Monthly Archives: August 2014

Today’s lesson, ladies: Don’t fool around with Dr. Lester

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

Posting’s been lighter than usual due to a vacation up in the North Woods that went very well.

We picked up my fishing buddy, Paul Baumann, at the Central Wisconsin Airport and then traveled up to our cottage on Butternut Lake. The next day, Paul and my wife Sue (also a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1964) and I all headed up to the Whitecap Mountain ski area and picked up another high school buddy of ours, Jerry Rissman. And then we went up to Bayfield on Lake Superior, took the ferry over to Madeline Island, and spent the afternoon with yet another high school friend, Bill Fennell. All in all, it was a mini-high school reunion that was lots of fun.

The weather for the remaining days of vacation Up North wasn’t the best, but we did catch fish, and had a lot of fun and (as usual) great food.

Heading north in the summer to get away from it all is far from a new thing under the sun. Many of us Illinois kids went north with our parents and so came to enjoy the quiet and beauty of Wisconsin’s lakes and forests. But heading north was pretty common well before the 1950s. My dad helped a friend build a log fishing cabin on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota in the 1930s. And 19th Century newspaper accounts suggest getting out of Illinois during the season when corn was tasseling out and ragweed pollen was at its height was the only way to find a little relief.

Back in the 1800s, one of Oswego’s three physicians was Dr. Gilbert Lester. A native of New Brunswick, Canada, Lester suffered greatly from hay fever and in those pre-Benadryl days getting out of his adopted hometown and back to his native New Brunswick was the only way to cope. As Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank put it in the Aug. 29, 1880 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

Later in the century, he favored heading north up to Lake Superior for a few summer weeks. According to the Aug. 17, 1892 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester started this morning on his annual trip north to get out of the reach of the hay fever…Marquette on Lake Superior is to be the Doc’s destination.”

Lester’s first wife, Caroline Elizabeth Hunt Lester, died in January 1884, whereupon he apparently enjoyed bachelorhood—to excess, some might have said.

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Starting in the late 1880s, a frequent visitor to Lester’s home, where he lived with his two unmarried daughters, was Anna Brown. The daughter of a literate family from down Newark way, Anna had begun her teaching career in 1870 at the Old Stone School in Oswego and was reportedly well liked by her students and their parents.

On May 1, 1877, she took her students out for a walk to gather flowers for their May baskets. The hike led them south along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy tracks from downtown Oswego to the woods and pastures that bordered the rail line. The children were having a good time gathering flowers when they heard the whistle of the upbound passenger train. Brown looked up and was horrified to see one of her students, little David Carpenter, frozen in fear, on the short rail bridge over Morgan Creek. The May 3, 1877 Kendall County Record reported what happened next:

“As the five o’clock train came along a little boy, named Carpenter, about nine years old, was on a railroad bridge over a ravine and became frightened. Miss Brown ran on the bridge to help him off. She saved the boy, but the engine struck her, ran over her left foot and threw her from the bridge to the creek, ten feet below.

The train was stopped, backed up, and the unfortunate lady got aboard and taken to Oswego, thence to her boarding place. Doctors were summoned, and her injuries found to be severe. The toes of the left foot were crushed, and portions of the foot had to be amputated. She was badly hurt about the back by the fall, and internal injuries are feared. Tuesday night the doctors thought she would not recover, but Wednesday morning she had rallied somewhat from the shock.”

Lorenzo Rank, in the next week’s Record, reported on the acclaim Brown was receiving in the community:

“She has been held in high esteem in this community because of her many good qualities, always active on the side of religion and good morals, is an excellent teacher, with the faculty to make herself beloved by all her scholars. It was said by the passengers that on the return to the place of the accident, the scene was very affecting, that there was a general crying and sorrow of the children, and all that first could be got out of them was ‘Miss Brown is killed;’ some adding, ‘Davie Carpenter is to blame.’ Now beside all this she is a heroine and will be more admired than ever before.”

