Francis -- The Early Years

 First published in the February 1995 Schmitt Newsletter

[As 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 life. 

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 agreement . 
John Schmitt Home Mendon
Mendon home of John Schmitt (grandfather of Francis)

Mendon Beginnings

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 sedate.

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.

Martin Schmitt Home 1916 Elmira, MI
Stan 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, trapping.  

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.

Shear gains

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.) 

Food gathering

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.

Martin, Francis, Gib in Elmira
Taken sometime before 1920.  Martin is in the foreground with his two oldest sons Francis and Gilbert. (per Tom)

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.

Francis at Sprinkle Road Farm
Francis, 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 Schmitt, respectively.

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.

The Dairyman

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.

Diary Farming

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! 

Student Life

Francis in 1935 at Western Michigan 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.

Hard Times

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.

Return to Francis History Index by clicking here

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