This article delves into the transformative first decade of the 20th century in Hemlock, emphasizing the significant changes that reshaped the town’s economy and daily life. With the expansion of railroads and the decline of lumbering, farming emerged as the community’s economic backbone, supported by improved transportation and a burgeoning variety of goods. The narrative highlights the hardworking yet nearly self-sufficient lifestyle of the average farmer, contrasted with the modernization of farming practices over time. Additionally, it reminisces about the era’s simple pleasures, like the anticipation of the merchandise peddler’s visits, and the advent of electricity, showcasing the community’s adaptation to new technologies and the pioneering spirit that fueled Hemlock’s growth and prosperity.
The Turn of the Century
by Lorenz H. Loesel
As we approach the first decade of the new century, we find that the tempo and business climate of the thriving town of Hemlock had increased considerably. Railroading, with its ever-growing rolling stock, helped to augment trade and business of this town. Sawmills, gristmills, hardware stores, general stores, and similar trades and industries aided in shaping our town into a community with a future. Improved rural roads made it possible for the farmer to bring his produce to town and sell them at the grain market. Many different types of merchandise became available due to the expanding transportation facilities. New foods, improved farm machinery, gadgets for the housewife, and similar products were the determining factors which helped to usher in the new era.
Lumbering had ceased to be the leading industry. At this time, many of the farms had been cleared, and farming became the backbone of this community. Richland Township, with its varied soils, gave rise to what may be termed as diversified farming. Each farm generally consisted of sixty, eighty, or a hundred-acre plots. By and large, the average farmer, with the aid of his family, was able to make a comfortable living. Nearly all farms would have several hundred chickens, several cows, hogs, sheep, and several teams of horses. In order to feed these animals, the farmer had to raise grain, hay, corn, and other feed. In these days, the average farmer was almost self-sufficient. Having his own chickens, cows, and hogs, the individual farmer and his family were fairly well supplied with the basic foods. On the other hand, we must realize that this type of farming demanded a great deal of manual labor. Consequently, each member of the family was called upon to do his or her share so that the seasonal chores would be completed in due time. Doing the chores, feeding the chickens, getting the cows, and similar tasks were concepts which every farm youngster comprehended as soon as he was old enough to do his part.
As we view the modern farm with its powerful tractors, combines, milking parlors, and other power-driven tools, we begin to realize that a new form of farming has emerged in the last few decades. Obviously, the farm of the previous period will soon be mere history.
However, we wish to return to our previous picture and visit a typical farm home in the 1900s. Automobiles were still in their infancy. Horse and buggy were the safest and surest way of transportation. During these years, several of the Hemlock merchants felt that they should make their merchandise available to more people and at the same time enable these people to sell their farm produce. Consequently, the local merchandise peddler became an innovation during this period. The late Charles Wardin was employed at the Pahl Store. William Pahl decided that his clerk, Charles Wardin, would be an excellent salesman on the road. I had many conversations with the late Mr. Wardin, so it is not too difficult to present the following picture. Mr. Wardin would load his wagon with every conceivable merchandise that the housewife would need in her home; flour, spices, spools of thread, cloth, shoes, boots, brooms, etc. Following a definite route, Mr. Wardin would make his trips up and down the township roads. He had no difficulty selling these articles; in fact, many times he would sell the entire stock on the wagon. However, many of the farmers would pay for this merchandise with farm produce such as butter, eggs, lard, and other items. We can well imagine how the hot sun would melt the butter and lard. Pure food laws were still to be written. Added to this, we must bear in mind that the many crates of eggs did not fare much better in the broiling heat. Once Mr. Wardin remarked in his facetious manner, “Man, oh man, the smell was so terrible that the wagon almost went on its own power.” Be that as it may, these memories and experiences will perpetuate themselves for many years.
Miss Raucholz, the librarian of our township, related to me that the arrival of the merchandise peddler at her home proved to be one of the most thrilling experiences in her youth. She and her sister would stand in the middle of the road, waiting anxiously for the store peddler to arrive. To her, it almost seemed to be a Sears Catalog on wheels — exquisite colors, bright-colored spools of thread, fairy-styled glassware, and so many beautiful things on a red-colored wagon. Next to Christmas, this was a special day for the children. In fact, the entire family would stand about the wagon and admire the gadgets and new merchandise that the storeman had brought. We may assume that this type of merchandising did much to change the daily routine and added to the comfort of the rural homes.
It was also during this period that our community was yet without electric lights. Most homes were using the old familiar kerosene lamp or lantern, which was regarded with high esteem. A few families became so urban in their thinking that they equipped their homes with the newly discovered gas or carbon light. Fortunately, one of Hemlock’s enterprising men felt that his community should be privileged to have electric lights in their homes. With the ingenuity of a real craftsman, John Rick supplied himself with a generator and steam engine. Even though this source of electricity was small compared with modern standards, nevertheless, it was sufficient to supply several homes with electric lights. Again, we are reminded that our young community was on the march. These pioneering fathers were not afraid of meeting the challenge. It is this type of venturing spirit that permitted the gradual but steady development of our present-day living standard. We, as a community, owe a special debt of gratitude to these pioneering fathers who had the courage and ambition to launch ahead. True, it is that not every venture resulted in a successful enterprise, but by the same token, it helped to chart the course for future progress.