On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to pick up the thread of the story of the Valentine Bier family. I started weaving this story a year ago, in honor of Valentine Bier’s nameday and birthday, with an introduction to the patriarch of the Bier family in southern Wisconsin. After several more installments, we left Valentine transplanted to a meager existence in Rock County, and his wife and children newly arrived from Ketzelsdorf to join him. Then I was distracted by the Bier trip to the homeland and related topics. For today, I’d like to pick up the thread of the family’s story where I left it. Valentine and Catherine were reunited at the train depot in Janesville after almost a year apart. He was meeting his youngest daughter, Amalia, for the first time. They climbed onto a lumber wagon and began their journey home.
They arrived in the fall of 1882, and that winter the family lived in a two-room shack on the property of the farm on which Valentine was employed as a hired hand. The farm was owned by Al Husker, and the building in which the family was to be housed was a two-room shack previously used as a woodshed and rummage room. In the Memoirs of Father Charles, who was 3 at the time,
The walls were not plastered, and a single layer of siding boards, not too well matched, was all that kept out the wind and weather. The larger room had two small windows and was used as kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom. Into it were crowded a small kitchen stove, a table, a cupboard, two rough wooden benches, and a bed. The smaller room had no window at all and was used as a bedroom. There was no plumbing in the shack nor any household convenience whatsoever. — Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.
When my mother and I drove to the site, we found that a farm house sits on the north side of the road, and an open expanse of prairie to the south. The winds through the ill-matched siding must have been fierce. In order to fit into the tiny space, the two older children, John and Frances, were housed with other families where they worked to earn their keep, of course. They were 11 and 12. Valentine worked long hours and was seldom home before well into the night.
The following fall of 1883, Valentine rented a few acres south of Milton where the family lived for 4-5 more years in the small farmhouse. I don’t know the name or owners of the farm on which he worked, but on those few acres he raised the cash crop of the day: tobacco. He did so on half shares, meaning that 50% of whatever he earned from its ultimate sale went right back to the landlord. As the meager amount that he earned from this enterprise wasn’t enough to support the family, he also hired himself out to other farmers at a rate of 75 cents per day. The family’s principal income, however, depended on the labor-intensive tobacco crop. Fortunately, much of the tedious work could be done by Catherine and the children. In Father Charles’ words
The price paid for the leaf tobacco at the time was about 5 cents per pound. and the average yield per acre was about 1500 pounds. This amounted to about $75 per acre of which half was paid to the landlord as rental. — Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse
Around this same time, the two eldest children began to formally work out of the house as hired hands. John worked for a local farmer for $10 per month with only Sundays off. All of his earnings, save for what it took to keep him fed and clothed, went back to the family and allowed Valentine to invest in farming equipment and a few cows and to steadily increase his farming enterprise. Similarly, Frances’ work as a hired girl was equally arduous and brought in $1.50 to $2.00 per week. Valentine set aside the money she earned and after three years was able to buy his first team of horses with it. Without John and Frances’ sacrifice of, essentially, their childhoods, Valentine may never have been able to break out of the cycle of subsistence or tenant farming. Neither of them were able to formally go to school, save for a few months to learn English upon first arriving.
During the time on this small farm, there were several joyful arrivals. The first was the birth of the third to last child, Caroline, in September, 1884. She is described from suffering from some form of epilepsy, and I suspect that this may have contributed to the fact that she never left home. Far from being an invalid, however, later diaries show her as an integral member of the family, devoted to helping Catherine run the household as children and eventually grandchildren passed through. The other arrival was that of Catherine’s mother and two brothers, Johanna, Frank, and Florian Jiru in 1885. They had also become dissatisfied with life in Ketzelsdorf. Frank was accompanied by his wife, Anna Hanauska (sister of Frances Bier’s eventual husband, Wenzel Hanauska) and baby daughter, another Johanna. They all joined the Valentine Bier family in the tiny rented farmhouse, and for awhile there were 12 people under the tiny roof.
This only lasted a short while, however, as Valentine transferred his brood to a larger rented farm, the Lime Borden farm on the southeast side of Milton. Frank Jiru and his family stayed behind in the small rented farm that they vacated, and Florian and Johanna Jiru stayed on with the Valentine & Catherine Bier family–Florian for a couple of years and Johanna for the rest of her life, about 20 more years. The Lime Borden Farm had a relatively palatial 8-room farmhouse, along with the usual farm buildings and a tobacco shed. Despite the better setup, however, the three years spent there were far from profitable, as the summers were all quite dry and the prices of farm products including tobacco were quite low. When my mother and I drove by the place, on M-H Townline Road just west of Vickerman, it looked quite rocky as well. It doesn’t seem as though the three years spent on the Lime Borden Farm were remembered very fondly.
Father Charles specifically recounts a few of the more harrowing incidents that occurred during this stretch of time that are best quoted directly in his words:
In the spring of 1886 while Father was doing work in the fields, the horses were accidentally frightened an ran wildly into a barbed wire fence. The better one of the team was cut so badly that it seemed impossible to stop the flow of blood. My parents were both in great distress and well I remember how they cried aloud to God to help. As soon as father was able to quiet the animal sufficiently, mother pressed some rags into the worst of the wounds till the bleeding gradually stopped. Incidentally, this was the valuable mare that was being paid for by my sister Frances with the wages she was earning while working as a hired girl for the family from whom father had bought the mare, and it took almost three years of this service to pay this sum in full. –Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.
Can you imagine, working for three years just to pay off off a mare? And what if it had died–she still would have had to keep working for the debt alone! No wonder they invoked prayer!
The second incident involved Valentine attending a turkey raffle and winning a few birds. Apparently these events differed from today’s meat raffles in that the turkeys were still alive rather than in a freezer. As he was walking home with them, some jealous fellas jumped him and ended up injuring one and killing the other turkey! And this is why we can’t have turkey raffles (or anything nice, kids.)
While Valentine toiled away and fought off turkey muggers, the children still at home started school at the Vickerman School, a short walk from the farm. Yet, this wasn’t all sunshine and roses. As the only Catholics at the school, they were automatically outcasts. This was made worse by the fact that they didn’t speak any English and were quite visibly poor. Eventually the other children let Charles and Frank and their siblings play with them, except they never got to be the blindman in “blindman’s bluff,” as they didn’t own their own handkerchiefs, and the other children didn’t want Bier germs on theirs. Kids being perhaps unintentionally mean is a problem across the ages, I suppose.
So what happened next? Did the venture on the not-terribly-profitable Lime Borden Farm do them in? Stay tuned…