Plymouth County home page

Seney, Iowa, Memories

Written by Frances Berkenpas Leonard

Frances wrote in 2007: "These are true stories I have sent to my granddaughter in Minnesota. If you want to print them in your Plymouth County material, I would be so honored."

"Frances, I am honored to post your memories here. What a sweet, loving Grandma you are to share these stories with your granddaughter and all of us!" .....reply from Linda Ziemann in 2007, Plymouth County

Frances M. Leonard
b. 23 Dec 1935
d. 17 Nov 2009

Her Obituary Link


Selected Memories of Frances Berkenpas Leonard, one of the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Jake Berkenpas of Seney, Iowa.

Emily, I am so glad you like to read about these olden times. And the best part is the stories are true. Now did the picture of the old 2 room school house come through for you?

My mother was 47 years old when I was born so she was in her late 60's before she ever had a TV. It was kind of like the one you see on Leave It To Beaver but smaller. In those days ( @1955 ) the television programs didn't come on until about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and there was only one station. And of course there was no cable TV so you had to adjust the "rabbit ears" on top to be able to see a halfway clear picture. I remember the first show that came on in the afternoon was "'Howdie Doodie Time." It came on at 4 o'clock and lasted for 30 minutes.

Then there was the news and maybe one more show and the TV went off the air by 8 o'clock. Before too much longer the TV actually stayed on until midnight and started in the morning but that was quite awhile later.

My mother never had any modern appliances and had to work so hard every day. She had a big wood burning cook stove in the kitchen (like Little House on the Prairie") and would do all of her cooking and baking with that stove. And in the summer time the kitchen would get so hot and she would get up early in the morning to do her baking. She usually made homemade bread a couple times a week and we had a big apple tree so she would bake apple pies too. We always had three big meals a day, breakfast, dinner and supper. Then at 10 AM she would have coffee for herself and my dad and usually had cookies she had baked or sometimes a cake. And she would make a cheese sandwich for my dad. He loved longhorn cheese and my mother would buy him some when she got to the grocery store in LeMars. And again the same thing at 3PM when we got home from school. If my dad was working out in the field we kids would bring his AM and afternoon "lunches" out to him. He worked hard too so eating a lot I guess kept him going.

My mother never had a refrigerator either until many years later. When we would get done milking the cows (oh yes I milked cows too) she would take the milk and put it in a big pail with a tight fitting lid and a handle. She would pour the milk into the pail and put the lid on so it was sealed and then take a rope and lower the milk pail into the water in a cistern we had right outside the house. The water in the cistern was rain water but it was cool and kept the milk cool.

As far as ever having any ice well later on in years she got an ice box. That meant she would have to drive the old Model-A car to LeMars occasionally and get a huge block of ice. Then she would put it in the top part of the ice box and that did away with the cistern cooling until the ice was all melted. The ice would last about 5 days and she always needed to keep a water pan under the ice box to catch the water as the ice melted. The water pan had to be emptied every night so it didn't run over onto the floor. So then when the Watkins man came around she would buy a bottle of some sort of mixture that you could make nectar. And she would chip off a little bit of ice to put in the pitcher with the nectar. In my memories that tasted better than any Kool-aid they had years later. We didn't have it often but it was treasured when we did.

And rain or shine Monday was always the day the washing had to be done. (That's laundry nowadays) She had a Maytag ringer washer that she kept on the back porch. On Monday morning my dad would get up so early and get the cook stove good and hot. Then we had what was called a big boiler and this was a big metal container that would fit over two parts of the cook stove, My dad would fill it with water to heat for the washing machine. When the water got hot he or my mother would carry the water in buckets from the kitchen stove into the Maytag washer out on the porch. But before that she would have to fill up her big rinse tub with cold water to put the clothes into after they came out of the hot soapy water. Oh yes, she also made her own laundry soap with lard and lye, I think. When the clothes were washed and ready to go she would hang everything outdoors on the clothes lines. Even if it was cold winter she hung out everything. She said she liked that fresh air smell.

