Chapter 1, Part 2: Willie Juhnke and his Family

Map of the Community
The Juhnke Family Farm
The Juhnke Farmstead

There had been a small one-story house on the farmstead when Ernest Juhnke bought it in 1914. By 1925 he sold the original house to Frank Eck in Elyria. On the old foundation Ernest built a more adequate wood frame two-story house. The family used the porch and doorway on the west side--rather than the door on the east side near the road. At the center of the farmstead was a Woodmanse windmill, bought from Goering hardware in Moundridge, which Willie could remember being built. Beside the windmill was a green milkhouse-garage. Just west of the house was a shed, also painted green, which housed the family's first car (an Empire), as well as the horse-drawn header-rack used for gathering the hay. On the south side of this shed was a lean-to where young Willie stored his collection of stick-horses. Nearby grew a small mulberry tree that was in Willie's way. He chopped at it and trimmed it back. Later it grew into a very large mulberry tree which produced large sweet mulberries. That garage-shed was torn down at about the same time the milk-house/garage by the windmill was built.

On the west side of the farmstead were two buildings to shelter animals--pigs and chickens. The chickens provided both eggs and meat for the table. Hog butchering day was a celebrative event. Willie could expect uncles, aunts and cousins to come help with the butchering and to enjoy some of the tastiest parts of the animal at mealtime--brains and tenderloin. Another important source of food, of course was the garden, located south of the house. Apparently, the Juhnke family did not depend extensively on irrigation for the garden in dry years, because the windmill was located quite a distance from the garden.

There was a large cottonwood tree between the house and the road. It was part of a long row of cottonwood trees which originally extended all the way a quarter mile north to the Elyria road. These trees had been planted by an earlier owner of the property, perhaps by one of the three women listed as earlier owners (Josephine Henry, Mary E. A. Smith, Elizabeth Gamble.) Most of the cottonwood trees died or were destroyed, but the one by the house thrived for a century and became one of Willie's favorites. Later in life, after he had retired from teaching, he wrote a romantic imaginary story of the life of this tree across the human generations it had seen come and go--"The Tree Speaks" (1981). The tree of Bill Juhnke's imagination spoke, among other things, about Napoleon Kaufman and his sons in 1900 arriving on a quest for land to buy. Upon seeing the rich land and "level black soil" of the Dry Turkey flood pain for the first time, one of the sons, Joe, a deaf-mute, spelled out in sign language, "THIS IS IT!"

Willie in his childhood had many aunts, uncles and cousins to visit. His mother was the oldest of eight Kaufman children, all of whom married and had children. The Kaufman family living closest to the Juhnkes, on the Elyria road about a mile east, was the family of Leonard and Marie Schrag Kaufman. They had a son, Willard, two years older than Willie, and a daughter, Pearl, the same age as Willie. Leonard Kaufman, known as "Uncle Lee," had also been helped to get started in farming in King City township by his father Napoleon. In 1915 Uncle Lee's farm was twice as large as Ernest Juhnke's.

There were nearby cousins on the Juhnke side of the family as well. Ernest was the second of five living children (two siblings had died), all of whom married and lived on farms in the Mennonite settlement. Ernest's sister Ida had married Simon Stucky, and they lived on a 320-acre farm about two miles south and west of the Juhnkes. Simon had been a school teacher and had an impressive library of fifty books. Ernest's brother Wesley had married Amelia Graber, and they lived about the same distance in the opposite direction, north and east. Their oldest son, Raymond, was two years younger than Willie. Uncle Otto and Aunt Anna lived two miles west of Elyria. The families kept in close touch with each other.

As a child Willie attended funerals of family members, reminding him that life on earth was precarious. When he was nearly seven years old (1918) his grandfather, Carl Juhnke, died at age seventy-seven. When Willie was eleven (1923), his cousin, Frieda Juhnke, daughter of Uncle Otto and Aunt Anna, died at age fourteen. When he was thirteen (1925), his cousin, Milford Stucky, son of Uncle Simon and Aunt Ida, died at age nine. When Willie was seventeen, his sister, Anna, died at age twenty. Willie learned well that death was no respecter of age.

