Category Archives: Nostalgia

How the interurban trolley changed one family’s lives…

Tomorrow, Saturday, we’ve invited Bill Molony, president of the Black Hawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, over to the Little White School museum to speak on the history of the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora Electric Railroad. The program starts at 1 p.m. and the museum is located at 72 Polk Street—the Y between Jackson and Polk—just a couple blocks from downtown Oswego.

From 1904 to 1926, residents along the 20-mile corridor running beside modern U.S. Route 30 from Joliet to Aurora, not to mention the rural residents living along the route, had access to a relatively efficient, privately-owned mass transit line.

Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban cars like this one offered dependable service to those living along the line's 20-mile corridor.

Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban cars like this one offered dependable service to those living along the line’s 20-mile corridor.

The JP&A’s interurban service linked residents along its tracks to shopping, school, and jobs they would not have been able to otherwise enjoy. Travelers boarded the cars at various stops from downtown Joliet to downtown Plainfield to downtown Aurora, as well at rural stops at Normantown and Wolf’s Crossing, plus at other more informal stops along the way if passengers were waiting.

The JP&A has a special place in my family’s history. In 1920, my grandparents, for a number of reasons, decided to leave their comfortable home on Aurora’s East Side, right in the middle of the German-speaking “Dutchtown” area, to take up farming. They rented an 80-acre farm from Louis McLaren with one of the most dilapidated houses in that farming neighborhood, and took their three children along on their new adventure.

My grandfather, a cautious soul, decided to keep his job at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s sprawling shops on Aurora’s North Broadway, and so began three or so years of commuting to work five days a week. According to his pay books, he was a supervisor of a crew of carpenters who built boxcars and cabooses in the Aurora shops. They worked five 10-hour days, with Saturday and Sunday off.

This photo, taken about 1920, illustrates the dillapidated condition of the farmhouse my grandparents moved to. Pictured are (L-R) my aunt, my mother, my Uncle Melvin, and Earl, whose body has not yet become as twisted as it would later in his life.

This photo, taken about 1920, illustrates the dillapidated condition of the farmhouse my grandparents moved to. Pictured are (L-R) my aunt, my mother, my Uncle Melvin, and Earl, whose body has not yet become as twisted as it would later in his life.

Every morning, rain or shine, my grandfather walked the mile and a half east on Simons Road to the JP&A tracks, where he caught the interurban to downtown Aurora and his job. And every evening after 10 hours of demanding labor, he caught the interurban back to the country for his mile and a half walk home. On weekends he caught up with chores and on the other days of the week, my grandmother ran the farm, milking cows, keeping chickens, feeding cattle an hogs, plus the thousand and one other things farm wives during that era had to do. Fortunately, the kids, my mother and my Aunt Evelyn, attended school a half mile east at Tamarack School, so they were near to hand, and it was an easy walk.

My Uncle Earl and his dog about 1945. The terrible disease he contracted had badly twisted his body, but it failed to daunt his spirit.

My Uncle Earl and his dog about 1945. The terrible disease he contracted as a young child  had badly twisted his body, but it failed to daunt his spirit.

My Uncle Earl, however, was another thing altogether. Intellectually gifted—he taught himself how to read—Earl’s body was twisted and bent by a cruel childhood disease. My grandparents tried everything they could think of, including taking him to specialists in Aurora and Chicago. The JP&A was their lifeline; my grandmother would carry her son the mile and a half to the trolley stop and then ride it to doctors’ appointments. Nothing, however, seemed to do much good and despite his intelligence, he was condemned to spend his life in special wheelchairs my grandfather made for him as he listened and learned from the radio, his magazine subscriptions, and the books he received as gifts.

My grandmother also used the JP&A to travel to her parents’ home here in Oswego—today’s Matile Manse. Built in 1908 by my great-grandparents upon their retirement from farming, the house is about three-quarters of a mile from the interurban trolley stop in downtown Oswego. Grandma would carry Earl down to the JP&A, and take that into Aurora, transfer to the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Valley Railroad’s trolley car for the six-mile trip down to Oswego. Then she’d carry him from the trolley stop downtown to her parents’ house. Occasionally, a friendly black lady who lived about a third of the way between the trolley stop and my great grandparents’ house would help carry Earl. My grandmother said the lady really enjoyed talking with Earl, who, as are many differently-abled people, was a keen observer of life in general.