Then when we got home from school we would have to bring in the clothes and they would be frozen stiff. So she would string up clothes lines across the dining room and living room and we had to hang everything up again. And the next day was ironing day. We did actually have electricity and so she would get out her heavy old iron and we had to iron clothes as soon as we got home from school. There were no wash and wear fabrics back then. Lots of work to be repeated very week.

When my mother got to be in her older years my brother Hank bought her a real refrigerator. That was such a luxury for her. Then after that he bought her a little apartment sized gas stove with 4 burners and an oven that you could actually set the heat temperature. Well she loved that too, even though she still used her cook stove every day. But my dad was afraid that new gas stove would blow up the whole house. So every morning he would get the wood burning in the cook stove. He said he had to do that to make his coffee when he got up in the morning. So then my mother would cook breakfast on the cook stove.

I'll have so many good memories of growing up in the old days but for now I need to fix some dinner. Or is that supper?! More love from Gramma

Dear Emily, When I was a little girl my dad owned the Seney grove. The grove had many pine trees and that was where the church and school had picnics.

We also had a preacher that put up a Nativity Scene in the grove at Christmas time one year. He made the stable by using bales of straw. He then went to LeMars to a lady that owned a dress shop. He asked her if he could have a few old manikins to dress like Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men. Then he got a man to make him some animals out of wood.

The Nativity Scene looked real nice and could be seen by anyone driving down the highway. When I was about 9 years old I walked down to the grove to see how the Nativity Scene looked. Well, laying right in the middle of the stable was a black and white collie dog. I think he thought the manikins were real people. No one knew where the dog came from so I took him home with me and I named him Rex. Rex went everywhere I went and would lay outside the school door while I was in school. That dog loved me and I loved him. Now my oldest brother and his wife had 3 sons that were just little kids. They always came to visit us every Sunday. One of the boys got to teasing Rex and would swish him in the face with a tree branch. Rex didn't like this and he bit one of my brother's boys on the ear. So then my dad said, "That dog has to go!" So Rex went to another of my brother's farm that was about 3 miles away from our house. He said the dog would be good on the farm as Rex was a good cattle herder. I got up the next morning and was so sad because my Rex was gone, And what do you know--- when I went outside there was Rex!

He had managed to find his way back to me during the night. My brother said he had Rex tied up in the barn and didn't know how he got loose. So the story ended sad as Rex had to be shot and killed. I was so sad for such a long time that another brother bought me a cocker spaniel puppy. I named him Freckles but I never really cared about Freckles all that much.

We also had a dog named Corky that was a small terrier. Well he liked to chase the chickens and kill them. So my brother Norman had to take Corky behind the barn and shoot him. After Norman buried Corky he put a homemade tomb stone that said, "Here lies Corky. He died with a belly full of feathers." From Grandma

Subject: MaSa, Obaykee and Tomasina.
These were all three names of cats. Now MaSa was the old mamma, grandma cat. She was a pretty white cat with a black tail. When the radio was playing music she would lay on the floor in the kitchen and her tail would go up and down . I think she tried to keep up with the time to the music. Oh yes! Her name. When we got her from my brother we named her Sally. Well, as time went on she had many babies. Consequently her name became Mamma Sally. So then it was shortened to MaSa. She was a good cat and we had her for many years. She kept all the mice out of our house .

Then one day when she was real old she just wandered off and we never saw her again. I guess she thought it was time for her to die and just left and went to Kitty Heaven.

Then there was Obaykee. He was kind of orange colored. He was just a small cat and we got him from my brother too. He was kind of a little runt so we called him Little Baby Kitty. So consequently his name got shortened to Obaykee. He was our main baby when we played in our play houses as he would not try to run off. I think for a while he liked being our play house baby. Then he would run off when he didn't want to be our baby any more. I guess we had him until he got old and died. I don't remember that.

Then there was Tomasina. She was a pretty black cat with a few white spots. We named her Thomas when she was a baby as my sister Alice and I thought she was a boy cat. Well one morning bright and early I was still upstairs asleep. My sister Alice woke up early and was  downstairs for awhile. All of a sudden I heard Alice yelling up the stairs, "Frances! Get up! Thomas had babies." So that's how his/her name became Thomasina. I don't remember when she died because she lived to be very old and may have died after I grew up and moved away from our home in Seney, Iowa.

