The Next Generation: Antoni Jans Sjoeks
The following stories were written by Donald Theodore Shooks, son of Antoni (Anthony Sr.). When he refers to "father" or "dad", this is Anthony Shooks Sr. "Grandfather" or "grandpa" is Jans Pieters Sjoeks (John Peter Shooks). "Mother" is Tillie Postma Shooks, wife of Anthony Shooks Sr.
Antoni Jans Sjoeks was born 20 November 1879 in Driesum, Friesland, The Netherlands. Father was five years old when the family arrived at Staten Island from Driesum. Family members were Grandpa Shooks, his wife, Wytske (Hoogland) Shooks, plus six children--Aunt Della, Uncle Peter, Uncle Ralph, my father-Tony Shooks, Uncle John Shooks and Uncle Walter Shooks--and 4-7 servants. Father said the trip across the ocean was not too pleasant. Most everyone suffered sea-sickness.
The family traveled by train to Grand Rapids, Michigan where Grandpa Shooks had purchased a farm in Georgetown Township, Ottawa County which is not too far from Jenison, Michigan.They farmed at the Georgetown farm for a time until they had one bad year with very poor crops due to a lack of rain. Grandpa knew some immigrants who had begun farming further north, around Ellsworth and Central Lake, Michigan. Grandpa bought some land for $1.00 per acre in the area near Central Lake sight unseen and moved the entire family up north where farmers had good crops with plenty of rain. Grandpa rented a box car from the railroad and moved the family plus cows, horses and whatever they owned. The farm he sold in Georgetown Township today is part of Hager Park.
The family which now included the seventh child, Sylvester, arrived by train in Central Lake where Grandpa hired a surveyor to help him locate the land that he had purchased. They rode horseback to locate and mark his land boundaries. The land was all standing timber. The first winter they cleared five acres by hand and with dynamite removed the stumps which were used for fence rows so they did not have to buy fences. My father said dynamite was purchased at the hardware store in Central Lake for $3.00 per case of 48 dynamite sticks with caps and fuses. This was all virgin land and timber. The soil produced excellent crops.
The timber was cut in the winter time and hauled to the saw mill. Some was sold to the sawmill and some was cut into lumber for a fee and hauled back home to dry for building.
Father said that the first year the family lived in an old trapper shack which had a leaky roof when it snowed or rained. All the boys helped clear the land in the winter time. It was hard, heavy work with long hours. The land had to be cleared to farm. The excess logs were sold to the sawmill for cash which provided some income. Trimmings from the logs provided wood for heating and cooking. It took quite some time to clear all the land but it was done. Dad often told me, "By the sweat of your brow you shall earn your bread."
Mother (Tillie Shooks) and Grandpa (Jan Pieters Sjoeks)
Mother and grandpa were always busy working. Besides bearing eleven children, I do remember every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mother baked 8 loaves of homemade bread, lots of cookies and, 2 cakes on Friday only. Father bought 200 pounds of flour at one time.
Grandpa always had a large garden every year. There were also 35 fruit trees of apples, pears and plums. In his garden he grew just about everything; strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, beets, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, peas, radishes, onions, rutabaggies, early potatoes, string beans, sweet corn, turnips, pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes and dill. He also had a smoke house for smoking bacon, sausage and dried beef. Mother canned many of the things grandpa grew and also made jams and jellies. By the fall of the year our basement was full of canned items plus bushels of cabbage, potatoes, rutabaggies, turnips, carrots, onions and apples. None of us ever went hungry.
I often wonder how my mother accomplished all she did. My older sisters were a lot of help to her plus we boys helped with harvesting apples, pears and items from grandpa's garden. As young boys, we thought a lot of the work we did was quite a lot of fun! Grandpa was a fussy person; you did all the garden work and harvesting just the way he told you or he would remind you sternly of his way and his way only! Nevertheless, I did enjoy helping. When we were all done working, grandpa would sit on the porch and play his accordian and sing songs in Dutch. I couldn't understand the Dutch but we enjoyed listening to him.
Tony's First Farm
This farm was about 80 acres; all virgin land and timber. It was about 3/4 of a mile east of the bigger farm that I remember. The land was cleared by hand, logs hauled to the sawmill and cut into lumber for building. Excess logs were sold to the sawmill. Father had a Mr. Denkema build a small house and barn. A well was dug for water and later a windmill was added.
