dictated to Dick in 1995.]
Life on the farm
Francis's parents, Martin and Emma, made their living as a tenant
farmers. This means they would rent the farm, paying the owner
half the crop for rent. As their family grew, Martin and Emma
would acquire use of larger and more productive farms. Their
children, in turn, would be encouraged to participate in farm
Since growing their own food was a crucial supplement to the cash
income they would receive when they sold their crops, they would have
full use of a garden as large as needed. Also if there was a
woodlot, it would become the energy source for the kitchen wood stove
and heating stoves for their farm houses. In those days before
insulation, farmhouses had plenty of unplanned air exchange.
Typically for their own use they were allowed so many pigs, chickens,
maybe even a cow -- according to the terms of the negotiated lease
home of John Schmitt (grandfather of Francis)
Emma and Martin's first farm was forty acres on what is now Pinhook
road 3 miles northwest of Mendon, the Luther and Anna Langdon
farm. There on December 23, 1912, their first son, Francis,
was born. (Chances are Francis doesn't remember this; neither did
the Doctor who was asleep on the couch at that time.) Francis's
Aunt Mary Banner, his mother's older sister and previous guardian,
assisted. His mother, Emma, did most of the work.
Martin had two plow horses, a spirited one called Oliver who doubled as
a "driving" horse -- which meant that he was used to propel the
buggy. The other horse was a plodder called Chub who was more
Their second farm, north of Mendon, was known as the David Riley
farm. (Later when David married, his wife Marie Marentette, from
an historic Mendon family, changed the name to Reilly since she was
influenced by the French). This farm had about 35 acres but
better soil, yielding more crops. Gilbert John (Gib) was born there on
October 23, 1914.
was born in Elmira in 1916. Foreground (l to r) Gilbert and
Francis; on porch (l to r) probably Celeste and Gertrude (Trudy) Flach
in the grass.
North to Gaylord
Each time Martin and Emma moved, it was to a better farm since the
family was larger. They moved to Elmira (near Gaylord, Michigan,
close to where their grandson Michael lives today). Martin's
cousin Francis and Agnes Flach (pronounced "flaw") along with Martin
and Emma bought separate parcels of land from the lumber companies on
"cutover" land where White pine had been harvested. Martin had
previously worked for Francis's father William (also Martin's uncle)
near Scotts, MI. William's sons were not particularly interested
in farming and engaged in carpentry, hunting, recycling,
Francis's first memories are of the Elmira farm. He was about
four years old when the family moved there. Today he marvels at
the great food distribution system in this country with its canneries,
dairies, refrigerated transportation, massive electronically and
hydraulically controlled farm equipment, etc. Life today is much
different when he was growing up on farms.
No small potatoes
Emma and Martin would grow potatoes which could then be shipped on the
nearby railroad to Chicago and other big cities. The growing
season was quite short and not all of the twenty acres of potatoes
could be moved to the railroad at one time after the harvest.
Farmers would bury the potatoes in the ground and hope that they could
get them to market before they'd freeze and be ruined. (Potatoes
would be buried about a foot deep for storage but the freeze could be
as much as three feet deep). Potatoes would be carried to the
railhead two miles away and sold to a buyer, probably for 50 cents a
bushel, based upon supply and demand. Farmers would make the trip
every day that the weather allowed trying to get as much of the crop to
market before winter set in.
Since Martin and Emma only had cash crops, they were at the mercy of
the weather, buyers, and markets. They also had a flock of
sheep. Lambs, born in the Spring would be sold before the
next Fall. On the first hot days of the Summer, the sheep's heavy
winter coats would be sheared, much to the relief of the panting
sheep. Specialists would descend upon the farm and sheer sheep
for about 50 cents each. (Can you say sheep sheer specialist
fast?) A good sheep would deliver 8-10 pounds of wool which might
sell as high as 50 cents/pound more or less. (When you had to
sell, the markets always seemed to be low.)
Quite often, farmers would have gardens, hogs, and chickens in order to
provide food for their family. Martin and Emma often had a pair
of Guineas -- similar to chickens in size but with plumage like
peacocks without the tails. These not only added color to
the chicken herd, but would alert the household if intruders entered
the chicken coop.