Willie's grandfather, Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Juhnke, had a difficult life in his final years. His second marriage, to Elisabeth Flickinger Zerger, had failed. He became involved in a dispute with his son, Otto, over an issue of tying land inheritance to old age support. (They took the dispute to the church for resolution.) Then his mind began to fail and he would wander away from the farm house where he lived alone. When Willie was five or six, he went along with his father who built a fence or wall around Grandpa's place to keep him from escaping. But Grandpa defeated the attempt and managed to escape his imprisonment. Finally, his children took the burden of taking turns to keep the increasingly senile and sometimes irascible old man in their own homes. Grandpa taught Willie some German-dialect sayings, no doubt learned in his childhood in Farther Pomerania. One of these, as Willie later wrote it down, was: "In's Bet, in's Bet; Wer eny het. Wer Keni het mus ok ins Bet!" ("To bed, to bed, who has one yet; who has none yet, must also go to bed.") Once when Grandpa was staying at the Ernest and Alvina Juhnke place, Grandpa and little Willie got into an altercation. Willie threw a stick at Grandpa, who chased after him. Willie's mother came out of the milkhouse and angrily scolded her father-in-law. Willie knew it was his fault and felt guilty about it.

Grandpa Juhnke died on November 2, 1918, nine days before the end of World War I. As Grandpa was on his deathbed, Willie's other grandfather, Elder Napoleon Kaufman, came for a pastoral visit. Willie peeked through the door to the northwest room of the house and saw both of his grandfathers at a moment of life's passage. Napoleon was kneeling at Carl's bedside, holding the dying man's hand and bowing in prayer. After Carl died, Ernest Juhnke put silver dollars over his eyes to keep them closed.

The most hair-raising event of Willie's childhood was a horse runaway in 1923, when he was eleven years old. Ernest was responsible for maintaining township roads. He hitched up three horses (named Fanny, Frank and Lincoln) to an old four-wheel buggy which had belonged to Grandpa Carl.. Behind the buggy dragged a two section iron harrow to break up the clods and fill in the ruts on the road. On this day Ernest and Willie drove southward from the Juhnke farmstead, under the Missouri Pacific tracks and across Ghost Bridge over the Running Turkey Creek, to the section corner where they turned right. When they came to the Dry Turkey Creek bridge, Ernest got off the buggy to lift up the harrow so its teeth would not catch a plank and tear it loose. Willie took the reins. Suddenly a frightened rabbit jumped out from some brush in the ditch, and the three horses bolted--tearing the harrow loose from the buggy and leaving Ernest behind.

Willie pulled on the reins as hard as he could and hollered for the horses to stop, but they were running wild. They kept running west toward where the Valentine Krehbiel farm was on the south side of the road. Willie saw that Krehbiel was out in the barnyard. As his horses galloped past, Willie called out, "Schtop mei Keil!"--a mixture of German and English. ("Stop my animals.") The horses kept running, finally getting tired and slowing down to a trot. When they came to the next farmstead, the place of Uncle Simon Stucky, Willie was able to turn them into the yard and direct them toward the barn. There the horses finally stopped.

After composing himself, Willie decided to take the horses back to find his father. He backed the horses away from the barn and tried to get them out toward the road. Instead, the animals bolted out of control again, this time heading out toward the open field. Out in the field was Uncle Simon working with his team of horses. Simon stepped in front of Willie's runaways and got them under control. As they started back to the Uncle Simon's farmyard, Willie saw Val Krehbiel's car with his worried father inside.

When they finally got home that noon, somewhat later than expected, Willie was delighted to discover that his mother had fixed a meal of "mack plotzky," a Swiss-Volhynian dish of poppyseed sauce with dumplings and milk. The next Sunday Uncle Ed and Aunt Kate Kaufman Goering came to visit. (Kate was Alvina's sister.) The big runaway was the topic of conversation. Aunt Kate was impressed that Willie stayed with horses rather than jumping off and possibly getting hurt. She said that her boys (Marvin Goering was Willie's age) would have jumped off. That made Willie proud.

