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Calumet County, Wisconsin Genealogy & History
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This Biography was contributed by Jeanne Bristol

Edgar J. Coonen Bio

As told by his daughters Ruth Treon of Ohio and Mary Ann Harrigon of New York


Facts --- Experiences --- Odd Conditions --- Historical

Born Sept. 1, 1904 at home in Dundas Wisconsin, the fourth of thirteen children. One sister, I believe that her name was to be Agnes, was born about 1913 and lived just a few days.

Started to school on a part time basis at age 5. The school consisted of four rooms, with two grades taught in each room by an order of Catholic Nuns. The school was located in Hollandtown, about two and one half miles from Dundas. Seldom was any transportation available. The old school house at Hollandtown eventually had to be replaced. Pa decided to buy the old standing seam steel roof. Henry and I removed it. If you should drive thru Dundas now, I think that you would find that it is still in service on one of the old sheds. Most of the lime used in the laying of bricks and plastering in the new school was hauled from a limekiln, I think located in Brillion by myself.

A few words about going to school. In the winter when the snow was six inches deep or more, one's ankles usually got wet and the feet somewhat the same. The cold wet feet resulted in chilblains, the closest one can get to frostbite without frostbite. The method we used in the evening to combat the awful itching was to remove our shoes and socks and run around in the snow for a minute. The back of our legs just above the shoes became badly chapped and got a daily application of Vaseline. On cold days we wore a fascinator around the head to keep our faces warm. Boys would often turn their earflaps up to see who could take the cold the longest. This occasionally resulted in white ear lobes. Come springtime we were given a tonic of sulphur and molasses. This was made somewhat easier by one of the results. On the following night we would take off our stockings and shake them over a hot stove lid to watch the tine blue flames that would appear.

At about age ten, during the summer, work was available at the local canning factory, stacking tin cans whenever a carload arrived. Ten cents an hour was the wage rate. Tin cans at that time were a bit different than they are today. Each empty can had a lid on it with about a one-inch hold in the center. The cans were filled through this opening and a cap was soldered to them automatically, about a dozen at a time. The final operation was to solder a tiny hole in the center of the cap. One man using a soldering copper that hung in the air balanced by a spring did this. The man doing this operation was Fof Wolfinger. He was also the first man in Dundas to openly smoke a cigarette.

When the present type of can came into use, Joe Wolfinger, our next-door neighbor, invented a device to pick up about fifteen cans at a time. At least one of my brothers and I were employed to make this device.(Editors note. In summer of 1959, I worked at that same canning factory and used this device during the pea canning season). During the fall when corn was being canned, the job of husking corn was available at the rate of three cents a bushel. Since the only way into town was by train, a lookout was posted at each train arrival to check for a child labor inspector.

A little description of the town of Dundas might be in order. There was no cross road, just a main street. Dundas was on a spur line of the Chicago and North Western that ran from Manitowoc to Antigo. The railway had about a quarter mile siding that permitted one train to meet or pass another. In addition to that, it had a sidetrack that serviced the canning factory and grain elevator, plus a siding that serviced the Coonen facilities. A train did not have to stop to pick up mail, the pouch could be hung from a bar and the mail car had a device that could reach out and snatch it. There was one side road that lead to the depot, the elevator and canning factory.

The elevator was sort of special in that it had a fifty horsepower single cylinder gasoline engine for motive power with a unique way of being started. First the piston was brought to dead center, next a wooden match was attached to a plunger and screwed into the combustion chamber, this was followed by a priming charge of gasoline, and then air was pumped into the compression chamber. This completed the preparation. With a bar inserted into a hole in about an eight-foot flywheel, the piston was moved off of dead center, the pumped in air kept it moving until the operator took a hammer and struck the plunger with the match in it. It usually started and ejected a smoke ring out of the exhaust pip for a distance of a hundred feet.

The Coonen store was in the center of town. On it's west side the Dundas House, a saloon with several overnight rooms. On the east side of the Coonen lot lived Joe Wolfinger and next to his place was built a garage when automobiles came of age. On the other side of the street was a cheese factory next to the other saloon. This saloon had a dance floor on the second floor. A blacksmith shop was next to it. Across the street from the Dundas House was the Micke farm which was always the first in the area to have its crop planted in the spring.