Whenever our mamma cats had babies we would keep them until the babies were old enough to be away from their mammas and then my brothers would take them to the farms where they lived to happily catch lots of mice and gophers. In those days no one even heard of having your pets fixed by the vet so they would stop having babies.

I will try to remember some other things about those good old days and send you more. Love and hugs from Grandma

Subject: Alice Long Stockings

My sister Alice was only one year older than me and we both started school at the same time. She was actually six years old when she started kindergarten. The reason for this was that she was always kind of "sickly." That's what my mother called it. When she turned five we lived out on the farm. My brothers and sisters had to walk two miles to school. They didn't have school buses in those days. Alice had Whooping Cough when she was a baby so that left her with a bad cough. So when she got to the age where she needed to attend school my parents thought two miles would be too far for her to walk to school. That's when my dad bought the house in Seney that was right next door to the school. We both started Kindergarten at the same time. I was always kind of protective of my sister Alice because she always seemed frail even though she was older than me. In those olden days girls never wore pants and always had to wear dresses. That was the same with grown up women too. My mother decided that Alice needed to be kept warm while she was in school so she made her wear white long underwear. That was the kind that were like leotards nowadays but were considered to be underwear. And then my mother would have Alice wear long stockings over her long underwear. One day Alice went to school and had a little hole in one of her brown long stockings. The long underwear could be seem through that little hole. That meant all the other kids knew Alice was wearing long "johns." They started to make fun of her and laugh at her. I didn't like that at all--so at recess time I took aside a couple of the big boys that were teasing Alice and told them, "This is what will happen to all of you if you don't leave my sister alone!" Then I kicked them both in the shins as hard as I could. In those days we wore shoes that had hard toes so I know that had to hurt. But after that they never bothered my sister again. And they never told the teacher what I did neither. Love you sooooooo much, Grandma

Dear Emily,

When I was a little girl I always had cocoa and toast for breakfast.

Back in the old days people didn't have toasters. So in order to make toast I had to put a slice of bread in the middle of this wire thing that my mother had. It was square and big enough to put four slices of bread between the wires. I would have to lift up one of the round covers on the cook stove and then hold one side of the bread over the open fire until it was brown and then do the same thing to the other side. And there was my toast. Now the cocoa was not the kind that you could make with instant powder like today. My mother would have to use her box of powdered cocoa that she used to bake chocolate cake. Then she would add some sugar and milk and heat it on the stove. And that was my cocoa and toast for breakfast. And they both tasted real good.
One time we had a little bit of flooding in some parts of Seney. Well my friend Ramona and I went down to the field behind her parents house and the water was just gushing along in a big stream. Her mother had a big wooden tub and we decided that would make a perfect boat for us to float away in. So we hauled the tub down to where the water was flowing.

We were planning to get the tub into the water and then both hop in.
Well as we were struggling with this the tub it got away from us and went floating down the stream of water. And when I think back about that now I realize we would have both drowned if either one of us had got into that tub. You see the river that ran through the town was flooded and this same stream of water ran right down stream and into the river. And neither one of us could swim and we certainly would have drowned. Angels do watch over small children.

I will send more stories later. Love and kisses from Grandma

Subject: When Grandma Learned to Drive

When I was about thirteen years old my brother had an old 1940  Ford car. It was one that you had to shift the gears with a shift stick. That was a long handle that came up from the floor of the car and had a knob on the top kind of like a door knob. Then there was the clutch pedal that you had to push down with your foot in order to be able to shift the gears. One day when my brother was gone on a truck driving trip and my mother had to go somewhere I decided I was going to teach myself how to drive my brother Hank's car. So I got in and got it started. Then I put my foot on the clutch pedal and moved the stick shift and when I let my foot come up the car started to move and jerk. So I stopped and put my foot on the brake pedal because I knew that pedal would stop the car. So I did the same thing again and what do you know! I started to go again. This time I let the clutch up slowly and went driving down the road in Seney. Some of the neighbors were outside so I just waved at them like I really knew how to drive. I drove around some country roads for a while and then drove back home to park the car exactly where it had been so no one would know I went for a drive. My sister Alice was home and I made her promise not to tell anyone I drove my brother's car. She said OK. A few minutes later she yelled to me, "Frances! The car is gone!"  I looked out the window and sure enough--- no car in the driveway where I had left it. Now our driveway was on a little hill and I didn't know you had to put a car in a certain gear to prevent it from coasting down hill.  And the car had stopped where it had to be backed up to get it back where it was.  So I ran over to the houses where some kids lived and told them I was desperate to get my brother's car back to where it had been. The boys all thought it was so cool that I actually drove.

