Of The Waltons, John-boy, and My Grandma Werner

Andrew John Plath
10 min readJul 1, 2020

Take me back to the 1970s to the small screen in my parent's living room in an era when rural small-town family values were starting to disappear on television to a show that depicted a family coming of age in rural America in the 1930s. While Jerry Apps may not quite identify with this, it did harken back to that simpler time.

Grandma Werner

The show really drew my family together for each episode. Even my Grandma Werner would join in. She loved this show.

I think that it took Grandma back to the time when she was growing up in a large farm family in the late 1800s.

Grandma was born Lydia Rusch on January 1, New Years Day, on a rural Marathon County farm. Her parents, Fredrick & Wilhelmenia Rusch, were settlers in the Town of Stettin near Wausau, WI. The Rusch family was large by most standards. I have no doubt that family life, though decades earlier, must have been like the Waltons.

She had four older brothers, a sister, and one younger brother. There were stories that I would learn from my mother about Grandma that Grandma never talked much about like going to school and having to tag along behind her brothers on the way.

I got to know one of her brothers. Her little brother, Uncle Ben, was the closest in her family and would be my mother’s baptismal sponsor. The Ruschs would spread throughout Wisconsin and the United States. But, like Earl Hamner’s Waltons, the values and sense of family that started on that rural Marathon County farm so long ago will stay with them from generation to generation. Faith and family are very important here.

Writers

I visited my great uncle’s farm many times while growing up and attended the weddings of two of his granddaughters. My mother’s cousin Alvin had taken over the farm. The Ruschs were good people. Even though I would grow up in the nearby city of Wausau, I knew where milk and cheese came from. As in many places, in Marathon County, WI, rural life brings one close to the land. I know the smell of manure and I know how cows are milked. I watched Alvin bring in the Belgian team.

In Wisconsin, my favorite writer is Ben Logan. Ben Logan wrote about life in the Coulee region of our state in a book called “The Land Remembers”. “The land remembers. Remember the land.” This book, like Earl Hamner’s Waltons, was about rural life in the Great Depression. Jerry Apps also relates to that in his writings. For many people, the Great Depression was indeed a challenging time especially in rural America. Logan and Hamner shared that sense in their stories and each brought in the strength of family in their writing.

There is a deep sense of connectivity in rural life. This is something that cannot possibly be found in an urban lifestyle. Birth and death are a part of living on a farm. Chicks are hatched and calves are born.

In city life, we are often detached from where our food comes from. More and more we pick up that quart of milk, that loaf of bread, or any produce, we are much more distant from where our food comes from. It comes from the earth.

Stettin

The world that my grandmother grew up in might have been different. There was no such thing as the radio and the telephone and phonograph were just invented. Rural electrification was light-years away. But faith in God was there. The Rusch farm must have been like that.

John Walton wasn’t a farmer even though the family lived in rural western Virginia. He ran a small sawmill.

The Ruschs were among the first families to settle in the Town of Stettin. They established a farm from which several of the older brothers had later started their own farms. They helped to start one of the oldest known Lutheran congregations in Marathon County at Trinity, Stettin. www.trinitystettin.org. The Ruschs were a part of a great migration from northern Germany mainly from Pomerania.

They came, like everyone else. They came to start a new life in a land where there was an opportunity for them to own their land. They would be free from the feudal order that still governed daily life in most of Europe. They would find their “Walton’s Mountain” here in Wisconsin.

John-Boy

I always thought of myself in a way to be a little like John-boy.

Deep inside, I am a creative person and a deep thinker. I have a lot of influences from the people that I have met including pastors, teachers, professors. My passion for photography would lead me to seek out inspiration from outdoor photographers like Galen Rowell or Clyde Butcher.

My desire to learn and grow as a man lead me to get an education at a University of Wisconsin campus. For some reason, I chose Eau Claire. Earl Hamner’s John-boy left Walton’s Mountain to pursue education and a career as a writer. I never found a career in writing, but maybe that might be an encore yet to come. The values that I learned from my life in Wisconsin are always with me. If I actually left Wisconsin, the values that I learned while growing up here would always remain.

John-boy always showed that deep thinking creative spirit. To him, a typewriter would be a tool for that creative spirit to come out. To me, it is a computer and a good DSLR camera where I can show people the great and beautiful world that we live in. Writers, photographers, painters, and all others have the urge to create and take people to places that they might not otherwise go.

John-boy is the fictional version of Earl Hamner’s own life. John Walton was the fictional version of Hamner’s father. John Walton, like Earl Hamner Sr., rarely if ever joined the family in worship at church on Sunday morning. He would rather take a walk in the woods or hike up Walton’s Mountain and enjoy the quiet in nature.

