Ben Van Wyk Reminices

“It was a fun afternoon,” said Freda Vande Wall about one day in February, 1984, when Ben Van Wyk (1905-2003), Alice Van Lint Mathes (1903-2000), and she sat around Ben’s kitchen table at his farm home near Monroe, Iowa. Freda had asked “Uncle Ben” to do some reminiscing of his earlier years, and Alice, a grade school classmate of Ben, was there to help him recall some happenings. They moved from one memory to another as they talked of bygone days, and Freda recorded some of their stories for us to read and enjoy.

Ben was born northeast of Pella but moved with his family to a farm southwest of Pella when he was a young child. Alice lived in the same neighborhood. The Van Wyk children attended West Amsterdam School first and later, when East Amsterdam School was built because some children had to go so far to attend West Amsterdam, they attended the new school. Alice also attended East Amsterdam School. In both cases, the schools were between 2- 2 ½ miles from the Van Wyk children’s home. East Amsterdam School still stands on its original southwest of Pella, property of Pella Historical Society and restored to its original condition.

The school was the typical one-room building with a big, potbellied, cast iron stove in the center of the room. The teacher’s salary was $15.00 a month. Her duties included not only teaching but also handling all the custodial duties. Sometimes, however, one of the older boys would come early in the morning and start the fire in the stove. The big stove burned coal which was carried in by the bucketful. If the damper was closed too tightly, there would be a buildup of gas in the stove. Then, when the stove’s door was opened, a big cloud of smoke and gas belched out into the room. When that happened, the windows and door were thrown open immediately, regardless of the temperature outside, until the smoke cleared.

Two children shared each of the double desks. In the front of the room facing the teacher’s desk stood the long, hard, recitation bench. Here the children in the various classes sat to “recite.” Schools opened with prayer and reading and singing of school songs. Subjects studied were reading and arithmetic before noon, geography or grammar and spelling in the afternoon. Attendance at school was not compulsory. Generally, eighteen to twenty children attended, but in the winter months after harvest was completed, the older boys also attended school. They studied with a class that was already in progress, and then in the spring they left school again when field work started. Very few children completed requirements for graduation from eighth grade because both boys and girls missed many classes when they stayed home to help with the work. As Ben and Alice remembered it, discipline was not a real problem in the school. Misbehavior brought a spanking or a time of standing in the corner. Often a child had to stay in for recess to finish work or as punishment. The teacher spoke and acted with authority and the children respected her.

There was no well on the school grounds and water was carried in a bucket from the nearest farmstead. The older schoolchildren took turns going to get the water.

Lunch was taken to school in half-gallon syrup pails. The unwrapped sandwiches were generally made with peanut butter or jelly on homemade bread. Alice remembered that sometimes she had home-cured dried beef on her bread. She and Ben also remembered the brown molasses-soaked sandwiches that some of the children brought. Often an unwanted sandwich could be “swapped” for something that looked better. An unexpected treat was finding a piece of unfrosted cake in the lunch bucket.

During noon hour and first and last recesses, the children all played games together. Some of their favorites were Drop the Handkerchief, Beckon-Beckon, and Fox and Geese when the snow was deep enough to make the required circles.

When the children reached home after school, they each had assigned chores to do. Chickens must be fed, eggs gathered, wood carried in, cobs picked up, etc. They had to make sure the cobs were dry since they were used to start the fires in the stoves in the morning. During the summer, cobs were picked up and stored in the cob shed so that they could be used in the wintertime. Older children helped with the milking and other chores. There were assigned jobs in the house as well as outdoors. One that Ben remembered well was turning the churn to make butter. He described in detail the big barrel churn with its little hinged-door lid on top.

After supper and perhaps a few rounds of dominoes or some similar game it was time for bed. One room with two beds was shared by Ben and his twin brothers, Joe and Gerrit, and his half-brother Pete. The only light in the room came from a very small kerosene lamp. In the shadowy semi-darkness, the boys delighted in scaring each other. As Ben put it, “they wasted no time in getting into bed where they felt safer.” “Morning” came quickly, often long before daybreak, for Dad Van Wyk. He arose first, started the fires in the stoves and made coffee. Ben could not remember if the big stove in the living room was banked at night, but the kitchen stove was always “out” by morning. After they had shared the coffee, Mother made breakfast while Dad and the older children did the milking.

