Woodrow Wilson is president. It is the year prohibition begins and Babe Ruth’s contract is purchased by the New York Yankees. Comrade Lenin is organizing the newly formed Soviet Republic and on the other side of the world just outside of the Village of Dexter, MI, on recently purchased farm, Al Ruhlig is born.
I had the chance to sit down with Al and to capture some of his story and share it with you. We met at the Dexter Wellness Center and considering who I was interviewing, it was entirely fitting. Al greeted me with a smile, as always. I pulled out the voice recorder and note pad and we began.
Born September 4, 1920, Al Ruhlig has lived his entire life in the rural outskirts of Dexter. At 97, he still lives on the family farm, makes his own meals, drives himself around without navigation and shows little sign of slowing down.
As was common back then, Al finished the eighth grade and then went to work. “I went to country school,” he explains. “Country school was all ages in one school, one room for all subjects.”
“I did not go to High School. I graduated Country School in ’35,” he adds. Al finished his education in a year when the United States is in the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt dedicates the Hoover Dam and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler begins building up his country’s military.
“The Superintendent of schools was visiting in town at the time, encouraging us to come to high school,” he says. “But I immediately became a big commercial gardener along with my dad. Everybody pitched in back then with the vegetables and produce. There was of course plenty of work in the summertime.”
Al’s mother, Hazel, was raised in Detroit. His father, Emil, grew up in Wyandotte. Al tells me with a cryptic chuckle, “In the winter, Dad started a fire in her school and that’s how they actually first met.” No more details than that. The two were married in 1916, bought the family farm in 1920 and Al was born later that year.
A Ken Burns special on The Dust Bowl and the 70’s TV series The Waltons are about all I know when it comes to the Great Depression, other than it was hard beyond anything I’ll ever experience. I asked Al what it was like growing up at that time and his answer surprised me.
“We didn’t know we had a depression,” he said. “Of course things were great in the twenties. In twenty-six my dad bought a tractor and a new Dodge car. He already had a truck. Up until then we used horses.”
“With the crash of twenty-nine, everything went downhill,” he recalls. “But we being on the farm, we had all these vegetables and we had cows. So we always had milk. Mother made bread. We had potatoes, beets, parsnips, carrots, cabbage and all that stuff to eat.” Raising their own animals meant there was always fresh meat.
The Depression wasn’t so evident in the rural areas and small towns. Al explains it was a time when these rural communities “still had contact with relatives on the farm, and they’d go out there a get a couple chickens, get some eggs or things like that to keep ‘em going.”
Being farmers, the Ruhligs had plenty to eat. “But the only thing we’re short of was money,” Al explains. “The folks had a mortgage on the farm and there was a moment when they came close to losing it, but Mom had an aunt who had some money and she helped them out.”
Forget minivans and eight-passenger SUV’s. Al mainly remembers Dexter in those days from the back of the pick-up truck a la Waltons as they drove through town on their way to the Western Market (not Eastern) in Detroit where the Ruhligs sold their produce and trips to St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor on Sundays and for other social activities. Except for an errand now and then into Dexter to the hardware or bank, the self-reliant family spent most of their time taking care of business on their 80 acres out on Island Lake Road.
“Mother and Father would sit up front in the cab and us kids would be in back,” Al recalls, “And as you came into town, there was the barber shop, the State Bank, shoe store, pharmacy, Kroger’s, the hardware store and the bakery – the same bakery.” The grocery store was where Red Brick is today with Joe LaRossa’s Ice Cream Parlor came next and then a butcher shop. There were two car dealerships in Dexter in those days – a Chevrolet dealership and a Ford dealership where Joe and Rosie’s Coffee Shop currently is.
One regular event in town brought them into town when it came through. “We had a traveling company come that would put their movie screen up on a telephone pole in back of the bakery, and we’d have movies out in the open. We stood there and watched movies up on the screen for an hour and a half.”
Self-reliance on the farm went beyond just producing food to eat. Al recounts, “Mother would make the girls a new dress for Christmas. A lot of chicken feed and like that came in printed cotton bags at the mill. The women would take those stitches out of the bag and they had a piece of material then they could cut up and make skirts and dresses and blouses. They had different prints on them you know.” I didn’t know. When it came to toys, “Dad would take crates he got from market and make toys like those cradles the girls put their dolls in.”
