In The Limelight
Story by Teresa Nguyen
"Janesville has been a great community; I was happy to raise my family here. I’ve known so many of great people because I worked at the plant and worked at the hospital. I’ve farmed and have been involved in 4-H. Farming is a close-knit community, it was a fun life." ~ Nancy Nienhuis
Owner - The Good Acres Farms
Helped Install First Open-Heart Surgery Unit in Grand Rapids, MI
Installer of Several Intensive Care Units
Co-Wrote the Setting Up Manual for Mercy Hospital's ICU
Former Co-Chair Janesville Red Cross Bloodmobile Drive
Former Cedar Crest Board Member
Former Nursing Instructor at Blackhawk Technical College
Helped Establish the Associate Degree in Nursing Program at Blackhawk Technical College
Retired 25-Year General Motors Nurse
Founded Annual GM Food Drive (Now "Bags of Hope")
YWCA Woman of Distinction Award (1975)
Gardening Department Superintendent - Rock County 4-H Fair
Former Rock County 4-H Fair Board Member
Rock County Agriculture Hall of Fame (2011)
Scottish & Irish Immigrant Families
My mother’s family arrived to America in the 1860s from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and settled on a farm in Missouri.
Later, the family traveled north to Wisconsin, when my mother, Ruby Reid, was just an infant. My great uncle, Archie Reid, was a successful merchant and an importer of Clydesdale horses and Aberdeen Black Angus and brought them over to America by ship.
Archie and my mother’s cousin, who lived up in Green Bay, were a couple of the first shareholders of the Green Bay Packers. Archie owned a clothing store in Janesville and owned a home on Courthouse Hill in Janesville. We called it the “Scottish Castle”, on the corner of Wisconsin St. and St. Lawrence Avenue. The two-story stone house with Queen Anne style architecture was built for Archie in 1901. The house was listed on the National Register in 1986. It was a beautiful home. On the third floor, they had a gym and area families would come over to use the gym.
When Sarah was about a year and a half old, I took care of Archie’s son, Archibald Reid, who lived in the same family home. I did that for many years. We had to roll up his Persian rugs to put a hospital bed in there. When he died, he was quite a wealthy millionaire. He had invested his money and, at one time, had owned 46 farms around the Rock County area! Yet, he was very frugal, due to family’s Scottish background. He didn’t want you to flush the toilet more than once and waste water!
My father was George Conway. His parents arrived from County Down in Northern Ireland during the potato famine. My grandfather knew soils and chose this area in LaPrairie Township because of its rich soil for farming. This was the home farm, bought in 1905. His brother bought the neighboring farm on the hill and another Conway brother bought a nearby farm across the field.
The home of Nancy's Great Uncle Archie Reid
My dad, George, was born here. They had one sister. The brothers all served in WWI.
One tragic day, when my grandfather was coming home from downtown Janesville by horse and buggy, he neared the railroad tracks and his horse bolted. Both the horse and my grandfather were hit and killed by the train. The Conway brothers continued farming after that. His brothers owned three farms in LaPrairie and the sister left the area to live in California. The farms are all still in the family.
The Great Depression
I was born in 1932 on this farm and grew up here. I had one younger sister, Carolyn. After graduating from college as a librarian, my sister was offered a job and ended up in Boston, Massachusetts. She was an ambitious young woman.
During the depression, we were really poor…for years. I had to help on the farm, while my sister helped my mother. It’s where I learned to work! I had to milk the cows and help my dad and my uncles.
Our day was ruled by the sun.
Nancy's Grandfather, William Conway, was tragically killed by a train
At that time, of course, we had no phone, no electricity, so we used candlelight and wood stoves.
Our water was from the windmill, and then we had to heat it on the wood stove. With no running water, we had a big galvanized tub to take a bath in. We had to heat the water on the stove and fill the tub. We’d start with the little one and work on up through the kids.
We had the first purebred Holstein cow in the county. Mr. J.A. Craig was a farmer in the area. He had Jerseys, orange and white cows, and we had Holsteins, the black and white. Mr. Craig would come out and walk the fields just to see how things were going.
We also raised sheep, pigs and had horses. The horses did the field work with old fashioned plows, since there were no tractors. The crops were also different back then. We had sugar beets. The old Monterey Mills downtown was a sugar beet factory.
