Chapter 7, Part 2: Lehigh: The Juhnke Family
Between Small Town and Farm in the 1950s

The Juhnke yard around the house had good spaces for playing. The sidewalk in front of the house was uneven, but nevertheless was better than anything available at the farm for roller skating with metal skates. Ruth was especially excited about learning to roller skate. She spent all her recess time at school roller skating. And she skated all the way from home to school.

A spirea hedge separated the house from the driveway, and a weeping willow tree grew near the west edge of the property in front of the garage. The willow tree provided wonderful whips for Bill Jr.'s wooden horse on his cowboy adventures. Bill Sr. put up a basketball goal on the front of the garage--a place for many vigorous neighborhood competitions.

The northwest side of the back yard was a chicken pen and house. The northeast side was the garden. Between garden and chicken pen was a pathway to the old outdoor privy at the back of the lot. The chickens provided both meat and eggs for the family, as well as chores for the kids to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. Beside the garage, nearer the house, was a small shed for doing laundry and for storage. In that shed Bill placed a metal commode that was more convenient (and less smelly?) than the old privy. The installation of an indoor toilet and the digging of a large hole for a septic tank in the back yard in 195 was a major event.

Next door northeast lived Mr. Winter, an elderly widower with (as Ruth remembered) "gigantic earlobes." Once when Bill Jr. was small, Mr. Winter invited him into his house and offered him some dark liquid to drink. It tasted awful and Bill Jr. thought he had been poisoned. He ran home to his mother, hoping she would be able to save his life. Meta, who probably smelled alcohol on her son's breath, gave him a hug and said he would be all right. Mr. Winter was a self styled "water witch" who claimed the gift of divining sources of underground water and oil. Jim noted his excuse when the oil or water drillers did not find the oil or water where he said it was The drillers, he said, had stopped drilling just above the place where the good stuff was. Mr. Winter died in 1959. Ruth, age eight, wrote about that in a letter to Jim in Germany and asked if anyone had died in Germany. In a letter to her teacher, Ruth said that Mr. Winter used to tell her stories about Jesus. It was sad that the house now would be empty. Mr. Winter's wife had died, too, several years before.

Bill Jr., perhaps more adventuresome than the other Juhnke children, treated the whole town of Lehigh as his back yard. The lot directly north of the Juhnke lot was undeveloped, or perhaps abandoned, and was sometimes put into crops. Bill Jr. and his friends played duck-duck-goose there in the wintertime. As Bill Jr. remembered,

But the lot to the northwest with its partial foundations, overgrown bushes and trees was a paradise of trails, hiding places, and ready-made forts. A latter-day Davy Crockett fought and won the Alamo many times in that abandoned lot in those years. Abandoned buildings all over town were a lure, especially one limestone brick structure between the post office and the grocery store on Main Street. I spent many hours playing there with my best friends Robert Hine and Paul Thiessen.

For an adequate milk supply Bill arranged with the William Reddig family on the west edge of town to keep a cow in their pasture and barn. The Reddigs got the milk every morning and the Juhnkes got the milk every evening. The cow--for most of these years a productive Holstein named "Blossom,"--travelled back and forth each year from the farm to Lehigh on the trailer with high sideboards. Milking "Blossom" was a regular afternoon chore for Jim, and then for Bill Jr. Meta strained the milk to remove impurities and skimmed off cream as needed. This system would not have met modern dairy inspection standards, but the nutritious milk surely helped the family health more than it hurt it.

Most of the field work for growing and harvesting wheat could be done during the three summer months. But the wheat needed to be planted in September, after school had begun. Much depended on the weather. The summer and fall of 1950, the first year in Lehigh, was exceptionally cool and rainy. Bill wasn't even able to complete plowing all the bottom land before school, much less get it properly prepared for seeding. During the summers as well as during the school years, the family kept the road between Elyria and Lehigh well travelled. In summertime Bill drove back to Lehigh once a week to pick up mail, check the house, and take care of school business.

The family enjoyed brief summer trips--to the Ozarks in Missouri, or to see the Cardinals play baseball in St. Louis. The most ambitious journey was in the summer of 1955 to California. The family of seven packed themselves in the family car and traveled west on the famous Route 66, stopped at the Mennonite Hopi Indian mission station in Oraibi, Arizona, saw the Grand Canyon in the early morning, and were shown the sights of Los Angeles by Meta's brother and sister-in-law, Phil and Dolores Goering. From Los Angeles they went north into the rich fruit-growing valley and the town of Reedley where Mennonite friends lived. On the way back home they stopped at Logan, Utah, where they visited Meta's cousin, Melva, and her husband Herman Wiebe. Bill was especially fascinated with the Mormon system of irrigation. The kids gorged themselves on Bing cherries.