Each family did its own butchering in the spring. The meat was salted down in big barrels. Sometimes it was soaked in salt brine and then smoked in the smokehouse. A hog was considered the right size for butchering when it weighed at least three hundred pounds.

The last day of school was always a highlight of the year. Fathers and mothers would come to school on that day bringing with them picnic food. Tablecloths were spread out on the ground and the food set out. Everyone enjoyed the meal and the games and fellowship that followed. School programs were regular productions, at least in the eyes of the children. Alice even remembered a little “piece” that Ben had spoken some seventy years before. After a little hesitation, she recalled it as “Fishy fishy in the brook Daddy catch you on a hook. Mommy fry you in a pan, Bennie eat you like a man.”, “Wow,” commented Ben, “I remembered all of that!”

The boys wore overalls to school and the girls wore dresses. Over their dresses the girls wore aprons which generally had big hems in them. As the girl grew, the hem was “let down.” Clothing and shoes were handed down from one child to the next.

Ben could not remember his mother going to town on Saturday, but his father went regularly to take in the cream and eggs. Each week two of the children accompanied him until each had a turn, then the process was repeated. Ben loved to ride to town on the spring wagon and he recalled with delight how that, on rare occasions, when they took the produce to the creamery, the man in charge would give him a free ice cream cone. That really made his day! Ice cream was a treat and for special occasions they would get ice from town to make ice cream at home.

Neither Alice nor Ben could remember having Christmas trees in their homes, but both recalled the schoolhouse decorated with evergreen boughs. On one occasion the Van Wyk children received two new sleds at one time. Ben can still describe them in detail — small, red, made of wood with no steering in front, little round runners under the wooden runners running all the way to the back, and a little rope with which to pull the sled. They were really proud of those sleds!

The buggy was reserved for family outings, including attending church each Sunday at the First Christian Reformed Church in Pella. Ben described the method of taking the offering. A long pole with a small bag attached to its end was passed by the deacon down each row. Each child dropped his penny in the bag as it passed in front of him. Ben recalled seeing far more pennies than quarters in the bag. Because of the illness of Ben’s mother, the family moved from the farm into South Pella. They still had cows, chickens, and a few hogs. Ben remembers his Dad selling milk for 15 cents a quart. For a short time they attended the Christian Grade School. The mother’s health did not improve and she died in the spring of 1915 when Ben was not quite ten years old. Ben’s little sister, Tillie, whom both Ben and Alice described as a pretty little girl with long, blond curly hair, was not well the day of her mother’s funeral and was cared for at the home while the others went to the cemetery. In the days following, she developed terrible headaches and died a few weeks later.

For about a year and a half the family managed to stay together with assistance from those who came in to help with the housework and laundry. Then it was no longer possible for the father to maintain the home since he had become seriously ill. A sale was held to dispose of the family’s possessions and the family was broken up. The children went to live with other family members and the father went to the home of his daughter Hendrika who lived near Sully. Here he was cared for until his death which occurred the next spring.

The children soon settled into their new homes and continued their schooling. Irene lived with her step- brother John’s family at Oskaloosa, Ben went to his half-brother Tenis’ home at Monroe, and Gerrit and Joe went to the homes of their half-brothers Harry and Neal who lived near Sully.

With a chuckle Ben told of an incident he remembered very well that had made quite an impression on him. At his new school, he was behind in his studies and had given up hope of ever catching up. The teacher admonished him to “get on the ball” and start studying, but Ben had no intention of doing that. The teacher went to the back of the room, off to one side, and quietly watched Ben. He had no desire to buckle down to his studies and did not do so, but suddenly, as Ben tells it, “Pretty soon she came up to me, put her hands in my hair like this, and shook the dickens out of me. Maybe I wasn’t so smart in books, but I was smart enough to figure out why she did it.”