In my early days I did occasionally assist the cheese maker in raking the curd and putting it into round metal boxes to be pressed.

Each of the saloons had an icehouse. These houses would be filled with ice packed in sawdust. The supply usually outlasted the summer.

The Coonen store sold farm machinery, coal, cement, shoes, harnesses, hardware and groceries. It purchased butter, eggs, furs and basswood bolts for shipment.

About 1918 electricity came to town. Previous to that we had gaslights, three in the store, one in our kitchen and one in the flat above the store. The gas was generated in a burner in the rear of the store. It required about a gallon of gasoline each night.

Kerosene was sold in the store. It was stored in an open farm tank located under a wooden window display platform. Many farmers brought in their cans to be filled with a potato pushed over the spout for a dap.

The Fateful Corner

Dundas and traveling east for about a mile, a north south road crossed the Dundas road. When about seven years old I sprained an ankle wrestling with Frank Micke at this corner. All the other kids continued home, but I couldn't walk so I stayed there until a farmer with horse and buggy coming from Dundas turned around and took me home. Pa hitched up Frank (our horse) and took me to the doctor at Kaukauna. This was my first look at X ray. With sparks jumping a foot between brass balls, it was quite a memorable experience. The end result was two months at home. That X ray machine was called a Morton-Holtz Influence Machine.

In the year 1938, Ma, Pa, Catherine and, I think, Grace with Jerome the driver, were returning from Mass on a snowy winter day in a Dodge sedan that had a partial fabric top.

The car was hit by another car at the intersection and it turned over. Ma was thrown partly through the fabric top and was crushed by the weight of the car. She died with but one gasp of breath. Pa was knocked unconscious and remained so for a month and then regained consciousness. The injuries to the others were minor in comparison.

On an earlier winter day about 1920, we had gone to Mass on a Sunday with the temperature at about zero. This time it was by a one-horse sleigh. I was the driver, Ma, Catherine, and Norbert the riders. While at Mass, a blizzard came up which wiped out all previous sleigh tracks. We left the Hollandtown road and turned toward Dundas at the fateful corner. The snow was so deep that the single tree on the sleigh broke. We abandoned the sleigh. I put Norbert on the horse and led it home. Ma and Catherine followed on foot. Each of us had some part of the body frozen. Ma was totally exhausted when she reached home.

About 1919, Lester and myself attended the Brown County Fair. The main attraction to us was a world war one biplane. It had tow open cockpits. The pilot sat in the rear. Lester and myself sat in the front cockpit in a space meant for one. We asked the pilot to do a loop. That he said would be another five dollars, which we didn't have. It was quite an experience for both of us.

I remember one little incident at home. Pa had purchased a lot of lamp chimneys that were hard to break. He delighted in accidentally knocking one off the counter and then selling it to the astonished customer.

One summer was spent hoeing a several acre patch of cabbage for Ross Beach. We also gardened a couple acres of railroad right of way.

When not busy at home I did work for farmers during silo filling time, mostly loading bundles of green corn onto wagons. Also followed the threshing machine, pitching bundles of grain from a how mow toward the thresher. Several winters were spent with a hay bailer. If the temperature was too low to start the tractor, it was towed into a wide open space and a fire was built under it to bring it to starting temperature. My job was called wiring, which meant poking wires through slots in a wooden block between bales of hay after someone on the opposite side pushed the wires back through the next block to tie the two ends together. Also had to call out the word BLOCK when the bale was long enough. The man feeding the press would then pull a lever that would insert the next block.

When the cheese factory at Hollandtown burned down, Pa contracted to pick up the milk from the farmers and haul it to the Kaukauna Club Dairy at Kaukauna. This meant getting up at five every morning and picking up the milk at each farm. I made a mistake one morning and dumped the fresh mild instead of the whey that I was returning to one farm. One advantage was, waiting at the cheese factory for one's turn to unload the milk, we would go to the bakery, get donuts, skim a bit of cream off the milk and have a second breakfast.

