By Sandor Slomovits
I met Ray Schairer in 1977, when I was learning to play the "bones" from his friend, Percy Danforth. (More on that later.) Our paths crossed occasionally for the next twenty-five years. Then in the fall of 2002 I called him and asked if he would help me with a woodworking project. I wanted to build a music stand for my young daughter, Emily, who was learning to play the violin. I had neither the tools, nor the experience to make one by myself. Ray immediately agreed to help me and out of the process of working together on that project grew one of the warmest, most special friendships of my life. Ray was 80 years old at the time, I was 53 and our friendship had elements of both a father-son and a mentor-student relationship. I began visiting him weekly and we'd work in his shop, making wooden "bones" and other woodworking projects.
Soon after I started working with Ray, I learned that he was in a writing group at the Chelsea Retirement Community where he was living. I asked him to show me the stories he was writing. The book you hold in your hands now are those stories. They are Ray's memories of one year of his childhood.
But first, a very brief biography of Ray and his wife Jane.
They met in the summer of 1946 on a blind date that lasted a week. Jane had been hearing about Ray for some time from her dad, Carl Schlosser, a retired farmer who worked at the Dexter Cooperative, a grain elevator and mill. "He would come home and tell me about this fellow that came in to have feed ground for his cattle, but I wasn't really interested. I'd grown up on a farm. I knew what farming was like and what an unreliable kind of occupation it can be as far as steady income is concerned."
Not that she was waiting for a husband to support her. She was teaching at a rural school near Chelsea, similar to the one she had attended as a child. In the evenings and summers she took classes at Michigan State Normal College, now Eastern Michigan University, to complete her college degree.
Ray and Jane finally met when Jane and her friend, Helen Sias, planned a vacation together to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Helen, a fellow teacher at the rural school had been, fifteen years earlier, Jane's "beginner" or kindergarten teacher, and was now also studying at the Normal College.
At the same time that the two women were making their plans, Ray and Helen's brother Harold, neighbors who sometimes helped each other with farming tasks, were planning a similar vacation.
Somehow, by now neither Ray nor Jane remember how, it was decided they would all go together.
A radical decision for the times, Jane recalls. "I was living on campus that summer and called home to explain to my mother that there had been a change in plans and the four of us would be going together. I still remember her saying, 'Well, you ought to be old enough to know what you're doing.'"
The week long vacation was uneventful and Ray and Jane didn't see each other for nearly a year after, when Ray suddenly showed up at Jane's parents' house one spring evening. She opened the door and greeted him with, "Ray Schairer, what are you doing here?"
Jane's dad was sitting nearby in a rocking chair that night and later told her many times, "I'd have never come back if I'd have been him." But come back he did and they dated for the next three and a half years. Early on in their courtship Ray informed Jane, "I just want you to know that I really don't ever plan on getting married, so if that is what you have in mind, we might as well call it quits right now."
Now, more than sixty years later, they both still laugh with delight at the memory. "Those were fighting words," Jane says. "And I took the challenge!" They married in September of 1950 and built a home around the corner from the house Ray grew up in, where his parents were still living.
Ray, the third generation of Schairers to farm land near the corner of Jackson and Parker roads west of Ann Arbor, continued running the 120-acre family farm along with his dad. They planted grains, milked cattle, raised sheep and chickens – doing what used to be called general farming.
Jane meanwhile, was still teaching in the Chelsea village school. "That was a new idea, for farmers' wives to continue working after they were married. I can remember how we practiced what we would say to our parents. We felt this would come as somewhat of a surprise to them. Our parents were extra-ordinary I think, as I look back on them and on our friends and some of the kinds of problems they had with their parents. Ours just kind of took in stride what we did. And if they had some doubts, they never let us know."
After teaching for ten years and completing her college degree, a new opportunity came up for Jane. Some of her friends in the United Methodist Church of Chelsea were forming a cooperative nursery school, the precursor of today's day care centers, and they asked Jane to help organize it. "The first year, we were on the third floor of the village government building in Chelsea. The fire station was in the same building. Every time the fire engines went out when school was in progress we would all run to the windows and
watch them leave."
