SHS Memories

Tom Roberts recently shared some of his SHS memories with Jean Hale Johnson and me (Karen Fischer Johnson). We thought we'd share them with all of you, too. Tom, Jean and I all were transfer students to Shorewood since we lived in areas where no high school existed at the time. That meant we were yellow bus riders beginning at 6:30 AM every day of the week. Late bus had some of the kids from Mequon getting home at 7 PM. Then it was time to have dinner and do homework.


"Ours was a Wisconsin family, arriving around 1840 from Massachusetts and settling near Mazomanie. My father earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin and went to work for Post Cereals in Battle Creek, Michigan, where I was born in 1939. There was some sportsmanship in business back then. When arch-rival, Kellogg's, burned to the ground, the director of Post Cereals telephoned his counterpart at Kellogg's and offered to manufacture and package Kellogg's Corn Flakes until Kellogg's could rebuild; and so they did.

By 1941 we had moved to Summit, New Jersey. My father had been promoted and now worked in New York. We would vacation in Wisconsin at my grandmother's resort near Minocqua. We traveled by train. I particularly remember one summer, probably 1944; war was still raging and every piece of rolling stock the railways could muster was on the tracks. Our rail coach was from the 19th century. It was wooden, had a coal stove in the corner, and as evening came on the conductor lit the kerosene lanterns that swung from the ceiling. The train was drawn by a steam locomotive and we passed through tunnels with the windows open. My clothes were smeared with smoke and soot by the time we arrived.

We were never happy in New Jersey. There is a neurosis named after Summit which was a bedroom community for the families of executives who had high pressure jobs in New York. Opportunity came in 1947 when Loyal Wells, an old friend of my father's wrote and said the fox fur industry centered at Thiensville, Wisconsin, was experiencing cost and nutrition problems. My father was expert at human and animal nutrition and manufacturing processes. We came.

Thiensville had a population of 810. There was Helm's grocery store, a harness shop and Thienville (note spelling) Mills was still operating. North of Thiensville, Fromm Brothers Nieman and Company operated a silver fox ranch with outdoor pens covering several hundred acres. Fox fur coats were popular then. The daily rations for the foxes were prepared at Federal Foods, Inc., dispensed into aluminum pans which were loaded onto low wagons drawn by matched pairs of horses and distributed to the foxes. It was a very labor-intensive operation. Fox and mink foods were prepared with horse meat. There was a horse slaughtering operation at the plant and there was no shortage of horses. Farms were switching to tractors and thousands of mustangs were roaming out west. I remember my father telling me about a man who came to apply for a job at the company. My father asked him what kind of work he preferred to do. The man replied that he wanted to work in the slaughter house because he liked working with animals.

Holstein School:

Holstein School was a one room school house built in 1930. It held all eight grades and usually all eight had at least one student. The older kids helped the younger kids, thereby helping the lone teacher, always a woman; Mrs. Alexander, Mrs. Hanson, Mrs. Ohst. The baby boomers were defined by Woodstock; we were the inkwell set. Our desks had ink wells and we used them. Ball point pens existed then, but were unreliable, tracing spotty lines of unvarying width. By changing the pressure on the nib and rotating the tip, one could generate Palmer method traces with a calligraphic flair. No forger could ever duplicate our increasingly distinctive signatures.

The Hot Lunch Program - Our teacher thought that a hot lunch on a cold day would be beneficial since we nearly always took recess out of doors. So we set up a blue enameled roaster on a double hot plate with a few inches of water in the bottom. Each of us brought soup or chili in a screw lid jelly jar and placed it in the water to heat during the morning. In the first few days some of the jars cracked during heating as electric hot plates weren't too well regulated during the late 40s. Not to be daunted, our teacher slipped a piece of exterior plywood under the jars which collectively held it on the bottom. After a while the plywood waterlogged and rested on the bottom itself. An occasional burp of steam erupting under the plywood jostled the jars as the morning wore on. At noon we lifted off the cover and considered it a good day if only one of the fifteen or so jars had cracked. Consuming a cracked jar of soup was questionable, but chili or baked beans were usually OK. As the week wore on, the water bath discolored considerably, but since it was heated to near boiling every day, hygiene wasn't compromised and the water was changed weekly (I think). As for the waterlogged plywood....well. For those students who had cracked jars, I believed we shared if the contents weren't sufficiently palatable. The hot lunch program lasted for several months until our itinerant Superintendent got a look inside during one of her visits. It seemed she was always putting the clamps on our creativity.

