When it comes to residents of Woodstock, Don Perkins is a self-proclaimed old-timer. He’s lived in Woodstock all his life, in the same farmhouse he was born in almost 90 years ago, on a road named for his family.
He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, lived through the Great Depression, and he survived a tour of duty in World War II where he was wounded twice, earning the Purple Heart. He returned home, met and married a girl from across town and raised four children on the family homestead.
The Perkins family roots in Woodstock go back 145 years. Perkins said it was February 1870 when his great-grandfather settled on 120 acres on what’s now known as Perkins Road, just west of Steig Road, in rural Woodstock. He still has a cupboard in the kitchen that made the journey from out east. Surmising that they traveled by wagon, he chuckled, “It must have took them forever!”
He distinctly recalled his disappointment over how the farm was split up after his grandparents died. His dad, who was living on the farm and managing the dairy herd, inherited 70 acres and the buildings, while his uncle, who lived elsewhere, inherited the other 50 acres. Angry that his share was smaller, the uncle sold his 50 acres to a stranger after offering it to his brother.
“I was so mad at him,” Perkins said, who was just a child at the time. But his dad explained that it was his uncle’s right, even if it was wrong.
“That was life,” he said. “What the heck, it goes on. Maybe it was a good thing. The big Depression hit. They had a hard time surviving and might have lost it all.”
Perkins appreciated growing up in the close-knit rural Woodstock community, and he values the relationships that neighbors shared. “Back in those days, if you needed something you rapped on the door, and if [your neighbor] wasn’t home, you took it and used it and brought it back where it belonged.”
He talked about lifelong friend Robert Gerloff, who lived across the road from the Perkins farm all of his life. “We grew up together, and he still lived there, and I still lived here. He was born over there; I was born over here. I told him, you know there aren’t too many set-ups like ours around the country where people have been together that many years.” Gerloff died Sept. 10, 2013, at the age of 87.
The pair would walk together to Pleasant Ridge School on the corner of Sunnyside and Perkins Road each day, about a mile down the road. They passed under strands of power lines, attached to the poles with glass insulators. “We used to throw a million stones at them trying to break one. We never broke one in our lives, never!” he said.
He also recalled how he and his sister always could be found with Gerloff and his two sisters. “Our mothers said, ‘you either had five kids or no kids.’ That’s when you were neighbors.”
Perkins spent his youth helping work the family dairy farm. His first car was a 1938 Ford Coupe that he bought with money he made from selling a bull calf he won in a Future Farmers of America raffle and raised.
He graduated from Woodstock High School in 1942. He said, “I graduated in January, got my diploma in June. Shortly after that I got a notice to appear for the draft.” He said that his dad really needed his help with the farm, and he probably could have chosen deferment because of it, “but boy, I wanted to go.”
He left for basic training in 1943, and following training he was shipped out to Liverpool, England, and soon landed at Omaha Beach as part of the 47th Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. He was injured for the first time near Aachen, Germany, by a concussion shell, suffering a concussion and internal injuries. After recovering for a month, he returned to his original outfit on the front lines. Later, while engaged in a battle along the Ruhr River in Germany, he was seriously wounded by shrapnel while trying to help a downed soldier. He was treated in a tent hospital, moved to Belgium until he was able to travel and then returned to a hospital in England to recover. He still lives with shrapnel in both kneecaps.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “Now I have a grandson at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He’s been to Iraq and back. We argue military all the time.” This past summer he visited the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. He described it as a very emotional experience and said, “There ain’t too many of us left.”
Upon his return from military service, he began running a small dairy herd again, but he soon learned that he couldn’t make a living on a small-scale farm. Deciding that farming wasn’t his life, he found a different path.
A friend of his had a sister he took an interest in. He said, “We started running around together, and I thought, boy, he’s got a cute sister.” In 1950, he married Joyce Tornow, and they shared 63 years together. She died in September 2013.
In 1955 Perkins ran for Seneca Township road commissioner and won, holding the position for 40 years. During the duration of his career, he helped maintain the rural roads west of Woodstock and witnessed the conversion of many from a set of dirt tracks to blacktopped roadways. The technology changed a lot, too. He said, “Nowadays they go by here with equipment that costs millions of dollars, and we had baling wire and tin cans to hold things together. Unbelievable.”
“I had a good 40 years. I caught a lot of hell and abuse, and I had a lot of fun. I had some awful good people. In those days, I knew everybody. Now I don’t.”
When asked what changes he’d seen in the town of Woodstock, Perkins said, “Politics hasn’t changed any. It’s all the same.” Instead he noted changes in the sense of community.
“I used to go to Woodstock and see people I knew. Now I don’t know anyone,” he said, including his own neighbors. He lamented that neighbors just don’t get together as often as they used to.
Perkins continues to live on the family homestead and maintain his home and yard. Although his wife had a computer, all he ever used it for was to play solitaire. However, he said, “My kids made me get a cellphone and a button to push if I fall down.”
This is the second installment of “Living History,” which documents the lives and stories of senior citizens from Woodstock, Wonder Lake and Bull Valley. To recommend a senior citizen to be featured in “Living History,” email firstname.lastname@example.org.