Winters were harsh! The bread man would deliver bread for 10 cents a loaf. He came out a couple times a week. We made everything from scratch, there were no mixes. We had fresh meat and produce from the farm. We used ice that was cut from the Rock River in winter and the ice company would deliver a block for the ice box in the house. That was how we kept our food fresh.
We knit mittens out of necessity. We had feather mattresses and we jumped into bed at night just to get warm fast. The quilts were nice and warm. They’d sheer the sheep and stuff the quilts with the wool.
If you had to go to the bathroom, you’d go out to the privy, a homemade outhouse. The workers who built the privies would bring them out. Finally, they delivered one to us, one with newer (modern) seats and all. Boy, you wouldn’t spend a lot of time out there in the winter!
Nancy with their dog, who was trained to fetch the newspaper every day.
The War Years
I went to a one room school house on the corner of County J and County O (Delavan Drive). It’s no longer there. The students were in grades 1st – 8th.
We had no running water so had to haul water from the farm next door to the school. We had a pail with a stick through the handle and we would go in pairs to help carry the water. We had no electricity at the time and no indoor plumbing. The teacher had to tend the fire to keep us warm.
We had morning chores before school and then chores again in the afternoon. Sometimes we’d loiter on the way home, so we wouldn’t have to do chores. We’d throw stones and things like that. When we got home, we’d get the questions, “What happened that you are so late?”
We’d make up stories that the road was out, so we had to take the long way home and various excuses.
Winter was difficult. We’d ride in with the milk truck in the mornings and get picked up with the horse and buggy in the afternoons.
We were milking cows on December 7th, 1941 when we heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor was attacked. My dad had four brothers on area farms who were all drafted.
Nancy with her maternal grandmother, Janet Reid, and little sister Carolyn.
He had to help take care of their farms while they were gone. The troop trains would come down from MN, pick up troops in Janesville, and the school would be alerted that the troop train was coming.
We’d run out of the schoolhouse to wave at the troops and the soldiers would wave back and yell “Pray for us!” to the kids. I remember that vividly. And then they were off to WWII. There was a real sense of community back then.
The Conway Farm in LaPrairie Township
We only had the radio for entertainment. We always listened to the news, and kept up with the war via the radio. Our uncles were all in the service in Europe and overseas.
One drove an ambulance in the war or would help with the military horses and such. One uncle came back, but he suffered from PTSD and drank a lot.
We always had to read the paper, too. My mother made us read it every day so we would become “worldly”.
I remember when Seneca came; they grew sweet corn and peas.
They’d bring Jamaicans up to pick sweet corn; this was in the 1940s, while everyone was at the war. The workers would sing traditional Jamaican songs.
Post-WWII Life on the Farm
We’d go into the city for groceries on Friday night and to church at Cargill United Methodist, where the YMCA is now. We would take the milk truck down to church. If we road in the back, we got all windblown on our way to church. It was embarrassing because they’d say, “Here come the farmers in the milk truck!”
4-H was a big part of our life. We had 4-H plays, meetings and always attended the Rock County 4-H Fair since the 1930s. It was a part of rural life, and still is. Not as many youth are active in it today, because the rural kids often get involved in school activities.
We used to have a Track & Field Day, where we’d compete in all sorts of sports. I played softball. After 8th grade I attended to Janesville High School. I couldn’t do a lot of extra activities at school because we had chores to do.
We had all these cows and had to get the milk to Janesville, we had to have the horses carry the cans in milk wagons down to Delavan Drive and the trucks would meet us there. Snow always covered the roads and we had to wait a long time for removal.
The horses were big and we’d hook 7 horses up and one driver with the reins. Sometimes, the horses would run away in the morning and we had to go chase after them on foot.
We got our tractors when I was in my early teens and I learned how to drive them. And I had to tend the horses. We did a lot of hard work.
Nancy as a teen driving the tractor, with her niece.
We had chickens, and eggs that went to the hatchery. If the eggs were fertile, you got a premium. We’d get new shoes from the chicken egg money. Milk and animal money always went back into the farm.
We had sheep that would be sheered and the wool would then be taken to Palmyra to be carded.