Intermural Sports League - Some afternoons during good weather our teacher would close the school and with the help of one of the mothers, transport the entire student body in two cars (some lap sitting) to Thiensville grade school for a softball game; until one afternoon the Superintendent showed up. Something about instruction hours. Some of the students were already missing weeks during planting and harvesting.

Science and Language Intimidation - One of my fellow students had begun listening to the radio news and he started telling me about the "wevver porkass"; he knew if it might rain tomorrow. It sounded awfully advanced and I was afraid I'd never be able to grasp it. Later, during the Army/McCarthy hearings I began hearing about "Community Party ties" which I thought were an article of clothing. Then, too, I wondered why President Truman always had "steak dinners" at the White House every time a dignitary came to town. On the other hand, one wouldn't serve chicken and peas to Winston Churchill, so it sort of made sense.

By then, the Russians had the bomb and they were coming. We were all scared. I thought, if things worked out, I could get a job carrying one of the flags in Stalin's court. It might not be too bad.

Winter Sports - One day our teacher closed the school and tied our sleds in a series to the back bumper of her Chevy, then towed us along Holstein (now Highland) Road. It was great until a rope broke. Being older, I rode closest to the tail pipe. It was not a special problem. Most car interiors filled with exhaust anyway. The Superintendent missed this one.

The Holstein School Gifted Students Program - I was soon promoted into the Holstein School Gifted Students Program which was dust mopping floors during spell-downs because, as long as I participated, nobody else ever won. I enjoyed inhaling the vapors from the sweeping compound. At the time I considered the job an honor, but my parents didn't see it that way.

Assistant Stoker - Back in 1950 I was assistant stoker for the furnace at Holstein School. An eighth grader, actually stoked; I shook the grates and removed the ashes. Then I lost my job to automation. I could have joined the Luddites, but at the time I didn't know who they were and they disbanded around 1816, after smashing enough of the new textile machines to make their point.

Audio/Visual Aids - We had it all; film strips and later, a 16mm Bell & Howell movie projector. It wasn't all it was cracked up to be; it was really the end of make-believe and imagination. One of the film strips was a cartoon of life in an African village with a boy our age who was drawn with all the exaggerated stereotypic features and behaviors characteristic of the period.

Our Connection with the Outside World - I remember when we got . . . A TELEPHONE! Party line, of course. I don't think we ever used it. At certain times of the week we had radio programs; Music with Professor James Schwalbach from the U.W. in Madison. We learned about music and we sang along. It was an example of the Wisconsin idea; the boundaries of the University are the boundaries of the state. It was very effective in my book; telecommunications with enthusiasm at its best. As I remember, one day we actually visited the University. Good old Mr. Marquardt himself came by in one of his 1947 Ford school buses and whisked us off to Madison. I was too young to grasp it. All I could remember is watching flasks of green algae dancing back and forth in a machine and an intrepid graduate student explaining the science. She kept using the work "essentially". Little did I know that twelve years later I would be a grad student at the U.W.

The Bad Guy - We had one bad guy; kind of a Marlon Brando type. When he'd start disrupting the environment too much, the teacher would banish him to the storeroom at the rear of the class for a time out. He'd retreat with a grudging submission and usually passed gas as he pulled the door shut; a real bad guy. I think secretly we all wished we could be like that; free of all the constraints of civility, just once. One day he set fire to a stick and leaf hut we had build as a clubhouse. Everybody got out OK but of course the sheriff had to come out, show his badge and scare us all with a very official lecture on the dangers of fire, not naming any particular names. Everything ran on authority back then.

Science and technology at home; kites, the cannon and the rocket project.

