An Interview with Alice Heil with background information

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This is from an interview conducted with Alice Heil about her life on a farm in Kronenwetter.  It was done by a professional writer, Karen Dahood of Tucson Arizona who sent the information to be used on the Marathon County Web page.


Alice Heil's Story

A landswoman seemed archaic in the 1970s, even though there was a youth-spirited "back to earth" movement in this country. How many females over 50 could claim to know - intimately - the land they lived on? How many women over 50 even lived on land they had known for very long?

Ours is a moving country, with Midwesterners of the mid-century tending to go to larger cities to start their careers, and to warmer climates when their careers were over. In 1975, having moved seven times, I announced to my family that I was looking for women to interview who had stayed in one place all or most of their lives. My uncle, Wilfred Rhyner, knew immediately who would make a wonderful subject in Marathon County.

Alice Heil was the mother of his childhood friend, (Leonard) Jim Heil. The Heils and Rhyners lived on adjacent acreages in Kronenwetter, east of the Wisconsin River, after 1926. Jim grew up and bought his own home in the area, but his mother remained on the family farm, where she had lived since she was an infant.

There were few farmers in Kronenwetter when it was legally divided from adjacent Mosinee in 1886. It was a wilderness, a forest that gradually was felled by the town's namesake and founder, who owned a sawmill. As the land was cleared of timber, settlers moved in. They raised milk cows and the clover and corn to feed them.

Alice Heil's parents, Louis and Rose Spatz, homesteaded 40 acres at the northwest quarter of section 8 Township 27 Range 8E. My uncle's family ran a cheese factory directly north of the boundary. The school was located on the northeast corner of Section 8 and was called Lyon School. Wilfred continued to go hunting and fishing with Jim after they were out of school. He remembers that the Heils' door was always open, and that they had a machine shop and a good set of tools that their neighbors could use.

In the late 1920s, the farmland and buildings were recently developed. There was plenty of rainfall and the land was productive. Most farmers had debts, however, and had mortgaged their property for more than it was worth by 1933. Many sold their livestock and went to the cities to find work. Those who hung on had to work even harder than usual to make a living. If they could afford it, they bought up their less successful neighbors' land to expand their own operations. Where the timber had been harvested there was open land, and this was not planted over with crops, for people hoped more trees would grow.

The Heils went through the motions of keeping their cows and growing corn like their neighbors, but they did other things that came naturally to them, like pick wild ginseng and sell it to a New York agent for a few dollars a pound. Back East this was a common way to make extra money in places where maple trees grew, and many New Englanders brought that tradition to Wisconsin.

Alice spent most of her time in the woods. She trapped and preserved hides for a living, and did taxidermy work as a hobby. The most common furs in the area were muskrat and skunk. Mink, fox and others were there for the professional who knew how to find them. Alice did. She also was a "honey hunter" and she collected maple syrup. Was Alice unusual? My aunt, Jeanne Rhyner, wrote (1976): "Wilfred says there weren't ever two people made out of the same mold in the country. The backgrounds of the people that formed the community around the cheese factory was very diversified, from educated school teachers to coal miners from the East, Polish from Chicago slaughtering houses, Italians from the Mafia, people born and educated in foreign countries and people who had lived in the area all their lives….The Heils were of German descent, and the Heils and Spatzes came originally to Marathon City."

"Socially, Alice kept pretty much to herself. However, as a citizen of the community she was well respected. Her interests and habits were different from the average woman…[and] because she didn't want to move away from her home, they [she and Mr. Heil] lived there for a time. However, her father Louis Spatz was an atheist and ridiculed the Catholic faith of her husband. They evidently did not live together very long and Alice remained with her parents until they died."

The granddaughter "Archie" that Alice fondly mentions is Arlene Heil. She wrote in 1976: "I was known as Grandma's Shadow. I remember feeling so grown up when the top of my head reached her shoulders; after I really grew up the top of her head reached my shoulders."

In July of 1975, Alice looked surprisingly small to me. Hearing of her abilities, I had imagined someone strapping, monumental. Inwardly, she was.

