There’s been a thermometer of some sort hanging on the wall of a building on our farm for as long as I can remember. A few of them are still there, bearing the names of agriculture companies no longer in business.
When you live in the country you live with the weather — the highs, the lows and everything in between. I don’t need an instrument to tell me when it’s 20-below zero because my frozen face and aching bones are all the proof I need.
But you still want to know the actual temperature.
Whenever we have a cold snap, I think back to a bitterly-cold Sunday morning some 45 years ago, a day when breathing made your nose hairs ache and it hurt to face the wind.
It must have been divine intervention that brought us to church that day because getting chores done on the farm takes at least twice as long when it’s that cold.
It was the end of the service during announcements, and the pastor remarked to the small group of shivering pilgrims about it being something like 35-below that morning. My grandmother Cecil Hardie promptly stood up — all of her barely 5 feet — and proudly offered in her Norwegian lilt: “It was 44-below in Franklin this morning.”
If any other worshipers had a colder temperature to report, they held their tongue. Grandma had spoken. End of the conversation and pass the coffee. Grandma watched the thermometer outside her kitchen window with great vigilance. She took pride in being the amateur meteorologist of the town.
We have a digital thermometer to create our own little weather station measuring indoor and outdoor temperatures, but it is designed to register only as cold as 35-below. During last year’s polar vortex that wasn’t sufficient to measure the -40 that we had.
Recently I decided to buy an old-fashioned thermometer to hang by the back door. It would be convenient for me to glance at on my way in from doing morning chores. I didn’t need anything fancy, just a plain unit. So naturally I reached for the row with the lowest prices.
Cold weather must have seized my brain because I didn’t realize until the next morning that the thermometer had a major flaw. It only goes down to zero degrees. What good is that in Wisconsin? It has to get below that before I even think about wearing long underwear.
I figured the store must be served by a southern thermometer manufacturer that thinks that life ceases to exist at temperatures below zero.
Then much to my chagrin I found out it’s made in Wisconsin. Talk about a design flaw. I guess it’s a summer thermometer. About the only thing I can use it for now is to make sure the refrigerator is at 40 degrees.
And I have to stop using the phrase “the mercury dipped to” because mercury is no longer used by this company. The red dye in the thermometer is made of 99.7% coal oil and .3% red pigment.
My wife would remind me that perhaps I shouldn’t reach for the lowest price shelf.
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My recent article on milking cows on a cold winter day received several reader responses.
Grant Mosely from Warrens, Wisconsin, said he had never heard the word “surcingle” that is given to the belt that holds the milker bucket to the cow.
“At one time in my life I did relief milking for several different farms. Thankfully most of them had pipelines by then, but one farm, used the “belts” and transferred milk to the bulk tank just as you said. Another used buckets that sat on the floor. The milk was then dumped into a stainless steel can and carried to the milkhouse. I believe the can was called a “shotgun can.”
That was about 40 years ago. None of those farms milk today. One is a cranberry marsh, another is a sand mine, another a small beef farm. The rest just have empty barns with crops being grown on the land.”
Lora Wimer, who lives in Rusk County, Wisconsin, said my recent columns and cutting wood hit close to home.
“I am 62, moved to Rusk County from northern Indiana when I was just 4, so I grew up here in the cold north. We cut wood with a buzz saw that my Pop attached to our Farmall H. We could do a lot of wood in an afternoon. We never had much woods of our own so we purchased a loggers truck load, one of those smaller trucks, not a semi load like today.
“I also grew up milking cows in a cold barn, real cold. (I was the youngest of 8, and the only that had any interest in farming). Cold hands were always put between the udder and leg of a cow. I taught my two daughters to do that when we farmed; our barns were never “toasty” warm. We haven’t had cows since 2012 but just the last time my 32-year-old (who works as a physical therapist assistant) was home, she said “I need a cow udder, my hands are cold!”
The saying ‘you can take the kid out of the country but you can never take the country out of the kid’ is so true.”
Wimer’s other daughter, 27, milks cows for a neighbor. “We still have a farm and horses and a half dozen beef but we don’t farm for a living.”
Apparently my secret spot for warming hands is well-known by milkers.
Danny Pawelski of Mosinee wrote:
“Thanks for the writeup of the memories of winter morning milkings. We had a similar setup and it has only been just over a year since I got out of dairy but the article sure brought back some ingrained memories. I was ever so thankful during those harsh winter days last year of not having to go into the barn but I do reminisce the hand-warming secret that you mentioned!”
I always appreciate reader feedback and story ideas. Keep them coming.