We lived out in the country on the Green Bay Road about a mile north of Thiensville. There was plenty of room for my brother, Jim, and me to pursue projects. We flew kites in the field near the house; gradually scaling them up in size. Our largest was sixteen feet with a 2x4 lumber spine and a butcher paper skin. We strung two hammocks in series to make a tail. It flew! We built a tree house with seven rooms, electricity, running water, a popcorn popper, carpeting and an elevator for our two dogs. We build an astronomical observatory which still stands. These were some of our more benign projects. Later, as teenagers, we built an armor piercing cannon which we fired into stacks of hardwood. Then came the rocket project.

Cape Canaveral North - In the fifties, kitchen table science was popular with young boys. There were science heroes then like Jonas Salk. We became interested in rockets; largely because of the charisma of Wernher von Braun. It was easy to mail order powerful chemicals from science supply houses to use as rocket fuels. That was before the days of lawsuits and security checks. We had access to the machine shop at Federal Foods where at night we taught ourselves to weld, cut and machine steel. Following our usual pattern, we built ever larger rockets. Our first firings reached altitudes of 1,500 feet. Eventually we built two stage rockets that went over a mile. We erected an hydraulic test stand to measure thrust and an underground bunker of reinforced concrete that held six people. The bunker was made in a continuous 24 hour concrete pour fortified by food and drink from Johnny and Birdie's A&W Rood Beer stand in Thiensville. Our largest rocket which, to everyone's relief, was never launched over Mequon, generated a ton of thrust and was designed to rise fifteen miles. By this time, in the late 50s, Mequon was being developed and there was less open space. Besides, we were a little concerned about showing up, however briefly, on the radar screen at the Nike base in Milwaukee.

There were other rocket experimenters around the country. Unbeknown to us, Homer Hickham was building smaller rockets at the same time. His exploits which were later made famous in the movie October Sky led to his entry into the national science fair where he won first prize and actually got to meet Wernher von Braun. A few months earlier, my brother entered our latest rocket in the Marquette University Science Fair in Milwaukee where the judges disqualified it as too dangerous. Actually that didn't hurt us a bit. We figured we were pushing the envelope; getting bounced like so many other science pioneers was a badge of distinction and we didn't know about Homer Hickham. Besides, my brother met one of von Braun's associates, another German Rocket Scientist, Dr. Martin Schilling, and got his picture in the Milwaukee Journal with Dr. Schilling examining the rocket with bemused skepticism.

A Parting Reminiscence:

Once, when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, a man came out to do some welding on my father's property. It was summer so I hung around and watched him work. He was a WWII veteran so he began telling me about his combat experiences in Europe. It wasn't until the second or third day that I began to realize he was telling me his experience in the German army. He had an accent, but it didn't sound different from many of the people around Mequon, Thiensville and Cedarburg I knew.


Karen Fischer Johnson's different perspective on the 7 AM yellow bus:

Tom's memories stirred up some memories of my own. My family actually moved to Glendale in 1952 on Clovernook Lane, a stone's throw from what is now Nicolet High School, but then it was a vacant farm field where the "city" of Glendale held its annual summer picnic.

It was so much fun to read about Tom's escapades (darn, we never saw any rockets going over head); but I would have loved to see the kite with the 2x4 spine. Must have been spectacular.

I spent 7th and 8th grades at Green Tree School, where my current husband, Ronney Johnson, did his practice teaching while I was in 8th grade. Those were the days when your dad would have killed you if you commented on how cute the new student teacher was. It was a school reunion for Green Tree School that brought us back together after 37 years. Principal Helen Conley took full credit for the romance as she's the one, at 92, who suggested I should call "Mr. Johnson" to see if he'd like to help with the Reunion. You never questioned Mrs. Conley when she gave you an assignment.

Then, off on the yellow bus at 7 AM for 4 years, as a transfer student to Shorewood. They broke ground on Nicolet High School during my sophomore year at SHS, and the class after ours eventually ended up at Nicolet. It turns out the Tom Roberts and I were actually on the same bus each day, driven by Mr. Ed Otting all the years we were at SHS. I expect some of the rest of you remember Mr. Otting, as well.