John Henry Hegler was a well-known figure in Spring Grove for over 30 years. He was a runaway slave who took his surname from one of his two owners but no one used it, few people knew it, and even his gravestone does not list it. He was just called John Henry.
The Haldeman family took him in as a farmhand in 1921 when Jim Haldeman was just 5 years old. Said Haldeman, "John was a slave. When he came to us on our farm, he was very old (probably around 80). We gave him his room and board. A little for tobacco. A little for a half pint now and then. He would go to the area taverns and buy the cheapest half pint of whiskey and bring it home." Haldeman and his brothers and sister listened to John Henry's stories about growing his own tobacco on the farm when he was a slave in the South. He would hang it up to dry on the rafters of the pig pen.
John Henry had a twin brother but when they were around 6 years old, his mother was sold in Natchez, MS. Her new owner didn't want the twins so they were sold to someone else. They worked as house boys as they were too small to work in the fields. Each of the twins had a white birthmark just above the right eve about the size of a quarter. John Henry would let the Haldeman brothers press on it, which was a lot of fun for them, but he was always in fear that someone would recognize him because of that birthmark.
When he was 12 or 13, John Henry ran away and joined the circus, cleaning up after the animals. He thought his brother had been killed. He traveled around the county and eventually landed in Chicago. The pace of living was too fast and "sportin'" in the city, so he followed the train tracks and ended up in Spring Grove.
He would do what he could on the farm, milking cows, doing chores, cleaning out the barns and stables. He was good with animals, especially at birthing time. Again, from Jim Haldeman, "Everyone around English Prairie (Burton Township) worshiped him. He was like a good fairy. Whenever you needed him, he was there. He always seemed to know when someone needed help. He had a Model T roadster which he would loan out if someone needed it.
He didn't know his birth date, so he chose St. Patrick's Day as his birthday. Every St. Paddy's Day Jim Haldeman's father would take John Henry down to the tavern where he would celebrate with shots and beer and sleep it off in the barn that night.
He spent his last twenty years on the Stevens farm, which is now part of the Chain O' Lakes State Park, doing chores and helping to raise the children. He couldn't read, but would make up stories while he read them the funny papers on Sundays and would tell them bedtime stories at night. Mrs. Stevens joked that she would rather part with her husband than lose John Henry.
Things weren't always easy for him, however. Storyteller Jim May relates in his book,
The Farm on Nippersink Creek
, that once during threshing time, two day laborers took an oil can and squirted John Henry, who was standing below them next to the grain stack. He was a mess but didn't say much, not wanting to cause trouble. When Mr. Stevens found out about it at the noon meal he fired them on the spot. And some in the community didn't approve of John dancing with woman at local barn dances.
He died in 1948 and is buried in the Stevens plot in Cole Cemetery. Although he never knew his age, he is believed to have been over 100 years old. Tom Madden also remembered John Henry and each spring he would go out and buy plastic flowers to put on his grave. "All of us who are still alive remember how good he was. He's a man you just can't forget," said Madden in an article from 1988.