I described the scene and our meeting this way:

"Her house was built sideways to the road on acreage that tilts downward into a large grove of hardwood. The short driveway ends abruptly at the porch steps. It divides the property into two pieces, with the house, its clotheslines, vegetable patch and perennial flowerbeds on the left, and the red barn, the empty furrowed field, and a clutter of motor vehicles and machinery to the right. Wire fence keeps the cows off the yard. These black and white Holsteins…stand at the fence posts in grass to their flanks, looking, blinking, and chewing their cuds. They switch and switch their tails to keep off the flies, and they occasionally complain. A tankle-tonkle sound coming from under the trees calls attention to another crowd gathered around a water trough, repeatedly shifting their rumps as they try to gain ground in the mud."

"This is no showplace. The house is white but the paint is peeling. The parlor outside entrance has been boarded up for years. Thick vines have wound themselves around all the uprights - porch pillars, gateposts, utility poles - and they creep tentatively across wires and beams…."

"Alice was glad to see us, but she seemed pensive. I was a stranger, and Wilfred was a long-forgotten friend. She served us glasses of Pepsi-Cola as we sat at her oilcloth covered kitchen table. She stood apart from us at first, next to the cold, oil-burning space heater, with her skinny arms folded over her chest as if her buttons had gone off somewhere by themselves and left her holding the fronts of her old cardigan together. She wore a full apron underneath, and a print scarf tied up around her head. Over her shoulder, we saw through the tall, narrow, curtainless window, a field recently mowed…."

In the following months I pursued a better understanding of Alice Heil's life by reading from historical documents and books. I was assisted by a researcher recommended by WHO at The University of Wisconsin, Wausau branch. Sherri Gebert was a delightful collaborator, who grew up in Wausau after I did and was living in Stevens Point. We never actually met. Sherri was able to talk to local people face to face and uncover obscure articles on a wide range of related topics: the ginseng business, cheese factories, the status of women, early schools and teachers' salaries. She willingly sought answers to unusual questions Alice's stories raised. Would someone have started off in a horse-drawn buggy to go to Florida in the winter? Were there other reports of lynxes in the area about the time Alice saw those tracks? When did tiger lilies bloom? We got somewhat carried away with our researches until we both got busy with other projects.

The Method of Transcription

Living in the Southwest, I had become acquainted with various native Indian tribes through scholarly writings. Dennis Tedlock had translated several oral narratives of the Zunis living in western New Mexico. These traditional tales were performed at ceremonies, usually by men. Tedlock transcribed these from his tape recordings onto the page with line breaks and other characteristics that imitate the speech patterns of the storytellers. In his preface to Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians (University of Nebraska Press, Bison edition, 1978), the anthropologist wrote: "This is still the only book devoted to detailed scores for oral narrative performances, complete with the original pauses, shouts, whispers, chants, and changing tones of voice. The present narratives are translated from the Zuni language of New Mexico, but the same mode of presentation could be a vehicle for any other spoken transition."

With this inspiration, I chose to transcribe the taped interviews with Alice Heil and four other women as "poems." The unexpected but happy result was to see that the five each had a different way of speaking, which supported my perception of their supreme uniqueness.

Karen Dahood

Tucson, AZ

August 12, 2000


Alice Heil Interview

July 1975, Kronenwetter, Wisconsin

I. Neighbors

He'd be here yet, if his boy

Was alive, you know.

But when his boy's children went,

that was the end.

He went back --

Florida, I think --

someplace south.


Oh my uncle lived right across

on the other road.

And let's see…

there was a fellow who lived over here, in the old building.

Well, they all moved out. Oh boy.

And then the neighbors

moved in.

Like from Chicago, a couple of 'em came in, and now look --

how many neighbors we have!

The last five years, I'd say. Boy-oh-boy!

Ohhhhh yah, beeeyoootifulll woods!

We had oooooooohhh woods here that no axe had been in.

You know - timber - nice!

A bunch here, a bunch there, maybe a couple a miles apart

or something.

We used to go

from one bunch"of timber to the next.

One day we'd probably take one bunch, how far we git.