The JP&A folded in 1924, and that may have helped persuade my grandfather to give up his job with the CB&Q. In its place, he farmed as well as did considerable carpentry work for the neighborhood’s overwhelmingly Scots farmers.

Meanwhile, about 1922 or so, my father had decided his job as a steeplejack at a glass factory in Ottawa, Illinois was pretty much a dead-end He heard there was farm work to be had up in Aurora, so he packed his suitcase, and headed north from Ottawa on the Chicago, Ottawa & Peoria interurban to Joliet. There he transferred to the JP&A, managing to get to downtown Aurora, just as he’d planned, on a Saturday night. During that era, farmers from miles around did their shopping in downtown Aurora on Saturday night, the only night all the stores were open. He later said he walked down the street until he saw someone who definitely looked like a farmer, and asked if he needed a hired man. No, the fellow said, but he knew someone who did, and so my dad began working for the McMicken family in Wheatland Township.

My grandfather helped do a lot of repair and renovation work at the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church—so nicknamed because it was established right in the middle of a settlement of Stewarts, Glmours, McMickens, McLarens, Clows, Findlays, and others who had immigrated in the 1850s, mostly from Ayreshire, to the rich Illinois prairie. During one such project, my dad accompanied the McMicken family he was working for to help out, and he caught my grandfather’s eye. “There’s a new young man at McMickens, and he’s a worker,” my grandfather told the family that night at supper. In my grandfather’s parlance, calling somebody a worker was about the highest praise possible. Eventually, my parents met at another church function, and here I am today, thanks, at least in part, to the JP&A.

As part of their physical plant, the JP&A also built Electric Park at Plainfield, a hugely popular summertime entertainment destination on the banks of the DuPage River. It boasted a number of attractions that included a dance hall, a bowling alley, a thrilling “shoot the chutes” into the river, and even a passenger paddle boat, but closed down when the interurban line collapsed in 1924. However, one building from Electric Park remained right through my childhood. The large octagonal auditorium building saw service as a dance hall and then during the 1950s as a popular roller-skating rink. Each Thursday, the Oswegoland Park District would rent the rink, and we’d either take a bus over or have our parents drive us and our friends there to participate in an extremely odd ritual. Young males would nerve themselves up to ask a girl to skate with them, and they’d hold hands while trying to keep maximum distance between them as they teetered around the rink, with the skate staff effortlessly gliding backwards and forwards through the unsteady crowds, all accompanied by organ music. Eventually, the rink came on hard times and was then totally destroyed by the fearsome Plainfield tornado of 1992.

So come on over to the Little White School Saturday and hear more of the story of the JP&A and its impact on the area. For some of us, it had a very great impact indeed.

Admission donation for the program, which is aimed at visitors age 16 and older, is $5. Proceeds benefit the operations and mission of the Little White School Museum.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

February snow blogging…

Looking out across the Fox River Valley from our second floor bedroom windows, we can see the river has more of its surface frozen over than any time in the last few decades.

Which isn’t surprising given this year’s invasion of the “polar vortex.” Knocked off it’s usual orbit over the Arctic by unusually warm weather in Alaska and Canada, the vortex has spun subzero temperatures down into the Lower 48, all the way south to the Old Confederacy.

Last year, the ice skating rink the Oswegoland Park District maintains on Briarcliff Lake up in Montgomery’s Seasons Ridge Subdivision was scarcely opened a single day. This year, the green “safe” flag has been regularly flying, inviting hardy pleasure and hockey skaters to try their luck.

And because of all that cold weather, the river has finally cooled off enough for much of its surface to freeze. Most recent years, the river only froze sporadically as warmer temperatures and warmer river water meant a free and open stream that thousands of Canada geese and ducks of various species enjoyed. Now, with more and more of the river’s surface covered with ice, the numbers of geese and ducks has decreased a little as they moved elsewhere to find open water.

