Monthly Archives: December 2016

Two Christmas stories: Things were different then…

Roughly every other year or two around Christmas time, I re-run a column in the Record Newspapers that I first did back in the late 1970s that featured interviews with my mother and my grandmother concerning their holiday experiences as youngsters. This is an off year, so thought I’d run it here while it’s waiting for its next turn.

Christmas in America has drastically changed through the years. When the Puritans stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock, the furthest thing from their minds was celebrating Christmas. They didn’t celebrate much, in fact, except getting rich. And as soon as they were assured they weren’t going to starve to death or be overrun by the local Native American tribes they were busy killing off, they prohibited celebrating Christmas.

But wet blanket Puritans aside, things have been looking up in terms of a “Merry Christmas” ever since more holiday-loving folks arrived. Probably the biggest shot in the arm the Christmas celebration ever got was the arrival in North America of large numbers of German Protestants in the mid-1700s. They brought Christmas trees, and all manner of cookies and pastries and other good things to eat, among other things.

In the last 60 years, Christmas has arguably undergone the most change in its entire history, thanks in part to us Baby Boomers, who have been moving through the economic gut of the United States like a large mammal lurching through a python’s digestive tract creating all sorts of distortions. But back in the late 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s, things were different. A LOT different.

1977-sylvia-mabel

Back in 1977, the same year this photo was taken, I interviewed my mother, Sylvia Holzhueter Matile (left) and my grandmother, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter about how they celebrated Christmas when they were youngsters.

Way back in 1977, when I’d just started writing a local history column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel, I interviewed my Grandmother, then aged 88, and my mother, then aged 67, about how they celebrated Christmas when they were young members of German-American families. My grandmother’s Pennsylvania Dutch relatives moved to Illinois from the Keystone State in 1850, and settled on a Wheatland Township farm in Will County. She married my grandfather, a city kid from Aurora, and moved to a beautiful new home on the city’s far East Side in what was then called “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelmingly German population. Since my grandmother’s family still spoke German at home despite having lived in North America since 1750 and my grandfather’s family, who arrived in the early 1880s—before Ellis Island was established—also spoke German at home, there was no language barrier.

In 1920, pining for country life once again, she talked my grandfather into moving back out into Wheatland Township onto a farm. They rented the farm from Louis McLaren that came with a truly decrepit house and buildings, which was no problem for my grandfather, a skilled carpenter. But it certainly meant a changed life for my mother and her two siblings as well as their mother.

My Grandmother died in 1979 after a long, hard, but happy life. My mother followed after a typically energetic battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1987, significantly bowed but still unbeaten. Here are their Christmas stories, complete with a bit of Pennsylvania German syntax.

1895-abt-amelia-edith-mable-lantz-lantz-farm

Left to right, my great-grandmother, Amelia Minnich Lantz; my great-aunt, Edith Lantz Leppert; and my grandmother at their Wheatland Township farmhome about 1895. Today’s Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Naperville is located almost exactly where the house was situated.

Grandmother’s Story:

Q: When you were a little girl, what did you get for Christmas?

A: Well, dear me, we didn’t get much! When my Grandpa was alive yet, we always had a Christmas tree. That’s all I can tell you. Santa Claus used to come, but he never brought us much…a doll once in a while maybe.

Q: Do you remember what the Christmas tree looked like?

A: Ya, it was real nice. I think we had candles on it. And we used to string popcorn.

Q: Did you get any fruit or nuts or anything special?

A: Well, we’d set a cookie sheet down, Mother and Father had the big ones and there they’d put our nuts or whatever candy we got, and an orange probably, or an apple. We’d put the cookie sheets on the floor in a row. The oldest child got the one next to Mother and Father, and so on down. There were eight children. Each cookie sheet got a little smaller, you see, so we knew which one belonged to us!

Q: You didn’t hang up stockings?

A: No, just the cookie sheets. We’d set them on the floor.

We didn’t have as much furniture as we do now. I remember our living room had ingrain carpeting, and under that we had straw, if you can imagine that! And by spring when you’d houseclean, that was nothing but dust.

