FALL CREEK — Accompanied by a sing-song chorus of jingling bells and the thud of horse hooves tromping on blacktop, Lorraine Wathke took her last ride the same way she spent many of her most-cherished moments during her life.
At the conclusion of her funeral Monday at St. James Trinity Lutheran Church, a casket bearing Wathke’s body was loaded into a horse-drawn hearse. Bystanders watched silently as Tim Johnson and his son Trent hitched up Tim’s team of Percheron draft horses to the hearse.
Then son joined father in the seat of the vehicle, and with a quiet command the horses — one black, the other gray — trotted forward in unison, headed north on State Street as they began the trip to a nearby cemetery where Wathke would be buried. She died Thursday at age 96 at Syverson Lutheran Home Health & Rehab in Eau Claire.
The use of horses in Wathke’s voyage from the church to her grave site was appropriate, those who knew her said, given her longtime affinity for the creatures. Wathke and her husband, Otto, farmed on land south of Eau Claire, and horses, not tractors, did the bulk of the farm work.
“She just loved the horses,” Allen Wathke, 70, said of his mother. “She always appreciated them.”
Even after her husband bought a tractor, horses did most of the field work on the family’s dairy farm, Allen Wathke said.
“Most of the time that tractor just sat there,” he said amid hugs and condolences from friends and relatives at the church shortly before his mother’s funeral service. “It’s still the horses doing the work.”
Sandy Wathke recalled Lorraine Wathke, her mother-in-law, asking to sit near a picture window to watch horses in a nearby field when she visited the farm she once called home.
“She would want to be seated where she could look out at the horses,” said Sandy Wathke, 69, who married Lorraine Wathke’s son Jerry and lives on the land where Lorraine and Otto once farmed.
Lorraine Wathke’s daughter Jean Herman recalled cultivating corn with horses with her dad as a girl. She said she lost her affinity for horses after she grew up and left the farm, but her mother never did.
“They did all of their farm work with horses,” Herman, 68, said. “Mom really liked them, and it was something she never lost.”
Lorraine and Otto Wathke left their farm in the mid-1960s and moved to Eau Claire, where they worked with adults who needed care.
On Monday as they gathered at the church, those who knew Lorraine Wathke remembered her as many things: a farm wife; a genealogy devotee who compiled family histories for her children; a strong-willed German who told people what she thought; and a devoted wife and mother to whom family held deep meaning. She made many ceramic items and countless afghans and knit items, including an intricate, multicolored covering that draped her casket.
“She was always working,” Allen Wathke said. “Even when she sat down, she was working. That’s when she would knit.”
Monday’s hauling of that casket to Lorraine Wathke’s final resting place wasn’t the first time a Wathke family member has received their final ride via horse power. Six years ago Jerry Wathke was transported in the same horse-drawn hearse after he died.
About a year earlier Johnson had purchased the hearse, and after viewing it “(Jerry Wathke) said I hope I’m not the first one to use it,” his wife, Sandy Wathke, said. “Unfortunately, he was.”
Johnson recalled that trip. He has used his horse-drawn vehicle since to give a handful of people their final rides, including his father the day before Thanksgiving.
The 52-year-old horse aficionado who owns 13 Belgian and Percheron draft horses on his farm south of Eau Claire said he is humbled at the opportunity to do so.
“It gives you a nice feeling to be part of the send-off,” he said.
A short time later he did just that for Lorraine Wathke, one hoof fall at a time.