Through Any Given Door

1.18 The Clemens Farm (part 2)

Matt Sr., Matt Jr. (Grandpa), at back is Jane Nigon (Grandma’s youngest sister), the nine children (Joe was not yet born) Barbara (Grandma) holding Lawrence, Anna (Grandpa’s mother); fall of 1912

Heffron and St. Johns High Schools

The Clemens children went to the county school just down the hill, and then to St. John’s Grade School in the former St. Mary’s Hall, a big, two-story brick building a mile away. The three oldest girls were so close in age that Grandma held Mary back a year so she and Elizabeth could start school together. Amelia was a year behind and got bumped up a grade, so all three sister were schooled in the same classroom for a time. The kids walked to their lessons, but in wintertime when the snow got too deep, Grandpa took them and picked them up, driving his two horses and bobsled with wagon box. In 1913, the girls went to the new St. John’s Parochial School, taught by the Sisters of St. Francis in their brown habits. Carl and Louie attended Heffron High School when it opened also in 1913, a seminary for boys run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Joe went to St. John’s after the Christian Brothers left and Heffron closed.

standing: Jane Nigon (cousin), Amelia; seated: Elizabeth and Mary

The girls all graduated from high school except Mary, the oldest, who quit in the fourth grade to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. She wasn’t a great student, so she was happy to not have to go. Grandma had hers and the girl’s clothes made by women who came to the house. They would buy bolts of cloth in town so there was matching material for their dresses. None of the boys except Joe finished high school, which was not uncommon then; boys were needed on the farm. Children in those days weren’t kids for long: up before daybreak to care for the animals, helping cook for the family, and chopping wood for the fire. As soon as any one of them could hold an ax, boy or girl, they helped split wood.

The Clemens’ kids all got along. When they weren’t working, they played Slapjack and Old Maid. Agnes, Amelia, Anna, and Elizabeth had piano lessons. Cecelia took violin lessons. She also made divinity fudge, and whoever filled the wood box got to lick the beaters. The entertainment for the boys was to dare (or bet) one another to test their courage and walk the five-inch wide tile top of the 30-foot tall silo at the Conway farm, trusting that if they fell it would be to the inside, and if they did fall, that the silage wouldn’t be too low. On rainy days their parents opened the attic so the children could play in the trunks. It was a treasure trove. They dressed up in the old clothes, went through the hinged picture books, listened to the Victrola, and fingered the old pistols. The boys strapped on Matt, Sr.’s Colt 45 cap and ball six-shooter with a holster, and practiced quick drawing. Joe hid it under the floorboards, but it was gone when he tried to find it before the house was torn down.

Clemens family: Amelia, Lawrence, Grandma, Mary, Agnes, Aloysius, Cecelia, Joe, Grandpa, Elizabeth, Anna, Carl 1922

In the 1920s my grandparents improved and modernized the stone farmhouse. Albert and William Ramthum, brothers from Byron, were hired to do the renovations. In the bedrooms they built large double clothes closets. Between the dining area and living room they created beautiful open colonnades. They tore down the stone wall between the parlor and the dining room and replaced it with full sized wood cupboards that opened with doors to both sides, reaching from floor to ceiling. They removed the small narrow porch on the west side of the house and built a large screened porch which extended along the north side and half of the west side of the structure. Kids rode their tricycles there. When Grandpa and Grandma celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and housed twenty-five additional relatives for six weeks, the new porch was a welcome addition. They dug out the rest of the basement and put in a coal burning furnace, a hot water heater, and another bathroom. They tore out the shed on the south side of the kitchen where the washhouse toilets had been. A whole new garage and laundry room was built. A large septic tank was dug and the house was piped for modern plumbing and water on both floors with running water not only in the house but also in the barn, the milk house, and the laundry area. The kerosene lamps on the first floor were replaced with valuable gas lamps.

Clemens’ Minnesota farmhouse

In the middle of the 1920s, Doctor Charles Mayo wanted to put electricity in his rural 3,000 acre Mayowood estate, and to do that he needed to get power from the City of Rochester. The line crossed the Clemens’ property, so they were allowed to hook up to it: the house, barn, and all other buildings were wired, giving the family the great luxury of electric power.

The huge oak north of the house had a rope swing hanging from the largest branch. The concrete water storage tank was at the top of the hill behind the barn. The arched root cellar, doubling as the tornado cellar, had an outside entrance. Every year it was filled with vegetables from the garden, including 50 heads of cabbage and 100 bushels of potatoes. Grandma made whatever cabbage was leftover into sauerkraut. They butchered three hogs a year, salting, smoking, and canning their own meat, and putting pork patties down in a 10-gallon crock of lard. They made head cheese from the feet, tails, and everything else left over, wasting nothing.

With ten kids and a revolving house full of aunts, uncles, and dozens of cousins, there were constant chores to be done beyond farm activities. One hot summer, 20 people were quarantined in the house because one had smallpox. Washday was every Monday morning. In the washroom next to the barn, Grandma and the girls boiled clothes, sheets, and towels over the big stove, scrubbed them on the metal washboard, then hung them on lines to dry. During the winter everything on the lines would freeze so the girls stacked the laundry like cardboard cutouts to carry it in. They hung these in the attic to dry.

Clemens and Nigon get together

A hundred odd-shaped earthenware jugs filled a whole corner of the attic. Trunks lined the dusty walls. Grandpa’s old harpsichord rested in the rear. In the early 1930s Agnes and Anna were spring-cleaning. They threw everything out the window into the garden, built a bonfire and burned it all: books, photographs, gilded mirrors, framed portraits, the harpsichord, the Victrola, rocking chairs, old cards, letters, and love notes. It was considered junk.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Dana Conway says:

    What wonderful stories you tell! I so love learning about the family that I married into 32 years ago. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Jim Chatfield says:

    What a family, and your pictures are treasures to keep forever. Love your stories as always. They are like you were right there and the reader feels like he is looking over your shoulder. You are terrific.

    • Thank you! So many relatives on both sides of my family have shared their photos with me. When I started this process I had very few. I’m happy to be able to get them out to others in the family.

  3. This is fascinating! But burning up all those treasures – what a tragedy!

  4. Janet Sasaki says:

    Love the detailed descriptions of their life. Makes me feel that it must be very similar to my family in the 1900’s.

  5. What a wonderful look into the world of your family. I am amazed at the detail you have uncovered.

  6. Terry Conway says:

    Another comment on the Conway silo – in the summer time, the silo was empty, so it didn’t make a great deal of difference which side the walker fell off of. It was thirty feet to the bottom, to one side the barnyard, and to the inside, a foot or two of really sour water. They were nuts, I tell ya.

    • From Terry Conway: Interesting read on the Clemens crowd from the early years. I had always heard about the antics walking the rim of the silo on the Conway farm but in my memory it was attributed to my brother Bernie, known as “Black Bernie” in his high school days who was always the adventurer, becoming a paratrooper in his first military stint in the Army and then going to the Air Force to be a fighter pilot, but when asked about the silo story, he firmly denied it. I think he did try to ride a cow bareback one time – a very short term experience. The younger Conway’s did not refer to the Clemens homestead as such, but as the Lilly farm, as Vince took possession when were all very young.

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