Q: You said the you got oranges…

A: Ya, one orange. We never got oranges through the year, but at Christmas time, there we had an orange.

Q: What about presents?

A: “Well, after Grandpa was gone, we didn’t have no Christmas tree then. I remember one Christmas when we had just gotten a new buggy, well we called it a carriage you know. The night before Christmas, they must have taken a board and run it down the siding of the house outside. What a racket it made! We got under the covers because we thought old Santa Claus was coming. We weren’t supposed to see him, you know. Then in the morning, there lay the harness, a new double harness. That was our Christmas that year.

Q: Did you ever go to anyone’s house for Christmas dinner?

A: No, I don’t think that we ever had what we call a Christmas Dinner nowadays.

Q: Did you ever have sleigh rides or anything like that?

A: Well, that was the only way you could go in the winter time! We’d drive right through the fields, you know.

 

1920-holzhueter-farm-crop-ii

The dilapidated farmhouse my grandparents rented from the MacLarens in 1920. It was a big step down from the large two-story home they’d owned in Aurora, but my grandmother had had it mediating between overwrought in-laws. Thus the escape to rural Wheatland Township.

Mother’s Story:

Q: Was Christmas any different when you lived in town than when you moved to the farm in 1920?

A: Ya, it was different! When we lived in Aurora, there was evidently some money, and when we moved to the farm there wasn’t any. When we lived in Aurora, Mother and us kids went to church every Christmas Eve, and when we came home, Dad would have the Christmas tree up. We had candles on it, and they would be lit, but Dad would be very careful. We would go to everybody’s house to see their Christmas trees.

Q: Everybody in your neighborhood?

A: To the relatives, my great aunts and uncles. And then when we moved out to the farm, we always had a Christmas tree, we always had nuts and candy and fruit. I always got a new dress so I could speak my piece at the church program. We always had a Christmas program at school. We worked for weeks and weeks. We would march and sing and give a play…everything had to be perfect.

Q: Did you send or receive Christmas cards?

A: We didn’t have money to spend on things like that. We went to visit the people. Things were different then.

 

And from me to you, from here at the Matile Manse, have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.

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“The Roaring ‘20s” wasn’t just a meaningless nickname

A lot of folks are watching with trepidation as the Trump administration gets ready to take—and I do mean “take”—office. Although losing the popular vote by a historic margin for a Presidential candidate, Trump will assume the office of President Jan. 20. After which, those of us who’ve seen a thing or two and know a thing or two will not at all be surprised if the new administration becomes one of the most corrupt in the nation’s history.

Given the President-elect’s near complete ignorance of the nation’s history, the Constitution, and how representative government works; his disdain for public ethics and morals, not to mention the nation’s democratic traditions; and his seeming ignorance of most civilized norms, it will be a miracle if corruption doesn’t become a Trump Administration byword. After all, he will have violated the Constitution as soon as he takes the oath of office, so it’s unlikely he and his minions will have much more respect for it.

The U.S. has experienced lawless times in the past, of course, sometimes starting right at the top. While U.S. Grant was an excellent general, his political skills were lacking, and he managed to pick a cabinet that was closer to a gang of thieves. Same with Warren G. Harding.

But government lawlessness is one thing, public lawlessness is another. And after World War I ended, the nation entered a protracted era of ever-increasing criminal violence. Economics were part of the problem, and so was the nation’s experiment with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. By November 1920, folks in northern Illinois were becoming ever more concerned about the crime wave that was sweeping the region.

In the Nov. 17 Kendall County Record, editor Hugh Marshall wrote: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Such concerns were the genesis for the formation of the he Illinois State Police, which was established in 1922. But even after the troopers were activated, fast cars, paved roads, and criminals who had received automatic weapons training during World War I gave bank-robbing criminal gangs a definite advantage over anything the authorities could do. At least at first.

That those worries were not overblown was illustrated by the raid on the Farmers State Bank of Millbrook in October 1929.

millbrook-bridge

The historic old Millbrook Bridge was built on the old ford across the Fox River in 1897, and at least for the present is still standing although it’s been bypassed with a change in road configuration and a new bridge.

