Category Archives: Nostalgia

It was once a real winter wonderland around these parts…

Our white Christmases seem to be getting a little thin on the ground lately. We seem to have had our snow early, followed by rain and ice and whatnot. As I write this, the snow cover we had has greatly diminished.

But then again, old-timers have always complained winters were lots worse when they were youngsters. And since I seem to have become a certified old-timer, it’s practically my job to insist we had colder weather and more snow when I was growing up in the 1950s on a Wheatland Township farm. In my defense, the official snowfall statistics for the area compiled by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources appear to back up those childhood memories. So maybe it’s not just the ravings of an old misanthrope after all.

My sisters and a cousin urge the ever-suffering and ever-patient Dobbin to pretend to be a driving horse in this undated snapshot taken on our Wheatland Township farm.

My sisters and a cousin urge the ever-suffering and ever-patient Dobbin to pretend to be a driving horse in this undated snapshot taken on our Wheatland Township farm.

According to those records, the biggest single month’s snow ever recorded in the area was in December of 1951. At 36.4 inches, it is still the all-time champ among local snowy months. Which is sort of odd, when you think about it, because historically, we generally get most of each winter’s snow in January and February. But then again, the big snows often seem to come relatively early in the winter.

The winter before that, the area had gotten over 20 inches of snow in December. It must have seemed as if we were entering a new Ice Age.

I remember that snowy 1951 December because my uncle was working part-time that winter driving a snowplow for Wheatland Township. For a little kid, it was a very impressive piece of equipment. And on that snowy Christmas Day when we were ready to go to my grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner, Uncle Gerald came past with the snowplow and cleared our way the three miles to my grandparents’ farm. Then, like now, it helped to know the right guy.

An old-fashioned hayride at the Matiles' place about 1950 on my father's bobsled. This one seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

An old-fashioned hayride at the Matiles’ place about 1950 on my father’s bobsled. This one seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

Winters in those years were special to me, as they often are to children. Each winter, my parents hosted hayrides using the bobsled running gear that was parked out behind the barn the rest of the year. Every winter, my dad put a hayrack on the running gear, hook it up behind one of our tractors, and pull everyone down the country roads near our farm. Bigger kids hooked their sleds onto the bobsled with ropes and performed daring maneuvers as the tractor made its steady way down the road, while the adults and little kids rode on bales of hay on the hayrack, well covered with blankets and quilts.

Occasionally during those years, my sisters would take me sledding to the abandoned gravel pit a quarter mile north of our house. The walls of the old pit seemed nearly vertical to me, providing a fast thrilling ride to the bottom. Afterwards, my sisters would make hot cocoa on the stove and play their 78-rpm records.

Dick Smith and Felix Bernard's "Winter Wonderland" has been a winter classic since it's release in 1934.

Dick Smith and Felix Bernard’s “Winter Wonderland” has been a winter classic since it’s release in 1934.

I remember the first time I heard “Winter Wonderland” on my sisters’ record player, and thinking it was pretty neat that someone had recorded a song about our neighborhood. Dick Smith and Felix Bernard wrote the song in 1934, and by the 1950s, the tune had become a winter standard. “Sleigh bells ring, Are you listening? In the lane, Snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, We’re happy tonight, Walking in a winter wonderland,” seemed to nicely describe our yearly hayrides, even though the horses had been retired by the 1950s. But we did have a lane, of sorts, although it was lots shorter than the neighbors’ to the north. Although more of a driveway, the snow on it really did glisten.

The song seemed to describe a lot of familiar things: “In the meadow we can build a snowman, And pretend that he is Parson Brown. He’ll say ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say ‘No, man, But you can do the job when you’re in town.’”

We built lots of snowmen, and I kept pestering my sisters about the exact location of our meadow so we could get it just right. Turns out, our farm was meadowless. We did have a pasture, though, and my mother said pastures and meadows were pretty much the same, suggesting the pasture was just as good a place for the snowman as a meadow. It also had a handy slough where my sisters ice skated.

In addition, we really had a “Parson Brown” out in the country, although we called him Reverend Brown and I don’t know anyone who actually made a snowman in his image, or anyone who wanted to, for that matter.

Our one-room country school was a great place in the winter. Thanks to some rich neighborhood residents, it was brick and boasted a large fireplace. After playing outside during recess, we'd warm and dry our mittens by the fire the teacher started once or twice a week.

Our one-room country school was a great place in the winter. Thanks to some rich neighborhood residents, it was brick and boasted a large fireplace. After playing outside during recess, we’d warm and dry our mittens by the fire the teacher started once or twice a week.

The song nicely captured the feeling of coming inside after playing or working in the winter: “Later on, we’ll conspire, As we dream by the fire. We’ll face unafraid, The plans that we made, Walking in a winter wonderland.”