Al’s favorite memories growing up involved doing things with his friends. “We had a bobsled that fit three people, he remembers. “Out at Waterloo Road and McKinley there was a nice hill there. We’d get on that bobsled and go down that hill, make the corner and go all the way to the creek. But then you’d have to drag it all the way back up. Then we got a big toboggan that fit more of us and there was a big hill north of us. It was three miles and we’d drag that big ol’ toboggan over there.”
“Everybody was involved with 4H back then,” he says. “We played a lot of softball. I think at one time I was on six different teams between church and 4H.” Then with a characteristic sparkle he adds, “Us boys would finish our games as quick as we could so we could go watch the girls.”
As expected, there is a lot of hard work for a young lad to do. “Since I didn’t go to High School, I generally worked at the neighbors all winter long,” he says. “I was too young yet to have a driver’s license so I walked over. I would clean their barn, cut the wood, milk their cows, and other things all day. Sometimes I’d spend the night. Other times I’d walk home at the end of the day.”
Al grew from a teenager into a young man and the world is now at war. The same year Winston Churchill is leading Great Britain through the onslaught of German bombing, Anne Frank and her family are discovered, and the Normandy Invasion turns the tide of war, Al is drafted into the Navy and World War II in 1944. After completing basic training, he is sent by train out to San Diego for deployment in the Pacific arena. He ships out on the very day the war ends in Europe. Al is assigned to an oil ship working “in the bowels of the ship” as it delivers fuel to the Pacific fleet.
“I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t even float,” he says. “The other guys would finish their work and sometimes jump off the ship and swim to a nearby island for beer. I had to stay on the ship.”
I give him a look. “The Navy didn’t teach you to swim?” I ask.
“Naw,” he laughs. “They don’t care about that. Just wear your life jacket.”
Al describes their stop in Nagasaki “where they dropped the bomb that ended the war.” He says, “It was all cleaned up by the time we saw it. It was all bare ground. The streets were still there with the curb and the sidewalk, but nothing else was.”
He then shares this poignant memory: “We dumped our garbage over the stern of the ship and the people would come with their boats and try and catch all of that. They were that desperate for food.”
With the war over and Al’s military service finished, he returns home in 1946 to the farm and things really began to heat up – and not just with the hot summer months of harvesting produce. He becomes a youth leader in their church and is elected chairman. A pretty young gal just happens to be elected co-chairman. This is how Al meets his wife Madonna. The two eventually begin courting and are married a year later in 1948 for 65 years until Madonna’s death in 2013.
Over the years the family farm and surrounding area has gone through a number of changes until now where it includes 240 acres. In addition to raising their three sons on the farm, the Ruhligs remained heavily involved in community service. Madonna involved herself in a variety of leadership roles within the church over the years. In addition to his own lifelong involvement with the church, Al converted his garage into a clubhouse and led 4H for area kids. He served on the board of the Farm Credit Service for 27 years. He also served on Dexter’s School Board.
He was on the Board of Education when Wylie Middle School (now an elementary school) was built and remembers “when we sold those bonds to build Wylie, I had to fly to Chicago and sign each one. It took six hours.” The actual signing, not the trip. The flight home was diverted due to weather, first to Cleveland and then again to New York.
Al is officially retired now, but that doesn’t mean he’s looking for things to do. He’s a regular at the Dexter Forum and still attends Our Savior Lutheran Church in Chelsea every Sunday. For Thanksgiving, Al drove down to Ft Wayne to visit his little sister (in her late eighties).
I asked Al what changes over the years stick out the most in his memory. He answered, “Well of course electricity was a big deal when that came through. Paved roads really made a big difference. I remember when Baker Road was gravel.” He says another big change was the winter storehouse they built for their produce “which made things a lot easier.”
He doesn’t have a cell phone, email or Facebook and somehow life goes on, and on. Maybe that’s one of Al’s keys to a long, happy life. When I asked him what he attributed to, not just his 97 years but the quality with which he is enjoying all these years, Al replied without hesitation, “The blessing of the Lord.” But then after thinking a moment he added, “And maybe it’s because I never ate much processed food. Everything came right off the farm.”
Words to live by.