Now none of us knew about putting the gear in reverse if you want to back up. So they came to our house and a few of them got in front of the car and pushed it back up the hill while I steered the car. We got it right back where it had been. Then I said to the boys, "This car will just coast back down the hill if I take my foot off the brake." So the boys found a couple of good sized bricks and put them in front of the two front tires. And it worked!  The car stayed there!  I know my brother knew I had fooled around with his car when he was gone but he never said a word about it to me. And my sister would never have done anything so daring so he had to know it was me. So when I became sixteen years old I actually got a real drivers license and still didn't know how to back up.  In those days you had to be 16, take a ten question test that was so simple and drive around the block all by yourself to show the person you could do it. Then I think for $2.00 you were a licensed driver.

More stories later---Grandma

Subject: re: When Grandma Learned to Drive

No, I never told my brother but he knew it was me because my sister Alice and I were the only ones home and he knew she NEVER would have done that. I was kind of a rascal when I was a kid. But I never really got in trouble. In our barn there was a hay loft ( like on Little House) and it had kind of a platform way up high with a ladder going up. One day we were playing up in the hay loft and some of the boys would climb up the ladder, get onto the platform and jump down onto the straw that was piled below. Of course I had to show them I could do that too. So I climbed up on the platform and jumped! But I missed the straw pile and hurt my elbow really bad. And I didn't dare to let the boys think I hurt myself.

I didn't dare tell my mother either because she would have been mad about us jumping like that. And in a couple days my elbow was OK again.

I'll send more stories as they come back to my memory. Loads of love from Grandma

Subject: The Chicken Poop Story

When I was a little girl my sister Alice was a wonderful piano player. She would spend hours just playing beautiful music.

One afternoon my friend Ramona and I were sitting in the living room and Alice came in after she had been sitting outside in the front yard. I guess we were all about 11 or 12 years old.  Before she went to sit on the piano bench my friend and I noticed she had a big gob of chicken poop on the seat of her pants. We waited until she sat down and started to play a song and then we both busted out laughing. Alice wanted to know what was so funny and we told her, "You sat in chicken poop when you were outside!"  Alice got up and went to the bathroom and got a big hunk of toilet paper. She had changed her slacks and was wiping the chicken poop off of the piano bench. And my friend and I were still sitting on the couch just laughing like crazy---me with my mouth wide open. Alice never said a word or even changed her facial expression when SPLAT right in my open mouth went the chicken poop on the toilet paper.

I went to the kitchen and was about to vomit and just poured water in my mouth and spit it out for the longest time. And I never got mad at Alice because I knew I had that coming.

Another thing happened one night when Alice and I were washing and drying the supper dishes. We had to do this in a little room  (pantry) off from the kitchen as that room had a little table. Also that's where the shelves were for the dishes to put after they were clean and dried.
This particular night Alice was washing the dishes. We had a big dish pan that  held the water for washing the dishes. I was drying the dishes and so she would put the dishes in the draining pan for me. All the while she was washing the dishes I would take my fingers and spritz a little bit of water at her every few minutes. She never said a word to me about that but when she finished washing all the dishes she picked up the dish pan like we always did to empty it outside on the ground. But instead of leaving the pantry she took that whole pan of dishwater and threw it right in my face. And once again I could not say a word. I just meekly mopped up the water on the floor.  More hugs from Grandma

Subject: Saturday Night Bath

When my sister Alice and I were little every Saturday night was bath night. We had to be nice and clean for church and Sunday school the next day. My mother would heat up a big bucket of water on her cook stove and then she would carry it to the bathroom and pour it into our big old bath tub.  We did not have a water heater so the bath water needed to be heated. But there was cold water that came out of the faucet in the bath tub. So my mother would turn on the faucet and get the water cool enough for my sister and I to sit in. Then when we were done in the winter time we would run in front of the old cook stove to get warm. And my mother would open the oven door to let the heat pour out. We would have a towel wrapped around us so no one could see us without any clothes. The rest of the week we just stayed dirty as in the olden days Saturday was always bath night.  I don't remember anyone getting stinky before Saturday came around.

