Our parents, Steve and Thelma (nee Davids) Putnam moved to the reservation near Bowler, Wisconsin. I can remember some time earlier. I believe, that Uncle Carl Miller came to our home in Red Springs. He was tribal chief then and he said there was land available for homeless Indians. The land he was talking about was near Bowler and later became known as the reservation or just the Rez. My parents turned down the offer of land because they already had a home in Red Springs.
That would change very abruptly. It was Good Friday about noon. Mother had just finished cleaning the house and was sitting down to eat lunch. Through the windows she could see fire sparks falling to the ground. Our house was a tall two story structure with a high walk-in attic. When Mother ran outside to inspect, indeed, the house fire was evident!
Siblings Ramona, Beverly and Marie were at home. Beverly and Marie were preschool age and Ramona was home because there was no school on Good Friday at the Mission school on Mission Lake. Dad was away at work in Neopit. He was a logger. It was said that he had a special skill for finding the key log in a log jam as the logs floated down the river. He stayed at the logging camp all week and, of course, had no way to know about the tragedy at his house. Mother ran to the attic and saw that the chimney fault was burning through. She immediately started to get things out of the house. As the smoke from the fire became visible, some neighbors came to help. Pauline and I were about two miles away at the White school, so-called because it was painted white. Remember, there were few cars, no telephone, no fire trucks, and no homeowner’s insurance! I vividly remember Robert Buss, who had been home for lunch, running into the school room and shouting, "Putnam’s house is burning!!". By the time Pauline and I hurried home, all we could see were the corner posts ablaze and fire going down into the basement. One story still being told today is how little Marie, probably about 4 years old at the time, would keep running back into the house, sit down, and play the piano oblivious to the mayhem around her. Finally, Mona had to take her out to the chicken coop so she wouldn’t get trapped in the burning house. (I wonder if she is a distant relative of Nero!)
We all spent the night at our cousins’, the Chicks, house. Then we moved to Grandma Put’s house at Boulah’s Lake. That was a small house and it is still standing today. We all went to North Half school for the rest of the year. That school house is also still standing but today is a private home. For us kids, it was a fun adventure — a big, long living one. As parents, it must have been devastating: A big family, no fire insurance, our home and nearly all our belongings gone. We were homeless Indians. We moved to the reservation, a place for homeless Indians.
When we first moved to the reservation it had an Indian agent —just like the Western movies. He lived in a house at headquarters. We were granted a space of land off the road. It was completely covered with trees. The first order of business (or close to the first) was to find water. Mother would not have a house without water. One of her sisters had spent years hauling water for her family’s daily needs. It was a horrible, back-breaking chore and Mother would have none of it. So where was the water? A man that could use the divining rod was brought in. I do not remember his name but apparently, this was a skill, because not everyone could find water. Of course we kids had to try, too. I can still feel the uncontrollable pull; all of a sudden the stick dips down and you know that is where the water is. So, believe it or not, this is how we found water. Good water! The house was built around it. We had a pump put in place and we had water right in the kitchen. This was really something because this was before the days of faucets and running water. Water was typically pumped outside and carried into the house by the pail full. In winter it was an especially hard chore because the pump had to be primed in sub-zero weather.
A small tar paper shed was built for cooking and eating. We slept in a big old army tent. One problem was that the tent leaked. It was impossible to arrange the beds so that no one would get wet. Of course we would fight to have the dry bed. After a rainy night, wet sheets and blankets were hung in and on the various tree limbs in the woods. There was very little space cleared for drying wash. There were just too many other urgent needs.
Through the years Dad would continue to clear the trees and use the wood for fire wood. The land was now usable for planting. We always had a big garden and Daddy would have fields planted for animal feed. We usually had chickens, a team of horses and a cow or two. As the trees were cut we would carry in the wood. It would be stacked between the trees around the yard. This would serve as a wind break in the winter. Every day after school we kids would carry in wood — a small amount compared to the total amount needed for the winter. We would have to make endless trips day after day all before supper timel
Cutting down the trees still left stones and stumps all over the land. These would not be so easily removed. Daddy would use TNT. He’d set the explosive, light the fuse, and run like crazy until he could duck behind something for safety. We kids were allowed to watch but at a safe distance. We’d crouch behind a big rock until the pieces of wood and rock would stop flying. For us, it was fun but dangerous, too. The reason Daddy was knowledgeable about using TNT was because some years before he, along with a crew of men, had been hired to clear farmland of the many stones so commonly seen on the land in northern Wisconsin. He would use dynamite to explode the stones, hook the team of horses to a stone boat, then haul the smaller stones. The crew would then pile the stones to make stone fences around the perimeter of the acreage. Imagine doing this work day after day to earn a living. These stone fences are still visible today around the Gresham area.
