Saturday, February 16, 2008

Farmgirl - Esther Klahn Ritter

My grandma Esther is a farmgirl in the truest sense of the word. She was the child of German immigrants and was born on November 13, 1910. She grew up on Klahn Road near Crestline, Ohio, between Vernon Junction and West Liberty.

Child labor laws were non-existant, but people watched out for their neighbors. She was one of 11 children, and the neighboring farmers, who had recently lost their own child to pneumonia, asked for her to come work at their house. They thought she was a scrawny little thing and wanted to fatten her up. Funny because Grandma is the last living child of that family. It must be true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Grandma herself is suffering from pneumonia right now, she is in the hospital. When I was visiting earlier this week, she told me about some of her childhood memories. She remembered that the father of that family where she stayed was a mailman. Later on, she went to live with another family of dairy farmers. She mostly helped in the kitchen and watched their little children while the adults in the family were out milking the cows morning and night.

The German families of that era tried to hide that they were German, it was during the World War I era when the US was at war with Germany. Even though they spoke German at home, it was discouraged to speak in public, and as an adult, Grandma did not remember any of the German they spoke at home. The church they attended was the "German Reformed" church though, and some of the services were given in German. To this day some special holiday services have German versions of the songs sung.

As a child she attended a one-room school up until eighth grade. When she was given a fancy handkerchief by her older sister, she was proud of it. It was so different from the torn sheets or dresses she usually used for a hanky. So proud that her teacher was also aware of it, and afraid she was trying to attract attention to herself, when Grandma had it stretched across her forehead while she was reading. The teacher, who she remembered was also the preacher, strode over to her desk and grabbed her by the neck and sent her to stand in the corner. Unfortunately, the air was dry in the schoolhouse - a consequence of a wood-burning stove of which I am well aware this cold winter. Grandma's nose started bleeding, but as she was being punished for drawing attention to herself, she was afraid to speak up. Finally another student noticed the blood, got the teacher's attention, and oh, my! didn't that teacher feel sorry then! He got some cool, wet, cloths and bathed her head and hose until the bleeding stopped.

During this period Grandma helped her parents and sisters with the 80-acre farm that was worked with horses and with the family business, a sawmill that was powered by a water wheel. They also got frozen fish delivered by the crate from Sandusky and sold the fish to the neighbors. Grandma mentioned that she also sold seeds from the American Seed company to the neighbors to earn some spending money. She broke her arm putting the horses away during a lightning storm when a horse reared up in its stall as the thunder cracked. They had to get the horses out and travel to the doctor's by buggy in the storm in order to splint her arm.

When Grandma was older, she moved in with her older sister in Bucyrus. She worked in a garment factory and her job was to carry fabrics and partially completed garments from one sewing room to the other. Later she worked in a lunchroom, where she met my grandfather. He worked at Gledhill-Keim Lumber in Bucyrus. At a very young age, he had already lost a thumb and a finger to the unguarded saw blades. After their courtship, when he would walk her home through the dark streets of Bucyrus, he asked her to marry him, and she accepted.

They lived in Crestline for most of their married life, and raised four children, two boys and two girls. One story I heard over and over about this time was that Grandpa was tearing down a barn, and my uncle was playing King-of-the-Hill on the pile of boards. Unfortunately he found a nail still in a board. He was afraid to mention it because he didn't want to get in trouble for playing on the boards, but after day or two he was in so much pain he started crying in the night. They took him to the doctor, who diagnosed lockjaw (tetanus). A new treatment was just available at that time, penicillin, and they gave it to him. Luckily he lived to tell the story.

Grandma and Grandpa bought property in the country between Ontario, Galion, and Crestline. My father bought an adjoining parcel and built our house there. Grandma raised her vegetable garden in the country and had a beautiful flower garden in her lot in town. People would drive by just to get a look at her roses. She grew everything from mint to sweet peas to lilies to grapes to impatiens to Christmas cactus to fill in the spaces between the roses. There was a large apple tree at the side of the house. She had the greenest thumb of anyone I know. She taught me at a very early age the difference between weeds and flowers and vegetable plants, and had me out pulling weeds by her side. Even after I grew into an adult and had a house of my own, Grandma couldn't bear visiting without pulling a weed or two by my front sidewalk - shaming me into spending more time in my flower beds.

She always had cookies in her cookie jar when we were children, and she baked breads and cakes. She insists she baked at least one cake a week when she was home, although that's a little hard for me to believe. She did bake cakes for each of her children and grandchildren, and we had a party for everyone's birthday. She made each of us feel special.

Grandma always said "Hard work never killed anyone" and she has been repeating this over and over to me this week when I visit her. I guess it's true because she is still very strong for a 97-year old. I hope I am in as good shape when I am in my seventies!

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