Loads and tons of love from Grandma

Subject: Old Time Telephones

When we lived in Seney we had a telephone that was on a "party line."

"Party line" meant all the "parties" (people) in the town had the same kind of telephones. The telephone was a big square box that was hung on the wall in the dining room. (Just like the one they had in the store in Little House.) Everyone had a different ring and our ring was "short-long-short." Everyone knew their ring and when you heard the telephone ring one short ring, one long ring and one short ring that meant the call was for us. Others had different rings like maybe two shorts or two shorts and two longs. That was how everyone knew who was being called. One of the things my mother used to do was "rubber-neck" on the telephone. What that meant was whenever the phone rang even if it was for someone else you could pick up your own phone and listen to what they said. She would stand at the phone for hours just "rubber-necking" in on what the neighbors were saying. And if you wanted to call one of your neighbors and they were on your party line you could just ring their number and not even have to go through the operator. I even remember our phone number--24F111. The 111 meant we had 1 short-1 long-1 short. No caller ID in those days.
Love,love,love from Grandma

Dear Emily,

This is kind of sad but true. When my dad was young he was married to a woman and they lived in Minnesota. They had a little boy named Andrew. When my dad and his wife had their second baby, a girl, his wife died but the baby lived.

After my mother (my dad's second wife) died I asked my dad about his first wife and he just went on and on. He told me the neighbors all got together and built a coffin for his first wife's body. And the neighbor women got her body ready to go into the coffin. I guess they didn't have funeral homes in the days he was married to his first wife. That had to be around 1914. She is buried in a Minnesota cemetery.

My brother Art said once when they went fishing in Minnesota our father had them stop at a cemetery. He took my brother to some graves and said that was his first wife and son's graves. Then my dad told me he had to go away to work and he left his 4 year old son with some neighbors. He said the boy died because the neighbors neglected the little boy. He didn't say how the boy was neglected and I didn't ask. When he married my mother they took his daughter back to live with them. She was 3 years old by then and she had been staying with his brother and wife.

Her name was Della and she died of pneumonia when I was only 2 years old. I think she was in her early 20's. My older sisters told me that right before she died she said she could hear angels singing. And her last words were, “It’s so beautiful here." So you know she was in Heaven even before she was actually dead. I can just barely remember her. One time I asked my sister, Lois, if there was ever someone who had a bed in the living room. She said that was Della. I remembered someone walking with that sick person from the living room to the kitchen. And I could remember someone playing the piano for that sick person. She said she (Lois) and my sister Dorothy used to help Della walk when she was so weak. And Lois said she used to play hymns for Della on the piano. Another thing she said was, “I wish I could take Alice (my sister that was 3 years old then) and Frances (me) along to Heaven with me."

Hugs and kisses from Grandma

Hi, Emily,
Remember I told you how I went to school in that little Seney school? One of my teachers was Martha Janssen or as we called her "Miss Janssen." She was my teacher from the first grade to the fourth grade.

And she was a very nice teacher. A few days ago I went to my mailbox and there was a letter from "Miss Janssen!"  She is now Mrs. VanderTuig and she is 86 years old. Her husband died this past year and he was courting her when I was in those grades. He only stopped by a couple times because he was in the military and he had to go to war during the 2nd World War. And here after over 50 years I have heard from my old school teacher. I actually thought all of my old teachers were dead by now. But I found out she was still living when I saw her husband's obituary in the LeMars newspaper that I can pull up. I emailed my condolences to the funeral home then. My old teacher knew my sister's name and called her for my address.