Walking around the farm in winter provided lots of sensory stimuli. It was always surprising how warm it was in the barn. Even with no heat, the cow and the other animals housed there managed to keep the temperature seemingly lots warmer than outside. And the barn’s rich smells melded into a single aroma that old farmers always recognize.

But heading into the house after hours spent outdoors hiking or sledding was always the biggest treat for me. There’s nothing quite like coming into a house from cold winter weather and smelling cookies baking—my family was big on cookies.

We had no fireplace on the farm, but we would make plans for what we would do the next day when we once again ventured outside. Arranging snow-covered mittens on the furnace register, putting our five-buckle boots carefully out of the way, and hanging up our coats was the prelude to relaxing and listening to records or the radio.

As the winter dusk would deepen into night, my dad would sit down to read the paper, my mother would pick up her crocheting or a magazine, and tunes like “Winter Wonderland” would softly fill the house in those days gone but hardly forgotten.

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In which pop culture strikes back at geezer historian…

So anyway, I was cruising the Net this morning, got down to the Huff Post on my morning reading list,  and came across a post stating that the guy who wrote “All I Want for Christmas” doesn’t consider it his favorite song, which I sort of understood, but then the post went on to say that it had been recorded by Mariah Carey, which blew me away. “Wow!” I thought, “I didn’t know she was into that sort of music at all.” It also blew me away that the guy who wrote it was still alive, much less able to comment on whether it was his favorite or not.

But then I hit the button and played it, and suddenly understood. And I placed where I’d heard it: the movie “Love, Actually.”

Historians live in the past quite a bit–at least this one does–and that was my problem because I had the wrong song. Entirely. Which is a thing us geezers have to deal with on a regular basis. Pop culture whizzes past us, leaving us in the metaphorical dust as times change. Which makes me sound like my grandfather, but still.

See, here’s what I think of when I hear “All I Want for Christmas.” Which was why I was a little surprised (truthfully, more like dumbfounded)  that a looker like Mariah Carey would have recorded it, much less made it a hit, and which I hadn’t really remembered, either. And I was right; the guy who wrote the song that tripped my memory released the lyrics in 1946, which was the year I was born. So I’ve pretty much grown up with the thing.

Trying to envision Mariah Carey singing it does boggle the mind, you have to admit.

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Another Thanksgiving rolls around…

‘Tis one of my favorite seasons: Thanksgiving.

I am, in general, a lover of autumn, probably due to my allergy to grass pollens (which, thankfully, are things of the past and future but not the present), but also because I’ve always considered it one of the nation’s best holidays.

It’s difficult in this nation of ours to get away from crass commercialization, but the idea behind Thanksgiving is, well, just kind. We should, at this season, be thankful for what we’ve got. No need to buy gifts for anyone or engage in other frantic activities. Just—provided we’re lucky enough, of course—settle down with relatives and friends and enjoy some great food and, we can all hope, some great fellowship.

As a kid, Thanksgiving was a pretty big deal. Not only did we get two days off school, but we were all able to get together at my grandparents’ or at an uncle or aunt’s or even at our house to enjoy a meal of quite amazing proportions. While the dinner location was shared around the family, I most remember the ones we had at my grandparents’ house, especially the dinners out on the farm.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" is an iconic illustration of Thanksgivings past.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” is an iconic illustration of Thanksgivings past.

Some years ago, I remember reading a blog post by someone or another complaining that those tales of Thanksgiving tables groaning under loads of food were just that—tales. Most families, this person wrote, had Thanksgivings nothing like that. And not only that, but the blogger pointed to the fiction behind Norman Rockwell’s famed painting, one of his “Four Freedoms” series, titled “Freedom from Want,” which the writer derided as obvious fiction depicting an era that never existed.

As I was growing up, Norman Rockwell was, hands down, my favorite artist, with the possible exception of the guy who drew the “Prince Valiant” comic strips I eagerly read in each week’s Sunday Chicago American.

I sort of dimly recalled the “Freedom from Want” painting, along with its three companions, and since we have this great Internet thingy, I looked it up to refresh my memory. Turns out Rockwell painted it, and its three brethren in 1943 as both wartime propaganda and to illustrate, for the Saturday Evening Post, aspects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech laying out those same four freedoms.

When I saw the image I, of course, immediately recognized it and the other three in the series. You see them often, although not usually together, to illustrate this or that aspect of American culture. But as I really looked at “Freedom from Want,” it occurred to me that, far from depicting some sort of fictional incident of overwhelming gastronomy, Rockwell’s dining room table seemed pretty thin on the ground compared to the ones my family set.

Granted, there’s the big roasted turkey being proudly placed on the table, but the side dishes seem awfully scarce. Of course you have to take into account the painting depicts a wartime table, with all the shortages and rationing that was going on then.

My grandparents farmhouse as it looked about 1955, with Grandpa and Grandma Holzhueter's lawn chairs out front. The dining room was at the far left of their house.

