by Dennis Dalman
Growing up on a farm deep in the boondocks, Gary Schnellert absorbed the necessity of hard work at a very early age and to this day much of what he knows he learned long ago in the “school of hard knocks.”
In a just-published book titled “Small Farm in the Swamp,” the 68-year-old Sartell resident recounts the joys and struggles of family life in southeastern Manitoba, where he was born and raised. The memoir is comprised of 60 short chapters, each with its own theme and topic, all of them related to Schnellert’s hardscrabble youth. The chapters range from the achingly nostalgic to the joys of everyday discoveries, from fears and terrors to fun and mischief, from the wildly comical to the long shadows cast by death.
The book, filled with lively illustrations and black-and-white photos toward the back, is an engaging read written in a bright conversational style, a perfect book to read aloud to others while sitting around a campfire or during a snowstorm that strands everyone indoors.
Schnellert, a retired educator and school administrator, who earned many degrees, including a doctorate, has lived in Sartell with his wife, Betty, since 1999. They have one daughter, Darla and a granddaughter Kendra Fults, to whom Schnellert’s book is dedicated.
Schnellert has also served internationally in various educational programs via government grants at universities in the West Indies, South America, Africa, Bulgaria, Croatia and in the former Soviet regions of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Schnellert’s paternal grandfather, William, immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1913. Schnellert’s book’s illustrator, Olga Carpenco, he met while working at a university in Moldova.
Schnellert is an elder at Messiah Lutheran Church in Sartell.
“Small Farm in the Swamp” takes place mainly during the 1950s and 1960s in or near the small Manitoban towns of Overwater, Glenmoor, Beausejour and Lac du Bonnet – a wilderness-and-swamp area northeast of Winnipeg and due north of the northwest area of Minnesota. Manitoba is one of Canada’s 10 provinces, between the provinces of Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Farm life in rural Manitoba was a constant struggle years ago, and tillable land had to be reclaimed from land covered by tamarack swamps, peat bogs, nearly total lack of roads and other obstacles, including harsh and unforgiving winters.
Winter, in fact, is practically one of the “characters” in “Small Farm in the Swamp.” Some of the narratives in the book will leave readers shivering and grabbing for a sweater, such as the second chapter titled “Labor and Labor.” Schnellert describes in vivid and harrowing detail the herculean physical exertions of his father and others trying to get Mrs. Schnellert, pregnant and going into labor, to a hospital in snowbound weather dipping to 28 below zero. It was an astounding feat that involved a 1952 Chevrolet pickup, two farm work horses (Rusty and Corky), a stone boat (sled for hauling rocks) and ferocious human exertions. The horses were used to tramp down high snowdrifts so the pickup could go through them, and at one point the horses even had to pull the pickup to help it maneuver its way along. The nearest paved road was seven miles away and calling for help was impossible as phones had not yet been introduced to that remote area in the 1950s.
“Pop” Schnellert had to light a fire under the truck’s oil pan to get the motor started. Mrs. Schnellert, her two young children (Gary and Lindy) were placed among hay bales on the stone boat. The horses were hitched up to the stone boat, and Mr. Schnellert took the reins, guiding the family to the waiting pickup on the far edge of the farmland. There, the hay bales were tossed into the pickup as the family piled in. However, one problem led to another and another. The pickup finally started, but snowdrifts slowed the progress to a snail’s pace. And then, to everyone’s horror, the truck got stuck. “Pop” came to the rescue by having the horses hitched up to the back of the truck, pulling it back and out of the snow as Mrs. Schnellert did the steering. Finally, at long last, the exhausted travelers arrived at Uncle Eddy’s place, and he helped too as they made their way to Mrs. Schnellert’s parents’ home. From there, she was driven to the hospital in Beausejour and gave birth to a baby named Myrna. Despite the worries, the mental and physical exhaustions, the rest was a brief one for “Pop,” who had to return to the farm that evening to milk the cows.
Schnellert has a knack for finding humor even in crises, an unmistakable talent for “survival” humor, along with strong faith, that buoys up people trapped in awful circumstances.
He ends the “Labor and Labor” chapter this way:
“In the following years, there was occasionally some discussion between Mom and Pop regarding who labored the hardest to bring Myrna into the world, and strangely enough, there were no more winter pregnancies – or summer pregnancies either. Their family was complete.”
In “The Sting of Death” chapter, Schnellert shares the grief-stricken memory of the death of his aunt, Adina Pachal, who was Pop’s youngest sister. Adina, the mother of five children, got the girls off to school one winter morning, then went out back to check the outdoor temperature. She suddenly fell down, blood seeping from her ears and nose onto the ice. She had died of a sudden aneurysm. Her little son, Lionel, later said he kept going outside because “Mama was sleeping and she wouldn’t get up.”
Waves of sorrow ricocheted through the community, as it does in rural areas where people depend upon other people and everyone knows everyone.
Schnellert ends the chapter this way:
“There was an awkwardness at school as all the children struggled to confront and deal with an event for which life had not prepared them. Their world had shifted. They wanted to offer comfort to the Pachals, their friends, cousins and classmates but felt inadequate to the task and were unsure of how to react. It was a life lesson for all and one that formal schooling could not adequately address.”
Many of Schnellert’s chapters are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the one about Gary getting his tongue stuck on frosty barbed wire, a painful ordeal that ended only when skin was yanked from lips and tongue.
Schnellert writes this: “Frosty tasting quickly loses its charm when a boy is too tongue-tied to enjoy it.”
Betty (Blonding), Schnellert’s wife whom he married in 1973, was raised in Nipawin, Saskatchewan and worked for a time in banking. They and daughter Darla moved to Ames, Iowa when Schnellert was earning his doctorate there. He later became superintendent of a school district in Blairsburg, Iowa. The family moved to Sartell in 1999 when he accepted a job as department chairperson for educational leadership at St. Cloud State University. In 2004 until his retirement in 2015, Schnellert was a doctoral coordinator for the University of North Dakota.
During his years in his home country, Canada, he served as an industrial-arts teacher, an assistant principal and an assistant superintendent.
Daughter Darla Fults is a supervisor for Alltran call center in Sartell.
Schnellert said he wrote “Small Farm in the Swamp” in his spare time when he was working on jobs overseas. The book is available through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, I-Tunes and Google Play.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.