As determined as ever, Brown recovered from the ordeal and went on with her career. Although having a limp the rest of her life and needing a stout cane to walk, she continued to teach school in Oswego and later in Chicago and finally Sandwich, where she was working when she and Dr. Lester became romantically involved. On July 12, 1893 Lorenzo Rank reported in the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column:

“According to report, a quiet wedding took place last week; one of our prominent widowers with a former teacher in our school, to wit: Dr. Lester and Miss Anna Brown.”

But while Dr. Lester was once again married, apparently he was loath to give up some of his bachelor habits, one of whom was Charlotte Haight, wife of prominent Oswego businessman David M. Haight.

David M. Haight's store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer's philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

David M. Haight’s store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer’s philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

Anna knew that Mrs. Haight had paid altogether too much attention to Dr. Lester for many years, and she warned the storekeeper’s wife to stay away from their home or face the consequences. “If you continue to come, you come at your peril,” she wrote in a letter to Charlotte Haight. Mrs. Haight, however, refused to stay away from the Lester home. As we’ve seen above, Anna Brown Lester was no shrinking violet and so decided on direct action, using her sturdy cane to punctuate the points of her argument. As the Oct. 12, Aurora News Semi-Weekly, reported:

“A bride of scarcely two months, jealous of her husband’s attentions to another woman, waylaid her rival Tuesday night and administered a severe thrashing with a stout cane for which offense she this morning cheerfully paid a fine of three dollars and costs….

Dr. Lester of Oswego, a widower past 60 years of age, was wed less than two months ago to Miss Anna Brown, a maiden lady of 40 summers or over. Miss Brown had lived much of the time in Oswego but of late years had been a school teacher at Sandwich.

For a few weeks after the honeymoon, all was apparently lovely in the relations of Dr. Lester and his bride. Lately observing people have noticed a slight change.

Mrs. Lester became convinced that Mrs. D.M. Haight, wife of one of the leading merchants of the town and her husband, were getting altogether too familiar. The sheep’s eyes that Mrs. H. cast at the doctor were simply unbearable and there was talk, too, that made the matter all the worse. Tuesday night, matters came to a climax.

Mrs. Lester waited in the shadow of her husband’s office and when her rival came along for the usual evening chat with the doctor, the enraged wife fell upon her with a heavy cane, which she plied with such vigorous effect that Mrs. Haight still bears the bruises.”

Two days later, in a letter to her good friend and stepdaughter, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lester Smith, Anna noted that Mrs. Haight and Dr. Lester had been seeing each other for a decade. While she said she was mortified to be brought up before Justice Lockwood, she suggested she did not regret waling the tar out of Mrs. Haight, writing:

“Mr. L read the charge of assaulting her, striking her with a cane &c and then it was my turn to speak and I said “I did follow her from my husband’s office and struck her with a cane two or three times & she knows how many times better than I and she deserved it all.” This is about my speech. He put the fine at $3 & cost so it amounted to $4.20 — So with the talk and reports in papers it has cost me dear.”

So, anyway, a couple weeks later, D.M. Haight’s well-known Oswego store went broke, thanks to the on-going financial Panic of 1893. The Haights moved to Chicago where D.M. engaged as a traveling salesman for the Fox River Butter Company, and presumably clearing the field for more of Mrs. Haight’s amorous adventures. Dr. Lester, his health debilitated by chronic hay fever and serious eye problems—and possibly one too many women in his life—died in March 1895 at the age of 65. Anna Brown Lester had the last laugh, enjoying several more years living in Oswego to general acclaim and participating in the community’s civic affairs until her death from pneumonia in 1909.

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So long, farewell, and Godspeed, Robin Williams

This morning my usual safe harbors of early morning television are filled with tributes to Robin Williams, who apparently committed suicide yesterday.

Not that my safe harbors are all that safe any more in the first place. The Weather Channel, for instance, used to be a place where you could find, you know, the actual weather, for which us old farm kids have what I realize for others (I’m looking at you, townies!) is an unreasonable fixation. Since NBC acquired the place, they’ve been installing a series of hacks like Al Roker, and now that prancing moron Sam Champion, who has turned the early a.m. show into a morning zoo broadcast with frenetic action punctuated by forced manic laughter that grates on the nerves.