I kind of admire that in John Walton. God speaks to men, not often in noisy places, but sometimes in the still, quiet places. Sometimes a walk in a park or in the woods, even in the middle of winter with snowshoes does the trick. Moses and Elijah found it on Mount Horeb. John Walton found it on Walton’s Mountain. If I had my place outdoors where I could silently meet and speak with God, it would be on Rib Mountain or in any one of the county parks nearby. Men like John Walton would worship God in the quietness of His Creation. I do too.

When I see light and how it falls on objects be it a dead tree and its roots, a rock, or a flower, I question why things look the way they do. what we see is reflected light. My Walton’s Mountain could be Rib Mountain or someplace along the river or anywhere.

Grandpa

One of the most enduring characters of The Waltons if Grandpa. Will Geer made the perfect Grandpa for the family. I never knew either one of my grandfathers. I wish I did. They were gone before my time. Will Geer played the perfect grandpa to a large and loving family. Folksy, full of wisdom and fun. A perfect counterpoint to the firm and organized Grandma Walton (Ellen Corby). If either Julius Werner or Robert Carl Plath would have lived long enough to be a part of my life, I would imagine that either one of them would have been like him.

I remember my Dad and how he talked about his father. Grandpa Plath was dedicated to his work as a general manager for some of the lumber companies up north especially at the Connor Sawmill at Laona. He often could be found even on a Sunday spending time in his office. Since Dad’s family often passed through Wausau on their way to see other family in Marshfield, Grandpa Plath was said to have called Wausau “the city in the valley.”

Julius Werner was a different sort; a builder, a carpenter, and a father to four fine daughters. The youngest would be my mother. Grandpa Werner was gifted in some ways. As a father, he stood up for his girls when they needed him. All four would grow up and marry. Three of the daughters would help to raise fine families of their own. That is a big part of his legacy.

Julius was the stuff of legends and stories. He left a part of his legacy with several of the homes that he helped to build and, in a small way, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Wausau www.trinitywausau.org where my spiritual home is. Grandpa was one of the volunteers that helped to build the original sanctuary. I follow on that. I try to offer time when needed to help out with some landscaping work and other volunteer projects and God has given me opportunities to serve in the congregation’s ministries too. All four daughters were educated in Trinity Lutheran School and so was I.

One of those stories was that Grandpa Julius had a habit of sleepwalking. One time when Julius and Lydia had taken the family out to help one of the relatives in Stettin at a barn-raising, Julius was missing from the bed at night. Lydia and the family found him walking on the high beam of the new barn. Grandpa Julius was born to build!

Struggle and Hope

Both of my grandfathers died before my time. Grandpa Plath passed away at the age of 41 in 1938 after a losing battle with leukemia. Grandpa Werner would pass away at the age of 73 from dementia in 1949.

People suffered back then. It made them stronger like St. Paul says in Romans 5 that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

My father’s family really did not experience suffering during the Great Depression until Grandpa Plath died of leukemia. Then Grandma and the family had to move from Laona to Marshfield. Laona was then a company town and the Connors provided all the sawmill employees with homes including my grandfather and his family. It was then that the family saw the effects of the Great Depression and, later, the wartime restrictions. Yet my grandfather had enough time on earth to be a good father to my dad and my aunt.

In Earl Hamner’s story of “The Waltons” many of us found a connection to our own past. Our ancestors, especially our grandparents, have left each and every one of us. Like Hamner’s John-boy, just like the characters of Ben Logan’s writing, we all have roots. Our parents, grandparents and each generation before have given us the traits that make us into the humans that we are today.

This is what drew my grandmother Lydia Werner and all of us in my parent's household to the story of The Waltons through the trials of the Great Depression and World War II. My mom and dad would identify with that. The Depression and the war affected a lot of people in many different ways. During the war years, conditions for my family were tough. They dealt with the restrictions and gas rationing. The wartime economy was hard on the Homefront. Rationing was everywhere. Everyone was affected by the war.

Dad served in the United States Army Air Forces. He was trained to be a gunner on board B-17s,24s, and B-29s. He was in service just long enough to see the B-36. He knew of the carnage that took place on missions with B-17s and 24s that were bound to hit targets in Germany as they were shot at by ME 109s and FW 190s.

The Walton’s would have family in service too. Mary Ellen would marry a doctor who went to serve in the Army Medical Corps. The stresses of the war would be felt everywhere.

My mother would write in a journal about V-J Day and the celebrations that went on at the war’s end. When V-J Day happened, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and many celebrated.

The Walton’s story was something that everyone can relate to. We all long for that simpler time when faith, hope, and genuine love were there to give us comfort and hope. Though I know my grandfathers might not as folksy at the Grandpa Walton that Will Geer portrayed, I will bet that they were just as full of wisdom.

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Andrew John Plath

Alumnus from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Photographer and writer.