In the mid Fifties many of the village schools were beginning to consolidate and to bus children from the rural areas. So the following year, the nursery school was able to buy—for one dollar—a small rural school from the Chelsea school system. During the ten years Jane taught there, the program went from two half days to two full days and an extra afternoon.
The actor Jeff Daniels is the most famous of her ex-students. "But even today, I'll read about people in the local newspaper and I'll say 'Oh, that's one of my kids'." Ray and Jane still run into Jeff Daniels occasionally and Ray laughs as he recalls telling Jeff one time, "The best thing I ever saw you do was when you played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof when you were a
senior in high school."
Somewhere along the way Ray and Jane decided not to have children. "We were so busy and I think we thought we'd have them later, and then that didn't quite work out. We considered adoption but Ray didn't think that was the best route to go. Finally we just decided we wouldn't do it."
But they continued to be very involved with children and education. Jane, in addition to her work at the nursery school also did volunteer work with church youth groups.
"I had an office in the local Methodist Women's Society of Christian Service and we filled out reports on what we were doing. And I could fill out those reports, make them quite lengthy, and make it look like we were doing a horrible amount of work in the Chelsea church. And we were doing some really good things with the youth at that point—and have to this day." Eventually, in 1973 she became President of the United Methodist Women's Organization, which coordinated the activities of local groups throughout the eastern half of Michigan's Lower Peninsula and the entire Upper Peninsula. She also became the first lay woman elected to lead the Church's General Conference delegation and the first to serve as Conference Secretary.
When her four-year term expired she accepted the position of Christian Education Director at the Chelsea Church. She held that position for more than seventeen years and worked with all age groups – infants to adults; coordinating classes, the library, a summer camp program and the work of more than a hundred volunteers every year. "The church has been good to me," she says gratefully. "I have been able to travel and go to so many places I never would have gone to if it weren't for my work."
Although Ray's primary occupation for most of his life has been farming, he has also taught children. For over fifty years he spent many Saturday afternoons in his workshop, teaching woodworking skills to boys and girls in the local 4-H program.
Like Jane, he keeps track of his former students. "They come up to me on the street sometimes and say, 'You got me off to the right start. I just built my own house.' Over the years I've had a number of these fellows tell me that what they're doing now, is related to what they learned in my workshop. And they sent their kids back to me. I've taught two generations. "
Ray's workshop was a converted chicken coop he built using mostly recycled materials. When, in the mid Fifties, the Whitney Theater on North Main Street in Ann Arbor was being torn down, Ray and a friend of his hitched wagons to their tractors and drove to the site. "I had seen movies at that theater when it was up and running. We loaded up two by fours, plywood and all sorts of stuff and hauled it back to the farm. You can't do that any more. You have to build using all new materials. The old stuff goes to the dump." One of the interior walls of his workshop was paneled with a big plywood sign that was used to advertise "King Kong" when it had first shown at the theater.
It was Ray's woodworking skills that got him involved in one of the longest friendships and business relationships of his life. In 1976 Percy Danforth, Ann Arbor's internationally recognized "bones" virtuoso, came to Ray and asked him to make instruments for his students.
The "bones" are two pieces of wood, each about seven inches long, an inch wide and slightly curved, in the shape of rib bones. They are percussion instruments that sound similar to castanets and get their name from the curved animal bones that people played originally. They are considered among the oldest musical instruments played by human beings. There are drawings on the pyramids of Egypt depicting people playing the bones; they are mentioned in Shakespeare's plays, and in the U.S. they were widely used in the vaudeville and minstrel shows popular in the late 19th century.
Percy learned to play the bones as a child in the early 1900s, and played them as a hobby all his life. In the 1970s he began playing the bones in a few public performances, and word of the unusual instruments spread. Soon Percy found himself teaching many students and needed instruments for them. He turned to Ray, who began crafting bones for him. Ray estimates that since 1976 he has made well over fifty thousand pairs of bones. He still uses as his template the original piece of wood that Percy brought him, to show how he wanted the bones shaped.
Making music has also been a lifelong passion for Ray. He has played piano since his teen years. "My grandmother bought the piano that I still play for my dad when he was six years old. We had a trio, my dad, sister and I. He played the violin and my sister played the saxophone. As long as I was accompanying them I could get away with it. But I didn't want to be up there as a soloist. We played all sorts of places. In Chelsea the Kiwanis club used to put on shows, and between acts they'd get us to come up and play a little. Things like that."