My grandparents’ farmhouse as it looked about 1955, with Grandpa and Grandma Holzhueter’s lawn chairs out front. The dining room was at the far left of their house.

But my family were mostly farmers and even during the war there was plenty of food harvested from gardens and orchards. So on one of our post-war Thanksgiving tables would be turkey, but also, sometimes pheasant that one or another family member had taken while hunting; mashed potatoes; stuffing with gravy—generally two boats, one with and one without giblets; homemade bread with homemade butter; spiced apples; sweet corn and green beans; squash; sweet potatoes; Jell-O molds filled with all manner of things from pineapple to grated carrots; Waldorf salad; and loads of relishes including the eagerly sought-after ripe olives, to which all us kids were addicted. Dessert was always at least two kinds of pie, the constant being pumpkin with apple, cherry, peach, and others as the whim took the bakers.

After dinner, the men repaired to the living room where most quickly fell asleep as us kids first helped clear the table and then engaged in a variety of apparently extinct games including “Hide the Thimble” and “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?”

Some, mostly city folks I suspect, deride Thanksgiving as a celebration of American excess. But those of us with farm roots know it was a celebration of both work largely done and a harvest brought home buoyed by thankful feelings that another farming year had passed with no serious accidents or injuries. And while we definitely weren’t rolling in cash, there was that Rockwell-like feeling of thankfulness for what we did have, for the good fellowship, and that we were surrounded by the comfortable embrace of our extended family.

These days, farmers are a tiny minority of the nation’s population. While you might see lots of what look like farms as you drive through the countryside, most of those farm houses are rented to non-farmers, with the land being rented to someone else entirely. The days when it was possible to make a living on 180 acres is long gone, and all those giant consolidated farms mean the industry simply doesn’t need as many folks to do the work. But those days are still alive because there are a few of us around to recall them. It’s an era that I still relive at least once a year around Thanksgiving time.

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Thoughts on the incident that started the ’60s a half century ago today

I’ve been spending the day doing history sort of things, but it’s impossible to listen to the radio, TV, or read any of my usual blogs without the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination being mentioned.

JFK’s murder was a big deal, even here in a northern Illinois  county that had voted pretty much straight Republican ever since that bunch of disgruntled Whigs and Free Soilers met to create it up in Wisconsin. Oh, there were a few lapses, especially during the Great Depression, but Kendall County had been solid GOP turf for more than a century.

I was in study hall at Oswego High School when we heard what had happened, and what had caused several of our female teachers to be seen crying in public, which was certainly something different. And it was definitely a shock for all of us. We were dismissed early that day, and had a few more days off for the next several days. My dad and I were watching TV when Jack Ruby shoved his revolver into Lee Harvey Oswald’s stomach and pulled the trigger. It was truly a surreal time.

The thing I remember most about the Kennedy Administration is girls crying. When he was elected in 1960, I remember them crying in the hallway at school because in our (at that time) mostly Protestant corner of the world, they were convinced the Pope was about to take control of the U.S. And I remember many of the same girls crying in November 1963 after his murder.

The Kennedys had been different, far more different than the Presidents us Baby Boomers were familiar with. Harry and Bess Truman looked like those elderly folks who sat in the center pew at church, while Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower looked a lot like my grandparents. But Jack and Jackie? They were young, stylish, and apparently vigorous. It was impossible to imagine Ike playing touch football, but there in the newsreels were Jack and Bobbie and the rest of the Kennedy clan goofing around and actually having fun. It was their youth that appealed to me and to most of my generation. The President urged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but rather ask what we could do for our country. He set us on a course to land men on the moon. And he started the wheels turning for what eventually became the civil rights movement.

In reality, the Kennedy assassination was the kick-off for what everyone calls the ’60s. Until Nov. 22, 1963 we were all still living, culturally at least, in the ’50s. With the events in Dallas, the nation received a severe psychological shock that affected none so much as the young people my age and a bit older. Our music changed right along with our outlook on life, reflecting a profound change that turned into one of the most turbulent eras in the nation’s history.

Vietnam, the protest movement, the Beatles, Woodstock, flower children, Watergate, the Days of Rage, Haight-Ashbury, the Weather Underground, and all the rest were to follow, but we didn’t know that at the time. What we did know was that a young, attractive President with whom we could identify had been cut down in a shocking murder and we wrestled with the idea of whether this violent change would change us. It did and it has.

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Memories of farming years past…

We were driving through the countryside some miles east of Kendall County a while ago, and came across a sight that made me want to stop and watch for a while. I couldn’t, of course, given the traffic, so I only got a fleeting glimpse of something we hardly ever see these days.

There, making the rounds in a stubble field was a vintage tractor pulling a genuine hay baler.  Bales of golden straw were rhythmically moving off the rear chute, where a muscular young man riding on the rubber-tired hayrack grabbed each with a baling hook and swung it around, adding it to the neat stack. A second, hayrack, already loaded with straw bales, stood on the field’s headland, ready to be pulled who knows where.