But unfortunately, this morning is Robin Williams’ morning, and it’s sad. Williams was an almost excruciatingly funny person in the same mold as that other manic, hilarious person uncomfortable in his own skin, Jonathan Winters. Winters fought his own battles with his demons, demons that finally killed Robin Williams.

It occurred to me yesterday while I was pondering the news that was flashing all over the world at the speed of electrons thanks to the Internet, that Williams was in two of my three all-time favorite movies. He’s not in “Finding Forrester,” but he had major roles in “August Rush” and “Good Will Hunting.” In the latter film, he portrayed a psychically damaged counselor who was able to connect with Will Hunting and begin to heal his mental issues. In “August Rush,” Williams played a creepy, dark Fagin-like character, and he played it well, digging deep to find that anger that was apparently well below the surface.

Every once in a while, you see things bouncing around the blogs where people wonder which comedians they’d most like to have dinner and a beer with. Me, I’ve always thought my choice would be none, because comedians, in general, are funny, but don’t necessarily seem like well-balanced, nice people. Everyone says Williams, in person, was a nice guy, and I have no doubt he was. But there’s always that darkness behind comedy, and with him, the depression finally won.

Depression is a terrible thing, a problem with which I can sympathize from personal experience. Those who have never struggled with it simply cannot grasp the insidious hold it takes on a person’s life. Maybe, just maybe, with Williams’ death, we will begin to take depression more seriously as a true illness. Although given our nation’s aversion to learning any lessons from anything, I have no high hopes.

If he had been capable of realizing it, he should have been proud of what he’d accomplished during his life and what he contributed to the rest of us. Robin Williams seemingly had everything, but in his depression he knew with certainty he had nothing.

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We dodged an authoritarian bullet in the 1860s…

Reading about the Civil War always makes me extremely glad the Union won, not to mention extremely angry that the war happened at all.

If a large portion of the officer corps of the U.S. military had not decided to surrender their honor and become traitors, it’s likely the estimated 620,000 soldiers on both sides (and that figure doesn’t include war-related civilian deaths) who lost their lives during the conflict and the millions of dollars of destruction could have been avoided.

Unfortunately for us future generations, by the time U.S. Grant and William Sherman had beaten the South into submission the nation was so tired of war they decided to give those military traitors a free pass, other than brief imprisonments for some. And thus was born the “Lost Cause” fable that ushered in decades of monstrous Jim Crow subjugation of anyone with African-American blood in their veins–no matter how little flowed there.

It’s not too strong a statement to say that the Confederate government had a lot in common with the authoritarian governments of the early 20th Century, and seems to have pioneered some of the same techniques fascist and communist governments used to subjugate their own people.

The Civil War is often described as the first modern war since it made extensive use of railroads, mobilization of heavy industry, and proto-modern military tactics such as elaborate entrenchments and rifled firearms. It can also be considered a modern war in that it really didn’t settle much, other than eliminating slavery. Which, granted, was quite a major achievement. Southern attitudes took a breather for a few years but then began once again to eat away at the fabric of the nation right up to the present, to the point that the America envisioned by the Founders is in real danger of disappearing under a mound of hatred and lies.

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Dodging World War I by pluck and luck

I usually try to separate the topics in my “Reflections” column for the Kendall County Record, Inc. newspapers from HistoryontheFox, but I think, since this week’s column deals with a major world-wide anniversary, that I’m going to suspend my rule, at least for this week.

World War I began 100 years ago this week, generally said to have started on July 28 when troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire fired on Serbian positions. The attack was the end result of the assassination, exactly a month before, of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian-instigated Bosnian terrorists.

Here in the Fox Valley during the hot summer of 1914, however, Kendall County was consumed by politics and the weather, not war in some far-off place.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt had split with the Republican Party, and his Progressive Party—nicknamed the Bull Moose Party—was on the move. A number of Republicans (including a number here in Kendall County) joined Roosevelt, much to the consternation—and anger—of other GOP stalwarts.