I love you tons and miles, Grandma

At the end of World War 2 every capable young man had to go to war as ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt. Even the married fathers of children . The only ones that didn't have to go were the ones that farmed. That was because the farm crops provided food for Americans. I had two more brothers that were farmers before the war and they didn't have to go. And my brother Hank that was in a wheel chair in his older years didn't have to go because he had a bad limp when he walked back then. He wanted to go and even tried to voluntarily enlist in the army but they said no. And my sister's husbands were in the war too. Except for Edith's husband because they lived on a farm too. My sister Dorothy was married to an air force pilot and he got killed when their airplane went down over France. Someone (the enemy) had tampered with the plane before it took off and this caused the motor to fail and they crashed.

Dorothy and her husband had a little boy that was only one year old. He lives in Phoenix Arizona and looks just like his dad looked when he was still living. I remember how his dad looked and he was very handsome.

The 2nd World War lasted 5 years and my brother Ray was in the war almost all of those years. And I recently found out from an old friend of my brother Norman (the 18 year old brother) that the ship (the Hornet) he was on during the navy got hit with torpedoes and he was stranded on a life raft for 9 days with a few other sailors. The friend said Norman told him other things but he wouldn't tell us what they were. He said they were just too awful for us to know and that was in the past. The saddest part is that when my brother Norman retired at age 52 from the military he killed himself. I believe he just could not live with the memories. He also was in Viet Nam twice and that had to be horrible. Some people these days think it was a terrible thing to drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese but if that had not happened we would not have the freedom we have today. Other countries wanted to take over the United States back then and if that would have happened many of us would not have been alive today. Enough of this depressing stuff!

I love hearing from you and I will try to tell you about more memories from my olden days. Loads of love from Grandma

I think I was about 10 years old when my friend Ramona and I went down to the ditch along the highway where the water in the ditch had frozen.

I had a pair of my brother's ice skates that were way too big for me. I would stuff the toes with paper so they would fit better. But they still flopped from side to side. My friend Ramona had her very own ice skates and there we would go. Trying to ice skate on the ice. One afternoon we were at the same spot which was quite a long way from the town of Seney and anyone's houses. A car stopped in a driveway and an old man got out.

He stood there and watched us and then he motioned for us to come over to his car. We did not know who he was or why he stopped there so we both ran with our ice skates on as fast as we could and got away from him. We never went ice skating at that place ever again. And we always had our shoes tied around our necks so we didn't have to go back for our shoes. Now that I am grown up I think that man was a very bad man that would have hurt us or maybe even killed us.

When I was about twelve years old these two boys from my school came to the school yard after school was out one late afternoon. I was just swinging on one of the new swings and not bothering anyone. When these two boys walked over to the swings I could tell they were up to no good.

They were both about the same size as I was and sure enough---they grabbed the swing I was in and shoved me to the ground. Well I was a little bit scared because there was no one there to help me. So I got to my feet as fast as I could and started to run to where our house was. And BOOM! They knocked me down again! Now in those days I had to wear shoes that would last all school year and these were the kind that had real hard toes. So when these two boys had me on the ground, I kicked them both on the shins just as hard as I could. Well one of them grabbed his leg and started to bawl and said, "Ow, that really hurts." The other one ran to his house as fast as he could. Those boys or any other boys never bothered me ever again after that day!

And yes, we always only had one pair of shoes. We had to wear the same shoes until they got too small and tight and then right before school was going to start we would get a new pair of shoes. Sometimes my shoes would get holes in the bottom and my dad would patch the holes with a piece of thin leather.

And sometimes when there was not very much money we had to wear the same shoes for two years. And we wore them every day even in the summer time because my mother would not allow us to ever go bare foot. I was told that when my brother Ray was a little boy he and my brothers would go bare foot on the farm. One day my brother Ray stepped on a board that had a nail sticking up. It was a rusty nail and he got lockjaw. He was in the hospital in LeMars for a long time and almost died. They didn't have Tetanus shots in those days. But he lived and died when he was 79 years old. Dear, sweetheart Emily---I'll write more about those old days when I think of more stories to tell.    From Grandma



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