Category Archives: Nostalgia

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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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Nostalgia, People in History

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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Filed under Farming, Food, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History

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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Filed under Food, Illinois History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

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

Avoiding death by starvation at the keyboard…

When it comes to blogging, there’s nothing quite as important as…food.

Oh, it certainly helps if a blogger knows what he or she is talking about. Although I’ll grant you there are an awful lot of blogs out there—including some with a thousand times the traffic of historyonthefox—written by folks who don’t seem to have a clue about what they’re famous for writing about.

But if I’ve found one blogging constant, it’s food. You’ve got to have fuel for that little furnace that lurks inside all of us so that all those brilliant insights come tumbling out as our fingers fly across the keyboard.

But eating while blogging is fraught. It’s fraught with danger for the poor keyboard from water or Diet Coke damage. It’s fraught with danger that a mispositioned sticky bun will lead to undue anger when it falls, frosting side down, on the USB hub. It’s fraught with the chance the keys will be so encrusted with the yellow cheese-like chemicals with which Cheetos are covered that the “U” will disappear completely.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to keep an eye out for foods safe to consume while blogging, not to mention other activities that require sitting at and using a computer keyboard. And the beauty is, these hints even work perfectly well with typewriters!

The TRS-80 100 replaced electric typewriters in newsrooms all over the nation in the early 1980s. But their keyboards were, if anything even more susceptible to being gummed up by Hawaiian Punch than an electric Royal typewriter.

The TRS-80 100 replaced electric typewriters in newsrooms all over the nation in the early 1980s. But their keyboards were, if anything even more susceptible to being gummed up by Hawaiian Punch than an electric Royal typewriter.

You see, I started collecting keyboard-safe foods while I was in the newspaper biz. Those late election nights required food that didn’t interfere with writing as we pounded on our electric SCM and Royal typewriters. Gradually, those were replaced with TRS-80 100s and then TRS-80 200s before we entered the Macintosh age, but eating while keyboarding was still a necessity at certain times of the year, not to mention occasionally at lunch.

Unfortunately, most homemade foods simply don’t work. Cookies are okay, depending, but cake’s a mess, and homemade sandwiches simply are not sufficiently homogenized. Pieces fall out of them and invariably end up in bad places, computerwise.

So care and good planning is required during the entire 24 hour blogging day.

Starting out early in the morning, there’s nothing like a donut and coffee while writing. In fact, come to think of it, there’s nothing like a donut and coffee at any time of the day or night. But you’ve got to watch what kind of donut. I tried them all to find out—yes, it was a long, slow slog, but someone had to do it, if for no other reason than the greater good of mankind.

So saying, sorry, Krispy-Kreme. Glazed donuts don’t work at all. Too sticky. And that goes for every other kind of raised donut-like treat including long johns, fried cinnamon rolls, bismarks, Boston crèmes, and even raised Dunkin’ Donut Munchkins. Believe me on this; I really did try them all.

Even frosted or sugared cake donuts are a bad bet.

The very best? Plain cake donuts and plain cake donut holes. Granted, you have to forgo frosting and sprinkles, but sprinkles can be (and this is the voice of experience talking) death to keyboards.

But it’s hard to find plain cake donuts at the mini-mart. About the only way you can get them is three in a box of nine with powered sugar and chocolate-covered thrown in for good measure. And what are you supposed to do with those?

The frosting-like coating on donut sticks is impervious to crumbling off, making these little honeys the favorite of donut-loving bloggers everywhere.

The frosting-like coating on donut sticks is impervious to crumbling off, making these little honeys the favorite of donut-loving bloggers everywhere.

So if the mini-mart is you only option, look for donut sticks, which are little glazed oblong cake donut-like things. Now you’re probably thinking, hey, you just said a couple paragraphs ago to abjure frosting. The beauty of donut sticks, you see, is that modern technology makes their frosting stick like glue; it just won’t come off. And it’s not sticky in the least; it’s dry as a bone, in fact. Further, you can buy a bunch of the things at once and stick them in your desk drawer to eat at your leisure, even over several months, because—and here’s the real genius behind the things—they’re already stale when you buy them!