Father was 22 years old when he married Tillie Postmus on December 25, 1902. Their wedding present was a live cow from Grandpa Shooks. Three girls were born on this farm;: Ella, Winifred and Gladys. In time three more girls were born: Della, Catherine and Jeanette. The older girls attended Lakeview School and later all attended Maple Hill School.
Father decided he needed a larger farm. He purchased land about 3/4 mile west of the first farm. This land was 90% cleared for farming. Before it was cleared, Mr. Denkema built a five bedroom house and a barn. Mr. Denkema was paid $1.00 per day and worked from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Dinner (at noon) was free. At this time Grandpa Shooks was living with Father and Mother along with their 6 daughters plus Feltje Shooks, Grandpa's sister who was called Aunt Fanny by the family. My sister, Gladys, told me before she died that Aunt Fanny had a heart-breaking love affair. Her then husband-to-be was to follow Grandpa Shooks to the U. S. but did not do so right away because he did not have the funds. Before he could fulfill his wish to come to the U. S. and marry Aunt Fanny, he died.
Tony Learns A Little Too Much English
My father always had an excellent sense of humor. He strongly suspected that the sawmill was greatly cheating all the many immigrants who brought logs to the mill to be purchased. Not knowing the English too well, father found a pharmacist in Central Lake who knew how to scale lumber. He patiently taught my father how to do it right and accurately. Father pestered the pharmacist until dad knew it exactly.
Gold only was the currency during this time. No paper money even existed. The next large load of three big logs were brought to the mill and my father calculated these to be worth $14.00. When brought to the mill the sawmill scaler was going to pay only $6.00. Father said, "I'm sure you made a mistake." So father scaled the logs with the sawmill scaler and arrived at $14.00 for the logs. He then paid father the $14.00 and said, "you are one of those smart immigrants who learned a little too much English." From that time on only father brought the logs to the mill because Grandpa said "Tony comes home with more gold than all you other boys do." Finally, they began to make a little more money from the timber.
A Tired Mother: Tillie Shooks
After my youngest sister, Jeanette, was born my mother was very tired and had little ambition. This persisted for a time so Aunt Kate, Uncle John's wife and mother's twin sister, came to our house three days a week to help my mother. Father asked the pharmacist in Central Lake, "What have you got for my wife who recently had a baby and is tired just about all the time?" The pharmacist said that he had just the right kind of medicine for my mother. It was Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. It cost $1.00 per bottle or six bottles for $5.00. Father said, "Give me six bottles." The pharmacist said, "I'll warn you Tony. There is a baby in every bottle." Lo and behold the pharmacist must have been correct. Mother regained her normal health and in twelve to fourteen years presented my father with five boys! "How about that?"
After working for thirty-six years as a medical technologist, I found out that Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound is ferrous sulfate also known as MOL iron plus it also contains ten percent ethyl alcohol. My mother must have gotten a real kick-a-poo from using Lydia Pinkham's. It is still available today and people still buy it!
My father said that he learned English from reading the Bible in Dutch and then in English. He understood the Dutch so slowly he learned the English and how to speak it without a brogue.
Father liked to read a lot if time permitted. He learned by correspondence with Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State University, that only purebred Jersey cows produced the highest butterfat content in their milk. Farmers sold their cream for making butter, but farmers didn't sell milk. It was separated into cream and skim milk by the use of a mechanical separator.
Father had 14 cows on the farm which were mixed breeds. He decided he was going to switch to purebred Jersey cows. He sold all 14 mixed breeds and purchased three purebred Jersey cows, one purebred Jersey calf (female) and one purebred Jersey bull calf. When father came home with his new purchase Grandpa Shooks went to the barn to see what he had purchased. Grandpa said, "I see three cows, one little heifer calf and one bull calf..." He asked father, "Where is the rest of what you bought?" Father answered, "That is all there is. Pure Jerseys are not cheap at all." Grandpa said, "Tony, you have gone plum crazy. You sell 14 good producing cows and this is what you come home with. Surely that bull calf will not produce any milk at all." In time father built his entire herd to 17 purebred Jersey cows. He used the Jersey bull for breeding and advertised in County papers that he had a purebred Jersey bull for breeding at $25.00 per a cow. He got customers from three different counties. Father sold surplus purebred Jersey calves (female) for $300 each when eight weeks old. In time father had owned three purebred Jersey bulls but he would not use them to service anything but purebred Jerseys.