Stair-step children in front of the farm house, summer 1953:
Jim, Janet, Bill Jr., Sharon, Ruth.

In the fall of 1956 Jim enrolled at Bethel College in North Newton-twenty miles north on state highway #15. All the Juhnke children followed him at Bethel, in the footsteps of nearly all of their aunts and uncles. Jim took with him the old Royal typewriter that his father had used when he had attended Bethel College. With Jim at college, the family made more trips to North Newton for sports events, for Memorial Hall Series music performances, and to deliver Jim's laundry. (His resolve to do his own laundry at college lasted about two months.)

After two years at Bethel College, Jim joined the Mennonite Central Committee "Pax" program in Germany. As "Paxmen," working with refugee resettlement and postwar reconstruction, young Mennonite volunteers fulfilled their required Selective Service military obligation for two years of alternative work. Bill and Meta sent a monthly check to Mennonite Central Committee to help pay for the costs of the program. Nearly every week they also sent a letter to Jim in Frankfurt, Germany, where he worked as a secretary in the MCC Pax Europe office. Those letters, usually written on Sunday afternoons, provided more complete documentation of Juhnke family life than is available for any other two-year period. In those two years, 1958 to 1960, Janet was a high school junior and senior, Bill Jr. was an eighth grader and high school freshman, Sharon was a fifth and sixth grader, and Ruth was in the third and fourth grades. Candace Sue was born on July 20, 1959. It was the ninth and tenth years for the Juhnke family to live in Lehigh.

The letters to Jim reveal that in the spring of 1959, Bill Juhnke's ninth year at Lehigh, he considered leaving for another job. The future of Lehigh High School had been put in jeopardy the previous summer when an anti-school faction packed an official meeting and voted not to open the school that year. That decision had been overturned in a new vote mandated by the Kansas state board of education, but the future of the school was not secure. Bill applied for a position as principal at Inman High school in western McPherson County. General Conference Mennonite Church officials at the bi-national conference headquarters in Newton recruited him for the denominational office. That job would have required him to move the family to Newton. When Lehigh offered him a $700 raise for the 1959-60 school year, he decided to stay there and to withdraw his application from Inman.

The family did well financially in the late 1950s. For four years after 1956, the wheat yield was around thirty bushels per acre, and the wheat price was reasonably good. Bill bought a new John Deere tractor and wrote to Jim in Germany (September 7, 1959), "You should see the way the new tractor runs from field to field and the lifted springtooth on three point hook-up works. No more loading it on the implement trailer. Jr. turns corner real sharp with the power-steering and lift mechanism and drops down again." After the 1959 wheat harvest Bill bought a new Chevrolet Fleetside ton red and white pickup that kept going for twenty-five years until his granddaughter Joanne used it to drive to and from Newton High School in 1984-85. For the house Bill and Meta bought a new Baldwin Acrosonic piano for $706, and kept the old upright piano at the farm. They also bought a ninety-three piece service-for-twelve imported Sango Japanese china set. Meta wrote, "The girls and their mother are thrilled over it and think it is very beautiful." The family talked about building a new house, but postponed a decision in view of their uncertain future in Lehigh.

Church activities were important for the family. Bill was president of the Western District Mennonite Men's organization. Janet was an officer in the Lehigh Mennonite Church youth group. In his sophomore year Bill Jr., like his siblings at that age, took the catechism class. He was ambivalent about joining the church, but eventually chose to be baptized that year. In Meta's judgment the Lehigh congregation was well behind the Eden congregation in sophistication. She reported to Jim, "On the Sunday when the lesson was 'Perils of Pride,' our Sunday School teacher understood it as 'Pearls of Pride' and wondered at the title. Such is the level of intelligence around here." Nevertheless, Meta and the entire family contributed generously to the life of the Lehigh Mennonite Church-choirs, youth group (Christian Endeavor), Sunday School classes, and Women's Sewing Society.

Bill Juhnke teaching Sunday School in the front pews of the
Eden Mennonite Church. Ca. 1956-57.

Bill's father, Ernest Juhnke, died in the Moundridge hospital on April 30, 1957, after a short illness. He was seventy-eight years old. Bill, the oldest son, was the executor of the estate and the person responsible for the welfare of his mother, Alvina, who had already been in declining health. With no public retirement or nursing home facilities available, Bill found nursing care for his mother with a private family in Moundridge. He faithfully visited her once a week, and collected money for her expenses from the rental of farm land and from collections from Bill's siblings. That was a major task. Bill wrote to Jim: "Believe me that estate problems are very difficult as personal feelings give expression to 'favoritism' shown various children. Christian ethics are severely tested. I understand that Jesus had no land to give or to receive. He left no clear guidance on the settlement of estates. Or have I missed some essentials down the line somewhere?" Bill's mother, Alvina, died August 20, 1962, the year after the Juhnke family had moved permanently from Lehigh to the farm.