The only other kind of mini-mart packaged donut I’ve found that works even moderately well are mini donuts completely covered with “chocolate.” The “chocolate” covering on them is more like candle wax than actual chocolate, which is a good thing because it doesn’t fall off, either. You can also pop a whole one in your mouth that you can chew at your leisure while typing. And unless you hold it tightly in your hand, the “chocolate” coating won’t melt onto your fingers. These also are usually stale right out of the package, so they’ve got a long drawer life, although wait too long and the donut component of the thing gets sort of crunchy, which has a charm all its own.

However, man cannot live by donuts alone. Really, you can’t. You need protein and salt, too. Cashews are a good choice because they include three major food groups: Oil, salt, and texture. I recommend the whole, store-brand cashews, with sea salt at Walgreens. They’re cheap and they taste pretty good, too. They’re not too greasy, and they aren’t covered with ersatz dairy products, which is why they’re better than Cheetos.

For another idea if you’re craving salt, try Pringles or other similar potato-like baked oval-shaped snack foods. These have the advantage of containing mummified potatoes, so you can swear to your spouse that, yes, you have had some vegetables during the day.

But occasionally, you just have to have meat, at least you do if you’re a former farm kid like me. Meat is a problem at the computer. It’s impossible to have a Chicago-style hot dog, for instance, because that, like a Whopper, takes two hands. Even White Castle sliders shed little bits of onion, even if you get sliders with cheese in an attempt to amalgamate the thing into a non-shedding whole. Which I did.

McDonald's cheeseburger-like menu offering is the bloggers favorite since it can be eaten with one hand and is virtually guaranteed not to shed so much as a sliver of onion.

McDonald’s cheeseburger-like menu offering is the bloggers favorite since it can be eaten with one hand and is virtually guaranteed not to shed so much as a sliver of onion.

No, the perfect meat-like sandwich to eat at the keyboard is the McDonald’s cheeseburger. With their cheeseburger, McDonalds has perfected manufacturing a unibody sandwich, a cheeseburger-like food that seems to be in a class all its own. A blogger can eat one with one hand while mousing or typing with the other and NOTHING FALLS OUT OF IT! It’s truly a remarkable achievement of food technology, without which I have no doubt journalists (and now bloggers) would frequently, and tragically, be found deceased and desiccated at their keyboards.

Some (that would include long-suffering corporate IT types who have to scrape frosting off the bottom of laser mice and empty Hawaiian Punch out of keyboards) say food and computers don’t mix. But those of us who spend far too many hours of our life working with the things know that may true. but is also beside the point.

Person’s got to eat, after all.

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Filed under Food, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

Barns the losers in farming evolution…

We enjoyed our spring break trip to Iowa last week. We stayed with my sister near Tipton, visited with my nephews, did a little family research at the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, had a typically great lunch (with rhubarb pie!) at Amana, and then headed south to Ottumwa for more family history research.

On the way, we stopped at Kolona, known for its Amish farming community, and did a little shopping. We finally settled on a nicely framed print of Billy Jacobs’ “Spring Cleaning,” that depicts a farmstead during that season of the year.

There were lots of other prints by Jacobs and other artists to choose from, many depicting farm buildings in various stages of disrepair and deterioration, which struck me as depressing. Realistic, but depressing nonetheless..

During our trip we saw lots of barns in sad shape, something I remarked on in the post below. While it saddens us old farm kids to see these once-imposing buildings in their death throes, it’s really an indication that life is moving on. Some would say progressing.

Most of the vintage barns still standing sported lifetime asbestos cement shingle or metal roofs. The ones with asphalt and wood shingle roofs were in serious states of disrepair, many about ready to collapse—when the roof of a building fails, the rest of it will surely be close behind.

The problem is that keeping these large buildings in good repair is an expensive proposition. And now it’s an expensive proposition that will lead to no profitable use—the usefulness of the vast majority of barns in rural areas is long past.

The old barns we see dotting the landscape today are the end products of centuries of development. They weren’t built in isolation; rather they were parts of what amounted to very large, static machines designed to produce grain and livestock—farms.

In the United States, barns became the central focus of farming, a place they held until diversified farming was abandoned during the past 40 years or so in favor of concentrating on either grain or livestock farming.