Ben was too young to register for World War I but he remembered when Tenis received a notification of some sort regarding the war. He recalled the relief felt on Armistice Day and the celebration in Monroe with its huge bonfire. Then after a quiet pause, Ben commented, “Well, I kind of wish we could have a bonfire now and have it all over with.” (He was referring to American servicemen now stationed in various troubled areas of the world, especially the Far East.)

The 4th of July was a day off from work unless the men were behind in their field work. In that case they spent the day working. Someone would drive to town to get some ice and they would celebrate the day by making ice cream. Ben recalled how some people would cut blocks of ice from the river or creeks in the winter, pack the ice in straw or sawdust in the icehouse, and then deliver it in the summer to those who used it in their iceboxes.

As Ben grew older, he worked for $50 a month and considered himself fortunate to have a job since they were very hard to find. When he was 18 years old, his boss bought a new car and Ben bought his used one. It was a Model T 4-door Ford touring car. Later he bought a coupe body and put it on the touring chassis. “The car had a choke wire coming out the front and you had to pull out the choke and crank at the same time. You were lucky if it didn’t kick back and throw you away from the crank. It was a good way to get your arm broken. The car got pretty good mileage and gas cost around 10 or 11 cents a gallon. The roads were mostly dirt and often muddy, but the cars with their narrow wheels and high clearance could go through some pretty deep mud. You had to push on the “low pedal” all the way through if you were in mud. Slow driving in “low” for a long period of time made the lining of the “low” band burn out. When this happened, “you just pulled out the worn out band and put in a new one,” said Ben as he explained about the car. “I don’t remember very many flats,” he continued, “but you had an extra rim that you carried with you, and if you did get a flat, you just went the rest of the way on the rim.” Ben boarded where he worked so he would drive his car to work on Sunday night, put it in the garage, and drive it back to Tenis’ on Saturday night. There wasn’t much midweek entertainment and weekend entertainment usually consisted of going to the band concert in Monroe on Saturday night, attending church on Sunday and Young Peoples Meeting on Sunday night. Ben also saved mileage on his car because his girlfriend, Inna Nelle, attended the same church.

The summer that Ben was 15 years old, he helped his half-brother Henry who lived about six miles from Sully. One day they sold hogs. They got up long before daylight, loaded the hogs three or four to a wagon, and drove the teams of mules and horses to Sully. A bucket was tied to the side of the wagon if the hogs started to get hot, the driver would have to stop and use the bucket to dip water from a nearby creek and then soak the hogs down.

Gerrit and Joe, Ben’s twin brothers, each bought a brand new car in 1924 or 1925. They were two-door, Model T Ford Roadster Coupes that cost $307 each.

As the visit came to a close, Ben remarked to Alice that the days past were supposedly the so-called “good old days.” After reflecting for a moment, he added, “They were hard, real hard, but people got along and they helped each other.” Alice nodded her head in agreement.

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1918 – one year after Willem’s death – Willem Van Wyk children
Back row: Will, John Will, tenis, Lambert, Harry, Neal
Front Row: Henry, Dick, Hendrika, John, Gysbert
(absent: Marion)

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1946 – Van Wyk Brothers
Back Row: Marion, Tenis, Henry, Dick, Will, Harry, John Will
Front Row: Lambert, John, Neal, Gysbert

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Back Row: Marion, Tenis, Dick, Irene, Will, Harry, John Will
Middle Row: Lambert, John, Henry, Gysbert
Front Row: Ben, Gerrit, Joe, Neal

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Van Wyk Brothers – 1946
Left to Right: Marion, Lambert, Tenis, Henry, Dick, Neal
Will, John, Harry, Gysbert, John Will

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Van Wyk Sisters-in-Law

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Children of Willem and Tillie
Left to Right: Gerrit, Ben, Joe, Irene

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Children of Willem and Tillie
Left to Right: Ben, Irene, Joe, Gerrit

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