Nearby farmers may have four or five cows and would skim the milk to
feed to their livestock and sell the cream. (There was no
refrigeration then). Francis has early memories of turning a
crank on a cream separator on the nearby Elmira farm of Herman Flott.
Working near the railroad
Stanley Schmitt was born on the Elmira farm on August 19, 1916 -- the
very day on which Martin's father, John Schmitt, died on his farm home
southwest of Mendon. Because the same railroad ran through Elmira
and Mendon, Martin could make the trip in a few hours.
The railroad which ran through Mendon was called the GR&I (Grand
Rapids and Indiana). It started in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and ran
to Petoskey, Michigan. Later it was merged into the Penn Central
system. Today no railroad runs through Mendon which is a good
thing since there are no longer tracks there.
To your health
In Elmira, Emma became uneasy with a growing young family so far away
from medical treatment. (Unusual for this generation, Martin and
Emma would lose no children. By contrast, Francis's wife Eileen
had two siblings die before she was born. The health of
Emma's descendants was generally good since when she died in 1976 at
age 87, 61 of her 62 grandchildren and all of her children were alive.)
Their first Custard stand
Around 1917, the family then moved back to Mendon to the first Custard
farm. (Grace Custard and her brother Herbert E. each had
side-by-side farms, possibly divided up from a previous
generation. The Custards owned stock in the Reo Car company and
were people of means in Mendon). Mary was born on October 14,
1918. Since Francis remembers hearing the church bells ringing to
signify the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, while on the
second Custard farm, the family could not have stayed on the first
Custard farm for long.
The second Custard farm was much larger with 125 acres and three horses
which they used on a single plow. Lucille was born there on
September 29, 1920; Lucy and Francis visited her birthsite in the 1980s
and found a Custard descendent living there.
Martin bought the family's first car here -- a model T touring car.
(Cars cost less than $500 then and started with a crank. Today
our cars cost much more than that which makes us cranky at least once a
month for several years).
A repeat engagement
Francis started kindergarten (more than a mile away) at the Custard
farm. In those days, your feet were your schoolbus and an older
neighborhood kid, Frank Warren, accompanied him on his first day.
Children were smarter then and only needed three months of
kindergarten, allowing Francis to start in the Spring. During
that summer, the powers to be decided that kindergarten should be
longer (or kids got dumber) and so Francis had to take a full year of
kindergarten starting the following fall.
Francis's mother, Emma had taught 8 grades of country school prior to
the establishment of kindergarten. She had been the valedictorian
of her class and the first in the family to graduate from high
school. She went on to the Western State Normal School --now
Western Michigan University. Martin had four years of schooling.
The Mendon school had grades K-12 in one building. It is still
standing but is not used for education and will probably be demolished
someday. The combined high school had less than 90
students. Teachers were young (often only half a generation older
than the students) and very dedicated. Francis had few problems
in school, including two years of high school Latin which he
appreciates to this day. He also learned to type, splice rope,
and to appreciate wood and wood working in a farm mechanics course.
perhaps in 1932 when he would be in this 20th year, at what might be
the Sprinkle Ranch. Checkout this and many pictures from this era
at Tom's archives by clicking here.
The Mendon connection
About half of Mendon is related to Martin and Emma Schmitt's
descendants and Francis still attends reunions with classmates that he
attended school with for 12 years.
On March 1 of his junior year (1930), the family moved to the Arthur J.
Sprinkle Farm 3 miles Southeast of Kalamazoo (located on what is now
called Sprinkle Road). Farmers typically moved on or about March
1 since this was the start of the Spring planting season.
Fortunately, Francis, Gilbert, and Stanley were able to finish the
school year in Mendon, thanks to the generosity of their relatives:
Carl and Rosy Flach, Mary and Mathias Banner, and Salina and Leo
Life in the big city
As a senior, Francis attended St. Augustine's in Kalamazoo. (St.