This gambrell-roofed barn, which has lost its farmstead and is now surrounded by a sea of standing corn, has been repurposed for grain storage from its original use. Many vintage barns, like this one, are gradually deteriorating due to changes in modern farming methods.

This gambrel roofed barn, which has lost its farmstead and is now surrounded by a sea of standing corn, has been repurposed for grain storage from its original use. Many vintage barns, like this one, are gradually deteriorating due to changes in modern farming methods.

Diversified farms produced both livestock and grain, and so needed a variety of facilities unique to each task. Along with barns, those necessities included corn cribs for the storage of grain including oats and corn; tool sheds for farm equipment storage; specialized livestock facilities including chicken houses and hog houses; feed storage facilities; milk processing facilities; and others, including farmhouses.

It was the barn that was central to the whole farming operation, however. It provided storage area for forage crops for livestock from horses to cattle, offered shelter for those animals as well, provided a place to store and make use of tack—equipment needed to harness and saddle horses; and offered indoor space for other livestock related tasks such as milking cows.

Some barns were modified for specialized purposes, either to maintain the horses that were central to providing power for farming until the invention of motorized farm equipment, or to house milking operations. Others were specialized for the storage of forage crops, including hay and straw, and the feeding of livestock such as cattle and pigs.

Many barns still dotting the countryside today were originally built with a combination of uses in mind, including housing draft horses, milking a few cows, and providing shelter for feeder cattle while they were being fattened for market.

There are also dairy barns that were built specifically for the milking business. With their concrete floors and built-in feed bunks and waste removal systems, plus the milking equipment itself, they were usually unsuitable for modification into other more diversified uses without a lot of work and expense.

Other farm buildings were generally clustered fairly close to the barn because of the way diversified farms were run. The corn crib, for instance, was usually fairly close because the grain stored there was used not only to send on to market but also to feed the livestock—horses, cattle, and pigs—raised on the farm. Chicken houses were generally closer to the farmhouse because they were often the domains of farm wives who traded eggs and dressed chickens for groceries.

Hog houses were close to the barn but farther away from the house, due somewhat to the smell.

Other buildings clustered in old-time farmyards included a milk house, often attached to the barn, where milk was cooled and milk cans (and later milking machines) were cleaned and stored; well houses to protect the farm water well and pump; and sometimes a spring house where natural running spring water kept groceries cold while also providing a source of drinking water for both the farm family and their livestock.

Gradually, however, the uses for which barns were built disappeared on most farms. Many farmers kept a cow or two to provide fresh milk, cream, and butter for the family and as another feed source for chickens and pigs, but starting in the early 1950s, better roads to get to town and cheaper prices at stores made small-scale milking too labor-intensive. The general introduction of affordable gasoline and diesel powered tractors starting in the 1920s quickly eliminated draft horses from the farm scene, and barns lost another reason for their existence. Raising livestock, too, gradually disappeared from most farms, as some farmers and corporate farming companies established large-scale operations dedicated to raising either cattle, pigs, or chickens.

By the 1970s, virtually everything for which barns had been designed was no longer part of farming practice. The very size of barns made it expensive to maintain them—a new roof costs thousands of dollars, and painting is also expensive.

And so they were allowed, for the most part, to start falling into ruin. Today, most farms make do with a large machine shed for equipment storage, and a series of huge metal or fiberglass bins to store grain while waiting for the right market conditions.

It’s the efficient, sensible way to do things, but it’s still sad to see our barns disappear.

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Notes on the rural landscape…

We’re taking a short trip through eastern Iowa to visit relatives and do a little genealogy. It’s been a fun trip, although the weather reminds a person more of December than the last week of March.

Driving from the Tipton area first west to the Amana Colonies, where great German food and rhubarb pie are the main attractions, down through the Amish area around Kolona and then west to Ottumwa, the impact of modern technology on farming is stark. Small towns that were once mercantile hubs for a wide rural area now feature largely abandoned commercial districts, with rows of storefronts replaced by a Casey’s General Store. The only going concern in most of them is a grain elevator.