Another job taken on because of the truck was the hauling of about fifty yards of gravel for the construction of a beet dump. This was a facility for unloading farmers wagons by picking up the front of the wagon and letting the beets slide off into a large bucket which was then raised high enough into the air to let the beets slide off into a rail car.

During the early construction of this dump, a gin pole had been erected. After its erection, it was necessary to make a change at the top of the pole. The contractor had no one willing to do this. I volunteered for the task, was hired and helped construct this and a similar installation at Wrightstown.

One winter was then spent at Green Bay working in the sugar factory, a rather easy job, only twelve-hour nights. One of my first nights on the job I made my first contact with electricity. Using a crowbar to break loose sections of frozen beets, I made contact with the traveling cranes' 240-volt trolley. Quite shocking. We fed the beets into a sluiceway under the mountains of beets. Later my job was to scrape the sugar from centrifuges use to get out most of the liquid.

One of two winters was spent at the local canning factory, nailing together wooden boxes for the shipping of canned peas. Eventually this canning factory became obsolete, was sold and a more modern plant was built. After a few years I acquired the job of cook. With fourteen retorts in a circle and operating inside this circle it was a rather warm job. The process was to stack three crates of number ten cans on top of each other, close the cover and secure it with about a dozen large wing nuts. The temperature was gradually brought to 240 degrees at about 11 pounds of steam pressure. One this temperature was reached, it was maintained for 60 minutes. Then admitting cold water into the bottom of the retort did the cooling under pressure. If done too rapidly, the steam pressure would collapse with the resultant buckling of all cans. With all fourteen retorts in use at one time, this became a real job. Brother Lester worked in the warehouse and was responsible for the storage and cataloging of each day's pack.

During all of my working years at home all my paychecks were given to my dad. I became bold at one time and cashed one of my paychecks. I spent several dollars for a pongee shirt. Pa said "you might as well have thrown the money in the river".

After graduating from grade school at age thirteen, I was enrolled at Saint Norbert's for a high school education. After one semester I contacted the flu, was sent home and spent two months in bed. This was at the time of the great epidemic and for many it was fatal. Also World War I ended while I was at St Norbert. This was the end of my formal education until age twenty-two.

At about age twenty-one I purchased a car for the sum of seventy dollars. It had a racing body, no top, no windshield spotlights for headlights, and no fenders and could turn around on a road regardless of width. One day brother Norbert and myself had been to Kaukauna, on the way home we were each eating a bag of popcorn and traveling at about 45 miles per hour when a farmer, coming out of his driveway, drove directly into our path. I warned Norbert to hold onto his popcorn. We took to the ditch, went around a culvert and back onto the highway without slackening our speed or spilling any popcorn.

I spent much time with my Uncle George who was the working mechanic, while Pa was the business manager and salesman of the partnership of Coonen Brothers. After my dad purchased Uncle George's share of the business, the business became known as J. L. Coonen and Sons. Henry was called home to take over the mechanical duties. He worked at home until he got married. Being paid no wages and having worked a number of years a day of settlement was at hand. A rather severe blow to the solvency of J. L. Coonen and Sons.

At age 22 I had made up my mind to leave Dundas. I gave Dad the choice of lending me $1000 to go to Bliss Electrical School or I would join the navy. I was advanced the money and went to Bliss, graduated with honors and went to work for the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company at the rate of 50 cents per hour.

All through my years at home I was plagued by a head problem, with trips once a week, first to the family doctor and then to a head specialist with no improvement. About 1922 a cousin of mine and I went to the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota. After an examination by Dr Rockwell, I asked for and received an appointment with Dr. Charles Mayo. That was the end of useless treatment. This condition was so bad that I did much of my breathing through my mouth. It has never entirely left me but did improve very much as the years went by.

Just a word or two about farm tractors. The first tractor sold was a Mogul, single cylinder with a planetary transmission. Next came the Titan, a two-cylinder job that operated on kerosene, with a water valve on the carburetor to adjust to prevent knocking. The first four cylinder one was an International; a 10-20 McCormick Deering followed this. Later developments produced diesel engines, power steering, enclosed cabs with air conditioning and hydraulic controls for the towed implements.


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