Oh we usedta pick a lotta ginseng,

a lot of it. But then it wasn't worth much.

Now, it's worth a lotta money,

from sixty-to-seventy-dollars-a-pound, dried

but where do you find it?

Oh yah.

The land is just about all bought up.

The timber is just about all cut off.

People are getting cattle,

and cattle like ginseng, they eat 'em,


we don't have much chance!

II. The Farm

When Dad bought the land,

the sawmill was going

across the other road yet,

about a mile from here.

He bought it from Jack Green, that was the man that had

the sawmill

and logged most of it off.

He worked summer and winter. They had a railroad track

about a mile, mile-and-a-half, straight across.

And the railroad track went way up to the woods and then

they'd haul it down to Mosinee with trains.


that was all right. But there was no clearing, there was

no nothing.


And there was

trees, small trees that they had cut down and let lay,

you know.

So when Dad and uncle bought that over there

we bought the place

for a dollar a acre,

at that time.

Now it's worth a thousand a acre!

Wel;l Dad hadda clear land

to build a log house.

We built one.

It was thirty, thirty-foot-long.

We lived in that for years.

Ma was living alone in the wintertime

-- Ma and I --

and one year we had a teacher

staying with us,

and Dad had to work in the woods - well he got twelve

and fourteen dollars a month.

And then, in between time, he had t'be cutting land,


and-kept-on-working-and-clearing-more-land. Well we worked

like niggers - what for?

What will we get out of it? We can't live

for ever!

I dunno. That was silly.

Oh yah,

I liked it.

But the dayyysss were lonnnggg and hard!


I worked like a man.

After I got old enough, I had to drive the horses.

You know --

skid rows, pull stumps out, and make post holes.

Make fences out of stumps.

You didn't have money to buy wire.

Sooooo, you haddo doooo the way you could.

Oh I used to do

anything there was to do

on the farm

after we got clearing.

I could plow with the hand plow we had,

and the riding plow we had,

and drive the horses.

Dad usually bought bucky ones because he got them for


Oh boy, nad then you'd have to fight with them, oh boy.

Well, a bucky horse is something that is like that,

allways. Unless you can master 'em. They have to knowww

that they can't get awaayyy

with their dirt!

If they get broke in it's all right, but you can't depend

on 'em you know.

They're miserable things. Yah.

Not now. No. No. No. No.

I couldn't handle, I couldn't get a harness on one now.

I haven't had horses, I think, ten years.

But I do like 'em. I like the horses all right.

III. The Cookstove

After we got more clearing and could raise

corn and stuff,

then we raised…

oh, everything.

Chickens. Sheep.


Oh cattle.

More work, it was all rights.

More money.

At first we didn't have 'lectrizity,

we didn't have no con-ven-iences, it was a cookstove,

that you used with wood, you know.

'S'all right.

I like 'em because they're quick,

but I don't like 'em when they burn out on ya, that I

don't like. I've had that happen twice.

It scares the wits outa ya.

Well this one I think I'm gonna get rid of.

It's an old, old stove.

I don't like that burning-out in there.

And you can't get one,

the parts!

Now another one burnt out.

And you can't git such a stove so you can git that part,

you know, it's different.

Now they are all modeerrrnnnn.

Well, there's a wood stove on this one, but I don't like it.

That's one wood stove that I don't like.

The thing is long enough in there,

but you can't put a long piece of wood in there!

You gotta take all the lids off.

And take the middle piece out.

So you can get a long piece of wood in.

And it smokes! Ach!



I dunno. I think I'm going to get me a different stove

purty soon.

When they get through with hay-up.

IV. The Bees

We used to get all the honey we wanted,

But now bobody is here to go.

And there are no bees no more.

There are no bees, you can't find any.

I haven't seen a bee around the flowers here for,

I dunno,

couple a years.

Well, I'll tell ya.

The people spray the corn, they spray the alfalfa, so

you shouldn't get bugs-on-it.

And the poor bee comes along, he wants to get a little

honey --

and then he gets poisoned.

He don't even get back to the hive or tree.

