Ed Ellingson's Blog

-14 Grandpa Freeman was a Player

Grandpa Freeman was a Player

Written by Ed Ellingson, Jan 2011

This is a family story that I wanted to write down before it was lost, or so changed and disconnected that no-one would believe it.  I’m including it here because it gives some insight into what life was like back in the Depression.

A little background.  Sometime during the Depression the Higgins barn burned down.  This was a huge event, quite a watershed in the family history and talked about for years.  People didn’t have fire insurance then; the neighbors did help each other with barn-raisings, but that was labor only, not the lumber and materials, and not the carpenters that got everything cut, mortised, and arranged.  It was a terrible financial setback, one which changed their lives.  One of the big changes was that they started selling the farm products direct to consumers.  Grandma Lina was instrumental in setting this up; she really took charge, while Grandpa was probably in a state of depression.  They bought the milk bottles, crates, and truck (a 1937 Ford panel truck, if my memory is any good).  They bought the pasteurization equipment and the bottle washer.  They advertised to establish customers.  They got the licenses and permits that they needed.  The focus was the milk products, but they also sold eggs and dressed chickens, geese, and ducks.  Some customers wanted the blood too, so when he’d kill chickens he was often collecting the blood.

I remember asking how that barn fire started, and never getting a good answer; something about an engine back-firing, but no detail.  Then I was talking with Frankie Lohaus, our neighbor and hired man.  He seemed to know the “real” story; a Higgins hired man was trying to start the gasoline engine that ran the vacuum machine for milking cows.  It was cold and the engine wouldn’t start, so he splashed some gasoline on the outside of the engine and lit it off to warm up the engine.  As one can imagine could happen, that fire ignited the fuel in the tank, and there was no stopping it.  Now I had a fire story that made sense.

The real story I wanted to tell started with the PBS show “Frontier Life” that first ran in April of 2002.  In this show the characters involved live as close as possible to lifestyle of pioneer settlers of 1883, essentially as the original prairie homesteaders of the Great Plains.  It was set in the Territory of Montana, but it was representative of many states and the only area remaining that still has a little wilderness left in which to create such a program.

During the program, as I remember the situation, a Grandma came to visit.  She came on the train, which was representative of travel in the 1880’s.  She also brought pictures, which were also characteristic of the time, although perhaps using a different technology.  In reviewing the pictures, the daughter asked about some facial feature, maybe a nose or ears. The question posed was like, “Where did I get my pointy nose?  Everyone in the family has a round nose, and I have a pointy nose.”  The Grandmother responded, “Oh, I think you got that from the milkman.”

I had heard this saying many times in my youth, so I could relate to it in a way.  It also happened that my Grandfather was a milkman, as I explained above, so I had a connection to it that way too.  It also happened that my mother (Ermina [Mina] Ellingson)was visiting shortly after that, so I gave her this story about the PBS TV show, and I hit her up, “ So, your dad was a milkman; do you have any stories about him?”

I didn’t really expect much of a story from her, maybe a rumor or two, but we could see that she was embarrassed, and also contemplating; maybe she thought it was about time to come clean.  This was within the last 2-3 years of her life, so maybe she thought it was time to pass on the “hidden” family history.

She started to talk.  Yes, there was a story.  Grandpa had at least two “girlfriends”.  Her Aunt Lillie (her mother’s sister) came to her once with some evidence that Freeman had two “special” stops on his milk route where he would spend some extra time with the woman of the house.  It was investigated (I assume by the P.I., but maybe by Lillie) to the extent that she knew that in both cases the husbands knew about the arrangement.  In one, the lady seems to have had a larger sexual appetite than her husband, so it worked for all concerned.  In the other, it was a fertility problem; the lady wanted to get pregnant and it just wasn’t happening.  It seems that Grandpa Freeman, being a pretty kind man, was “giving his all” to help this poor lady have a baby.  This was in the days before fertility drugs, enriched semen, anonymous sperm donors, and such, and people didn’t have money for such things anyway, so they did the best they could with old remedies, common sense, and working together.  I didn’t get any names, but Mina had them, and she said that this second woman did have a boy and that she saw him (at something public) and he was a “spitting image” of Freeman at that age, based on family photos.

I can support the story as well.  When I was little I would ride along with Grandpa on his milk route.  Most stops would just be a quick drop-off of milk and cream, based on a regular order.  Sometimes people would ask for something extra, and if he had it, I might run back to the truck to get it.  Often there were orders for something extra for the next delivery, and of course, there was the pick-up of the clean empty bottles.  On one stop he first bought me an ice cream soda, then he told me that this next stop was going to take some extra time, to “write up a special order” as I recall, and that I was to have my soda and wait in the milk truck until he came back.  He was gone for what seemed like a long time to me; I was actually starting to think about how long to wait.  “What if he doesn’t come out for an hour?”  But then he came out, sort of straightening out his overalls and kind of rushed, but he came back just like he said he would, and we continued the route.

I also remember Grandma Lina quizzing me a little when we got back, and I told her about the delay at one house, as I was still at an age where one has no concept of lying.  This was at the dinner table, and she confronted Grandpa on this, and he brushed it off as normal business and not being very long at all.  In retrospect, it wasn’t very long; quite a quickie actually.


My brother Jim, older and much more worldly than me, quizzed me about the long stop at one house, indicated that he had experienced the same thing, and declared that “Grandpa had a girlfriend.”

In telling this story to Beverly Petersen, she said that “Grandma was always suspicious that Grandpa was up to something, and I guess she had good reason.”

As Mina told this story, she said that Aunt Lillie was ready to show this evidence to Lina, and that she told her, “I’ll kill you if you do.”  I never thought of my mother as a violent person, so I somehow doubt the exact wording, but apparently Lillie never confronted Lina with this information, so her words must have been pretty strong.  Mina knew that her parents had some “issues”, but she felt that it was a personal matter for them to work out, not something that the extended family should confront them with.

So, when someone talks about a certain characteristic and says, “I inherited that from the milkman,” it may be true.

Also think about the changes in lifestyle.  If someone today will spend $50,000 or more on fertility treatments, what would they do if they didn’t have that kind of money?


1 Comment so far
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I love your family stories and that you took the time to write them down. It is like walking back in time. What a treasure!

Comment by Anna

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