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Vilas County museums: Official and just for fun

July 1, 2014 | 0 comments

For some 25 years, I've been a member of Wright Riders, a group of bicycle enthusiasts who have annually taken a weeklong bicycle tour ranging from about 100 miles (in recent years) to near 600 miles during our first two decades.

We biked in Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Iowa and of course, Wisconsin. We normally traveled from 50 to 90 miles a day as a group that ranged from five to 18 cyclists in hot sun, shivering cold and pouring rain from motel to motel on a predetermined route.

This annual bike trip drew more questions from readers of this column than any other subject — probably because most folks would never dream of riding a bicycle that far and surviving the weather, highway traffic and young drivers with their caps on backward, throwing beer cans at us and seeing how close they could come without forcing us into the ditch or worse.

As the years went by, our group got smaller as the cyclists got older or found different interests, and I'd guess, it made its last ride this year.

The starting point was Boulder Junction in Vilas County, some four and a half hours north of Madison, and went in different directions each day. I was there and had my trusty Bianci 18-speed in the car, but I'm sorry to say, I rode not one mile — I had not ridden enough miles this spring to bike any distance, even though the days were only about 35 miles in length.

I'll admit to feeling rather "down," not being astride a two-wheeler, after riding 2,000 miles a year for two and a half decades (that's 50,000 miles), but that's life, I guess. I did however keep in contact with my riding friends each day, eating lunch with them and sightseeing on the route.

While Vilas County is the land of lakes, fish and vacationers, it makes no claim to being an agricultural county (except for cranberries) with no dairy or grain farms according to the recent USDA ag census.

Old farm equipment lined up

You wouldn't know that, however, if you noticed the lineup of old farm equipment alongside the driveway leading to a set of buildings about a quarter mile east of Sayner on County Highway N. The sight of those mowers, plows and whatever was a bit of a shock; I drove past the turn off and had to come back

The man who came out of the house and strolled to my car introduced himself as Joe Schilling, and, yes, he owned the farm equipment. When I said that I was interested in old farm implements, he eagerly offered to take me on a tour of his informal collection.

I said I'd be back in an hour or so, after having lunch with my friends who were on bicycles and would be coming through shortly. "Great," he said. "I'll be here."

After lunch at the nearby Junction Cafe, I returned to find Schilling and his little dog Buddy waiting for me.

Threshers, binders and hay loaders

Through the trees lining his front yard we went and came out by a big threshing machine. Schilling admitted he knew little about the monster except the name plate said it was a "Red River Special" that he and his wife Mary had hauled from Rhinelander.

(Note: Around 1900, the company Nichols and Shepard introduced the famous Red River Special line of threshers. In 1929, the company merged with the Oliver company who continued to manufacture the Red River line of threshers.

The second in the line of three machines was a rusty hulk — the likes of which I'd not seen before — that the Schillings had gotten from a neighbor across the road.

The third machine came from Mellen, and like the other two, they had heard about it 'by word-of-mouth" and hauled it home on their own trailer.

Just behind the threshers were two grain binders and four hay loaders all pretty much rusted and rotted away. Actually, one of the hayloaderswas in reasonable condition and looked like it could be restored by someone with ambition and know-how.

She started it all

"Let me call my wife Mary," Schilling said. "She is actually as much or more involved in this old stuff than I am."

Mary came out of the house and joined us. She readily admitted that "yes, I probably did start this. I bought Joe a walking plow for his birthday just before we got married seven years ago."

We strolled over to the line of machinery parked next to the driveway fence and Joe and Mary looked for the old plow among the half dozen or so scattered around.

"I remember now," Mary exclaimed. "You had to put new wooden handles on that plow." She easily found it and commented that it was in good condition and all it needed was a team of horses to go to work again.

We looked at the hay mower, an array of spring tooth drags, several dump rakes and a couple of side delivery rakes. Oh yes, there was a hay baler, maybe only 40 years old (a guess), parked off in a corner of the lot.

"It's parked alone because it's not as old as the rest of the farm implements and doesn't fit in," Mary explained. "We had to put it somewhere."

Then there was the windmill standing in the center of one of the couple's several gardens. "We found this laying along the road at an antique store," Joe said. "I always wanted a windmill; now I have one."

More to see, lots more

As I was heading to my car to leave, Mary said, "maybe you'd like to see a few things we have behind the house.

Of course I would, but I was a bit surprised to see a building with open sides crammed with and surrounded by household items: four or five wood burning kitchen stoves, several old washing machines including a wooden one powered by arm strength, parts of several cream separators, several boats and, as Cousin Minnie Pearl used to say on the Grand Ole Opry, "and I don't know what all."

What to do with it all

I had to ask the question: "What do you plan to do with all these treasures?"

"Nothing," was the joint answer. "Everything was going to be scrap if we didn't take it," Mary said. "These things will never be rebuilt, and kids will never know they existed. Most things were free."

"I guess we're just 'savers,'" Joe said. "That's what we do."

Actually, they are more than that — Mary is the postmaster at Sayner, and Joe is a retired foreman at Asplin Tree Service where he cleared power line right-of-ways. Earlier, he had spent 25 years on a beef operation in Big Piney, WY.

Collecting (and not restoring) ancient farm equipment is not a common hobby, but Joe and Mary Schilling enjoy it, and that's what counts.

In contrast, the Vilas County Museum & Historical Society is located just down the road from Schillings, and it offers a marvelous collection centering on the history of Vilas county. This includes the nation's (maybe world's) first ever snowmobile built by Sayner native Carl Eliason in 1924 and patented in 1927, along with many others he built over the 30-year life of his company. This also is a "must see."

Although I didn't travel a mile on my bicycle — maybe next year — I enjoyed and learned much and that was good, too.

John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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