Oh you do see

some people have bees yet, but --

not many.

The neighbors up here

had two swarms move in last Fall,

in the granary, on the east side.

Well - I think it wouldn't have made no difference,

maybe it would…

He had somebody come and kill 'em.

You know,

it was too late,

in the Fall.

There were no flowers no more. It had froze.

There was nothing for them to gather,

to make wax, you know, for their comb.

They couldn't make no honey, there were no flowers

or nothing, they would've starved anyhow.

It might have been a good thing.

And then the other neighbor here had a swarm come in.

Well they didn't kill 'em, they left 'em.

But in Spring

we had a thaw.

It got warm.

And I don't know what happened, but he said the bees

all came out

and were laying on the snow.

So I think they starved,

you know, pretty well starved to death.

V. The Landswoman

What did I hunt for?


well whatever…

I used to trap, too, that was the best payin proposition!

Oooooooooohhhhh you shoot some partridges and some prairie chickens,

whatever you could see.

Squirrels, rabbit.

Well you can't always say, "I'm goin' out and I'm gonna

get that!" Maybe "that" ain't there, you know, you have

to wait.

Until you run into something.

Oh I don't know…

Even if I didn't get nothing I was always


when I could get out and

see the changes

in the woods or


I liked it.

I still do.

Berry time. Oh Lordy!

I used to go out

a couple times in the Spring, on Sun-day.

That was my day off, and I'd go out.

And one day I'd go this way

and take-in-a-strip.

The next time I'd go the other way.

Then I knew when the berries got ripe, I watched that.

I knew where to go, where the most berries were.

Nobody else would know it, I'd know it.

I'd go there and pick 'em nice and quiet.

Once I took my uncle along.

After he knew where to go…

(Well, I didn't take him in the good berries!)

After he knew where to go then he didn't need me no more,

I could walk, you know. So I said, "Oh that's all right."

Next year he come back I said: "I dunooooo, I didn't get

out yet, go ahead and looook, country's freeeee."

You learn.

VI. The Grave

I was two weeks or three weeks old when they moved out here.

I liked it here -- you know, after I grew up --|and I think I'm going to stay here as long as I can.

I intend to, and-boy-if-they're-gonna-try-to-take-me-to-one-of-those-homes,




I like it.

Bit I can't do what I like to do…

My granddaughter is-ah…

like I am, I guess.


wants to be buried

on the hill.

Well, I dunno.

They wouldn't permit it.

Not now no more.

That's out.

I says: "I don't care.

If you can get permission

okay. Pick out a place where you want, I'll put a picket

fence around it. But meanwhile,"

I says, "I've got a vacant lot,

a vacant grave there,

you can have,

if you want it."

I've got to find somebody to occupy that grave!

We bought it when Dad died.

We bought it for the four of us. You know --

for my boy and

the three of us.

Well the boy

grew up,

and he got mar-ried, so he don't need that,

you know, he has no use for it.


I should have given it to Jean,

she had a baby that died.

Oh it was about a month old,

maybe not that old,

but I never thought of it,

it slipped my mind completely.

She coulda used it at that time.

And now I don't know…

I don't want no nigger in there,

besides me!

I told my granddaughter Archie, you know,

the last time she was here

if something don't happen to her while she goes back and forth…

(you know you can have a accident, they get killed every day),

I says, "Is it all right

if I bury you

beside me?"

and she says, "Suurree." She was tickled about it, so

if she don't get married,

I'll have a partner.


But if she gets married, well --

I'll have to look far-ther.

VII. The Lynx Tracks

We had one lynx here,

I don't know how many years -


It must have been

thirty years,

maybe more.

He used to come through

in the Spring

and in the Fall.

Twice a year.

And always the same route.

You know, he'd come from the east, way up,

and you could hear

When he'd

Make that funny


like something was

pesterin' him.

Well, he'd come through, we'd all, everybody'd listen. Whoever lived around here would be outside listening.

You know.

How that guy -

how fast he could travel

and not run!

Just walk.



He isn't living anymore,

he's dead.

