the sunsets in Chicago. On this farm, papa raised cattle, corn, oats, pigs and girls. It was the cattle, I believe, that kept us all alive and the corn, oats, and hay kept the cattle alive, but the girls didn't keep anything alive.
Ethel Myli Bergdale (1966)
Many memories of my childhood seem worthy of recalling and they involve all the members of said family some happy, some sad, and some amusing (I mean the memories).
This incident was not exactly amusing. It seems odd to me now that it could have frightened us so much at the time, but I believe it was the worst fright that I have ever experienced. It was on chilly October evening and we were all round the dining room table reading. All at once there was a knock at the window and all chaos broke lose. Pa got up shaking his paper and saying "It is Halloween." Alva thought he said, "Helvitig" I got between the wall and the piano as easy as a greased pig, but the piano had to be moved to get me out when it was all over. The Leach kids were outside with a huge pumpkin face and were enjoying it all immensely. They always said afterward that Edna had jumped over the table in one leap, but she says she ran around the table to get into Hilma's lap.
The Corner Store
In the "the corner store" we could buy almost everything we needed to exist; from peanut butter to linoleum. Behind the door, as one entered the store, was a sawed off old church pew on which one sat when trying on shoes. On one side of the store was a long counter with several stools in front. This used to be were the women folk congregated. The men would stand in the back-end of the store to talk around the pot-bellied heater.
Hilma always wrote down the grocery list, as she was the head cook. I remember, on one occasion when I went with pa and ma to do the grocery shopping we had finished the shopping and were in the Oldsmobile and ready to go home. Ma asked pa for the "slip" to see if we had gotten everything. He backed the car up and said, "Sure, we have." But ma still wanted to make sure, so pa dug in hip pocket and handed her the slip and she got on the edge of the seat to examine it well. When we were at Goodell's corner, "Where is the broom?" was heard triumphantly from the back seat. "The broom?" said pa weakly as ma settled back cozily to see how he was going to get out of this one. We turned the car around and pa went back into the store where the innocent broom stood leaning against the counter.
Although Hilma was the one who wrote the "slips" us kids would try to sneak some item on the list that was to us of the utmost importance such as "candy." We tried to make it look as much like Hilma's handwriting as possible. But this trick was soon detected, so ma would always check the list with Hilma before going out the door for town.
I will never forget the time Ma decided. To get rid of the rats by the corncrib. One day, as soon as we got home from school, she gave each one of us a good, stout stick and we went over to the corncrib. She had armed herself with a pitchfork. "Slaw tig dem dugelig" she said. We stood and waited a long time. Then here came an ugly rat and headed straight for Ma. She screamed and ran; she one way, and the pitchfork another. Without a word she turned and went into the house. Some days later I couldn't resist asking her, shouldn't we get at those rats again? "Aw, tig stil" she said and looked daggers at me. That was the end of the rat extermination project.
Milk house and barn (1932).
A job I always liked was to go and get the cows. They always managed to be at the farthest end of the pasture. But it was fun to follow the narrow path the cows made, especially if we were bare-footed and the fine dust in the path would ooze up between our toes.
Ma would get so annoyed when they switched her in the face with the tails when she milked. So us kids would hold the cow's tail, one of us held the tail of the cow on the right and the other held the tail of the one on the left. Until Nina hit on the idea of one of us holding two tails at once, That way, we need hold the tail only every other night each. But Gail would tie the two tails together when it was her turn and spend her time playing with the cats while the cow was being milked. But she didn't get to do it this way very long. It took her too long to untie the tails again and sometimes Ma would forget the tails were tied and almost go headfirst when she got up to empty her milk-pail.
The Gas Lamp
Little building out
west in the background
Today we have all kinds of conveniences. Touch a button and we have light, turn a knob and we have heat for cooking, hot water by turning a faucet, nice sort tissue instead of newspaper, and a slight twist of the wrist flushes the day before down the drain. But they cannot take the place of the gas lamp hanging in the center of the dining room, the warm glow of the kitchen range, the delicious smell of the cistern, nor the icy seat of the little building out west.
The torch for lighting the wicks of the gas lamp were kept on the clock shelf, which was on the south wall of the dining room. It was Thelma's duty to light the wicks. As the torch touched the wicks they would sputter and, give a dim light and the light kept getting brighter and brighter until all at once it flared into brilliant light.
But it wasn't long before we got the Delco plant. Ma couldn't stand the noise of the plant when it was running, so we spared the lights so the plant wouldn't have to run so often. The dishes were washed by the light from the dining room. When it was my turn to wipe, I would be scared stiff to go into the dark pantry to put the dishes away, especially if the one who washed was already through and I was alone in the kitchen.
