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My Grandfather, Elmer Askwith, 102
by Kabrina Rozine

Elmer Askwith was born in 1911, the fourth of five children. He grew up in a rural farm community in a family that, like their neighbors, had big hearts but little money. One way of passing the time was to listen to and play music. Elmer’s older sister, Georgina, loved to play the piano that the Askwith family was fortunate enough to have in their home. Elmer enjoyed the music and yearned to get his own violin. As a youth, he browsed the Sears and Roebuck catalog. It contained everything from toys to clothing, and even houses (in fact more than one family from his community purchased a home through this venue).

Elmer spotted a violin in the catalog and dreamed of being able to buy it. The cost was $7.00, which was quite a bit of money for a family that “didn’t have two pennies to rub together.” Elmer was excited when he realized that the township was offering 10 cents per rat tail to help control the rat population. He was even more appreciative of the fact that his father said he could keep all of the money that he could earn through rat trapping.

Elmer at age 102
Elmer at age 102 is still quite the gardener.
Look at the size of that carrot!

So Elmer set about thinking of ways to catch rats. He would stab in between the walls of the grain storage bins to catch some rats by surprise, set box traps, and even grabbed a few with a gloved hand. His favorite method of catching them was using the rain barrel. He made a lid for the rain barrel that was just small enough to fall inside and was attached through its center to the barrel itself. He then glued a few kernels of corn to the lid. The rats would walk on the top of the barrel to get to the corn, and the lid would swing downward. The rat would fall into the rain bucket and drown while the lid would swing back into position, waiting for the next unsuspecting victim.

After what seemed like forever, Elmer had enough money to order the violin. He remembers placing the order in the morning and then racing back to the store later in the day to see if it had come in yet. Once it finally did arrive, he would practice the same tune over and over again. His father was known to tell many friends, “I have suffered the tortures of the damned listening to that young fella play the fiddle.” With practice, Elmer got better and started to play for dances at the age of 17. His band consisted of his fiddle, a guitar, banjo, drums, and the piano, playing the fox trot, waltz, and square dances. People would come from up to 20 miles away to attend the dances which were held upstairs from the general store or in people's homes. Elmer fondly states, “Back then we had poor music and a good time. Now we have good music and a poor time.”

Elmer with some of the band members
Elmer with some of the band members, circa 1929

It was through music that he eventually met his future wife Claudina. Elmer and his brother were driving down a county road and happened to pass a fire tower. A workman standing outside waved to them and asked if they would like to climb the tower. They did, and at the top, amid the conversation, the man took out a violin and played a few songs. It wasn’t long before Elmer asked if he could give the fiddle a try. At the end of the visit, the man said he had a sister who played the organ at church and told Elmer that he should stop in to meet her. Elmer did, and he and Claudina became friends.

Their courtship really heated up when one winter Elmer decided to surprise her at her home. He was so excited to leave that he rushed through his barn chores, put on the family’s 7-foot-long hickory skis and headed north 11 miles to where she lived. When he arrived, Claudina wasn't home from school yet, but her mother suggested that perhaps he could wait behind the door to surprise her. When she walked in the house, she immediately said rather loudly, “What stinks?” Apparently, his smelly barn clothing was not enough to turn her off completely, as they were married in 1932.

Click to continue reading about Elmer.

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