The way straw used to be baled. A John Deere 720 pulls John Deere baler, and the resulting straw bales are stacked on the hay rack towed behind.

The way straw used to be baled. A John Deere 720 pulls John Deere baler, and the resulting straw bales are stacked on the hay rack towed behind.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a normal country activity. But in business terms, it would be akin to walking into an accounting office and seeing everyone madly punching the keys on Comtometers or watching giant Frieden mechanical calculators clack and grind through long division problems.

First of all, the kind of hay baler being used in that field was almost a museum piece. Modern balers produce giant rolls of hay (some neatly wrapped in weather-proof plastic), not small bales. Second, straw is seldom baled at all nowadays because modern harvesting equipment tends to mulch it instead of leaving enough to be raked and baled. And third, hardly anyone in the Fox Valley grows the kinds of small grains that produce straw as a byproduct in the first place.

Time was, lots of straw was baled in Kendall County because the kind of diversified farming practiced here until modern specialized farming emerged in the 1960s required it. Farmers rotated crops from field to field, each crop having its place in the farming cycle. Before tractors came into universal use following World War II, oats fueled the county’s horse-powered farms, not to mention the millions of horses that made urban areas function. As a result, thousands of acres of oats were raised each year, along other thousands of acres of barley, rye, and wheat that all had their uses in those long-gone times.

August was harvest time for small grains—as opposed to large kernel grains such as corn. Fields planted in the spring turned a golden color when the grain was ripe. Pioneer farmers had to cut their oats, wheat, and other small grain by hand, using large scythes with attached cradles that caught the ripe grain as it was cut. One man could harvest an acre or two a day using a cradle and scythe. Soon, however, reapers and harvesters were invented that mechanically cut the grain. Later machines called binders cut and bound the grain into bundles so it could be manually stacked in shocks to thoroughly dry.

Farmers used flails to thresh grain for centuries. "Men Threshing a Sheaf of Wheat with Flails" was ublished in The Luttrell Psalter sometime between 1325 and 1335. These medieval farmers would have been right at home on a Kendall County Farm in 1841. From the collections of the British Library.

Farmers used flails to thresh grain for centuries. “Men Threshing a Sheaf of Wheat with Flails” was published in The Luttrell Psalter sometime between 1325 and 1335. These medieval farmers would have been right at home on a Kendall County Farm in 1841. From the collections of the British Library.

In pre-mechanized days, dried bundles of, say, oats, were taken to a clean threshing floor in a barn and were beaten with a flail. Flails had long handles to which were attached a shorter flattened piece of wood on a leather thong. The flail was used to literally beat the grain off the stalks. The straw remaining after threshing was then stacked and used as animal bedding.

Starting in the mid-19th Century, threshing machines were perfected. The first ones were powered by teams of horses on treadmills or other mechanical contrivances. As soon as they had enough money, though, farmers pooled their resources to purchase steam engines to power threshing machines. These large self-propelled steam engines were woefully under-powered by modern standards—most were in the neighborhood of 15 horsepower—and so were unsuitable for tilling fields. Instead, they were used to pull threshing machines from field to field and then act as a stationary engine to power the machines.

Threshing machines and their steam engines were expensive outfits, and few farmers could afford them on their own. As a result, they formed cooperative threshing “rings,” so named because the grain of their members was threshed as the machines moved from farm to farm.

In 1897, the Harvey Threshing Ring out in eastern Oswego Township pauses while moving their threshing machine to the next farm. Photo from the Dale Updike collection, courtesy of the Little White School Museum, Oswego, Illinois.

In 1897, the Harvey Threshing Ring out in eastern Oswego Township pauses while moving their threshing machine to the next farm. Photo from the Dale Updike collection, courtesy of the Little White School Museum, Oswego, Illinois.

In late July and August of each year, threshing rings all over the Fox Valley would swing into operation. Someone standing on a high point could look around the horizon and see the “smokes” from steam-powered machines rising.

As more efficient and more powerful internal combustion engines were developed, more capable equipment followed. The combined harvester, a machine that combined the tasks of the old harvesters and binders with threshing machines, soon became standard farm equipment. By the 1970s, most combines were self-propelled and today, their cabs are air conditioned and equipped with stereos, computers, and global positioning satellite receivers that can produce accurate soil and grain yield maps.

Or they would if many farmers in the Fox Valley still grew the small grains their great-grandparents did. Today, anyone who does grow them is doing it for a special reason; they’re simply not part of the Fox Valley’s modern grain farming scene. Which is why the fellows sweating through baling that straw got my attention. What they were doing was much akin to the Chicago Tribune’s annual publication of “Injuun Summer,” a reminder of times long past.

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Family history blogging…

Haven’t been blogging much because I’ve been working to complete my family history in time for our 86th annual reunion, set for Aug. 11. Got it all done, got copies printed out, and am all ready to go.

