TeSelle, Herman John (1888-1963)


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Herman John TeSelle was born in Firth, Lancaster County, Nebraska on 2 August 1888. He was the son of Harmen Jan te Selle (1844-1919) and Johanna Arnolda Brethouwer. Herman married Jennie Vandewege on 30 April 1913. Herman died in Firth, Lancaster County, Nebraska on 22 June 1963, and is buried in the Firth Cemetery.

The following narrative was written by Robert TeSelle, grandson of Herman John. The information is a compilation of recollections contributed by several of Herman John’s grandchildren. [Note: See also a granddaughter’s narrative — Memories of Herman and Jennie TeSelle (“Grandpa and Grandma”), by Connie TeSelle Robinson – May 2019

My grandparents, Herman and Jennie, had a farm in Firth, Nebraska, which is about 25 miles south of Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska. The farm had originally belonged to my great grandfather, Harmen Jan te Selle, who bought the farm when he first moved to Nebraska from Wisconsin in the early 1870’s from a man who had homesteaded the property, but then decided not to keep it.

Harmen Jan te Selle had 14 children who survived to adulthood. Through the luck of timing, my grandfather Herman was the one who ended up living on the family farm. Around age 69, Harmen Jan decided to move from the farm into the town of Firth, which was about the time (1913) my grandfather Herman married Jennie Vandewege, and they needed a house to live in to start their family. Other sons of Harmen Jan either already had farms of their own, or were too young to take on the responsibility of managing the family farm. Through his will, when Harmen Jan died in 1919, he divided his farmland and other assets among all his children. My grandfather Herman got the part of the farm that contained the farmhouse, where he and Jennie were living, along with their three sons by now. In the TeSelle Family website we have a copy of Harmen Jan’s will and a plat map of the area showing which parcels went to which children.

My dad Floyd was born in January 1914, when Herman was about 26 and Jennie was only 19. Floyd’s brothers Orville and Glenn were born not too long after, in 1916 and 1918. Farming was a challenging life for a young married couple with small children, but it was the only life my grandparents had ever known. They had grown up in the close-knit Dutch community around Firth with all the other Dutch immigrant families who had moved to Nebraska from their first Dutch settlement in Wisconsin. Herman and Jennie probably felt very lucky to have three boys, who could grow up to help with the chores and the farming, and one day take over the farm from their parents.

I remember Grandpa as a quiet, even-keeled man — a listener more than a talker, but worth listening to when he did speak. Whenever he was inside the farmhouse, he was most likely sitting in his rocking chair in the living room, smoking his pipe and reading the paper. But more often he was outside doing chores or tinkering in his work shed. There was always work to be done, tending to the animals, fixing a broken piece of equipment, or building something new. A farmer needed to be a jack of all trades, and Grandpa certainly was one.

In his spare time, Grandpa built a small Ferris Wheel for us grandkids and for other neighborhood kids. It was about 10 feet in diameter and had seats for four people. He used old scrap metal, wood, gears, etc. I’m not sure where he got all the parts. I think it had an electric motor, but I don’t really remember how it was powered. I just remember that it was so cool to have our own Ferris Wheel, and especially cool that my grandpa built it himself. I probably only saw it for a couple of days in one of the years we visited, but it made a lasting impression on me. 

I can understand now how my dad assimilated his practical knowledge of skills like carpentry, electricity, woodworking, plumbing, and general common sense for solving problems and fixing things. Those are survival skills for farmers, and young boys needed to learn those skills early. Even though my dad as a young man decided that he did not want to be a farmer, throughout his life he had a love for all those skills and projects that he had learned and experienced during his short time on the farm. 

My dad lived on the farm from his birth in 1914 until he went college in Lincoln in the mid-1930s. He was a teenager during the Great Depression, which may have given him the impression that farm life was just too hard and unrewarding as a career, even though every other job or career was probably suffering at least as much if not more. He never went back to live on a farm after going away to college. I regret that I never talked with my dad about his life on the farm during the Depression, but it must have had an impact on the lifestyle and career choices he made.

Besides his rocking chair, Grandpa’s main domain was the farm buildings and equipment — the barn, the work shed, the garage, the corn crib, the pigsty, the windmill, the John Deere tractor, and all the farm implements. As a city kid, I loved to follow him around the farm just watching all the things he did that were so foreign to me. 

Every morning he milked the cows. I don’t remember how many milk cows he had, but probably about 4-6. They gave enough milk to provide cream, butter, and milk for his family, with some left over to sell in town. He milked each one by hand, twice a day. He would take his three-legged milking stool and set it next to each cow in turn. He would pet them, and talk with them, and get them to relax so that they would let down their milk in the udder. He washed each udder before starting to milk. He tried to teach me how to how to hold and squeeze the teats to cause the milk to squirt into the bucket, but my hands were not strong enough to be effective. I could get a few squirts, but I couldn’t do it for long. I was afraid the cow might get annoyed at my ineptitude! As Grandpa milked the cows, the barn cats would come around begging for milk. They would stand near him and he would squirt milk directly from the cow’s teat into their mouths. Their faces got covered in milk, but they loved it. It was very fun to watch.