Mary over at the wonderful Feathers, Fur, and Flowers blog snapped this amazing photo back in mid-January of a group of five Bald Eagles along the Fox. Visit her blog and see lots more truly amazing shots taken along our beautiful stretch of river.

Mary over at the wonderful Feathers, Fur, and Flowers blog snapped this amazing photo back in mid-January of a group of five Bald Eagles along the Fox. Visit her blog and see lots more truly amazing shots taken along our beautiful stretch of river.

The cold also persuaded larger than usual numbers of Bald Eagles to leave their usual wintering grounds along the frozen Illinois and Mississippi rivers to the Fox River Valley in search of enough open water to allow them to fish. With the extended cold spell this winter, there are fewer of the big, distinctive birds, but a few weeks ago, folks were counting them by the dozen on the six-mile stretch between Oswego and Montgomery. Some drivers were so dumbfounded by seeing whole flocks of the giant birds that they simply stopped right in the middle of Ill. Route 25 to gawk.

The good news on the eagle front is that the species has apparently walked back from the brink of extinction. Thanks to bans on DDT and other pesticides that traveled up the food chain to plague the eagle population, we’ve got a breeding pair right here in Oswego. My good friend Glenn watched Mr. and Mrs. Eagle raise their eaglet this year in a nest they built in a tree on an island in the river, easily monitored from Glenn’s upstairs deck.

Time was, there were no eagles around these parts, much less geese and ducks, except the tame ones raised by farmers. We built a blind back in the early 1960s on one of the river’s islands, and tried duck hunting for three years in a row, and never saw a single duck—except the high-flying Vs during the fall and spring migrations. Same with geese; it was a big deal when a flock of the big birds flew over heading north or south, depending on the season. Nowadays, with somewhere north of 60,000 of the giant (and obnoxious) birds living in the Fox Valley full-time, a bunch of the birds flying over doesn’t even rate a second look.

For most of us, the winter’s extreme cold has not been life threatening, so there’s that. We don’t have to worry about freezing temperatures inside our homes as long as we keep sending checks to NiGas and ComEd. But the time was, that wasn’t the case. Back in January 1873, the Kendall County Record reported: “Scores of our people are mourning the loss of cherished house plants by frost during the past week, while a great number have their cellars lumbered with vegetables rendered worthless in like manner.”

And back in that day and age, losing those  vegetables was a big problem, since so many folks depended on canned and otherwise preserved fruits and vegetables from their own gardens and orchards to survive.

Two years later, another extreme cold snap hit Kendall County, with Record editor John R. Marshall reporting: “We have been congratulating ourselves for some time over the mild winter and glorying over the light calls upon the fuel pile. But Old King Winter was not satisfied to let us off so easily and last Friday night with the assistance of Old Boreas, he sent the mercury down to zero—down to ten below; and not yet satisfied Saturday morning, the thermometer indicated from 20 to 25 below, according to location. All the night the wind blew a hurricane and the icy air entered at every crevice. Leaky cellars were no protection to vegetables, and potatoes were icy balls in the morning. Plants were frozen by wholesale and housewives mourned the loss of their favorites.”

The big snow of January 1918 brought most of Northern Illinois to a halt. Trolley and railroad tracks had to be shoveled out by hand, and some communities were cut off for several days.

The big snow of January 1918 brought most of Northern Illinois to a halt. Trolley and railroad tracks had to be shoveled out by hand, and some communities were cut off for several days.

And then there was the big blizzard of January 1918. That year, my grandfather left his home on Hinman Street in Aurora for work at the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops on South Broadway, and he didn’t get home for two weeks. CB&Q officials loaded every able body they could lay hands on aboard trains and sent them west to hand-shovel the main line.