That fall, we all attended the new government school on the reservation. It was near enough to our house that we could run through the woods, around the "kettle hole", to the new two room school. I remember once Beverly, or was it Marie, saw a bear in the woods as she was on her way to school. School started late that first year. Mr. and Mrs. Cone were our teachers. They had just transferred from Alaska. There was an apartment for the teachers at the school above the "little room" —the classroom for grades 1 through 4. The "big room" was for grades 5 through 8. The school (also had a big dining room, kitchen, and an auditorium with a stage. Various programs and dances would be held in the auditorium. Sometimes square dances would be a part of the enjoyment and Daddy would be a caller. His brother, Uncle Ed Putnam, would also call the square dances some times.
That first year, Mr. Cone would write the Constitution of the United States on the blackboard for our history lesson. Day after day, we students, grades 5-8 would have to copy it. He said the reason for this was that there were no books; yet, his form of discipline was to throw a textbook through the air at the offending student. Mr. Cone was a big, tall man. The book would come flying through the air with great force. The offending student would duck as the missle approached and the innocent student behind would get a direct hit. I don’t know why Mr. Cone chose this method of discipline, especially, if books were in such short supply. I wonder if he had another motive for writing the Constitution on the board every day for these Indian kids? Besides a school, we had a doctor and a public health nurse visit about twice a month. They would provide minor medical procedures. Later, a dentist also came. The nearest Federal government hospitals were at Tomah and at Keshena, about 30 miles away.
We had church services in the school auditorium because there were no real church buildings then. Being a Christian community, on Sunday morning we would all be seated in silence, waiting, waiting, for Reverend Boettcher. He was a tall, wiry man with wispy auburn hair. He'd come rushing in—a bit late it would usually seem—because he had two other parishes to attend as well. By the time he arrived for our services, he had already held church at Red Springs and Morgan Siding. With poor roads and an old car, it must have been quite a challenge to get everywhere on time. He’d always bring his portable black organ. He’d set it up, play the first notes— then turn his head to the congregation craning his neck as if it were on a 360 degree swivel-and nod for the singing to begin.
In those days we had a dog that would follow us as we walked to church. We would try unsuccessfully to get him to stay at home. When we arrived at church we had to carefully slip through the church door so he wouldn’t follow us in. As soon as any latecomers would open the door, in he would come and run right up to the organ and lie down. My, oh, my, we would be embarrassed as we quietly tried to get him back out!
Schooling at the government school on the reservation ended at eighth grade. There were no buses for the seven mile ride to Bowler High School; at least not at first. Some kids hitch-hiked to schools in Gresham or Shawano. Others went away to an Indian boarding school at Haskell, Missouri. Around 1946, public school buses started and we could all ride to our local high schools.
The early buses were painted red, white, and blue. Our Indian bus was bright yellow. Of course we got teased, plus! After a bit, we were told that soon all the buses would be the same yellow color and that we had gotten to be first! That made all of us feel better. And, indeed, today buses are still that same mustard yellow color.
Mother and Dad were always active in civic affairs. We can recall their coming home from many a meeting as the reservation was getting started. In later years, mother was concerned about the cemetery in Red Springs. She recognized the need to preserve the burial ground of our ancestors for future generations. The various markers were rotting and disappearing. She feared that future generations would not know that this was the main burial grounds of our people. So, with the help of Bernice Davids Miller Pigeon and Oscar Davids, a big rock was put in place to mark the cemetery. The placard has Mother’s name along with information appropriately identifying the Indian burial grounds. She authored the book titled, Christian Religion Among the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians because she wanted to tell future generations the history of Christianity among our tribe.
Times have changed a lot in so many ways. There were no local jobs or colleges. As we all graduated from high school we went away to school or to find employment off the reservation. Ramona graduated from Stevens Point College. We all had to work, borrow money, and get scholarships if we wanted to go on to school. I went to Milwaukee the day after I graduated from high school. I stayed with Aunt Lila and Uncle Dud and family for the summer and worked as a waitress right downtown in Milwaukee. Wow, what a change from the Rez! I was sixteen years old. That fall I started school to become a nurse—graduated and passed my state board exam to become a registered nurse. I went through school on a scholarship from a women’s group in Racine, Wisconsin. I worked until 1998—most of those years part-time as I was married and a mother.
My last semester for my master’s degree, I received $50 for tuition from the Rez. Otherwise, during those years of getting an education, I never received any Indian money for education. So, students be thankful for financial help you receive today! Some years ago in a conversation in Milwaukee someone said about our tribe, "Oh, you’re from the educated tribe." It made me think and realize that yes, indeed, we are a progressive, educated tribe, As were our ancestors, the people of the waters that are never still.
If our life is easier today, it is because of the hard work of the people who have gone before us. Does anyone remember to say "Thank you!" to their parents for the basics that helped their children to become good, solid, God-fearing adults? We were and are proud to say who our parents were. We are always proud to say our family name and people would acknowledge the same with an approving nod or comment to the affirmative.
Thanks, Mom and Dad for the rich legacy you have left us.