I haven't heard him,

oh, maybe forty years.

So he is dead.

Well, how would you find him

when the whole thing is

all brush or

woods. He

wouldn't sit out in the

field, you know - that

wasn't for him.

He was for the woods, big woods!

Rib Hill was, I think, where he

Hung out. Rib Hill, Nine-mile Swamp…

That's all he wanted.

Only one person that I know of ever saw him,

and I think he had plenty.

I stepped in his track one time

to see

how big it was. And I was satisfied.

It's a cat, you know. He had a round track.

I would say this big around.

The camp broke up over here.

And there was about four acres.

Huh! Maybe three. They used wood

for the cookstove.

They had no electricity or nothing.

And the foxes used to go there

to play --

you know, after they moved out.

So I went over there.

Hah! It's not far.

With a pony, and dray, over there,

and set me a coupl'a traps.

But I didn't know everything then,

like I know now. You know,

I did the wrong thing.

I moved in

and set them traps,

and they moved out!

I went there - oh, after I'd set 'em

I went there I guess a second day.

But there were no fox tracks.

I had tramped all over that


you know, where they were playing.

I left tracks there.

They said: "Well, if you want to play,

go ahead.

They left me.

Now I know better, butt

that time I didn't know.

And then one time

we had a rain.

It was in the Spring of the year, we had a rain on top of

the snow.

The snow must have been almost knee deep.

And then it froze.

And it put a crust of ice, oh,

probably half a inch thick.

Walking didn't go good, but I had my trail, so it wasn't

so bad.

But on my way back, when I made my circle,

I run across those lynx tracks. You know,

like I say, about that big around.

I had a heavy pair

of knit stockin's

-- home knit --

and then I wore my

barn rubbers.

High tops,

you know, like you wear in the barn

around the herd and stuff.

I put my foot in his track

and I didn't catch either end!

So you know

how big, how high,

that thing might've been!

And then I wanted to see

how big a step he took.

I stepped in one track,

and the other one I couldn't reach,

I had to jump a little, just a little,

to make-it.

That was his walk.

Not his run. Or his jump.





You know our cats are small.

They have a little track, round one.

And they are only civilized.

That thing had such a track,

I bet he stood that high.

I'm sure of it.

VIII. Narrow Escape

Well, I wouldn't wanna be too close.

I'd wanna keep my distance.

That was one thing

I never wanted to meet.

And I almost did, one time.


That was close.


Well - I don't know, it was our own fault, too.

Dad and I went pickin' ginseng


the railroad track.

We used to go from one bunch of timber"to another.

And Ma didn't go along that day, I don't know why.

I don't know what was wrong. She stayed home.

And we took the sulky,

that's a two-wheel


that you sit on and go, we had a good pony.

She was a dandy.

And we went up

to where Gene Jurich used to live --

aw, you don't live around here, you wouldn't know.

We tied up the thing…They had built that log cabin

not too long before,

but nobody-was-living-in-there-at-the-time,

so we tied our pony up on basswood.

There were…I think there were four, or five, basswood trees --

of, about that big around --

around the


We tied her up there and then we went.

And we picked ginseng, it must have been around --

oh, I don't know --

four-thirty or something,

maybe a little later --

I would sort of go home early

and it was time for us to go,

so we get home, get chores done.

And Dad said, "Yeah, well - yeah,

we don't have too much

to finish.

Let's finish it so we don't have to come back."

I stayed for a whole yet, and then

I didn't want to stay no more.

Then we went.

And by the time we got pretty near

to where the pony was,

this thing started.

It cried,


like a kid twelve,

fourteen years old, you know --

a holler,

kind of cry-like.

And we had just come from the woods, you know.

How could anybody be in there?

We didn't meet nobody.

And Dad said: "Somebody is lost."

I didn't say anything, I listened.

And then he answered.

He answered, that thing!

I said: "Listen!

That is no person."

I said: "If that was a person lost,

no matter if it was a kid or a person,

he'd holler, 'Hey!

I'm lost!

Help me!'

-- or something, you know, he would say something."

I says: "That don't talk. Listen!"