When all the cows were milked, the pails of milk got poured into a separator, which is a machine to separate the cream from the milk. (Add info about separator.)

Grandpa worked very hard around the farm, and there were always chores to do. Yet, whenever my sister and I visited the farm, he always had time to do things with us. He took us for rides on the tractor out into the fields. He showed me how to shoot a BB gun to knock tin cans off of the fence posts. He took me to the hardware store in Firth, where we bought packets of BBs for the gun. Grandma told me I could shoot at the sparrows, who were a nuisance hanging around the chicken coop. But she told me not to shoot the swallows, because they ate the little flying insects that annoyed us all day. 

Grandpa also helped us make things in his work shed. He and my dad helped us make a game where we rolled a small metal wheel (about 10″ diameter) using a long (36″) and a short (8″) piece of wooden lath joined in a “T” shape near one end of the long piece. We used the wooden device to push and steer the wheel around the yard and down the long dirt driveway. We had contests to see who could keep the wheel rolling for the longest time, and races to see who could go the fastest. 

If Grandpa’s domain was the farm buildings, fields, and equipment, Grandma’s domain was the farmhouse, garden, and chicken coop. We loved Grandma’s cooking. She made fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and fresh vegetables from her garden — corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, carrots, etc. — which we helped her pick each day. She made fresh bread, which was really delicious, especially when it first came out of the oven. She also grew fresh blackberries and raspberries. For dessert, she would make cakes and pies. Sometimes we would make ice cream, taking turns cranking the hand-cranked ice cream maker. We never went hungry at Grandma’s house.

Every day we helped Grandma collect the eggs from the chicken coop. Usually, we could find eggs just lying in the nests, but sometimes she would have to shoo the chickens off of their nests in order to gather the eggs. We were a little intimidated by those hens who just wanted to stay sitting on their eggs, but Grandma had no problem just shooing them away. We had fresh eggs every day for breakfast and for cooking, and she still had eggs left over to sell in town.

Some of the chickens were “layers” and some were “fryers.” If we were having chicken for dinner, Grandma would pick out one of the fryers, chase it down in the yard, and then grab it and break its neck to kill it. I only saw her do it once, and I didn’t really want to see it again. She drained the blood, plucked the feathers, and prepared it to be cooked for the evening meal. The fried chicken was fresh and delicious, as long as I didn’t think too much about how it got from farm to table.

Grandma’s garden provided more vegetables and berries than we could eat, so she canned some of the produce to store in the cellar. Sometimes she would do the canning at home, sterilizing the Mason jars and sealing the different vegetables inside. She would also make jam or fruit compote and put that in jars as well. One time we went into Lincoln with a load of produce and went to the commercial cannery, which provided a do-it-yourself area for local farmers to do their own canning, where they could actually store their vegetables in sealed tin cans. That was fun to watch. That year we even brought some of those canned vegetables back home to Glendale. Dad put a bunch of tin cans on the floor in the back seat of our 1957 Chevrolet, and then he put thin boards on top of the cans to make a smooth floor for the backseat passengers. I don’t remember how comfortable that was for the back seat passengers, since their feet were raised off the normal floor height. However, I think by that trip I was old enough to have my learner’s permit for driving, so I was either driving or riding in the front seat most of the time we were driving home from Nebraska.

In the evening our favorite pastime was playing cards. Grandma and Grandpa knew lots of card games and were very patient about teaching us to play. Mom and Dad knew the games as well, so often all six of us would play. My favorite was Pitch. I don’t remember all the rules now, but there was something about a “high jack” and a “low jack” that made the strategy different. (Look up Pitch rules.) We also played Pinochle, Canasta, and Hearts.

In the evening we always had root beer floats. That was Grandma’s favorite evening snack, and we kids were easily convinced to join her. Sometimes the snack included popcorn as well! I remember lots of laughing and talking, and a fun evening for everyone.

When bedtime came, I was tired after an always busy day. However, sleeping in the summer in Nebraska was not always easy. It is hot and very humid. The bedrooms were upstairs, which were made hotter by the rising heat. We had fans circulating the air, but we were still hot and sweaty lying in our beds. Sometimes we had thunderstorms, creating displays of lightning in the distance. As long as the storms weren’t too close, they were fun to watch. When the storms got closer, the lightning was brighter and the thunder was louder, and it could be a little scary.

We all knew about the cellar under the front porch. In the event of a tornado, that’s where we were supposed to go. It wasn’t very big, but hopefully, it would keep us safe if a tornado passed over the house. We never had to test it, even though we did occasionally see tornados in the distance. The only times we actually went into the cellar were to put away some of Grandma’s canned goods, or to get some canned goods out for mealtime.

We loved sitting on the front porch swing, overlooking the cornfields across the driveway. Grandma had a beautiful front yard in the summertime, with green grass and bushes spaced along the fence. Grandpa kept the lawn mowed, and Grandma planted flowers to give the yard some color. It was very peaceful sitting on the porch, often with Grandma, and talking about life on the farm. I wish I had had the foresight to ask her a lot more questions about her life experiences, but I never did. She was more interested in talking about me, which seems pretty typical for grandparents.