Then the ladies from the Ladies Aid Society would gather here and make wool quilts to take to the families in need in the neighborhood.
After the war, labor was in bad shape, so some immigrants had come in from Ireland and a few from England came to work for us as farm hands, milking the cows and such.
When we finally got a phone, the phone system was interesting because there were about 6 or 7 customers per line. If the phone rang, it rang at all 7 houses and everyone would answer we could hear everyone’s conversation. You’d have to tell them, “I got it.”
So, the neighbors shared a line and If strangers wandered down the road, they’d pick up the phone to let each other know. We would sometimes give them a chicken or two so they’d go away.
Higher Education – Entering Nursing
I had wanted to be a farmer, and I guess if it had been today’s time, I would have farmed and raised cows. But, unfortunately, back then women didn’t farm because they weren’t encouraged to farm.
We had a “family meeting” in the kitchen. My dad said, “You can work at the grocery store, you could work at the bank, you can go teach or you can go into nursing. But whatever it is, you’re going to do one of them.” Women were not going into agriculture. I didn’t want to be a teacher and had no secretarial skills, so I went into nursing. Times have certainly changed; the UW Ag Business School is now full of women students!
I studied at Rockford at Swedish American and then at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for my graduate work. I was going to go to medical school, but again, money was tight.
The school was in Maryland, below the Mason/Dixon line, and even in those days they had separate bathrooms and dining rooms at the university, separating the Black people from the white. It was very segregated back then. I remember when I absentmindedly took a drink out of the “colored” drinking fountain and people had a fit. I didn’t know the difference. We had played football with the Black kids in Beloit so didn’t even think about it!
I missed being able to go places that were close. It was hard to work in the poor neighborhoods out east; we stepped over drug addicts in the alleys. But it opened my eyes to the world. We’d get the sailors & seamen off the merchant ships, those who needed care.
Nancy's Senior Photo - Helgesen Studio
In my training, prior to modern CPR techniques, we sometimes had to open the chest to pump the heart with our hand. I remember when I opened my first chest…you had to separate the ribs. The medical experts eventually found a better way.
While at Johns Hopkins, I had the fortunate opportunity to be Alfred Blalock’s surgical nurse and worked in the operating room most of the time. Blalock is known for his work on the medical condition of shock as well as Tetralogy of Fallot - commonly known as “Blue Baby Syndrome”. He did the first “Blue Baby” heart surgery.
I had a roommate, Janis Hanley, from Pennsylvania. She was very pretty, and we just worked all the time. Finally, we decided we were going to go look for men…we were on a man hunt!
I had traveled around the country, setting up intensive care units. Janis and I went to Mayo Clinic, it was like the Cadillac of clinics. We had a resident who left Hopkins and was a professor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. So, we decided to visit him.
He had already married, and he had also traveled around the country, so he said, “If I were you girls, I’d go to Iowa or I’d go to Michigan.” That was supposed to be where we’d find the men.
So, Janis and I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan! That’s where I met Herm.
Nancy in Nursing School
He was a senior medical student at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. They would give him some major surgery that would go on for 10-12 hours. I worked across the operating table from him. Herm would get a little bored sometimes, after a long day, and he would mess up the order of my tray of instruments just to throw me off and tease me. I’d tell him to “Cut it out!”
I asked Herm to help find a date for Janis. He liked to tell this story that he couldn’t find anyone else to go with me so he went with me, supposedly out of pity (laughs). So we would double date. Janis ended up marrying a doctor, as well.
Wedding Photo of Nancy Nienhuis
We went to Grand Rapids during his residency. Herm and I were married in 1958 here in Janesville at Cargill United Methodist Church. His parents, George and Bea (Scholton) Nienhuis, who were Dutch and very religious and traditional, came out here from Zeeland, Michigan, for the wedding.
Our first son, David, was born in Michigan in 1960.
Herm went into the service for four years in Indiana as a flight surgeon in the Air Force, attaining the rank of Captain. Herm flew back and forth to Germany & Spain during the Vietnam War. They would fly the injured back to The States.
The B58 bombers came and went not far from our house on the base. We were in a very secure, small base.