Uncle John was quite a bit upset with father because Uncle John had only mixed breeds. Finally, after quite a few months, Uncle John told father that he should go to the church consistory and confess his sins. Father said that he did not think that was necessary and he surely didn't know what sins he should confess, if any! Uncle John said, "It's that bull you have, Tony. Charging those other purebred Jersey farmers $25.00 everytime you service their purebreds is wrong and you should confess your sin." I think Uncle John was a bit angry because father would not service his cross-breed herd. Uncle John said, "The $25.00 you charge is far too much for what that bull is doing, for that bull will service any cow that is in estrus." My father told Uncle John that "I feed him, take good care of him so he has to earn his keep." Father never ever thought of making any confession!
Uncle John and father remained good, friendly brothers but when father sold 8 week only female calves (purebred Jersey) for $300 I am sure Uncle John was perturbed because he sold mixed breed calves for $12-15. Uncle John never did convert to raising purebred Jerseys despite my father's encouragement to do so.
Tony Becomes a Merchant
Tony's farm was located about halfway between Ellsworth and Central Lake. Father shopped at both towns but most often in Ellsworth. After being a farmer for 33 years, father thought it would be less hard work to become a merchant. Also, if he lived in town, he could give his five boys a high school education.
Ira Springstead owned a general store in Ellsworth selling meats, groceries, some clothing and farm feed. And, he purchased cream and eggs from local farmers for resale. He also tested farmers' cream for butterfat content by the still used Babcock Method. Next to the store Mr. Springstead owned two empty lots, five garages and a five bedroom home.
Father asked Mr. Springstead if he would consider selling everything to my father. Mr. Springstead said he had given it some thought because he was getting older. When father said he would like to buy it Mr. Springstead said, "Tony, you have been a farmer all your life and I'm sure you know very little about running a store like mine"." Father said that he was going to the Ellsworth Farmers' Exchange to have some feed ground and would be back in about 45 minutes. He told Mr. Springstead, "You decide what you think is a fair price and I'll stop back."
Mr. Springstead said after he discussed selling with his wife, that he would sell everything to father for $5,000. Father said he would buy it on one condition; "You stay in the store with me for 3-4 weeks and show me how to run this business and also teach me how to test the cream accurately." Mr. Springstead agreed with father so father became the new owner.
Father had never discussed his wish to become a merchant with anyone, not even his wife. When father came home from Ellsworth he told mother, "Guess what? I'm going to become a merchant...I just bought out Mr. Springstead's business, house and property." My mother told me in later years that she almost had a heart attack. She preferred to stay on the farm. In early May, 1929, father had a big auction sale. His purebred Jerseys brought excellent prices. The bull sold for $1,000. The family moved to Ellsworth and father sold the farm to Mr. Herman Keizer of Chicago about a year later.
The Depression Years: 1930-1939
Father entered the merchant occupation with a lot of ambition. Having lived in the area of Ellsworth, being a charter member of his church and a member of the Ellsworth Farmers' Exchange, he thought if 30 to 40 percent of the people he knew would patronize him in his business, he would be happy and successful. He never realized what was going to happen.
Many of the people father knew, even people related to him and many fellow church members never entered his store at all. He did not understand why they had such an attitude. The first one to two years he spent many sleepless nights trying to determine why this was happening to him. He finally decided that people will shop where they please and he would just do the best he could.
During the depression prices of all goods purchased dropped very fast, almost weekly. If you bought $5,000 in groceries in one month, the next month they would cost $4,000. Making a profit was nearly impossible. Many people lost their jobs and their homes. Bank accounts had very little purchasing power. Father gave credit accounts to many of the unemployed which compounded his losses and gave free groceries to quite a number of folks who had no income at all.
The years of 1931-1936 seemed to be the worst. We sold a large box of Kellogg's corn flakes for 17 cents, 2 pounds of hamburger or pork sausage for 15 cents, 2 pounds of bulk peanut butter for 13 cents, 2 dozen large live tomato or cabbage plants for 15 cents, a bushel of nice red haven peaches for $1.00 or 95 cents for smaller peaches. A new Ford car was $625 or, a Chevrolet for $695. If you spent $5.00 for groceries you went home with two twenty pound bags full. Father purchased live cows from farmers for 2 cents a pound live weight, had them slaughtered for $1.00 plus the hide, brought back to his store and cooled for 24 hours. As soon as the boys were out of school we all helped cut up the entire cow and ground it into hamburger so we could sell it at 2 pounds for 15 cents.