Along with politics, local folks were trying to deal with a brutally hot summer that year, and a lack of rain that had farmers worried about their crops.

So when the crisis, seemingly just one more in a string that stretched back hundreds of years, arose in the Balkans, nobody here paid much attention to it. As much as they tried ignoring what was going on, however, it proved impossible. The assassination touched off a series of complicated and deadly miscalculations by every country in Europe. Although the conflict opened on July 28, it took until Aug. 4 for most of the rest of Europe to become embroiled in a war that eventually spread worldwide.

For a complete account of what happened that fateful summer, read Barbara Tuchman’s seminal The Guns of August, which is available at every library in the country, plus in new electronic formats, especially if you’ve got one of Amazon’s Kindles or have the Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet computer.

Getting back to the topic of this week’s column, though, while the thunder of the guns across the ocean couldn’t be heard here in Kendall County, their effects were certainly felt almost as soon as the firing began. On Aug. 5, Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall observed: “As a result of the warlike conditions existing in Europe, conditions in this country have become unsettled…The New York stock exchange was closed following a similar action by the London board and the trade in securities has been at a standstill. Several brokerage firms have failed and the financial market has been of the frenzied order. American tourists in England and Europe are feeling the effects of this war scare. Money is hard to obtain and they may be forced into a long stay abroad. It is said that over 2,000 Chicagoans are thus stranded. To add to this inconvenience, several Atlantic steamship lines have cancelled their regular trips, and the ships are held in port.”

Nancy "Nannie" Hill was the principal of the old Oak Street School on the west side of Aurora in the summer of 1914 when she and a teacher at the school decided to take a European tour–just in time to get caught up in the outbreak of World War I. This photo shows what the school looked like in 1906.

Nancy “Nannie” Hill was the principal of the old Oak Street School on the west side of Aurora in the summer of 1914 when she and a teacher at the school decided to take a European tour–just in time to get caught up in the outbreak of World War I. This photo shows what the school looked like in 1906.

And, indeed, the war’s outbreak was proving a considerable challenge for a former Kendall County resident. Nancy L. “Nannie” Hill grew to adulthood and then taught in Yorkville for several years before taking a teaching job at Aurora’s Oak Street School (now the Mary A. Todd School) in 1902. An outstanding educator, she was tapped to be the school’s principal in 1909.

In the summer of 1914, Hill and Mrs. Alice Eyman, a teacher at the school, left the U.S. on a European excursion. Touring Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Italy, they arrived at Interlaken, Switzerland on July 30. There, they began their preparations for heading back to the U.S., sending their trunks ahead to Liverpool to be put aboard their ride home, the RMS Franconia. The pair planned to follow their trunks with a leisurely rail journey west through Germany, on to Paris, and across the Channel to England where they’d board the Franconia, and sail from Liverpool on Aug. 18.

The RMS Franconia was to be Nancy Hill’s ride back home to the U.S.  from Europe. She was launched July, 23 1910 at the Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. When World War I broke out, she was taken into service as a troop transport. She was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean by a German U-boat on Oct. 4, 1916.

The RMS Franconia was to be Nancy Hill’s ride back home to the U.S. from Europe. She was launched July, 23 1910 at the Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. When World War I broke out, she was taken into service as a troop transport. She was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean by a German U-boat on Oct. 4, 1916.

But on Aug. 1, Germany, France, and Russia announced they were mobilizing their armies, with Britain following a day later. The quickly expanding war in Europe wrecked the pair’s plans—with armies on the march, their trip back through Germany into France was impossible. To complicate matters, the worldwide financial panic created by the outbreak of war noted by Marshall in the Aug. 4 Record, made it impossible for them to cash the checks they were relying on for funds. Neither the banks, nor the famed Thomas Cook agency would accept checks.

“I hope to never go through a more dismal week than the one which followed,” Hill later recalled.

The two women made common cause with a number of other stranded Americans, organizing themselves into a committee. The two teachers volunteered their clerical skills to record the travelers’ data. The first hurdle, getting everyone’s passports, was crossed, and they began looking for a way around or through the war zone. Larger traveling groups left first, pooling their resources to pay their way into Italy and then back to the U.S. from there.