Being a farmer didn't leave him very much time for playing, but since he's been retired he's been playing more. For a number of years, before he and Jane moved from their home, he played for people living in the Chelsea Retirement Center. "I played a little for them during the dinner hour once in a while. Just background music. I play some of the old time hymns and that's what these elderly folks like. I tell them, 'I'm not the best piano player' and they say, 'Oh but you play what we like to hear.' And it's great therapy for my fingers." Today, he and Jane live in the CRC and Ray still plays regularly during church services and other occasions.
Ray and Jane have lived full, rich lives and have left their mark on their community. They have earned the respect and gratitude of three generations of people they have taught, guided and served.
It was 1932, the middle of the Great Depression and also the Dust Bowl days in the West that affected farmers even here in Michigan. We didn't irrigate then. We just accepted the weather that nature gave us. The yields were much less in those years. The wheat grew hardly high enough to cut with a grain binder. The corn got no taller than five feet, and some years only knee high, and then it didn't have any grain on it at all. The farmers would cut that and save the stalks for feed for the sheep and cattle in the winter. The drought hurt us, but not like it did farmers out west.
I was ten that year. It was early June and school was over for the summer. Country School ended right after Memorial Day in those days. It used to end even earlier, at the beginning of May, so kids could help with the planting, but that was before my time. I looked forward to the freedom before me—especially to going barefoot again. I never wore shoes during the summer then, except when we went to church. We just didn't go much of any place else in those days. Neighboring farms were far away, half mile or mile was the closest. The men got together to help each other with farm chores, but we kids rarely saw our school friends during the summer.
On a farm there were chores even a ten year old boy was asked to do. One of my tasks was to get the cows from the pasture for the evening milking. The pasture field was as far away from the barn as could be, almost half a mile. Every late afternoon I would head across the barn yard to the lane that led to our wood lot, next to the pasture field.
I can see it now, as though it was yesterday.
I open the gate leading into the lane and start on my way. The path I follow has been used by the cows every day for a long time. The weather has been hot and dry, and the cows' hooves have churned the good earth into deep layers of dust. The feeling, as my bare feet sink in and the dust oozes up between my toes, is almost ecstasy. It's like walking on a soft, warm, sandy beach, or burying my hands in soft flour when I help make bread. On rainy days it was a different feeling, still wonderful, the mud squeezing up between my toes. But this was the drought years. We didn't have a lot of rain those summers.
Sometimes, I step into fresh cow manure in my bare feet. It's not a big deal, though. I just go to the well house, run water on my feet and dry them off in the grass. But there is no stepping into cow manure today. Just the fabulous feeling of my feet sinking into the dust.
A little further down the path my ecstasy is broken by the shrill cry of a killdeer protecting her nest. To the left of the lane is a cornfield planted a few weeks ago and the corn stalks are just forming their leaves. It's a perfect place for the killdeer to make her nest on a little pile of pebbles, hidden under the sheltering leaves. I stop for a moment, assure her I will do her no harm, and continue on my way.
To the right of the lane is a hay field with clover and timothy waving in the summer breeze. The clover is beautiful with bright red blossoms, and the fragrance is unbelievable. I can almost smell the honey the bees will make from it. I keep walking and hear the sound of a bobolink. I find her perched at the edge of her nest, clinging to a tall weed amongst the clover. I start whistling, imitating her call. She's evidently not impressed with my attempt to answer her and flies across the field. I continue on my way, soothing my feet in the wonderful dusty path.
There is a meadow lark flying up ahead of me. He has yellow, white and black markings. Continuing to whistle, I catch the sound of a big old robin. He is perched on top of a fence post near the end of the lane, and it seems as if he's answering my call.
I have now reached the highest point along the way. From here I can see almost our whole farm. To the south is our big, hip roof barn, chicken coop, windmill and well house. Past them the trolley tracks run along Old U.S. 12, a two lane highway that was then the main road between Detroit and Chicago. Looking west I see my favorite big elm tree, our orchard and our new farm house. I can look across the corn field, and the hay field next to it, all the way to the big oak trees lining Parker Road. Their fresh new green leaves wave in the breeze. To the east is the timothy and clover field and to the north is the wood lot and past it, the pasture lot, where the cows are.