The history concerns my mother’s mother’s family, the Lantzes.

Family tradition has it that our branch’s first immigrant to North America was an irascible fellow—like many of my relatives—who got angry with his relatives in Germany, and walked away from his plow, leaving it and the oxen pulling it standing in the field.

He took passage aboard the good ship Phoenix from Rotterdam, Capt. John Spurrier in command. Sailing by way of Plymouth, England, he arrived in Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 1752.

What he did when he first arrived, no one seems to know. He next shows up a few years later in Maj. James Burd’s company of Pennsylvania foot during the French and Indian War. Baltzer was a mason as well as a farmer, and his skill with stonework probably came in handy as Maj. Burd’s company worked on fortifications to protect the Pennsylvania frontier, including Fort August as well as Fort Ligonier.

John and Anna Maria "Mary" Schutt Lantz and their son, John Peter Lantz (the author's great-grandfather, on the occasion of John Peter's 16th birthday. Mary, seven years her husband's senior, lost her teeth early, making her appear even older than she is.

John and Anna Maria “Mary” Schutt Lantz and their son, John Peter Lantz (the author’s great-grandfather, on the occasion of John Peter’s 16th birthday. Mary, seven years her husband’s senior, lost her teeth early, making her appear much older (she was in her 50s at the time)  than she was.

After the war, Baltzer settled in Lancaster County, where he became a well-known mason and a relatively prosperous property owner.

Fast forward nearly a century to 1850, when Baltzer’s great-grandson, John Lantz, and his wife, Anna Maria “Mary” Schutt, make the decision to up stakes and move west to the Illinois prairies. Joining John and Mary were John’s mother, Catharine Shelly Lantz; John’s brother, Daniel; and the brothers’ three sisters, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Susan.

The family settled in Wheatland Township, Will County near the borders with DuPage and Kendall counties.

There, the Lantzes prospered, buying prairie land at the government price of $1.25 (in gold) per acre, and farming it. But the lure of western migration was pretty strong, and after the Civil War most of John and Mary’s children and their spouses decided to move west to Kansas. Only two of their children stayed in Illinois, their daughter Susan, who married Civil War vet John Stoner; and my great-grandfather, John Peter “Pete” Lantz, who married Amelia Minnich.

The wedding photo, a carte de visite, of John Peter and Amelia Minnich Lantz, taken in 1869. The couple, the author's great-grandparents, lived to celebrate their 73rd wedding anniversary.

The wedding photo, a carte de visite, of John Peter and Amelia Minnich Lantz, taken in 1869. The couple, the author’s great-grandparents, lived to celebrate their 73rd wedding anniversary.

After John and Mary decided to move west to live with their children on the Kansas plains near Abilene, John Peter and Amelia worked the home farm until they decided to retire from farming. In 1908, they built a new home—now the Matile Manse—on a substantial parcel of land situated between Amelia’s parents’ house and that of one of her sisters. They moved in on Oct. 2.

By that time, they’d turned over much of the Lantz farmland to their sons. And soon after, their daughter, Mabel, my grandmother, married William Holzhueter, a city kid from Aurora who had a good job in the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Aurora shops. But it was all good because my grandfather’s family spoke German at home—they’d only been in the U.S. since the 1880s—but so did my grandmother’s family, and they’d been in North America since before the French and Indian War. Germans don’t like change much.

John Peter and Amelia, in their 60s when they moved to their new house in town, probably figured they’d live another decade or so. As it turned out, they lived in their new home for some 45 years, celebrating their 73rd wedding anniversary right here in our house.

The author's grandmother, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter (right), her sister Edie, and her mother, Amelia Minnich Lantz in front of the home place farm on modern Ill. Route 59, Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois.

The author’s grandmother, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter (right), her sister Edie, and her mother, Amelia Minnich Lantz in front of the home place farm on modern Ill. Route 59, Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois.

There are a lot of descendants of the Lantzes who moved here to Illinois in 1850, and then on to Kansas a couple decades later. Our family puts me in mind of the Mcilaneys, boyhood friends of Elwood P. Doud, best friend of Harvey, a six-foot tall rabbit-shaped pooka. As Elwood noted of the Mcilaneys, “There were a lot of them; and they circulated!”

Every year somewhere between 50 and 100 of us from all points of the compass get together to eat fried chicken, and some of the best dishes to pass and desserts you’ve ever seen, on the second Sunday in August, just like we’ve been doing since the deision was made by majority vote in 1939.

If you happen to be related, be sure to stop by. We’re a fun group.

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Garden bounty from the past…

So my wife, Sue, went out yesterday morning to see what was ripe in our tiny vegetable garden and came in with a colander filled with fresh green beans, leaf lettuce, and—will wonders never cease—a large, red, ripe tomato.

Yesterday's harvest from the Matile Manse garden and the stand of wild black raspberries in our backyard.