On Jan. 9, 1918, the Record reported: “The blizzard which visited this part of the country Sunday was one of the most severe in years. The old-timers had a great time telling of what happened in ’48, but the younger ones were satisfied that this storm was a corker. Snow started falling Saturday night and continued with unabated fury all day Sunday and well into the night. A high wind accompanied the snow and filled the roads and walks with immense drifts. Traffic of every kind was stopped except on the Morris line. Superintendent Miller and his crews had cars going all night to avoid a tie-up. Aurora traffic stopped at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning and was not resumed till Tuesday night. One car lay in Yorkville all that time while another was held at Oswego. Trains on the Burlington were delayed and the mail carriers were unable to make their regular trips. Fortunately, the temperature stayed about 20 degrees above zero during the storm. On Tuesday morning, however, the mercury went to 12 below.”

During the Winter of 1979, it got hard to throw the snow high enough to get it over the banks already on the ground. My daughter Melissa is trying her best in this shot, taken at the Matile Manse.

During the Winter of 1979, it got hard to throw the snow high enough to get it over the banks already on the ground. My daughter Melissa is trying her best in this shot, taken at the Matile Manse.

A corker indeed. And, in more modern times, of course, we should not forget the Winter of 1979, when snow became piled so high, it hid entire buildings, not to mention every fire hydrant in town.

Us 21st Century residents have gotten a taste of Old Boreas—the Greek god of the north wind—this year as well, with wind chill warnings regularly reporting temps below -20° F. Nowadays, we have Thinsulate and down-filling and all manner of other modern miracles with which to defeat cold weather. And just like last summer’s high temperatures, we’ll just have to grin and bear the Winter of ‘14 until Boreas or Tom Skilling or someone decides it’s time to warm up a bit around these parts. At least we’ll have something to tell our grandchildren, so there’s that.

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Maybe it really is an old-fashioned winter…

The other day I heard somebody remark that we’re having a real old-fashioned winter this year.

But people have been saying that about northern Illinois winters for decades now.

When this photo was snapped looking east on Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914, autos had begun sharing snowy winter roads with farmers' wagons and bobsleds.

When this photo was snapped looking east on Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914, autos had begun sharing snowy winter roads with farmers’ wagons and bobsleds.

For instance, in the Dec. 27, 1916 Kendall County Record, editor and publisher Hugh R. Marshall observed: “No one can complain of the good old-fashioned Christmas weather for 1916. Snow on the ground and the thermometer hovering around zero makes one think of the earlier days. But the thing that is missing is the tinkle of sleigh bells. Once in a while you see a sleigh or a bob [sled] go by but little of the jingle that makes one feel that there is some pleasure in the world. The raucous toot of the auto horn and the sound of the open muffler have taken the place of ‘Old Dobbin.’”

About 1916, a mother and child marvel at the interurban trolley as it crosses the frozen Fox River at Oswego while others enjoy skating.

About 1916, a mother and child marvel at the interurban trolley as it crosses the frozen Fox River at Oswego while others enjoy skating.

On Jan. 18, 1922, Marshall returned to the theme: “Kendall county has been experiencing some real, old-fashioned winter weather. The boys and girls are enjoying skating and in many communities the annual ice crop is being harvested. The mercury has threatened zero for several mornings but has not yet reached it. With beautiful sunny days and moonlight nights, no one has worried about the temperature.”

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Fox Valley experienced some pretty cold, snowy winters, too. Nighttime temperatures dipped to -20° F. and the Fox River froze solid from the warm outflow of the Aurora Sanitary District’s treatment plant at opposite Boulder Hill, all the way south of the Oswego bridge.

This view looking south on Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill was taken by Bev Skaggs during the winter of 1959. The river has yet to fully freeze over, but the trees were nicely decorated with hoarfrost.

This view looking south on Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill was taken by Bev Skaggs during the winter of 1959. The river has yet to fully freeze over, but the trees were nicely decorated with hoarfrost.

Back in those “old-fashioned” days somewhere around 50 percent of the water in the river was “fresh,” meaning it came from tributaries. Nowadays, somewhere under 20 percent of the river’s water is “fresh,” while 80 percent or more of it has already been used at least once by somebody upstream. With the river’s major tributaries now consisting of sanitary treatment plants of one kind or another, the water is heated sufficiently to keep it from freezing solid.