Many of the farmsteads look forlorn this time of year with decaying barns and other outbuildings. Most of the farmhouses are dilapidated. On the other hand, some farmsteads look prosperous with well-kept buildings, modern farm equipment in evidence, and well-fed livestock in the pastures and cattle yards.

Stan Richards' evocative "Dual Barns near Brush Creek" illustrates the evolution of Iowa's rural landscape. The two barns are obsolete and are being allowed to slowly deteriorate because they're no longer relevant to modern American agriculture. See more of Richards' work at http://www.nightskyevents.com/iowa_landscape_purchase_print.htm

Stan Richards’ evocative “Dual Barns near Brush Creek” illustrates the evolution of Iowa’s rural landscape. The two barns are obsolete and are being allowed to slowly deteriorate because they’re no longer relevant to modern American agriculture. See more of Richards’ work at http://www.nightskyevents.com/iowa_landscape_purchase_print.htm

So what’s going on? What’s happening is that farming technology has so reduced the number of farmers needed to work an acre of ground that it’s had a noticeable and continuing impact on the communities in which the farmers live. Ever so gradually, the technology that allows a single farmer to handle thousands of acres of land led to the death of the communities in which they lived. Farmers could farm more land, so fewer farmers were needed, not to mention fewer farms. Thus those dilapidated farmsteads, many of them abandoned because small farms are continuing to be amalgamated into fewer much larger farms.

Fewer farmers mean a reduced population in general, and that means the small, independently owned businesses in rural hamlets gradually ran out of customers. The economic death of those little towns was slow, but sure. With no one to patronize businesses there was little need for young people to hang around after graduation from high school to raise their own families.

The cycle started out in those rural areas, but then it spread to Iowa’s cities. Ottumwa, for instance. The city relied on the railroad and on industries anchored by the John Morrell & Company meatpacking plant. Nowadays, instead of cattle being shipped into Ottumwa for slaughter and packing from distant points on the railroad and from a myriad of small farms in Ottumwa’s hinterland, the industry has moved to be closer to the giant feedlots that have replaced the old small supplier network. With changes in the railroad industry, the meat industry, and industry in general, Ottumwa finds itself 10,000 people smaller than it was a few decades ago.

So what’s the answer? Is there an answer? Should there be one? Even if someone wanted to turn the clock back, it’s now impossible. The toothpaste has left the tube and it’s not going back in. So gradually, those small towns will continue to evaporate, farmsteads will continue to be abandoned and deteriorate. Because that’s the way things happen. Here in Kendall County, entire communities have disappeared (Pavilion, Penfield), farms have been abandoned, and so has everything else from post offices (NaAuSay, Kendall) to schools (all 120 or so one-room schools in the county).

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Commemorating a national disaster…

Ten years ago this year, the nation was, for the most part, raring to go to war with Iraq, thanks to the Cheney-Bush Administration’s cooking the evidence that Iraq had somehow or other amassed a store of “weapons of mass destruction.” Frightening scenarios were sketched by administration officials of what was certainly going to happen if we didn’t invade Iraq. The scenarios, however, were so obviously screwy and manufactured out of whole cloth that it was difficult for those of us who had not been infected with the psychosis of fear after a bunch of primitive terrorists flew jetliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to believe them.

Back in those days before we, as a nation, managed to destroy our own economy, kill untold tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, remove the main geopolitical counterweight to Iran, kill thousands of our own young men and women and maim tens of thousands more, and start the nation down its current road of evaporating civil liberties, I wrote a brief editorial in the Ledger-Sentinel that marveled that the nation had apparently lost its collective mind. Fear will do that to people, especially when those at the top of government stoke those fears instead of fighting against them. Instead of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we got George W. Bush’s panic-stricken flight around the country on 9/11 in Air Force One and his constant efforts to, in his own words, “catapult the propaganda” to keep the nation wallowing in fear of a two-bit Mideast dictator.

As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the worst foreign policy disaster in modern U.S. history, I thought I’d reprint that edit, just for old time’s sake:

Just what’s with our foreign policy?

After watching the news unfold during the past several weeks, we have to wonder whether officials in Washington minding the nation’s foreign policy have lost their collective minds.