Willie had more than one close call with horses and farm machinery. Once was when he was helping his father dredge some dirt with a scraper pulled by horses up a steep incline. Willie was up ahead leading the horses. He slipped and fell to the ground, but the horses kept pulling and walked right over him, careful not to step directly on the young lad. On another occasion Willie was operating the horse-drawn mechanical rake for raking alfalfa. His father was walking behind with a hedgepost contrived to enable the rake to drag larger loads. Willie got his left foot trapped in the rake lift mechanism and fell off the machine, severely hurting his foot and leaving a permanent scar on his heel. As Willie later reported in his "A Tree Speaks" account: "If his heel had been pulled off his ball playing days would have ended then and there."

In the fall of 1918, Willie began primary school (and played ball) at the King City district 13 one room school in the small village of Elyria. To get to school he and his older sisters, Anna and Emma, walked a quarter mile north and one mile west. When the weather was bad and the roads were muddy, their father, Ernest, took them to school with horse and buggy. Willie was one of twelve pupils in the first grade. Almost fifty pupils in eight grades were crowded into the one room. A wood and coal burning stove located toward the back heated the room in winter time. The toilets were outside (as at the Juhnke farmstead). In 1922, after Willie had been in school four years, the district razed the one-room school and built a larger two-room school with a full basement. With two teachers, class size was more reasonable.

Willie's first grade teacher was Addie E. Hackenberg, who had graduated from Moundridge high school in 1906. When he started school, Willie did not know the English language as well as he knew the German dialect spoken at home. But his sisters had taught him some of the stories from the school reading books. One time when a pupil in another class was reading one of these story books and stumbled over a difficult word, Willie embarrassed himself and surprised the teacher by blurting out the word from his seat. He still did not know how to read, but he knew that story by memory. Willie's third grade teacher was G. G. Dixon, who later taught at pioneer grade school when Meta Goering attended there. Willie's two surviving report cards, from his third and eighth grades, suggest that he was a good student, but not brilliant. Most grades were about "90". Arnold Stucky, his eighth grade teacher (1925-26) gave him top marks, "Very Satisfactory," in the category of "Recitations." However, Willie's rating in "Conduct" was at the third level, "About Average."

Many years later, Lorene Stucky, one of Willie's classmates in the upper grades, remembered him as "that scrawny little guy" who "always talked so much. Sometimes he would argue about such dumb things. I never knew when he was serious. He would talk pro and con." Willlie was a sociable kid. "It didn't take long to learn to know him." Already in grade school he showed the promise of being a good debater.

Addie Hackenberg was one of the last teachers at King City who was not a Mennonite. The Mennonite settlement was spreading northward and the Mennonites were getting more and more involved in public affairs. By the early 1920s they were a majority on the King City school board, and were able to hire teachers from their own group. Two of Willie's favorite teachers were Helen Hiebert and Arnold Stucky. In 1934, as a junior class student at Bethel College, Willie wrote a brief "Life Story" in which he paid tribute to "my eighth grade teacher, Arnold Stucky, whose life made a great imprint on me."

Willie Juhnke grew up in an expanding German-American Mennonite subculture which was growing in numbers, economic prosperity, and self confidence. He was also a child of the land. The two very different lines which crossed the Juhnke land--Turkey Creek and Missouri Pacific--formed a parable of intertwined trajectories in Willie Juhnke's life. One was the meandering course of nature, calling him to stay at home and to tend God's creation. The other was the driving force of human progress, pointing in a straight line toward high purpose and achievement in the world beyond. Each trajectory had its own promises and perils. Together they made for a satisfying and productive life.

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By James C. Juhnke,

Web page by Joanne Juhnke,
Last updated 8 August 2009.