In addition, until the past few weeks, winter temperatures simply haven’t been as cold as they used to be.

That has drawn lots of new visitors to the river, including tens of thousands of Canada geese, ducks of various species, and, especially this year, whole flocks of Bald Eagles. During the two weeks just past, drivers along Ill. Route 25 reported anywhere from 38 to 61 eagles sitting in trees along the banks of the Fox.

But that’s now. Back in the day, the river froze solid, often for weeks at a time. And that meant great ice-skating. From my neighborhood in Oswego, we could skate south to the U.S. Route 34 bridge in Oswego, even farther if we wanted; and we could skate north all the way to Boulder Hill, as long as we kept near the eastern bank to avoid the ASD plant’s outflow.

The winter of 1979 was a real old-fashioned winter, as this view of the Matile Manse taken that winter suggests. So far, we haven't gotten quite this much snow this year.

The winter of 1979 was a real old-fashioned winter, as this view of the Matile Manse taken that winter suggests. So far, we haven’t gotten quite this much snow this year.

Skating had long been a popular activity on the river. John Marshall, writing in the Kendall County Record on Jan. 13, 1892 noted that: “The ice [company] men were happy over the cold wave that struck this vicinity last week and the young people were also in a good mood because the skating was good.”

It was so popular, in fact, that a move to establish a curfew for young people in Oswego caused much consternation among the ice skating crowd. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 16, 1898: “Some of the school girls became much alarmed by thinking that the curfew institution would prevent them from moonlight skating after 7:30, but were much relieved when told that the river was outside the corporation and beyond jurisdiction of the marshal.”

Ice-skating was still popular in the 1960s, as I noted above, and not only with us kids who liked skating on the river. Aurora city officials always created an ice rink at Phillips Park to which lots of us would repair in the evening since it was lighted. When the Oswegoland Park District finally built their civic center in Boulder Hill, the parking lot was designed to be flooded in the winter and turned into a skating rink. That lasted until the park board realized that the freeze-thaw cycle was dismantling their parking lot, one crack at a time.

The nice thing about living in river towns like Yorkville and Oswego back then was that there were conveniently located hills kids could use for sledding. Back then, maintenance crews weren’t quite so quick to salt, sand, or cinder-coat municipal streets. As Hugh Marshall, again, wrote in January 1915: “While the coasting on the Bridge street hill has been fine and called out large crowds for several weeks, there were several accidents that lamed some of the young folks.”

In Oswego, street coasting had a fine old history. On Feb. 9, 1887, Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported that “Tobogganing was the rage during the last week; there was quite a good natural slide down Benton Street from John Young’s, and crowds of old and young would gather there to engage in the fun or at least witness it. The only accident in connection with it was the spraining of an ear by Roy Pogue.”

Sledding was still popular in 1901on the Benton Street hill. Rank reported that: “Neil, the youngest of Lew young’s boys, broke a leg while coasting, of which he won’t have any more this season but will be all right for playing marbles as he is doing well.”

Although we were unaware of such sledding traditions when we were kids, we unwittingly continued what our grandparents and great-grandparents started. During cold winters, we’d ice down the Second Street hill near my house for particularly good sledding. The trick was to make the curve at the bottom where Second meets North Adams Street, because missing that meant a tree-strewn trip through the woods at the bottom of the hill. Not necessarily safe, but pretty exciting.

These days, things are a lot more structured, and have to be, I suppose, because there so many more people round and about. Ice-skating is impossible on the river, and it’s not often that some civic group will create an outdoor rink like the old Oswego Jaycees did at Boulder Hill School for several years. Sledding has become a more chancy thing, with coasting hills frowned upon due to liability concerns. But after a good snowfall, it’s not too difficult to drive around the area and see folks enjoying some time on the slopes, no matter how gentile they may be, as another Illinois winter does its thing in the Fox River Valley.

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Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

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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Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

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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Filed under Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events