Monthly Archives: July 2013

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

So what’s cooking in YOUR fireplace?

The late 1820s and early 1830s were a period of rapid and profound change in the Fox Valley as the area’s major roads and towns were laid out. Some of those towns grew up around the stagecoach taverns that popped up along the new roads that stretched west from Chicago like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The taverns of that era provided places for travelers to sleep as well as to partake of food and drink.

The fare available in those early inns was virtually identical to the food pioneer families ate. Pork was popular among the settlers because the hogs of the period were hardy animals, not much different from the wild boars from which they were descended. As a result of the diet they ate while rooting through the area’s groves, which included acorns, hazelnuts, and other edible items, the pork of 1830 was much leaner than than available today, and the meat was much darker than “The Other White Meat” touted in those pork industry commercials.

The taverns at Wolf Point where the north and south branches of the Chicago River merged were typical of inns of the 1830s. The Wolf Tavern, with sign, is at left, while Miller's Tavern sits on the riverbank at right.

The taverns at Wolf Point where the north and south branches of the Chicago River merged were typical of inns of the 1830s. The Wolf Tavern, with sign, is at left, while Miller’s Tavern sits on the riverbank at right.

Beef was also enjoyed by pioneers, but it was in shorter supply than pork because cattle were more difficult and expensive to raise. They weren’t nearly as good as hogs at foraging and were relatively limited in the kinds of food they could eat.

Poultry was a favorite meat, but chickens were unable to fend for themselves and so had to be protected from the hawks, prairie wolves, coyotes, and foxes that populated the Fox Valley in fair numbers.

When it came to vegetables, the pioneers favored root crops such as potatoes, turnips, and carrots because they “kept” well in root cellars. Corn could be soaked in lye to make hominy, but it was also ground into that all-purpose food item, cornmeal, which was used in so many different ways by pioneer cooks, from cornbread to mush (both as a hot cereal and when cooled, sliced, and fried as a main meal item) to Indian pudding.

Wheat farming was never all that popular in northern Illinois—the climate didn’t favor it—but early in the pioneer era enough was grown locally to provide the makings for bread.

So sufficient food was available, but how was it prepared in the days before cook stoves? Fireplace cooking was an art as well as a skill that required quite a bit of pre-planning, organization, and proficiency. It was a skill that came second nature to the women of the period because it was what they grew up with. Most cooking was done with only one or two pots or pans, generally a long-handled cast iron skillet and a cast iron pot. Sometimes, a family had an iron Dutch oven for baking or roasting, but most baking was done in brick ovens built either as part of the fireplace installation, were free-standing outdoors, or located in a kitchen addition.

Fireplaces in the early inns on the Illinois frontier were large because they were used for both cooking and heating.

Fireplaces in the early inns on the Illinois frontier were large because they were used for both cooking and heating.

Given a couple of cast iron pans and a big fireplace, how were entire meals cooked for hungry travelers in Kendall County’s pioneer taverns? Travelers’ accounts vary, but there is a particularly good one left by a woman who stopped at dawn for breakfast at a Carlinville tavern on her way by stagecoach from St. Louis to Springfield.

The young female cook, who was admired by the travelers for her efficiency, first put a long-handled frying pan on the fire, balancing the long handle on a chair. She placed coffee beans in the pan and parched or roasted them. She then removed the beans, washed out the frying pan, and then mixed corn bread right in the pan before putting it back on the fire to bake. Meanwhile, she ground the roasted coffee beans and put the grounds in an iron pot with water, swung it over the fire and started it boiling. When the cornbread was done, she turned it out of the pan. Then she cut a chunk of bacon off a side hanging in the kitchen, sliced it, and fried it in the pan that had so far roasted the coffee beans and baked the cornbread. When the bacon was crisp, eggs were fried to order and the newly arrived guests along with those who had stayed the night all sat down to enjoy the meal.

A long-handled frying pan (second from right) and a few pots were all that were necessary for a skilled cook to quickly prepare a hearty meal for a stagecoach load of passengers during the 1830s in northern Illinois.

A long-handled frying pan (second from right) and a few pots were all that were necessary for a skilled cook to quickly prepare a hearty meal for a stagecoach load of passengers during the 1830s in northern Illinois.

Tavern fare, of course, varied by location. One traveler who passed through southern Michigan in 1830 reported that supper (dinner in this era referred to the noon meal) consisted of biscuits, and fried pork and venison, washed down with buttermilk. Breakfast was the same except for having cornmeal griddlecakes in place of the biscuits and a glass of cider. The entire bill for both meals—including the buttermilk and cider—was 21 cents.