Yesterday’s harvest from the Matile Manse garden and the stand of wild black raspberries in our backyard.

According to her garden diary, this was the earliest we’ve ever harvested a full-sized tomato. Cherry tomatoes ripen early, of course, as do the German strawberry variety she planted this year, purchased at Contrary Mary’s. But full-sized tomatoes?

The other thing she brought in from her labors was a nice bunch of ripe black raspberries, picked from the canes that grow along the railroad track that runs along our east property line. This year, for a wonder, there was plenty of rain to produce nice plump berries. Also, the railroad has (so far) failed to spray its right-of-way with Agent Orange or whatever it is they use to kill off all the vegetation along the tracks.

Up on the other side of the tracks there are, or at least there used to be, a few blackberry bushes (these, as Wikipedia dryly notes, are the fruits, not the handheld communication device) but I’ve always found them a bit tasteless. Black raspberries, on the other hand, are smaller, but much sweeter and tasty.

I always wonder if the canes growing along the tracks are descendants of the ones my great-grandparents planted after they moved to town when they retired from farming. They moved to our house in October 1908, prepared to spend a decade, or maybe two, in retirement. But they hadn’t counted on their longevity. They both lived to see their middle 90s and to celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary.

That long life meant the savings they’d planned to live off, as well as hopes for some support from their children, slowly evaporated. So they resorted to selling produce from their gardens and orchard, including apples and apricots in the orchard north of the house, black walnuts from the trees lining the street they planted in front of the house, and a large patch of black raspberry bushes east of the house near the tracks.

Grandpa Lantz died here at our house at the age of 95 in October 1942, 34 years after he and his wife moved in. Grandma Lantz, two years his junior, followed him in September 1943.

When my parents bought the house from my grandparents, the orchard to the north and the raspberry patch and gardens to the east had turned into impenetrable thickets. So mom had her cousin, Mike Lantz, bring his bulldozer down and clear it off, removing the low berm along the rail line while he was at it. My dad, mom, sister, and I (I was 9 at the time) raked the rocks and roots out with garden rakes and dad spread a little grass seed around and that was about it.

Raspberry roots are tough things, though, and it wasn’t long before they started growing again where it was hard to mow due to the rocks in the rail line’s ballast.

Despite being periodically sprayed with all manner of vegetation sterilizers, they just keep coming back, year after year, providing the basis for rich black raspberry jams and jellies and cobblers and fresh black raspberry sundaes on hot summer evenings, a tangible, tasty, reminder of family days gone by.

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How about we give 30,000 kids hand grenades?

Ah, the times really have changed.

Back in the day, lots of us carried pocket knives to school and played spirited games of cowboys and rustlers, Flying Tigers, and Gene Autry vs. the Phantom Empire, not to mention fighting off the ChiComs, laying about us with pretend revolvers and machine guns. Nowadays, doing that can get kids suspended from school.

Today’s modern anti-violence sensibilities aren’t completely off-base, of course. It seems a week doesn’t go by without some sort of mass violence involving a nut with a gun. And the horrific school massacres, such as the one last year in Newtown, Connecticut, seem to be, if anything, increasing.

But there was a time when there was a more matter-of-fact attitude towards objects and ideas that would be ringing all sorts of loud alarm bells these days. For instance, back in 1919, the federal government decided it would be a wonderfully patriotic thing to give at least 30,000 school children hand grenades as a way to teach them thrift in the wake of World War I.

Here, from the June 25, 1919 Kendall County Record is how the whole thing was explained in the local press:

Soldiers with the U.S. Army's  83rd Infantry Division train with grenades before going into action during World War I. (Photo courtesy of the Doughboy Center at WorldWarI.com)

Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 83rd Infantry Division train with grenades before going into action during World War I. (Photo courtesy of the Doughboy Center at WorldWarI.com)

THRIFT WEEK IN ILLINOIS

This week, beginning last Monday, is being celebrated as “Thrift Week” throughout the United States as designated by the War Savings Organization of Illinois. The idea is to promote thrift in the country and to start the children on the right track as to saving.

In order to bring about the cooperation, the children are promised a real treat by the government. The treat resolves itself into the gift of a hand grenade, manufactured by the government for use abroad and made over to a saving bank for the school children. The proposition is explained in the following letter from the Chicago headquarters:

Real Hand Grenades and Savings Banks

Thirty thousand Illinois school children, probably more, will receive at the reconvening of school in the fall, a souvenir of the war that in later years will be highly prized. The souvenir is a real hand grenade converted into a savings bank. These banks are being manufactured from grenades designed for use by the American troops in France.