More than once I left the dishes standing, on the kitchen table. Then Hilma would go and in her gentle way and put the dishes away for me. I used to feel then that she was an angel in disguise.
The lights would not be put on in the evening until Pa came in "the cellar way" having finished the chores. As we sat in the dusk waiting for him to come in, someone would always be at the piano as it was too dark to read. How we used to love to listen to Thelma as she played Falling waters, The Storm, etc. or to Gail as she played Robin's Return, Country Dance, or tunes by ear. Sometimes Edna would be at the piano. Her masterpiece was Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, which she would play over and over and such importance and pride she bestowed on it. I used to dread the evenings Nina got hold of the piano. I used to wish I had a few sticks of dynamite to under her chair.
In the wintertime, Ma would go out to milk after supper. One of us would go along. It was real cozy in the barn at that time and there would be no tails to hold. The lantern cast a nice soft light with a lot of scary shadows in the corners. The breath of the cows looked like smoke in the cold air. There would be no sound except that of the stream of milk going into the pail and the sound of the cows busily chewing their cuds. The chickens were fenced in one corner of the barn and once in awhile there would be a little cackling from one of the rosters telling one of the old hens to move over. The milking done, we would walk in, the snow crunching under our feet in the still night air and the swinging lantern casting dancing fairies over the snow. The glow of the fire in the kitchen range and the whistling of the teakettle on the lid would feel so inviting when we came in. Then Ma would light the kerosene lamp and go to bed and read the "Ved Arnen" until all hours.
To get water out of the cistern into the faucets, we would fill the attic tank. There was a pump down in the basement and 500 strokes of the pump would fill the tank in the attic and send it spurting down the basement. The first spurt would look real good as then we knew that the tank was full. A range boiler by the kitchen stove heated the water. By this warm range-boiler Ma kept a crock of sour milk for the chickens. This crock was so handy to dump the leftovers from the meals into. There never were many leftovers as Nina was too good at cleaning it up. We used to call her "the garbage pail," and yet she was the skinniest one of us all.
The Little Country School
Back: Ethel Myli, Alice Schott, Edna Myli
Evelyn Leach, Nina Myli. Front row:
Fern Hoel, Gail Myli, Florence Leach.
If I live to be a century old, I will never forget the little one-room schoolhouse I attended for 8 years. At first I dreaded to go to school as the older children, Olaf Domholdt, Clarence Hoel, etc., seemed so old and I was scared of them. But they were soon through school and then there were just a few of the younger ones left. It seemed as if every fall, shortly after school started, we would get a long, chilly and rain spell. Then Pa would hitch up the surrey and take us to school.
I can still remember the smell of the wet horses mixed with the smell of our raincoats, along with the delicious smell of the rain as it pitter- pattered on the roof of the surrey. As the roads were mud roads, it was fun to watch the mud ooze up between the toes of the horses. Ned and Nancy were the two horses that always got hitched together as they were both fleet of foot.
On cold days, we would bundle up in scarves and all for the walk to school. We hated the heavy black serge bloomers Ma made us wear. If she saw the little thin ones my girls wear to school today she would say "bevare mig vel!"
When we'd get a little way down the road, it wouldn't be long before the Leach kids would be behind us and holler to us to wait. Alvin would usually be coming down his lane too, skinny as a rail in his little blue Jacket.
As we neared the schoolhouse the smell of coal smoke filled our nostrils, The first thing we would do when we reached school was to climb up on top of the jacket around the stove. Up there we would sit and have our classes, sometimes all morning if the weather was real cold . After our noon lunch, we would go back to our seats. By that time, our fronts would so baked but our backs would be still chilly.
Spring was the wonderful time of year to be going to country school. We would feel like calves let out when we could begin eating our noon lunches outside on the good smelling grass of the school-ground. The smell of the new grass mixed with that of chalk, oranges and peanut butter was nostalgic. The U. S. flag would wave lazily in the spring wind and the sound of the meadowlarks and the dust from the road as a car or buggy rode by all announced that spring was here in earnest. In the evening we would each have our turn at "taking down the flag."
Although it was less than a mile home, it would sometimes take us a long time, as we would play on Domholdt's bridge, or make little rivulets by poking sticks into the soft earth. Sometimes when the water was high, we would stand on the bridge and watch it race along until we felt that we were racing along with it.
One evening Nina, Alvin and I decided to build an island in Alvin's driveway. So we dug into the dirt and used our dinner pails to scoop water with. It did look like an island, so we decided to name it. The name we chose was Al-Ni-Et. For several days, our island stood. But as the sun and the winds' dried up the earth, our island disappeared into the unknown.
