Family History


I recently watched a video where Floyd McClung answered the question, “What was the highlight of your life this past year?” After admitting that many would seem it strange, he said it was the funeral of his father.

His answer struck a responsive chord with me. I also had a part in an end-of-life service this past year. My mother”s home going last April was the climax of an humble and unselfish life. Being a participant as we watched a mother lead her extended family to the crossing, and then, without fear or complaining showed us, “This is how it’s done;” was fantastic beyond bounds.

If you care to comment; I would be interested to hear what was the highlight of your recent past.

Sometime in the later half of the fifties, when I was in the later half of my teens, I was parked at an intersection out in the country, in Calhoun County, Illinois, down towards St Louis. I had a stack of shiny tin buckets sporting a label that proclaimed; “Nothing is better for breakfast than hot cakes and sorghum.” I was on the business end – the final step of an outrageous enterprise. Business was slow; the afternoon was hot and boring when an enormously long, gaudy green, stretch limousine pulled up to the stop sign, the windows rolled down revealing the biggest bunch of tall, laughing black guys I had ever seen in one place.

“Sorghum – Get your sorghum here,” I called.

“Look at that kid. He’s selling sorghum for a living,” they hooted. “Yah, we dribble for a living.”

As the limo turned the corner, I memorized the words painted in big yellow letters down the side of it; “The Harlem Globetrotters.” At that time, and for several years afterwards, I had no idea what the Globetrotters actually did, or what “dribbling” was all about. Today, I find myself the head of a clan that is almost equally ignorant about the art of growing, cooking, and enjoying Pure Cane Sorghum Molasses.

My family plunged headfirst into the molasses business just as the business itself was in its final death throes. Today, almost all of the sorghum that is cooked is, more or less, a nostalgic hobby rather than a business. When our country was young, sorghum provided a ready source of sweetener. Throughout the Midwest, almost every community once had a sorghum mill and almost everyone had a patch of cane which was cut and taken to the mill to be turned into this sweet nectar. As we were getting ‘into molasses,’ molasses was increasingly being replaced by Karo Syrup and refined sugars. Today our craving for sweeteners is further fulfilled by little packets that have no sugar in them at all and by corn sweeteners, rolling, in long tank car trains, from large processing plants scattered across our land. Totally heedless of this trend, we never the less persisted through three seasons raising, cooking and marketing molasses.

As time goes by, I find that each fall I more wistfully desire to do it again. Maybe it is my own nostalgia; plain and simple. Maybe it is because I remember a dad and his son working together, pushing against our physical limitations and in three short years stretching the technological envelope of our enterprise; ‘Boldly, going where no one had gone before.’ Sometimes I rue that we only had three years at it and long to go back and finish the job we started.

The actual process of ‘cooking’ molasses requires a lot of energy to remove the moisture and reduce the juice into syrup. We had a saw mill and a cheap energy source in the form of slab wood. This idea only persisted the first year. Trying to get a consistent even heat under a large evaporator pan with wood that is sometimes Oak, sometimes Elm, and sometimes Hickory; wood that is sometimes wet and sometimes dry, was an art that we never completely mastered. The second season we switched to fuel oil. We installed a collection of burners salvaged from heating furnaces. This was much better but still the only way we had to regulate heat was adding and removing bricks from under each burner to move them closer or farther from the pan.

The third year we hit Bonanza! We learned that we could salvage light insulated fire brick from the scrap pile at a local refractory plant. From those brick we built a new fire pit. We got a big LP gas tank and installed gas burners. Now turning the heat up or down was as simple as turning a valve and opening or closing the air inlet at the burners. Back in those days there was an expression that was frequently heard: When something worked exceptionally well, someone would say, “Now you’re cookin with gas.” Who knows; we might have invented that little ditty.

The labor component was something that always seemed to get short shrift when Dad put together a business plan. It is one thing to see us get filthy rich off of the east three acres in the middle field. It is something else entirely to turn the plan into reality. Dad never took inventory and determined that there were some practical limits to how much free labor he could get out of his household. You always ran right up against the limits and at that point tried to invent a way around them. We might also have initiated the saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ During those three years we were certainly not bashful about invention.

First off, the cane had to be planted. We didn’t have a cane seed planter so; we’ll use the soybean plates instead. Never mind that that still put way too many seed in the ground. “As soon as the plants come up we will go through the field with hoes and thin out the weaker plants.” (When Dad used ‘we’ in that sense he was never referring to himself and the mouse he had in his pocket.) For one of the first inventions Dad took a set of planter plates to his favorite welding shop, had the holes welded shut and a new set of smaller, more properly spaced, holes machined in them. Sometimes my dad learned very fast.