On June 3, 1958, Meta's father, Jonas Goering, died suddenly of a heart attack. The estate sale of farm equipment and property was that fall and Meta wrote, "It even has an emotional impact for me." Meta's mother, Katie, was unable to take care of the farm and, for some months, lived with one after another of her children. She eventually bought a house on Rosewood Street in North Newton. She baked bread for local folks, including her grandson and granddaughter-in-law, Jim and Anna Juhnke, after they moved to North Newton in 1966.

As she reported in her letters to Jim, Janet eagerly looked forward to her sixteenth birthday on November 26, 1958. That was when she would be able legally to drive the car. The next month she wrote, "I get the car every once in a while and with a load of girls drag down to Hillsboro. We have a wild time, within the limits of straight thinking people." Janet, of course, already had learned how to drive a farm tractor. In July, 1958 her father wrote: "Well, it was quite a sight how Janet drove the Allis and I stood on the plow with a stick poking straw thru, on the south field. She stopped short once and I flew against the outside wheel but got no bruises." Janet was elected cheerleader at the high school that year, served as secretary of the 4-H club, and began directing the junior choir at the Lehigh church. She was kept busy as a member of the debate squad, a role in the junior class play, and the Y-teen organization (including a conference in Cottonwood Falls). For Christmas break in 1958, she made a list of things to do, including "write a book, compose a song, make a dress, and read a good book besides my studies." She enjoyed her Lehigh friends more than her age-mates at the farm, who were "snobby." Her best friend near Elyria was Joanne Zerger, who attended McPherson high school, and whose family, like the Juhnkes, lived on their farm for just the three summer months.

Bill Jr. in the fall of 1958 was an eighth grade star on the Lehigh softball team. He reported to Jim that in one game he hit a triple with the bases loaded, and in the next game a home run with bases loaded. He summarized his attributes: "I am at the height of 5 ft. 6 in. and weigh 115 lbs. Making poor grades, really not too bad, and have not a one girlfriend. I am not lying. . . . Your Pal & Buddy, Junior Juhnke." Actually, Bill Jr. was the valedictorian of his class that year. The following year, as a high school freshman, he played center field on a softball team that was undefeated in league play. By his sophomore year, he was one of the top players on a very successful Lehigh basketball team.

Sharon, ten years old in 1958, wrote to Jim: "The population of Lehigh is 186 not counting Stowells they have 16 in there family they had another girl lately that makes a dozen girls and 4 boys. There isn't a single Stowell in my grade at school. . . . I like horse stories better than dog stories." In April 1959 Sharon sent a letter to Jim painstakingly written in German script. She provided a German-English alphabet so the words could be deciphered, but all the letters in the text were written in the old fashioned German script. It began, "Dear Jim, How are you feeling?" In another letter she experimented with a code signature with numbers for letters.

Ruth, eight years old, also experimented with her writing. She reported that in school she was learning about paragraphs, so she wrote a half-page letter with six paragraphs. In another letter she wrote, "Dear Jim. Did you have a nice time in Austria? Have they been haveing any wars? I hope you haven't. I do wish you would come home. Have you been shaving? I hope so. Do you drink beer? You better not have." Later Ruth wrote about a shopping trip, "Sharon got a very pretty purse. I got a hat. I guess you'd call it that." Then in another letter: "I need a billfold fierce bad but I don't have any money so I can't buy one."

Candace Sue Juhnke, "a healthy blond," was born on August 20, 1959. Soon after coming home from the hospital Meta wrote, "About Candy Sue--she is a sweet, cute baby. People say she looks like she belongs in our family. Junior voluntarily held her quite a number of times & Sharon doesn't want me to let her cry at all. Walt Juhnkes, Elmer Goerings, Dan H. Schrags, & Preheims visited us yesterday." On Candy's first time in church, her father reported that Meta had taken her for the sermon, but "like a little pagan she slept thru it all." Bill also wrote that "the way she smiles to her old man convinces me very definitely that she in all her youth has an intrinsic understanding of greatness."

In the Lehigh house, November 22, 1959.
Back: Ruth, Bill Jr., Janet, Sharon.
Front: Meta (holding Candace), Bill Sr.

