As soon as she opened the door, I knew we were entering a special, if not sacred, place. I was standing with LaVern Meeusen on the threshold of her summer kitchen, located on the Fischer homestead in rural Sheboygan County. LaVern, a delightful woman, who was in her early 80s, is the oldest living direct descendant of the Fischers, German immigrants who arrived on the south side of Elkhart Lake more than 150 years ago.
Summer kitchens first caught my attention in the late 1960s when I attended Lakeland College, which was located a few miles east of the Fischer homestead. During that time, I often noticed small buildings located immediately behind many older farmhouses near campus. I later discovered that these structures, usually constructed with wooden beams and stones from nearby fields, were called summer kitchens.
Although summer kitchens can be found elsewhere, they are prevalent in this rural area of east-central Wisconsin and are a legacy of the German immigrants who settled this area in the mid-1800s. More than three decades have passed since I first noticed this concentration of summer kitchens. I had never taken an opportunity to learn about them until recently when I made plans to spend a couple days at my alma mater. My hope was to visit some nearby farms where summer kitchens remained and speak with people who had experienced working in summer kitchens firsthand.
LaVern was one of the first people to share her summer kitchen memories with me. Arriving in Sheboygan County around six in the evening, I sighted the summer kitchen on the Fischer homestead near Elkhart Lake. I stopped, and LaVern and her daughter, Noelle Jonas, greeted me. Hearing of my interest in summer kitchens (and discovering that LaVern's son, Mark, was a college classmate of mine thirty years ago), they invited me to return the following day. The next morning I drove to the Fischer place.
LaVern told me the summer kitchen, the oldest building on the farm, had been constructed with numerous fieldstones in the 1840s. An aunt had told her that their ancestors had lived in the summer kitchen while the main farmhouse was being built.
LaVern, who grew up about twenty miles away in Sheboygan, said she was "out here a lot" during her childhood. She thoroughly enjoyed the time she spent on the farm and in the summer kitchen with her Grandma Fischer in the 1920s. Walking with her grandmother to the woods at the back of the property to observe wild flowers and then strolling around Lake Elkhart with her grandmother continue to be wonderful memories for LaVern. She also recalls fond memories of the solid old rectangular-shaped summer kitchen, which measured about 16 by 20 feet. The old cooking stove was on the west side of the building, and a long table was on the east wall.
LaVern said the summer kitchen was unique in that the smokehouse was built into it. Hams and summer sausage smoked continually from fall until Easter in the smokehouse in the kitchen's northeast corner. "We cut the summer sausage for an Easter treat," LaVern recalled. Extra meat was hung in the attic, which was equipped with racks. LaVern also remembers helping her grandmother with laundry in the summer kitchen. Water was brought from the nearby pump house. She described the southwest corner of the summer kitchen as a "wash-up center where the men, after coming in from the fields, would wash up before going into the house for dinner." The wash-up center was equipped with a large mirror, which hung over the washbasins.
On summer Saturdays the fruit boat from Michigan arrived in the Sheboygan harbor. Lavern's parents purchased fruit from these floating merchants and then drove to her grandparents' farm and spent Saturday night and a good portion of Sunday canning fruit in the summer kitchen. LaVern also remembers flies were a constant nuisance in the summer kitchen.
One of Lavern's jobs as a child was to sprinkle water on the cement floor of the summer kitchen at the end of the day. After dampening the floor, she swept it. After an hour with LaVern, I left in search of other summer kitchens. I soon glimpsed a rather intriguing two-story summer kitchen on Lavera Bramstedt's farm, a couple miles north of Howards Grove. Lavera reported that her brother-in-law, Henry Bramstedt, remembers when the summer kitchen was used for living space on two occasions after the farmhouse, located immediately to the east of the summer kitchen, had been destroyed by fire. The kitchen's second story was often used as sleeping quarters during the summer months. Moreover, in years gone by, the summer kitchen was the eating place for threshing crews.
Just down the road, Dean Bramstedt had made an interesting discovery in the attic of the summer kitchen located on his farm. He found a set of old knives. Although the summer kitchen is now used for storage, he assumed the knives had been used for butchering, which had occurred years ago in the summer kitchen.
Today, area summer kitchens are often used as storage sheds or playhouses. Others have been converted into garages or machine sheds. Some have been modernized and are now attached to or incorporated into adjacent farmhouses. As descendants of the original settlers move off the farm, many of the stories surrounding the summer kitchens are lost. Yet my investigation into summer kitchens informed me as to both the utilitarian and the human side of these intriguing structures.
They were certainly the place where many necessary chores and tasks were accomplished. In addition to providing a place to prepare meals, bake, and heat water for bathing and laundry, they kept the heat of a wood-burning stove out of the farmhouse during summer months and reduced the possibility of a farmhouse fire.
My visit with LaVern at the Fischer homestead taught me something else: her summer kitchen was also a place where a deep love and an abiding relationship had developed between a grandmother and her young granddaughter—a love that may have developed several decades ago, but a love that LaVern continues to carry in her heart. Returning to the Lakeland campus at the end of the day, I recalled LaVern's parting words as she gazed one more time into her summer kitchen. Her words were simple and lovingly spoken, generated by countless fond memories: "I can still see Grandma there."
For information on a related article, see Charles F. Calkins and William G. Laatsch, "Belgian Culture Visible in Outdoor Ovens," Voyageur, Winter/ Spring 1990, 40.