A's was folded into the Monsignor Hackett regional high school made up
of several parishes). Some of his great nieces and nephews still
attend that school.
The family moved to Sprinkle Road to a dairy farm expecting that the
prosperity of the times would continue. Unfortunately, the
depression set in and the family struggled and eventually had to move
off that farm and the large, comfortable farmhouse that they
loved. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The Milk Man
In 1930, Uncle Joseph R. Schmitt (Martin's half brother) was already
well established in Kalamazoo and was running a dairy farm in the area
on Milham road and delivering his own milk. Ray Banner (Francis's
double cousin and two years older -- now deceased) and Francis had been
going up to help Joe several summers prior to the move. [Schmitts call the Banners double cousins
since their grandfather married two sisters in succession before
bringing the whole brood from Germany to the American Midwest.]
Running a dairy farm was getting to be too much for Uncle Joe.
He'd get up at 2 AM to deliver the milk. Returning home, he'd
manage the dairy farm with some hired help. He'd also do the time
consuming money collection.
For some reason, the diary was called the Joseph R. Schmitt
dairy. Milk was bottled right on the farm until the Kalamazoo
health department established rules against that. Joseph then
joined with his brother-in-law Robert Haas to build a bottling plant on
the south side of Kalamazoo -- known as the Schmitt and Haas Dairy.
Uncle Joe's business was growing and he needed more help. He sold
his dairy herd to Martin in order to concentrate on the dairy bottling
operation. Martin at that time had three teenage sons (Francis,
Gilbert, and Stanley). (Daughters to this point included Mary and
Lucille.) Donald had arrived (November 16, 1922) but was still
quite young. Noberta would be born while the family lived on the
Sprinkle Road farm (September 6, 1931). She would be the only one
of Martin and Emma's children to be born in a hospital.
For Martin and Emma's family, the move to Sprinkle Road signaled the
beginning of the depression. Up to that point, they had been
tenant farmers, splitting the crop cash sales. However, the
Sprinkle farm was rented for "cash rent" -- similar to paying on a
mortgage at about $200 month. The market for milk when they began
that engagement was good.
Martin's family would produce whole milk from about 30 Guernsey cows
and take it to the Schmitt and Haas dairy at first. By the time
Francis was a senior in high school, Gib and he would take a model T
pickup truck and drop the milk off at the Kalamazoo creamery on the way
to school. (Pickup trucks and blue jeans were not the status
symbol for high schoolers that they are today since having them meant
you had to work.) Often they would park on the far side of
Michigan avenue in order to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Francis was shy in those days and Gib was even shyer!
| Francis as he appears in the Western
Michigan Yearbook 1935/36 about 5 years after his high school graduation
The Sisters of St. Joseph (Auntie Ev's order) ran St. Augustine in
Kalamazoo. The school was noted for its winning teams in several
boy's sports. (Girls' sports were unheard of in those
days). The teams were called "the Irish" since the University of
Notre Dame, 60 miles away, exerted a strong influence. Because
the Schmitt boys had considerable chores both before and after
school, they were unable to participate in these sports. Also,
Francis and Gib had joined the school in the 12th and 11th grades
respectively and felt themselves to be outsiders. Francis had
only one close friend at the school who lived near him on a dairy farm
and thought he did a man's work as Francis and Gib thought they did.
While the Great Depression hit some of the country earlier, it came
home to the Martin Schmitt family with their move to Sprinkle
Road. All dairy farmers in a geographic area would form a
cooperative which would market their combined product in bulk.
Based upon demand, the milk could be sold as premium priced whole milk
(with cream on the top since pasteurizing was not common), a lower
grade used to make cheese and butter, or a low priced "slush" which, if
they were lucky, could be sold to farmers to feed hogs or calves.
When the depression hit, most people had less money to buy milk and so
the prices fell. Farmers could produce a lot of milk only to see
the prices fall so low that they would actually make less total
income!. (Congress would eventually pass price supports to
help stabilize this situation -- but that's a whole other story).
Like many parents, Martin and Emma insulated their children from the
details of the family's finances.
See more pictures from this era (with commentary) by clicking here