Which sounds cheap, but when land was selling at $1.25 an acre, 21 cents was relatively pricey.

Here in Illinois, the deer population had been almost entirely eliminated by the Native Americans who killed them for food and for hides to trade for food, so venison was found on few menus. Prairie chickens and rabbits, however, were commonly found on the bills of fare at Illinois taverns.

The lives of pioneer travelers were not particularly comfortable, what with the danger of their stagecoach overturning at the drop of a hat, not to mention the dust, dirt, mud, summer heat, and winter cold, but the innkeepers of the period did what they could to make things easier. And while food preparation technology was crude, skillful cooks could turn out excellent meals in a remarkably short times using one or two pans and plenty of ingenuity.

Today, we take modern food prep techniques and equipment, from refrigerators to running water to efficient gas and electric ranges for granted. But it wasn’t always that way, and that it is today ought to be cause for at least a little celebration.

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Filed under Food, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Technology, Transportation

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

Sober thoughts on the Gettysburg sesquicentennial…

I’ve been reading Lt. Col. Robert Bateman’s wonderful series on the Battle of Gettysburg over at Charlie Pierce’s Esquire site and trying to figure out exactly what to say about the 150th anniversary of what some call the pivotal battle of the Civil War.

The Civil War has never been my favorite historical era, and the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve come to dislike it. It’s wonderful that Lincoln decided to fight to keep the Union together, and the exploits of American soldiers and sailors in that fight are remarkable. But that they had to fight and die over something as morally depraved as slavery is, for me at least, extremely depressing.

It is all the more depressing when you consider the continuing veneration of the generation of traitors who led the nation to war and who were morally responsible for the deaths of the estimated 600,000—and that’s probably a low estimate—young men who were so needlessly and recklessly killed.

Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg is said to have been the “Highwater Mark of the Confederacy,” but I’ve never really bought into that view. Gettysburg was certainly an important battle and was truly a must-win for the U.S. Army. But in terms of strategic importance, I think the capture of Vicksburg can arguably be termed the most important strategic win against the forces of division and immorality.

Vicksburg, however, gets short shrift because Robert E. Lee did not lead the anti-American forces. Lee operated in Virginia against a procession of inadequate U.S. generals and in winning so many victories has been adjudged a military genius, a judgment pronounced by both the rebellious South as well as his American opponents.

But I believe a critical reading of the history of the Civil War shows that Lee was just good enough to get those 600,000 young men killed, and tens of thousands of others physically and mentally maimed for life. Lee was brilliant on defense, but was reckless on offense. That worked well when he was facing George McClellan, Joe Hooker, and the rest of the not-ready-for-prime-time bunch Lincoln was saddled with at the start of the war, but not so good when it came time to face Sam Grant, the grimly implacable general from Illinois. In the end, Lee proved far more profligate with his soldiers’ lives than did Grant.

At Gettysburg, Lee was on the offensive, and his lack of skill at that type of warfare showed. His biggest problem was that he never should have been on the offense at all. The South simply did not have adequate personnel or supplies to fight an offensive war against American forces. Lee would have benefited greatly had he taken Longstreet’s advice and waged a defensive campaign against the Army of the Potomac. Had the Army of Northern Virginia gotten between Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Army would have been forced to attack the rebel army, not the other way around.

By the time he led rebel forces into Pennsylvania, Lee had become a victim of hubris. He’d beaten the U.S. Army so often he could not imagine getting beat himself. But while George Meade was no Grant, neither was he a Hooker or McClellan. He was, for a wonder, a competent, if somewhat stolid, grimly capable general who, from Buford, to Reynolds, to Hancock, and on down to Custer and Chamberlain, was blessed with an excellent corps of subordinates. With competent leadership at the top, they were more than able to hold their own against the best the rebellious South had to throw against them.

And they did just that for three days in early July of 1863 as Lee repeatedly and recklessly attacked. Lee, who couldn’t afford to lose a single soldier, lost 23,231 killed, wounded, and missing and was forced to retreat back to Virginia.

The bravery of the men who fought on both sides during the Civil War cannot be doubted. But what should be condemned as we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the momentous events of those years are the motivations of those who declared war on their own nation in an effort to retain and strengthen something as morally corrupt as slavery. Those who led this wicked effort were not honorable men and they should not be remembered as such today.

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Filed under Frustration, Military History, People in History