There is a relatively narrow window in the fall when cane has to be harvested. If you start the process before the cane is ripe you lose a lot of sweetness. At the other end of the window, the juice in the cane will sour soon after the first hard frost. Harvesting cane in the conventional way was an intensely laborious process; and remember, we’re not talking about the common several rows at the edge of a truck patch; we’re talking about acres of the stuff.

Conventional sorghum cane harvesting required that you first remove the leaves. This was done with sharpened wooden paddles as you walked down the rows. Next you bent the stalks down and removed the grain heads with a machete. After that you chopped off the stalks and laid them orderly across a flat bed wagon for transport to the mill where the stalks were run between rollers and the juice was squeezed out of them.

One of the first rebellions against conventionalism was with the beheading process. The grain heads were animal feed. Why should they be scattered across the field and then later retrieved and fed to the cattle? We left them on. We laid the cane carefully across the wagon with the heads hanging over the edge. When we got to the mill, Dad took the chainsaw and neatly zipped off the heads in one fell swoop.

We next asked why the leaves needed to be removed. Convention said that something bitter would be squeezed out of them when they were pressed. Dad didn’t believe it. He grabbed several hands full of leaves and ran them through the mill. When there was no juice forthcoming he considered that conventional wisdom relegated to the myth bin. When we started pressing cane with the leaves on, we however soon learned that there was a downside to doing so. Instead of pressing something from the leaves the leaves actually soaked up a lot of the juice and reduced our yield. The next morning we brought in a load of cane while the dew was still on the leaves. The dew prevented the leaves from soaking up the juice and I never stripped the leaves from another stalk of cane. That’s what I call Win-Win.

We soon realized that our pioneering had removed the major obstacles to the biggest labor reduction invention of them all.

For many centuries farmers had typically brought their crops in from the field and then threshed or otherwise processed them. With the advent of our industrial era that started to change: More frequently now, farmers were taking their threshing equipment out into the field. Why couldn’t we do the same? It was an idea rife with audacity but that had never stopped us before. By our second season we were dragging the largest sorghum press that we could find right down the cane row and bringing only the juice to the plant to be processed. How we accomplished that resulted in the most ‘Rube Goldberg’ parade of farm machinery that you ever saw in your life.

To lead this parade we needed a tractor that would go extremely slow, so we built one. We started with the chassis and drive train of a thirties vintage Dodge truck. We next added another transmission in tandem with the one that was there. With both transmissions in a low gear we satisfied our ‘need for (no) speed.’

To cut the cane stalks and orient them for feeding through the press, we started out with a forage harvester. Farmers use forage harvesters for chopping row crops and blowing them into a wagon for silage. For our application we removed the blower/chopper wheel and pretty much left the rest of the machine intact. We installed an engine as a power source and added another set of wheels and an axle in back to support the tremendous weight of the mill. Next, the mill was mounted with its throat right where the chopper wheel had previously been. Shafts, bearings, chain drives and gears were supplied to tie it all together and make all of it turn the right way and at approximately the right speed.

A small pump in the catch basin under the mill gathered the precious juice and routed it to a tank trailer bringing up the rear.

When we bolted all this together and drug it to the field it even worked. (Sort of) Actually, it worked pretty well. We had some fine tuning to do with drive ratios etc. but it all wound up, in the end, being quite minor stuff. We were however not completely out of the woods. When we built our tractor it had too long a wheelbase to do a good job maneuvering in the field. It was also too light and often the weight of the mill picked up the tractor and set it down where it decided instead of the other way around.

The other downside was that we could no longer use the chainsaw for zipping off the heads. We were back to using the machete, a row at a time ahead of the mill. Dad made a substantial investment to correct those two problems prior to season three.

As far as I can remember, Dad, in his lifetime, only bought one piece of brand new drive equipment. It was a shiny red Massey Ferguson 35 tractor. We bought it special, with extra small wheels so it would go slower. It replaced the Dodge tractor. To remove the heads we were back to inventing. We mounted a conventional manure loader on the tractor. Above, and off to the side of the bucket, and in line with the cane row, we installed a short piece of sickle mower and powered it with a hydraulic motor. Now as we drove down the cane rows, we raised and lowered the loader to compensate for shorter or taller cane. The sickle cut off the heads and a chute directed them into the bucket. When the bucket was full of heads, the cavalcade would stop briefly, and the bucket would be rotated to dump the seeds in a pile in the field where they would later be collected.

By the third season our harvesting routine was pretty well established. With the dew on the leaves, Dad and I would hit the sorghum cane field around 4:00 A.M… By daylight we would have pressed a days worth of juice and have it deposited in a settling tank. In the meantime, the rest of the family would have done the chores and we would now sit down together for breakfast. After breakfast the pans were fired up and the cooking started. Around noon someone would bring out lunch and we ate on the fly. The cooking continued till dark when we retired to supper and a few hours of sleep before the routine started all over again.