Nancy and Dr. Herman Nienhuis
On the night President Kennedy was shot, the planes ran all night. The country was in a state shock and military readiness. Little David didn’t like the noise and couldn’t sleep.
When a plane would crash, I would end up working on the patients at the hospital, but I didn’t work side by side with Herm. I was working in a different area.
Returning to Janesville
In 1964, there was an opening here in Janesville, and we came back because of my farm interests. We lived in town, but I would come out to the farm to help my parents. Dan was born that same year.
Herm started his OB/GYN practice in Janesville Wisconsin in 1964 and served the community for decades. He delivered thousands of babies in that time span and retired in 1991.
In his retirement, he enjoyed restoring old cars and tractors.
After we had moved here, I set up the intensive care units at Mercy Hospital, Janesville and in Ft. Atkinson, Edgerton, Monroe and I still had the boys at home, and would get a day babysitter, so couldn’t travel too far.
Nancy with her two sons, Dan (left) and David
I also taught classes at Blackhawk Tech, setting up the nursing program.
We had our third child, Sarah, just after midnight on New Year’s Day in 1970. She was the first baby born in the state that year and made the paper! We received a gift from the Janesville Chamber of Commerce.
Nurse Nancy at GM
When David was a bit older, there was a part time opening at GM, so I applied and got the job, and then I was offered a full time opening. I worked 2nd shift and I liked that so I could do work out on my parents’ farm and get things ready for the kids’ supper and all before I went to work.
The next year, I called Woodman’s to ask if they would help us. I would go to Woodman’s with Marv Wopat to let them know our needs, and they would go to their distributers and collect for these families.
We’d unload pallets of food from the semi-trucks and stack them on all the tables. We had several tables, all stacked with food. It was very organized. Once that was done, the employees would line up, fill the bags, and then we’d have them delivered to the different communities.
Back when GM held the food drive, we would deliver all over Rock County. We’d go to Footville, Orfordville and the biggest amounts of deliveries were in Janesville and Beloit. We’d go to all the outlying communities. I would deliver with Marv sometimes. They'd get enough groceries for two weeks.
In an interview with Marv Wopat he recalled, “On one of the deliveries, we went to a house in Beloit and this little boy came out. He looked in one of the bags and excitedly yelled to his mother, ‘Look, Mom! REAL potatoes!’ Many of those homes just didn’t have groceries in the cupboards and the fridge was empty.”
My parents still owned this farm then and we still lived in town. My sister had already moved out east, so I was the one to help my folks on the farm. My sister would come to visit about once a year.
Eventually, I went full-time at GM. It was a good job; I enjoyed the people. I have a lot of stories from that place. And stories of how people made up illnesses just to try to go home. But I was on to them!
I remember a few bad accidents in my time there and we had around 2-3 amputations. The ambulance would come and the paramedics always wanted me to go along, because I’d already had the CPR training. I guess I saved a few people there.
Marv Wopat and I also worked with the addicts who would come in. He helped hundreds of people get much needed alcohol and drug treatment over the years.
Founding the GM Food Drive – Bags of Hope
Around 2 pm one day, just before Christmas Eve, someone came to me at GM and said there had been a fire down on Cherry Street in the Fourth Ward and it was pretty bad. The family had been left out on the street. So, I sent a box around to various lines at the plant for donations. That first night I think we had collected about $1,000!
The next year, around Christmas, I thought, “We should do this again.” We got the names of needy people from churches and social services. That first year, we bought the groceries and did the work ourselves.
Marv Wopat with Nancy Nienhuis
We had 100 families to feed. We’d bag the groceries at Woodman’s and tied up the store for a while on Saturday mornings.
After that, we moved the drive to GM, then moved it out to Seneca and other industrial warehouse locations. The GM employees would come volunteer to bag and deliver. We had a system to make sure each family just got one delivery, so there weren’t duplicates.
Eventually, we would end up with thousands of dollars in donations. It was always a fun and meaningful event.
When GM was closing, we went down to talk to the School District of Janesville to see if they could take it over. They agreed to pick it up. Marv and I showed them how to go out and solicit, to collect the groceries, how to set up the tables, to organize volunteers and such. We helped them out for a couple of years.
The School District of Janesville continues the event today, which is now called “Bags of Hope”.