One spring evening, when Lily Hoel was our teacher, she kept Alvin and me real late after school so we could finish our 8th grade test. It was getting dark when we left the schoolhouse and the moon was just coming up. For some reason, I have never forgotten the walk home that evening. Perhaps because it was such an unusual hour to be walking home or because it was such a beautiful night. I still remember how quiet it was; the frogs croaking hoarsely by the bridge, the lone call of a meadow lark wending its way to its nest, the smell of the pines as I neared the woods and the soft stirring of the south wind.
Christmas in the Little Schoolhouse
That was the day we all looked forward to the most; even more than to the last day of school. For several weeks before Christmas, we would practice for our program and string popcorn and make decorations for the tree. The programs, I remember, were held in the afternoon with the mothers as audience. One year I especially remember as it was raining and Ma and Mrs. Leach came walking in the rain to the program. It didn't seem like Christmas, I thought, as it was so warm and we stood on the porch watching it rain. But the teacher darkened all the windows and lit the candles on the tree. All of a sudden it seemed real festive in spite of the rain outside.
Christmas at Home
Following this came a two-week vacation and our Christmas at home. Of course there was no time of year to compare to it. First, it was necessary to get a box off to the Chicago girls. One year it got so late before the box got ready. Hilma and Ma were so busy baking and packing things into the box. Towards evening, it was all ready, and Pa hitched the horses to the sleigh and took the package to town to mail it. I was so little and remember thinking he had driven to Chicago with it. Trimming the tree was an extra special job that was always the privilege of the grownups. With much secrecy, the ones trimming the tree would slip in and out of the parlor and curiosity would almost get the best of the rest of us. Then, when the chores were all done and we had eaten our traditional oyster supper, and the dishes were all done, we could expect the one in charge to soon say "you can come now." Then with a flourish the parlor door would be slid wide open.
Who can describe the feeling of the first look at the tree, bedecked in such glory, the stacks of carefully wrapped gifts, the odor of the wax candles flickering with all their might on the tree's branches? Often I have thought that we shall have that same feeling when someday we hear God say, "It is ready now," and flings open the "parlor door" of heaven and we shall see a tree far more glorious than any Christmas tree of our childhood.
Thinking way back, horses were our only transportation. Tom, a horse I thoroughly dislike to this day, was us womenfolk's' way of getting around, as the other horses were too frisky for us to handle. Never will I forget the Saturday afternoon that Nina and I and old Tom set out for town to meet the minister. That is, Nina and I were going to meet the minister. Tom was much too wicked to even think of such a thing. We got as far as the Torgeson place. Bassetts were living there then. All of a sudden some squealing pigs scared Tom. He wheeled around and the buggy almost tipped. Nina jumped out light as a feather, but I sat like a lump of lead. Tom raced for home, into the ditch and out again like a streak of lightening. "Boy," I thought, "if I ever get out of this I will never commit another sin."
Every sin I ever did lollied up before me right in the middle of the road. Luckily, Mr. Bassett had seen it all and ran into the road and caught Tom by the bridle. It was days before I got over the scare, but if I remember right, I went right back to sinning.
Ma (Clara Myli) and the car.
It wasn't long before we got our first car. It was the nicest to be had. However, it did not always do what Pa wanted it to do. Ma insisted that it was put together wrong and as there was no one who knew as much about cars as she did, I suppose she was right. Ida loved the car and would put the side curtains on it and sit in it and read. But the side curtains were seldom used because if it rained no one could drive in a car anyhow as the roads were of mud and got too slippery. But one time, Ida didn't like the car too well. She was all dressed up in her blue organdy dress that Alva made, to go to her high school graduation. The car wouldn't start, so Pa had to hurry and hitch the horses to the surrey. She insisted that us kids stay home as we would get her all wrinkled, but we went and how we all got into the surrey is a mystery. I can still see Ida sitting on the school stage with her hands folded serenely in her lap and cool as a cucumber.
At first it was hard for Pa to learn how to stop the car. He kept the two corncribs and often when he had been away, he would drive in-and-out, in-and-out several times before he finally got the car stopped.
Cook shanty on the left.
The Cook Shanty
We knew that summer was really here when Ma decided it was time to move into the shanty. So we would get busy and sweep out the wood scraps as that is where we kept the stove wood in the wintertime. The walls and the floor were scrubbed and so on. Then the kitchen table, chairs, kettles, etc. would be carried into the shanty. A black iron range, a kerosene stove and a smaller table stood at the west end. There was a cupboard for dishes on the east wall with a curtain in front. A sink cabinet was in the southeast corner in which we kept the sugar pail, kettles and rolling pin. On the south wall was a clock shelf.
On rainy, chilly nights we would put the lights on in the shanty and sit out there and eat tituskies and dutchess. It would be warm in there from the range on which supper had been prepared. And the rain would sound so close as it pitter-pattered loudly on the roof.