These are the four main types of hand grenades that were used by U.S. Troops during World War I. The two grenades on the left were used for defensive combat (far left) and offensive warfare.  The third grenade from the left was a poison gas grenade, while the final example was an incendiary phosphorous grenade.  (Image courtesy of Inert-Ord.Net)

These are the four main types of hand grenades that were used by U.S. Troops during World War I. The two grenades on the left were used for defensive combat (far left) and offensive warfare. The third grenade from the left was a poison gas grenade, while the final example was an incendiary phosphorous grenade. (Image courtesy of Inert-Ord.Net)

The mechanical contrivances for exploding the grenade and safeguarding the thrower are left intact. Only the TNT is removed. This had to be done to make room for the pennies and dimes the school children will save therein for the purchase of War Savings Stamps.

When the armistice was signed, the War Department had 15 million grenades on hand and these are being transformed into banks. Illinois has been allotted 30,000 and has asked for an option on an additional 30,000.

Under a plan approved by the Treasury Department for the distribution of the souvenir banks, each child under 10 years old who during the vacation season earns enough money to buy one War Savings Stamp and submits to his teacher an account of how the money was earned would be entitled to receive a bank. Children of more than 10 years would be required to purchase two War Savings Stamps.

The banks will be distributed in the fall by the teachers upon the pupils’ essay. it will be for the teachers to determine whether the Stamps bought represent bonifide vacation earnings.

Well, at least we can be relieved that the TNT was removed from the grenades before they were passed out to the kids. After all, had to have room for pennies, nickels, and dimes. I haven’t been able to find out whether this (at least to me) harebrained scheme came to fruition or not, but I’m going to keep looking with a sort of horrified fascination to see if there were any follow-up stories.

It’s interesting to ponder whether, if it did come to pass, whether these grenade banks might not be the source of some of the scary stories in the news that erupt when an inert grenade of some kind is found in places from private homes to show and tell sessions in elementary schools.

Further, and recalling my own youthful experiments making gunpowder, building rockets, and blowing stuff up in general, I can’t help but wonder how many of those hollow grenades were filled with black powder from emptied shotgun shells and then blown up with a satisfying, if terrifically dangerous, explosion, blasting shrapnel in all directions.

Handing out 30,000 hollow hand grenades to kids, many of whom liked nothing more than to see a satisfying explosion. What could possibly have gone wrong?

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Dandelions!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column for the Record Newspapers about dandelions and my family’s long association with them. In fact, all the dandelions now growing so happily throughout northern Illinois might be the descendants of plants grown by my pioneer ancestors.

Dandelion CAnyway, in the column I noted that my grandmother used to harvest dandelion greens in the early spring for use at the table. It’s important to get dandelion greens before the plants flower, after which time the greens are not simply sharp tasting, but are downright bitter.

In my family, we served them as a dish similar to wilted lettuce, with a family-concocted sweet/sour sauce served, usually, with some sort of pork product, such as pork chops, pork steak, or ham. I haven’t had dandelion greens for decades, so imagine my surprise when I saw them today for sale in the produce section of our local Meijer store. If I had of a mind to, I could have bought a whole bunch or maybe two to have as the side dish for a meal this week.

If you decide not to click through to the column, here’s the recipe for our family sauce, which works on dandelion greens as well as leaf lettuce as a good compliment for pork:

•One egg, beaten

•1/4 cup vinegar

•1/2 cup half & half

•1/2 cup milk

•2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak

•Salt and pepper to taste

Cook and dice bacon, retain a small amount of pan drippings, mix in other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour over dandelion greens or leaf lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

There’s also dandelion wine, but we won’t get into that right now…

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Tracking down the elusive Village Grind…

Earlier this year, the Oswegoland Heritage Association Board selected The Village Grind Coffee & Tea Company building as the subject of their annual commemorative crock. The annual commemorative crocks, handmade by the Maple City Pottery in Monmouth, Ill., are the association’s major annual fundraiser.

The Village Grind is housed in a former private residence on Main Street right in the heart of Oswego’s historic downtown business district. It was left up to me to track down some of the old house’s history, which I took on with interest. The Grind is one of my favorite Oswego places. Their coffee is great and the baked goods they sell are unparalleled in town, especially their pie squares. I’m pretty finicky about my pie, but theirs pass muster without a hitch. More on my pie addiction at a later date.

Because right now I want to talk about tracking down The Village Grind building’s history. This morning, I got an e-mail from the owner, Jodi Behrens, thanking me for locating some of the building’s history.

“How in the world do you find all this history?” she wondered with an electronic chuckle.

So I thought I’d relate some of the steps that I took, and which anybody can use to find out some of the history of an old building. It takes time and luck, and builds on the work of a lot of other folks.

My first step was to check out a collection we have at the Little White School Museum compiled by the late Helen Zamata. Helen was a demon researcher who was fascinated with the history of property transfers in Oswego, particularly on her own block, which she nicknamed “The Black Walnut Block,” but also throughout the original village of Oswego.

“Original” Oswego was a 20-block rectangle on the southeast bank of the Fox River, and aligned with the river’s course, bounded on the north by Jefferson Street, the south by Benton Street, the east by Monroe Street, and the West by Harrison. Helen spent many an hour at the Kendall County Recorder of Deeds office pouring through property transfer records on each of those 20 blocks and the eight lots in each block, starting in 1841 and extending up through the late 1870s.