Well, I says, "That was a lynx. He ain't lost."

It was.

I know it was.

We kept on going for the pony.

And when we got there, you should have seen the pony!

I don't think she saw him, I'm sure she didn't.

But she was so-o-o


She went forward,

she went back.

She went sideways as far as she could go.

She wanted to go.

So we made her loose, and

we got on the buggy,

on the cart,

and always we went.

Down the old railroad tracks was pretty good goin'.

I said, "You better hold her back."

I wasn't


I weighed around a-hundred-and-seventy-pounds,

and Dad must have weighed that much, too.

I said: "You better hold her back, what happens if a

spoke falls off?

When you have one wheel,

how far do you go?"

Well, he pulled her back.

He would rather have gone faster,

you know - to get further away.

Well --

it didn't follow,

it wasn't hungry.

It couldn't have been. Never!

Well, we got far enough away,

the pony calmed down,

and it was all right.

But he never stayed out that late any more!

He was satisfied

to get out of the woods, you know,

long before

it was time to get back.

VIII. The Trapper

And there was one guy,

I don't remember who --

he trapped

on the Wisconsin River.

We used to hear the motor from here,


If the wind was right or it was calm.

He would go up and down the river trapping.

And he'd done it for a coupla years.

And one morning --

no, evening --

he was a little late,

but he said he was going to look at his traps anyhow.

So he did.

He went up

and was coming down the river

and stopped where he had to.

And then he had a coupla traps set a little way off

-- not far --

maybe for fox, or coon.

And he says

he was coming down his trail

and jumped in the boat.

And he gave it a push, you know,

and then he stepped in the boat.

He had a hold of his rope, but he didn't pull it

because he had to look to see if he was

far enough away

that he wouldn't catch no brush

or roots.

And he had to look up

to see if he was far enough away,

and there, he says, that thing stood

on the bank

where he had just been!

He says: "That thing was high!"

He said: "I don't want to meet that thing no more!"

So he didn't go



He [the lynx] watched himself, but nobody…

otherwise nobody ever saw him.


He had the whole darn world to himself, he could eat deer

when he wanted to.

What chance would a deer have with something like that?

[Wilfred said the snow probably helped him run the deer down.]

Oh, he don't have to run. Oh Lordy!

The size of those tracks!

The way he walked!

IX. Neighbors

…the boy


didn't love her.


not enough


marry her.

And every Winter

they [his parents] used to go

to Florida

with their horse and buggy.

The boy too.

[I asked: Drive all the way down to Florida with a horse and buggy?]

Oh, I don't know.

I don't think it was too far.

Then in Spring they'd come back again

when the weather got warm.

Well the boy

-- I don't know --

but he may have had a girl down there that he liked better

than that Meg.

And he was saying…that's what he wanted.

And so the boy got sick of it one time

and he says: "Well today I'm gonna go hunting."

They said: "Sure. Go ahead."

…But when supper come, he wasn't home.

You know.

And then they got worried. You know: he could have got lost

or something.

So they went out looking for him, and it got dark purty

early. They couldn't find him.

They called.

No answer.

The next morning everyone was out looking for him.

They found him.

Up in [Neal Speckin's] land,

on the south-east-end.

Next to the big marsh.

There was a island there, and a



schoolmarm. That's a


broke off

maybe eight foot from the ground

and then grew.

[Wilfred: Forked.]


So that's where he shot himself.

He didn't want that Meg,

and he didn't want to leave his dad,


he done away with himself.

Then the old man sold it

and the rest he gave over to-ah - oh, [Milray] and them.

X. The Hired Man

He was a very good worker.

He knew

how to do

all kinds of things.

So, he was with us…

He was no hunter.

And he liked partridges.

I said: "Well, okay.

We got 'em."

And there were a lot of 'em.

In the morning, when I'd go for cows,

I'd take my shotgun along.

Two or three - usually three --

partridges I'd bring home.

And then he'd take over.

He'd clean 'em,

cut 'em up, ready to


or whatever we wanted.


Picture of Alice Heil, taken in July 1975.

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