When the Chicago girls were home, the grownups would sit long around the coffee table. Us kids would try to sneak into the shanty before "kaffi tig" and hide under the table as they would never talk about anything Juicy when we were around. But we never got by with it as someone was always sure to see us under there.
When the west door of the shanty was open, we could see the little building at the end of the sidewalk. This building we called Concordia. The traffic to this was often heavy, especially after supper. That was the time of day we would like to walk down the hill. The sunsets would be so beautiful. After a hard rain it felt like we were walking into a fiery haze as the sunsets would be so bright. Coming home from the walk, we would usually congregate on the east porch and read. The milk cows would be crunching grass by the lawn fence, the crickets chirping and the June bugs flying about and occasionally bumping against the screens.
In the fall, when we came home from school, Hilma and Ma would be in the shanty, busily stirring big kettles of apple butter, or peeling a boiler of cooked beets. The air would be tangy with the odor of golden red mixed with the strong scent of spices and wood smoke as the smoke curled lazily from the chimney on the shanty roof.
The Eggnog Hour
Each summer for a time, it was my job to bring Pa a glass of eggnog as precisely 10 o'clock in the morning as Ma insisted that it was eggnog that had cured him of feeling sick some years before. But that had been years ago, and I couldn't see how if figured in now. But I enjoyed making the nog each morning, but find him I must as Ma maintained that he had a weak stomach and needed the nourishment. So I'd walk and walk with the glass of nog in one hand and taking a sip of it now and then to keep up my own strength.
Finally Alva ventured to say she didn't think it worth it for me to chase all over the farm. So Ma compromised and said I need make it only if I saw Pa in the yard. That suited me fine, but temptation loomed its head, Ma would ask me, "Did you bring Pa his eggnog?" and I would say, "No, I didn't see him in the yard." The whole thing was almost forgotten until one day we had company and Ma was again relating how wonderfully the drink had once cured Pa of morning sickness. "But Ethel hasn't been bringing it to you lately, has she?" she asked Pa in Norwegian. "No, and I am glad of it; I never liked the stuff," was Papa's answer.
The Girls on the Hill
Alva, Ruth and Thelma.
When I think of Ruth, I see her sitting on a log out in the west woods with a book on her lap. Most likely, she is listening to the wind as it whispers through the oaks and to the crows as they caw so loudly on the wing. I think the book is forgotten as she views the hills and the church in the far distance as she always held these things most dear.
When I think of Blanche, I also think of the horse Dan we used to have. Always when I saw Dan, I would think of Blanche and wonder why he should remind me of her. To this day, I have not been able to figure it out. But the words I think of first when I think of them both are "slow and steady."
The first picture that comes to mind when I think of Hilma is her with the phone receiver to her ear, rubbering on the phone. For years she had "rubber neck" as a nickname. She used to say her chief enjoyment was to listen to Sophie and Agnes as they talked together on the phone. They would talk so long that Hilma would reach for a chair with her feet to sit down while she listened.
No one could think of Alva without seeing someone at the sewing machine day in and day out. Occasionally, she would get up to take a walk to the building out west. Hilma used to remark that Alva sure walked past the shanty door often, but Alva would say it was more for exercise than anything else.
Ida, I see coming down the parlor stairs all spruced up for a date. She would have so many nice clothes as she made her own money at an early age. It would be so much fun to see what she had on when she finally got ready. We never dared show up around her boy friends, but would peek at them from the upstairs windows.
I can still see Thelma crouching behind the woodpile when Oscar Smeby came over to take her out. She remained safely hidden until she was sure he had left. Evidently, she didn't like his rig as well as she liked Mike Schott's gray coupe. Edna I see as she stood by the table each morning so carefully washing the separator. It was her duty to do the kitchen work in the mornings. She attended to this duty so faithfully. Ma would always say, "Edna can't be beat in the kitchen."
Nina was always the picture of accuracy and precision. She was also very fleet of foot. As Blanche would remind me of Dan, so Nina would remind me of our horse Nancy.
Of course, one cannot think of Gail without thinking of cats. Once I snuck up on her as I knew she was in the milkhouse. There she was watching out the window so no one should come while at her feet was the cat licking up a saucer of pure cream.
Update:Ethel married Alfred Bergdale in 1938. They lived on the farm until 1994, when they moved to the Lutheran Retirement Home in Northwood, Iowa. Ethel Myli Bergdale was the last surviving daughter of Erick and Clara Myli. She died in 1998 in Northwood at the age of 85. She and her husband Alfred Bergdale were parents of five daughters: Barbara, Faith, Dagna, Carol, Linsay and one son Mark. Dagna is currently living on the home place.
Submitted by Gordon Felland, updated July 27, 2006.