The lane leads to the wood lot and I skip along the path, stirring up the dust. I look up into the sky and spot two big turkey buzzards cavorting under the late afternoon clouds. I stick my arms straight out at my sides, and skip along, flapping my hands, I feel as if I am about to lift off to join them. Just then a crow lets out a raucous warning call from the top of a tree at the edge of the woods. That brings me back to reality and reminds me why I am here. I look over to the pasture field and see the cows grazing peacefully. I call to them, across the corn field, with my high pitched voice. "Com-boss, com-boss." One of them hears me, raises her head, and looks my way. She answers back, the rest of the herd look at her, and all fifteen of them start for the wood lot on their journey to the barn.
While I wait at the end of the lane for the cows to come out of the woods I lean against the wire farm fence next to the hay field. I hear the dainty song of a bluebird. Her nest is in the old hollow post at the end of the lane. A woodpecker has made a hole in that post, big enough for the bluebird to make a home.
Here come the cows out of the woods, and just ahead of them a rabbit bounds into the lane. When he sees me he turns sharply and hops into the hay field. I am still leaning against the fence as the cows come by single file, kicking up the dry ground with their hooves. One young heifer pulls out of line to come over and nose at me, making sure I am who I am, and then continues on her way. I follow along, wriggling my toes in the deep, dusty, dry dirt all the way back.
The cows know where to go. They file into the barnyard and I drag the big, heavy, wooden gate across the lane behind them and secure it with a loop of rope hanging on the post. Then I head across the barn yard, past the barn, the chicken coop, well house and windmill and into our farmhouse. It's time for supper.
Father and Mother, my sister Marjorie and little brother Lloyd and I gather around the table and Mother serves us big helpings of ham from the pig we butchered last fall, and home grown mashed potatoes. And, of course, milk. We all dig in. Except for Lloyd who, as usual, is playing with his food, making castles out of the mashed potatoes instead of eating. Mother tells him, "You gotta clean your plate, or you won't get any desert." That gets him going and Mother serves us some strawberries, fresh from the garden. Delicious.
Then, while Mother does the dishes and gets Lloyd ready for bed, Marjorie and I play hide and seek out in the yard and around the house while Father milks the cows.
Then it's one final chore. I meet Father at the well house to help him cool the milk. We use water from our well to cool the milk from the cows before it's sent to the dairy plant for bottling. Our thirty foot well, near the trolley tracks and the driveway leading to the highway, provides all the water for our homestead. Above the well stands a tall windmill and the wheel is connected to the well pump handle. If there is wind, the windmill pumps the water for us. When there is no wind though, we disconnect the pump handle from the windmill and pump by hand. That's my job.
The water runs in a pipe from the well to the well house and then into a water tank where the milk cans, containing some ninety pounds of milk each, are placed for cooling. For the milk to cool properly, it has to be stirred frequently for about an hour to reach the required sixty degrees. It's not a bad job if the wind blows and the windmill pumps the water. But, on days when there is no wind, I need to do more than just stir. I have to hurry to the base of the windmill, pump cool water into the tank, then run back and stir. Then it's back to the windmill to pump some more water.
Tonight there is a breeze, so I don't have to pump, just stir. The stirrer is a two foot long metal rod with a curved handle on top and a saucer shaped bottom piece, with holes in it. I lift it up and down in the milk can to stir the milk.
When the milk is cool, my chores are done. I head back to the house for one of my favorite evening pastimes, listening to the radio. Marjorie and I pull our chairs up close to the big, tube set that sits on a small table in our downstairs hallway. My cousin Alfred (who we all call Boyce), Aunt Martha's son, built that radio for our family this year. It's the first radio we've ever had. It runs on a six volt car battery.
Some nights Father and Mother listen to Lowell Thomas reading the news, but almost every night at seven Marjorie and I tune in either Detroit's WWJ, or Chicago's WGN and follow the adventures of "Amos and Andy" and laugh. They're funny.
After the fifteen minute show, Mother reminds us it's time to wash up and head upstairs to bed. I watch the sunset from my west window and fall asleep to the sounds of the birds and the frogs down by the creek.