Memories of the prairie

Here’s a letter written by L. Walter Schumacher recounting memories of his family (the John Schumacher family), taming the prairie, scaring prairie chickens, the trials of acquiring an education, railroad workers constructing the C. & E. I. Railroad, and when Altamont was first illuminated with electric lights. It was printed in the 1971 Altamont Centennial book.

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Prairie grass at Ballard Nature Center, west of Altamont.

“The Schumacher family were pioneers of this community, coming as immigrants from Germany in 1850, fleeing from the military power of the Kaiser. The family settled first in Cook County and then moved to the prairies of Southern Illinois.

In 1876, John married Miss Bertha Klitzing, who also was born in Germany. They bought a quarter section of land, 160 acres, for $4,000 in 1884. Forrest Schumacher now is the owner. They broke the prairie grass sod and built a home and raised seven children, Arthur, Charles, Benjamin, Walter, Harry, Mary (Stullken) and Ruth (Milleville).

Dairy farming soon became father’s main interest as he was one of the first to have a registered thoroughbred Holstein herd. Many were the times he told us of the hard work it was breaking the prairie grass sod, the number of years it took to rid the soil of its roots and to make the land tillable. I remember the fires on the untilled lands of prairie grass sod many times threatening the homes and livestock.

Prairie chickens, quail, birds of all kind were very numerous. As a boy I was intrigued by the booming noise of the prairie chickens at courtship time in the spring. It was impossible to see this ceremony close by as they were very alert and shy.

One morning, early, as I started out to the pasture to fetch the cows in for milking, I heard them. I crawled on my belly a long distance on the opposite side of a picket fence grown thick with grass until I was within fifty feet of them. The performance I saw made an indelible imprint on my memory.

The cock in his colorful plumage with his long crest feathers raised erect, tail spread, wings dragging by his side, the orange red push on each side of his head inflated to the size of a large egg, was strutting and dancing and leaping around the hen he was wooing and during this time boom-boom-booming loudly. His intended was colorless, seemingly unconcerned, yet coy. There was a large flock and many similar ceremonies were going on at the same time.

Spellbound I lay there for quite some time. I finally realized the cows had to be driven in for milking. All during my long lifetime I have never seen a more beautiful chick, the tiny colorful downy prairie chicken. Even today, wildlife is my greatest interest and I am concerned about what pollution has done and will do to it.

Father and Mother Schumacher had little or no formal education. However, they were insistent that we children were in school regularly. We attended the Blue Mound one room country school. Mr. H.H. Bailey was my teacher when I first started to school in 1895 (sic). I was with my father when we met Mr. Bailey at the Postoffice in Altamont on a Saturday morning. I proudly pointed him out to my father, who, after a friendly greeting, spoke to him in this manner, “I got four boys going to school to you and I VANT you to learn em’ something.”

In order to provide a high school education for all of his children, father bought one acre of land across the road from a neighbor for $100 and moved our house on it as this would put us in the Altamont High School district. It took several days to move the house on wooden rollers with a horse drawn rope windlass. We slept one night in the middle of the road. Thus we all received a high school education. No petitions, boundary disputes, elections —just plain pioneer initiative.

When the C. & E. I. Railroad was built, I remember the many horses and mules and scrappers that were used to make the road bed. Almost an army of foreign laborers, Italians, Poles, and others were encamped on the Fred Milleville farm wast of Altamont. They were there many weeks for the progress was slow. The railroads brought many worries to farmers adjacent to there right-of-ways, killing wandering livestock with the railroads often refusing to pay damages.

There was a flowing spring on our farm and in extreme droughts, neighbors from miles around came for water for stock and home use.

Father was of a group of men called the “Big Three,” Mr. William Goers, Mr. John Milleville and John Schumacher, who promoted in their quiet way many worthwhile projects in the community such as: the first Altamont Fair and the Pure Milk as: the first Altamont Fair and the Pure Milk Association. My father would not work in the fields when his Lutheran neighbors went to church on their extra Easter holy days.

When the first electric lights were installed in Altamont, they penetrated the darkness as far out as our farm. The party telephone line at the turn of the century was something. Our ring was one long and three shorts on a line of nine. What fun eaves-dropping…automobiles, radio, tv, airplanes and outer space explorations. What an era to have enjoyed during my lifetime…Isn’t it strange that with all of man’s progress in scientific research and his ingenuity, he has yet to learn to live in peace with his neighbor and master the pollution in his environment. Never the less my zest for living has not lessened at 83 years. May our freedoms last as long as the granite in the government geographic marker on top of the “Blue Mound” on the former John Ehlers farm…”

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