Father managed to survive with the help of borrowed money. At this time many independent merchants went out of business due to their inability to compete with A&P and Kroger stores. Father helped to organize the independent merchants so they could compete. They formed an organization called the Affiliated Grocers and established a large warehouse in Grand Rapids. A total of 650 merchants joined. Each member had to invest $5,000 cash so the organization could operate and buy merchandise. When your groceries were delivered you had to pay in full the same day or you lost your membership automatically. Father's store became known as an A/G store. This reduced his cost of bread and groceries by quite a lot so he could compete.
Father advertised considerably and with his lower costs of supplies he began to be very competitive. His business began to increase slowly at first but continued enough that he was able to pay back all the money he had borrowed by 1941.
I do think my father was much more intelligent than you would expect from a person with less than a third grade education. Despite providing for a large family, teaching himself English, discovering the cheating sawmills and lumber scalers (known as lumber kings), the severe depression and organizing a large cooperative, he never gave up but succeeded and overcame many, many difficulties.
By 1946, all five of us boys returned from military service in World War II. Father was now 67 years old and decided he would sell his business and retire. He offered to sell the store to any or all of his sons. My two older brothers, Tony, Jr. and Wesley decided to buy it. Father financed it for them since it was impossible to save any money while the two were in the service. They continued to operate the store until both of my brothers died--Tony first, and then Wesley. Overall, father's business lasted for 68 years. Wesley's son, Richard, sold the store and business for his mother, Ruby (Wesley's wife).
Tony's Retirement and Final Years
After being retired for about one year, father was a little bored. He had his garden and flowers planted, read just about everything but could not seem to be busy enough. His neighbor, Elmer Rood, was manager of the now defunct local canning plant, Reid-Murdock, Inc. Mr. Rood offered father a job at the canning factory where cherries, string beans, beets, carrots and potatoes were canned. Father took the offer and started his first job working for someone else. He began washing insecticides from sweet and sour cherries in huge steel tanks that held up to 25,000 pounds of fruit. With a lot of added water, he had to move the fruit around for about 30 minutes to clean the cherries.
On father's very first day he slipped and fell into one of the big tanks of fruit. He managed to climb out soaking wet, but kept right on working without changing his wet clothes. He told me he was paid to work and not to change clothes. At noon he came home for lunch with his clothes almost dry from the warm weather!
I asked father, "How does it seem to you to work for someone else?" He told me, "It was an easy job. You go to work at 7 a.m., take a whole hour off for lunch, and then work until 5:30 p.m., go home and they even pay me pretty good. I can lie in bed until 6 a.m., go to work by 7 a.m. and work until 5:30 p.m. It's the best job I ever had. I have it pretty easy now. No more 12-15 hour days like I used to work all my life."
For about five years mother and father would go to Grand Rapids during the winter months. They loved to visit friends and relatives there but father also worked at the Y.W.C.A. and the Michigan Chair Company. This work allowed him enough working time to be come eligible for Social Security. He finally was able to draw a small Social Security check each month which he said was a gift from the mail box!
In 1957, father had a series of small strokes. He did not recognize them as strokes at all, mostly because he recovered from them quickly. He did not seek medical advice at all. He and mother went to Grand Rapids for the winter where he also developed urinary infrequency. He was treated in Grand Rapids by Dr. Ray Vander Meer who advised father to have a cystoscopic examination and a curetting of the prostate gland. After surgery father suffered a much more severe stroke but did seem to be recovering slowly. A short time later he had a second stroke and died on March 5, 1958. He was 78 years old. Mother died five years later on April 1, 1963 from high blood pressure and ischemia. Services for both mother and father were held in the Ellsworth Christian Reformed Church where they were charter members. Mother was 80 years old. Both are buried side by side in the Ellswoth cemetery.
This collection of stories about Anthony Shooks, Sr. was written by his son, Donald Shooks and edited and submitted by Janet Shooks Dean, granddaughter of Sylvester Shooks, Anthony's brother.