That’s an awful lot of shiny buckets of sorghum. But no problem! After all, “Nothing is better for breakfast than hot cakes and sorghum.” Years later, after we ate or otherwise got rid of the last sorghum, I’m not sure that we thought so any more. But just maybe – for breakfast tomorrow morning – one more time for old times sake.

A recent reader of my blog asked if I was going to tell about some inventing which I once did for my employer while working in the big city. His request took me back quite a few years and caused me to do some thinking about a slice of my life previously left mostly undocumented.

Actually, the summer and fall of 1965 was a time that was very ‘seminal’ for me. Looking back, it is remarkable how certain periods of a person’s life more powerfully impacted the future and formed the basis for a whole lifetime’s worth of ideas, sentiments and activities. From the indistinct milky ooze of scattered experiences sometimes a substance is formed, bones grow in the womb, an entire new person emerges. Nineteen-sixty-five was such a time for me.

In the fall of 1965, a Buchanan County, Iowa, public school official and truant officer felt compelled to do his job. He had an entire county’s worth of citizens who ignored the fact that the state of Iowa required children to be formally educated in a school staffed with state certified teachers. As an appointed official, he apparently felt compelled to use the force of law and bring those Amish parents to heel. They could no longer snub their collective noses at his demands; enough was enough.

As the school season advanced there was all that messiness; there were arguments with lawyers, sheriff deputies and school officials; there were fines and imprisonments; and there were dramatic scenes in the newspapers and on the airwaves that awakened the conscience of an entire nation. Among those scenes we get a glimpse of Sarah Swartz, my dad’s first cousin, on her knees with her arms around a man’s legs and begging him not to put her three children on that school bus. In another, a newspaperman snaps a photo of Amish boys looking back over their shoulders as they fled across the field. Stepping up to lead the opposition forces was Dan Borntreger; a brother to my paternal grandfather.

While great-uncle Dan was defending the Amish-ness of his community, I was in Des Moines and, step-by-step, loosing the last vestiges of mine. With a conscientious-objectors military classification in my billfold, I had been assigned to two years of public service as an orderly in the X-Ray department at Iowa Methodist Hospital. I lived away from home, I rented a sleeping room on the 1100 block of 7th street; I drove a little blue Mercury Comet, and attended an Assembly of God church. I still dressed quite plainly, wore my old haircut and started wearing a necktie only after a buddy honored me by asking that I usher at his wedding. (I actually had no idea how liberating it could be to tie something around your neck.) While I was learning how to interact with my new social environment I also maintained contact with my, sometimes-on sometimes-off, Amish girl friend.

Like Johnie-Five in Short Circuit, my vacuous mind demanded ‘input.’ I read voraciously. I signed up for a night class in Freshman English at Drake University; I wrote term papers; and, (most significantly,) learned how to use a public library. “You mean there are entire buildings filled with literally thousands of books where people can go and freely select from its precious trove?”

About six months into my two-year stint at IMH, my boss offered me the job of darkroom technician. It seems that the old geezer who had previously done the job had a habit of somehow becoming progressively inebriated as each day advanced. After discovering where he had stashed his bottle, my boss had to let him go. Was this ever a boon to my mind! What is the magic that takes place inside a dark box that allows some Silver Halide crystals to become ‘fixed’ while allowing others to be washed from the gelatinous surface of film? I had to know. Not unlike my predecessor, I also had an addiction. My habit was satisfied during the afternoon work lull by grabbing the technical X-Ray training manuals the students in the department left lying around, and reading.

In short order I understood the concept of E over IR; I learned about, conductance and resistance; I started becoming familiar with amplifiers, rectifiers, Farads, Ohms, Photo-Fluorescence, radiation half-life and Roentgens. When that year’s students took their finals in X-Ray technology, I asked the instructor for a copy of the test. Without ever attending one of their classes, I scored a C+. A ‘life work’ die was cast, a train was on the tracks and all the stops were out.

The hospital sent me to a four-day training course to understand and maintain the big processing machine that I had been feeding film to. One of the first things I realized upon my return from school was that rinse water flowed continuously through the machine all the time, even when it was idle. Could a timer be inserted in the wiring to turn off the rinse water valve as soon as no film was in the machine? With encouragement from my supervisor, I bought a timer and had it installed per my schematic. The results were beautiful and saved the hospital many hundreds of gallons of water during the life of the machine. My second invention is a little harder to explain.