The increasingly desperate women finally nerved themselves to go the U.S. Consulate in Berne, which they discovered to be in a third floor flat served by a rickety elevator.

“The consul is a plain, everyday, good natured man, who with his two assistants received us most cordially,” Hill recalled. “He declared our checks as good as gold, cashed $50 worth at par for us, and then shaking us each by the hand he bade us ‘cheer up,’ which we immediately proceeded to do.”

With their trunks already sent on to England, the pair only had one suitcase between them, including one pair of shoes each. With all the walking they’d been doing trying to find a way to get back to the U.S., their shoes had been well-used.

“In celebration of our suddenly acquired wealth, we spent one morning in a cobbler’s shop getting our shoes resoled,” Hill recalled. “We had been interested in diamond cutting in Dresden, why not in shoemaking in Interlaken? With feet incased in slippers furnished by the cobbler’s wife, we watched the process of reconstruction with interest and probably profit.”

Now well-shod, and with cash in hand, they made ready to seize whatever opportunities presented themselves. So on Aug. 18, when a note on the bulletin board at the American gathering place advertised a way to England, the pair joined with a group with the right connections to travel through France to the Channel. Normally a 24 hour journey, the trip stretched to four grueling days due to military rail traffic. The journey, Hill said, resembled “nothing so much as riding on the Yorkville electric [trolley line] during the old Chautauqua season. The accommodations were about the same and the crowds equal.”

RMS Alaunia was launched on 9 June 1913. Nancy Hill and Alice Eyman were aboard for one of the ship’s last civilian voyages since upon the outbreak of World War I, she was taken into British government service as a troop carrier. On Sept. 19, 1916, the Alaunia sank after striking mine laid earlier that day by a German mine laying U-boat.

RMS Alaunia was launched on June 9, 1913. Nancy Hill and Alice Eyman were aboard the nearly new ship for one of her last civilian voyages, since upon the outbreak of World War I she was taken into British government service as a troop carrier. On Sept. 19, 1916, the Alaunia sank after striking mine laid earlier that day by a German mine laying U-boat.

From Interlaken, their route was to Berne, on to Geneva, across the Swiss frontier to Dijon, France, and finally to Paris. They reached London on Aug. 22, learning the next day that the Franconia had already sailed. “Nothing daunted, we set out early the following day, resolved either to buy a boat or make one,” the intrepid educator recalled.

Luckily, they found passage on the Cunard Line’s RMS. Alaunia. It proved a nerve-wracking voyage, with wartime conditions enforced aboard, not to mention lack of winter clothing on the freezing North Atlantic, their trunks having already preceded them to Boston.

Eager to get home and back to their jobs, Hill and Eyman reached Quebec on Sept. 5, and then raced southwest to Chicago by train, arriving home on Labor Day, before taking up their jobs once again at Oak Street School.

Nancy L. Hill School, Illinois at Pennsylvania Avenue, Aurora, as it looked in 1976. Formerly the Illinois Avenue School, but reamed in 1928 to honor Nancy L. "Nannie" Hill, long-time principal of the Oak Street School, after her death.

Nancy L. Hill School, Illinois at Pennsylvania Avenue, Aurora, as it looked in 1976. Formerly the Illinois Avenue School, but reamed in 1928 to honor Nancy L. “Nannie” Hill, long-time principal of the Oak Street School, after her death.

For the next few years, the Record wasn’t quite sure what to make of the war raging in Europe. It soon became clear the conflict would not be brief—as all the protagonists had expected—and that the U.S. would eventually be drawn into it.

For her part, the determined Hill went on to become a beloved figure in the West Aurora School District—after her death in 1928, the newly constructed Illinois Avenue School was renamed Nancy L. Hill Elementary School.

But in the late summer of 1914 here in the Fox Valley, all that was in the future; the emphasis was on Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign, and the entertaining tale of a plucky local woman’s trials and perils trying to get back to the good old U.S. of A.

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