As Bill Juhnke matured into middle-aged family and professional responsibilities, his earlier crusading pacifist progressivism lost some of its edge. Perhaps the more politically placid years under the presidential leadership of Dwight Eisenhower had something to do with this change. Bill did complain when he, along with other school administrators, was required to sign a loyalty oath certifying that he had never been a member of the Communist Party or other subversive organization. But he signed. He remained a progressive internationalist, critical of narrow nationalism. At a Sunday School meeting in the Johannestal Mennonite Church in Marion County, Bill spoke on "Christian World Citizenship." He said that Mennonite international missions and relief programs were fostering an "awakening" of world citizenship. The alternative direction of nationalism would be "fatal,"--that is, "to make the Sunday School as well as the secular school subservient to the state." In 1959 Bill joined others in protesting government plans to build a Nike missile base in Marion County "near John Winter's farm." That popular protest actually succeeded. The military officials decided instead to build the base in Saline County. There is no record or memory of how Bill and Meta voted in the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956. But when Jim went to college in the fall of 1956 and had to declare a preference in his government class, he assumed he and his family were Republicans who would favor Eisenhower. In 1960 Bill and Meta voted for the Democrat, John F. Kennedy rather than the Republican, Richard M. Nixon.

Although the student enrollments remained low at Lehigh, the rural school district was wealthy enough to do a major remodeling of the school building in 1952, and to build a new facility in 1957. One of the school opponents sent to Bill and at least one school board member an anonymous letter comparing him to Hitler and Mussolini, along with a picture of a tombstone that could well be interpreted as a death threat. In the fall of 1960, in the face of state action to consolidate small schools out of existence, Bill wrote letters and sent literature to government officials making the case for small high schools. In his government class, he had students write letters about the issue to John Anderson, the Republican attorney general who was running for governor. Most of the students agreed with their teacher, but it was clear that Bill also gave them freedom to disagree. Dennis Bartel, a member of the senior class, wrote, "I am attending a small high school with an enrollment of only 41 students this year. . . . While there are some advantages in going to a small school, I feel there are many more disadvantages."

Bill Juhnke, principal, in office of the new high school building in Lehigh, 1958.

Janet Juhnke, who had had opportunity to compare her high school experience with that of her friend Joanne Janzen at McPherson High School, clearly agreed with Dennis Bartel. Janet knew that Joanne was learning much more in science, foreign languages, English, and violin. In a letter to Jim in Germany, Janet wrote, "Joanne was in an accelerated (English) class and they just ate the stuff up. Me--I spend 12 weeks my junior year on capitalization and punctuation and Miss Rempel didn't make us write anything except three book reports. We didn't get through our literature book. . . . That's the way it was in all classes except Daddy's. Especially disgusting was the music program but I'd rather not talk about Miss Johnson."

An opportunity for government assistance to improve farm operations came with a federal program for conservation in the 1950s. Bill Jr., who had learned about conservation practices in 4-H, encouraged his father. In 1958 Bill signed up to join the McPherson Soil Conservation program, and in 1961 he signed an agreement for improvement of his farming practices. The Soil Conservation agency surveyed the land and provided maps indicating soil types and prescribed locations for terraces and waterways. Over the next seven years, with some federal subsidies, Bill completed the plan for terracing, contour farming, and waterway development on his farm land.

Aerial photo of Juhnke farm, 1950s, looking southwest to the "Juhnke Grove."

In the fall of 1961 Bill Juhnke decided to leave Lehigh and to take a new job as admissions counselor and debate coach at Bethel College. The new job included responsibilities for "general public relations." The college agreed that he could live at the farm by Elyria and commute to the job in North Newton. The Juhnke family's transition back to full-time life on the farm was not difficult. Meta wrote to her siblings, "We're back on our wonderful farm. We know it's grand because every year we eagerly waited for summer so we could come here." She admitted that the daily schedule at the farm was in some ways more strenuous: "We get up about an hour earlier than we did in Lehigh. Then we dress in everyday clothes and go out to chore. Luckily the cows are here and the usual aroma greets us in the barn. We put out feed and milk our three cows-not by hand but with a milking unit carried out there from the milk house with water to wash it. Then we separate [the milk into cream and skim milk] and feed calves. Junior or Daddy checks the pigs' self feeder and replenishes same. Someone carries water and oats to our 48 pullets and Mom hurries in to get breakfast ready. . . . "

The Juhnke family had many fond memories of the Lehigh community and the eleven school years they spent there. The high school was closed in 1966. In May of 1968, Bill Juhnke was invited back to Lehigh to be the speaker at an alumni banquet. His conclusion suggested his emotional identification with the place and people where he had invested the best years of his professional career: "In the spring of 1961 when I left, you made me an honorary alumnus of Lehigh High School. I want to continue to identify with you as long as there is within me breath as a . . . a Lehigh soul brother."

But from 1961 forward the Juhnke family was back at their rural home base in southern McPherson county. The farm a mile east and a quarter south of Elyria would always be their first home.


Forward to Chapter 8

Back to Chapter 7, Part 1

Return to the So Much to be Thankful For Table of Contents

By James C. Juhnke,

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