Methodist Hospital was on the cutting edge of imaging carotid artery blockages by taking a series of exposures as opaque media flowed through the critical area. The challenge in doing this successfully was to rotate the patient so that the equally opaque bone structure in the neck did not block out the desired view of the arteries. I was given an article in a medical journal which showed how some doctors in Europe had developed a work-around for overcoming this problem. They compensated with a procedure done in the darkroom and called their method ‘subtraction technique.’ Would I take the article, my boss wanted to know, and see if I could imitate their procedure. The result was a fun ride involving a shadow box, a light dimmer, a timer, a variety of film types and weeks of experimentation. Subtraction Technique is now done on a routine basis with a computer in a modern X-Ray department. When I left Methodist Hospital the following spring, we were the only hospital in America known to be using the method and the doctors loved it.

Amid all this heady stuff a ‘young man’s fancy lightly turned to thoughts of love.’

I took a couple days vacation and drove to Arkansas. The girl in question was approaching the end of a similar two-year voluntary service assignment at a nursing home. Would she be willing, I wanted to know, to get past the sticking point, move to Des Moines and start putting the final plans in place for a life together. On the way back, euphoric over the trip and weary over the drive, I flipped on the radio.

“This is WHO Radio and this is Farm Forum with your hosts Lee Cline and Duane Ellet.”

Caller #1: “I want to know why they don’t leave those Amish alone. It is terrible how they are being treated.”

Caller #2: “I’ll tell you why they don’t leave them alone. They’ve left them alone too long and its time to straighten them up.”

On and on, Minute by minute, mile by mile, the litany went on. Suddenly it seemed as though I might also have some small part to contribute to the conversation. Look here is phoneage, can any forbid dialing an 800 number?

The operator heard my name, made earnest inquiry about my family lineage, alerted the hosts and moved my connection to the top of the call queue. For the rest of the show, sitting at a payphone near a busy intersection in northern Missouri, I was the honored guest of WHO Radio. All subsequent callers were patched through to me. Heady stuff!

When I got back to work the next morning, my boss had a couple of surprises waiting for me. For the first one, I was instructed to call Lee Cline in his office. Mr. Cline said that their switchboard was swamped after the previous day’s show with callers who wished to talk to me. Would I be willing to be a guest in their studio? A short time later I was given a tour of the WHO facilities and then brought in as the featured guest. Partway through the show my boss sprang his second surprise. He called into the show and explained about the things I had invented. Back at the hospital, I was met by the Administrator and a reporter from the Des Moines Register and Tribune. I was presented with a check and I told my story to the press.

The invitations came fast. For the next several months I was kept quite busy. I spoke in churches, schools and various organizations. The activity, perhaps, offset some of the pain. The girl never came to Des Moines. The next time I heard from her, it was from northern Indiana; from the far side of the ‘sticking point.’

When I consider the last forty-three years, that short slice of my life has undoubtedly influenced me more than any other similar period. Forever free from a shackling social relationship I now sought the life partner that God had ordained for me; my command of language was pointed toward continual improvement; and my ability to develop my electrical skills and use them in my employment has served me and my family well for quite a few years. I thank God for the things I was permitted to learn during my one brief moment in the sun.

 

A couple of weeks ago I made a day trip to St Louis. Each such trip always leads me through Pike County, Missouri and the place of my childhood. It seems that the new, four-lane Avenue of the Saints somehow can’t bypass the flood of memories which that area of the world holds for me. One of those memories resides firmly at Peno Creek, north of Bowling Green.

 

Our family had been invited to join some area Pentecostals at a baptism service. It was perhaps my first non-Amish baptism service. Peno Creek, just west of highway 61, flows between a limestone cliff on the north and a farmer’s field on the south. In this setting, we gather on the banks and the minister leads the candidates into the river. Standing out there in the water the minister gives the charge: Waving his hand toward the rock face at his one hand and the corn field at his other; he admonishes those he is about to baptize to maintain a “faith as strong as a rock and as fruitful as a cornfield.”

 

The imagery of that day engrained itself deeply into my young mind. I think about that sermonette every time I attend a baptism service. Yes; and every time I cross Peno Creek in Pike County, Missouri.

 

Jonas J. Borntreger

Easter 2008

 

We had another one of those Iowa Winter Mornings this morning; temp. at minus 11, wind chill at minus twenty eight. It’s the kind of winter that makes some older people stop in the post office lobby and talk about it. Like the fellow yesterday.

 

My neighbor yesterday was recalling the winter on thirty-six. (more…)

We came upon them in the living room

Where they had made

Their last stand. (more…)

My Dad is a weather prognosticator. He comes from a long line of weather prognosticators and has developed the skill to a high state of the art. What I’m saying is, my Dad’s skill is such that everything means something. (more…)

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