The Bush Administration, having settled on a foreign policy consisting of bullying Third World nations, apparently tried to bully one too many, and found itself being bullied right back. North Korea, not the most stable of nations, is now threatening some sort of holocaust—although this week they are denying they admitted last October having an operational nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the build-up of thousands of U.S. forces against Saddam Hussein continues to accelerate although there is as yet no evidence Iraq has any nuclear weapons, ostensibly the reason we’re getting ready to invade in the first place. The administration suggests the failure of United Nations weapons inspectors to find evidence of nuclear weapons is proof they exist but are apparently too well hidden to be found. In the meantime, we wonder what happened to Osama bin laden.

All of this makes about as much sense as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disney World. When, do you suppose, we can expect the adults to take charge?

Those U.N. arms inspectors kept looking right up until they were told to leave Iraq by the U.S. so they wouldn’t be vaporized during our “shock and awe” campaign, and they never found anything because, of course, there was never anything to find. As subsequent investigation teams confirmed. And Osama bin Laden remained at large and in charge until a Democratic President gave the orders to prioritize tracking him down and kill him.

We’re supposed to study history to learn what not to do in the future. “Lessons learned” the military calls it. But during the past 10 years, we seem to have decisively turned our backs on history, and appear to revel in ignoring the lessons it tries to teach us. Lessons learned in Vietnam? Lessons learned in the Great Depression? These days, it’s forget lessons learned and wallow in fear of the most preposterous things that are promoted daily by right wing and plutocratic fear mongers who happily spend their time “catapulting the propaganda.”

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Wanna trade sandwiches? Didn’t think so…

I had a traumatic problem growing up, which I am sure had some sort of negative impact on my life: No one ever wanted to trade sandwiches with me at lunch during my years in school.

Now you could fairly say that was because my sandwiches were seen as somewhat odd. Some folks even found them disgusting for some reason. But just because a person really likes sardine sandwiches with mustard, a really good liver sausage sandwich, or some succulent pickled heart or tongue shouldn’t lead to being rebuffed for 12 straight years–no kindergarten when I was five, or I am sure the humiliation would have begun earlier.

My grandfather's father stirs the kettle while my grandmother gets ready to add a succulent hog's head to a simmering batch of homemade head cheese about 1915. I bet it tasted good, too.

My grandfather’s father stirs the kettle while my grandmother gets ready to add a succulent hog’s head to a simmering batch of homemade head cheese about 1915. I bet it tasted good, too.

I blame my family for introducing me to such wonderful things as head cheese. My grandparents were both of German descent, my grandmother from Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors and my grandfather from Germany, where both of his parents were born. My grandmother was a farm girl, but she married a city guy and they lived in Aurora for the first several years of their married life. But in those days, city homes were a lot like miniature farms. They usually had a carriage house/stable for a driving horse and/or the cow, a small smokehouse, and even a few chickens. And the foods city folks ate weren’t a whole lot different than the kinds of food country folks ate.

Head cheese, for instance, was something my grandparents (and great-grandparents, for that matter) made and ate in both town and country. It was, after all, the original homemade lunch meat. And the best of it–the homemade kind–is truly delicious. Honest.

But so are the other foods I was introduced to as a youngster. Pickled tong and pickled heart, for instance, make great sandwiches. Almost everyone will disagree with that, but, really, it seems to be more the idea of eating tongue and hear than the taste. As a female friend once explained to me: “I’m not going to make it and I’m not going to eat it if the first sentence of the recipe says you’re supposed to skin a beef tongue,” This from a woman who loved liver and onions.

What with my feelings toward such delicacies, it wasn’t much of a stretch to enjoy haggis when we traveled to Scotland back in the 1990s. Our Scottish hosts figured the pansy Americans would quail at the sight, much less enjoy a heaping plate of haggis, neeps, and tatties, but we ate and enjoyed. And the beer was to die for, too.

Anyway, here I sit an ancient person whose get up and go, as Pete Seeger put it, has got up and went, but who still likes a pickled heart or tongue sandwich, or maybe one of homemade head cheese, or how about a nice Oscar Meyer liver sausage and pepperjack sandwich with some fresh dill slices? Those kids who refused to trade their mundane bologna and cheese or PBJ sandwiches for a taste of heaven knew not what they were missing.

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