The author’s dad, Vernon Johnson, played with his dog “Lassie I” while training his bull calf to lead for the fair in 1938.

By Charlotte Heikkinen


(Rock County)

Our family always understood that one of the harsh realities of being on a farm was that every animal had to produce a product, provide a service or have a function.

The cow that wouldn’t breed back; the cunning, mean ram that was over 3 years of age; the sow that only raised a few piglets; or the hens who stopped laying were all shipped off to market, were ground into hamburger at the Clinton Locker Plant, or ended up in a stew pot.

This frugal, productive reasoning seemed to apply to all but the family dog(s). Although most farm dogs did have specific roles to fill. Neighbor Hank Forton always had a feisty little rat terrier which took considerable pride in catching varmints around the place, and our collies did a respectable job of pressuring the cows to “get a move on” so the bovines wouldn’t splat manure on the center walkway before leaving the barn after milking. I also remember Wally and Clara, up the road, having a lovely boxer that worked to keep the farm protected and the kids safe. Then there were also the farm mutts, usually a combination of collie/shepherd crosses that filled many if not all the roles. Of course, there were always a few pets that would just laze around.

Spaying and neutering were seldom considered on family farms years ago; therefore, there was usually a neighbor who seemed to always have a pup or two to offer to any farmer along the road.

Our family really loved its animals. Grandpa would sit for hours in the barn just checking on the cows. The hen house was off limits to anyone on the farm except for Grandpa Herman. Conversely, Dad really liked the horses, sheep and even the pigs. He often reminisced about a favorite collie that he had in the late 1930s and early 1940s, i.e. Lassie. Lassie met his death when he got caught up in a hemp combining machine. Dad often said, with a nod of his head, “the best dog I ever had.” Just a note: Yes, farmers did diversify their crops with hemp and barley beer in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The hemp was taken to the rope factory near Darien.

Buster the Old English Sheep Dog

My first recollection was of Buster, an Old English Sheep Dog with lots of gray and white hair. Buster came on the farm a few years before my brother David and I were born. He always hung out with the men, slept in the cozy warm barn in winter, and sought out his private dog house next to the wood house during summer. He tolerated David and me, but Dad always watched closely when we got too rough with the dog.

His progressive deafness didn’t stop him from following the men to the woods on a late fall day. A few hours later, Dad came into the house. I heard him tell Mom that Buster had been killed when the men had felled a big oak tree, and Buster failed to get out of the way when they yelled “Timber!”

For a couple of weeks, I was afraid to go near the woodlot for fear that a tree would fall and squash me too.

Lassie come home

It wasn’t long before a new purebred sable collie puppy appeared at the farm called “Lassie II.” He was so handsome and looked just like the collie in the Lassie movies. Of course, the real Lassie was a female, but we didn’t know that at the time.

He soon learned to get the Beloit Daily News when the paper was thrown out at the end of the driveway. The driver would honk the car’s horn to let us know that the “paper was here!” And then Lassie would go get it.

Lassie was rather timid around the cows after getting kicked a couple times while attempting to hurry the cows out of the barn after milking. However, eventually he became a decent cow dog and great kids’ companion.

One snowy, wintry evening, Lassie went to get the paper after the driver beeped the horn. Lassie never returned, and his body was later found in a big, thawing snowbank at the end of the drive. The snowplow had hit him when he was busily doing his job. He was only 3 years of age.

Now, not all the dogs met with tragedy. Buster, Rocky and another Lassie followed, and lived long lives.

And then a Princess came to Mom and Dad’s new home

Dad and Mom moved off the farm when Dad was 63 years old. He often talked about having a firehouse dog, but a good Dalmatian seemed to be hard to find.

One Good Friday, 1980, near Dad’s birthday, a little Dalmatian pup found its way into Dad’s life. He named her Princess, and she became Dad’s riding buddy. She would wait patiently in the truck no matter where Vernon parked. People from the Sundown Café would bring her pancakes and doughnuts to eat while she waited for Dad to return. She was a good and loyal companion for 15 years. She was missed when she died.

Most of us have treasured memories of pets and animals that have been a part of our lives. It’s always fun to remember them because we all know that “animals make us human.”