The rural hamlet of Millbrook, located in Kendall County’s Fox Township, was settled in 1835. By 1837, families had arrived and the small community began growing. That year, Mrs. Rachel Blanding, on a tour of the west with her ailing husband, visited the Rev. Royal Bullard and William Vernon, both of whom lived in the tiny but growing community. Mrs. Blanding named Bullard’s farm Millbrook, and the name soon became applied to the entire small community.

The village itself wasn’t formally platted until the mid-1850s. Jacob Budd, born near Fishkill, New York, Nov. 11, 1811, emigrated to Kendall County in the summer of 1850, opening a store at Newark. Then in 1855, he moved to 250 acres of land in Fox Township, where he quickly became a leading citizen. Budd platted the town of Millbrook in the mid-1850s, building a store there. In 1866 when the old Mansfield Post Office was discontinued and moved to Millbrook, he became the first postmaster. And then when the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road was built from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox River Valley through Yorkville and Oswego to Geneva, the tracks passed through Millbrook, giving the small town a boost. Budd added a grain elevator, a hotel, a lumberyard to his operations and eventually a creamery and other businesses were added, including sometime before November 1912, a bank.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 26, 1912, Charles Stuppy and John Clint used a charge of nitroglycerine to blow the bank safe open. The pair were convicted of bank robbery in January 1914 after a lengthy legal process and sent to prison.

Stuppy, though defeated was apparently unbowed, and in October 1920 he was arrested again for bank robbery, this time of the Newark Farmers State Bank.

The robberies continued of small country banks, as well as those in larger communities despite growing efforts to halt the crime wave. And then on Oct. 29, 1929 came the most brazen robbery ever of a Kendall County community.

1922-millbrook

The village of Millbrook as it was mapped for George A. Ogle & Company’s 1922 Kendall County Atlas, just seven years before a large gang of bank thieves took the town over while they robbed the community’s bank.

The well-armed gang cut the telephone lines leading into Millbrook, and then sealed off the village’s streets leading out of town, patrolling to make sure nobody escaped to raise the alarm.

Meanwhile another group broke into the bank building and blew the safe. As the Kendall County Record noted the next day, while well organized, the gang wasn’t especially skilled in blowing bank vaults: “…they were inadept enough to use ten shots of ‘nitro’ to break open the vault.” In fact, the explosions of the badly placed nitroglycerine reportedly demolished the bank building.

After collecting the loot, the gang left in a cloud of dust, never to be seen again.

While the county had experienced bank robberies before, and was destined to experience a lot more of them as time passed, this was the only time such a large and well-armed gang was able to take over an entire county town.

Record editor Marshall was alarmed at the brazen act: “The residents of Millbrook experienced the sensation of being forced into submission last Tuesday morning when their bank was looted,” Marshall wrote. “A similar circumstance may be enacted in any of our towns at any time. The affair at Millbrook should demonstrate how powerless we are against an organized band of criminals. We do not know how they were armed, but suppose they had machine guns? If some gentleman in Millbrook had been so foolhardy as to attempt to stop these marauders, he would have had his home shot to pieces.

Eventually, the banks and the communities in which they were located got better organized, with the Illinois Bankers’ Association going so far as to help banks hire a private guard force. But small, isolated rural banks like the one in Millbrook, remained vulnerable. And, indeed, the Millbrook bank was robbed again in February 1931 and yet again in July 1933. But with the last robbery, the county had become much better organized and determined. Two of the three thieves were chased and run to ground near Sugar Grove by a 500-man posse of Kendall County farmers, while the third was shot dead while trying to steal a car at Cross Lutheran Church during services on the following Sunday morning.

All of which goes to show, they didn’t call that era the “Roaring ‘20s” for nothing, even here in normally sedate, rural Kendall County.

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Days of youthful dawdling mostly a thing of the past…

I’ve always felt a little boredom for kids is a good thing.

Back, lo those many years ago when I was a kid, boredom wasn’t something we complained about. Today’s parents are apparently terrified their kids will complain about being bored. Back in the day, I knew better than to tell my parents I was bored, because they would have found plenty for me to do, pretty much none of which I would have been excited about.