The Durand House is shown on the Village of Oswego plat map published in 1870 by Warner, Higgins & Beers.

The Durand House is shown on the Village of Oswego plat map published in 1870 by Warner, Higgins & Beers.

The pages for Lot 5, Block 3 trace the chain of title from Walter Loucks in 1842 up to April 11, 1863 when James A. Durand buys the property from James R. Cutter for a nice, round $100.

Durand was an interesting guy and I’d run into him before. His son, Cassius, married the daughter of Capt. William Bunn, late of the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Capt. Bunn was an Oswego businessman who lived right across the street from the Durands, so it was apparently a case of marrying the girl next door. But I digress. Again.

So knowing I was now looking for Durand, I next checked my Oswego newspaper transcription files. These are the handiest danged things for finding mentions of now-obscure people. If you’re interested in Oswego history, the files can be downloaded at the Little White School Museum web site, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org. Just click on “Historic Oswego” in the left sidebar, and then on “Oswego News” in the lower sidebar on the resulting page.

Anyway, sure enough, in searching for “Durand,” I found a variety of really interesting information, including many mentions through the years by the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent of members of the Durand family.

Durand had been appointed the Chicago & Aurora Railroad’s first station agent at Oswego Station when the line opened in 1854. The rail line passed Oswego two miles to the west due to opposition to railroads in general by the Oswego business community of the 1850s. Oswego Station was located where present-day Light Road crosses the Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe right-of-way. A few years after his appointment, Durand apparently decided he could make more money in business than in working for the railroads and so move his family to Oswego, where, in 1863, he bought the property on which The Village Grind sits.

The Durand House as it looked in 1958 when it was the home of Mrs. Grate. The area in the left foreground has been disturbed due to construction of the Oswego Community Bank's first building, which was completed later that year. A portion of the Durand lot was clipped off and added to the adjacent lot to provide enough room for the bank.

The Durand House as it looked in 1958 when it was the home of Mrs. Grate. The area in the left foreground has been disturbed due to construction of the Oswego Community Bank’s first building, which was completed later that year. A portion of the Durand lot was clipped off and added to the adjacent lot to provide enough room for the bank. (Homer Durand photo, 1958)

The Village Grind building may already have been built by then, but in any case, Durand ran his lumber business in Oswego and some other businesses, too. In 1869, the Durands upped stakes and moved to Belle Plaine, Iowa where he became a business owner and a banker.

The house he left behind became known as the Durand House. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on April 20, 1871:

The marriage of Levi N. Hall and Josephine Forbes took place on Thursday at the residence of the bride’s parents where early in the afternoon the relatives and a number of friends of the parties assembled. Mr. Hall and wife returned from their bridal trip Saturday evening, and are now domiciled in what is known as the Durand place.

As Arte Johnson used to say, “Very interesting!” But were we talking about the same block and lot in downtown Oswego as we thought we were? Why, yes we were, and I’m glad you asked. Because a further search turned up the following on Feb. 27, 1873:

John Sanders has bought of Wayne the Durand place where L.N. Hall now lives.

And indeed, a check with the Grantee-Grantor Index microfilm in the museum’s research collection showed that Thomas Wayne had purchased the lot in 1870.

Some research at the county recorder’s office by Tina Beaird, one of my fellow board members and an excellent researcher in her own right, also added to the story.

From the 1870s, the lot went through a bunch of different owners until the Zentmyer family picked it up in 1943. Locally, the house was best-known as the home of Mrs. Grate, who was always good for a cookie begged by kids walking home from school. And the Grind still sells great cookies, including a killer frosted molasses cookie.

The old Durand House, now The Village Grind Coffee & Tea Company as it looked in late March of this year.

The old Durand House, now The Village Grind Coffee & Tea Company as it looked in late March of this year. (Roger Matile photo)

The Zentmyers sliced off the southern part of the lot in 1958, to add to Lot 8 to give enough room to build the original Oswego Community Bank building.

Now, the lot has been combined with Lot 8 as the location of the American Male & Company building, which extends from Jackson Street all the way north to the northern boundary of Lot 4. The clothing business, which includes the “Editions” women’s shop and the “Prom Shoppe,” has now taken over the former bank and connects directly with The Grind building.

The Village Grind was established in 1996 by Lee and Bernie Moe, who thought there was a need for a local coffee shop, and they were right. It was an instant hit. But it was an awful lot of work, too, and so the Moes decided to get away from the grind (so to speak) of the business and sell it to Jodi and Dave Behrens in 2004. Jodi and Dave still own the business, which has become, if anything, an even more popular destination for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate drinkers seven days a week in downtown Oswego.

And the building’s got a pretty neat history, too.

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Filed under Food, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events