These days, though, parents apparently feel their kids need to be scheduled 24/7 doing all manner of things, not to mention running themselves ragged in the attempt to avoid the dreaded “Mommm, I’m bored.”

As noted above, admitting to boredom would have been a deadly mistake back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so we made sure we always had something to do, or at least made it look like we had something to do. And without all of today’s frenetic scheduling, there was plenty of time for one of our all-time favorite pastimes—dawdling.

1950-abt-roger-bob-crop

Not sure what my cousin Bob (right) and I did, but knowing the two of us, it probably involved dawdling followed by a stern lecture from our Aunt Evelyn.

In fact, I believe dawdling was one of the high points of my life as a child here in the Oswego area, although I admit my parents sometimes did not exactly share my love of the practice.

We dawdled on the way to school and on the way home from school, as well as when sent on any sort of mission by our parents.

But it was those before and after school times that seemed best.

When I went to Church School out in Wheatland Township, we did a lot of serious dawdling on the way home from classes. After we got television sets and had our first look at the original “Adventures of Superman” series starring George Reeves, my buddy Rob and I decided that episode where Superman turned coal into diamonds by using “super pressure” had all sorts of possibilities; Superman did it, after all, so why couldn’t we? Finding a piece of coal wasn’t difficult in those years, but applying the “super pressure” was. We approached the problem by piling the biggest rocks we could find on top of the coal. Each day as we dawdled past the rock pile on the way home from school, we’d check to see if the lump of coal had turned into a diamond. I suspect the coal is still buried there beside Heggs Road awaiting super pressure that never came.

After I moved to town, the areas in which to dawdle increased geometrically. In order to get to and from school, we had to cross Waubonsie Creek, which was—and from what I see these days still is—an irresistible magnet for dawdlers.

We considered the creek valley, from North Adams street to the Route 25 bridge as our own private preserve. There was always something to do there, no matter what season of the year it was.

1910-abt-kids-along-creek

About 1910, a bunch of kids engage in serious dawdling along the same stretch of Waubonsie Creek where we dawdled in the 1950s. In this shot, looks like there are more rocks than water in the creek. (Little White School Museum collections)

In the summertime, we’d build dams and try to catch the Red Horse that came upstream from the river. In the fall, we’d skip flat stones across the still waters behind the present Oswego Library. In the wintertime, we’d fool around on the ice, when it was thick enough, or pretend to be arctic explorers trudging through North Pole snowdrifts. In the spring, our fancy would tum to collecting fossils washing out of the bluegreen Maquoketa shale outcrop near the CB&Q railroad bridge.

One winter evening on the way home from school, my friend was standing with one foot on the creek shore and the other on an ice-covered rock a short distance from shore, vigorously shifting back and forth as he tried to dislodge the rock, which was stuck to the creek bottom. But then the rock suddenly gave way, shooting out from under his foot, which had all his weight on it. Physics being what they are, he was launched into the air, doing a complete airborne somersault before landing, sitting down, in the middle of the creek. Personally, I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen, although his view was somewhat different.

I never had my own paper route, but I was always friendly with our paperboys, and found them excellent dawdling companions, which is perhaps one reason I don’t get too terribly upset when our paper is late nowadays.

1952-roger-rob

My buddy Rob and I tried to turn a lump of coal into a diamond for several months in 1953 while dawdling on the way home from school. Above, we consort with our dogs and a box of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (the TV sponsor for “Adventures of Superman”) for emergency nutrition.

It was his own fault, but one winter day our dawdling got the better of our then-current paperboy, one of my elementary school classmates. He had decided to do a monster walk across a large brush pile near the street. As he walked like Frankenstein’s monster, growling, over top of the brush pile, his feet suddenly broke through and he was up to his hips in brush. Unfortunately—for him—a broken stick in the pile was pointed upwards directly at a particularly sensitive area of his anatomy. I did my best as he screamed for me to rescue him. I really did. But it’s hard to move frozen, broken tree parts when you’re laughing so hard your stomach hurts.

My parents were largely understanding when it came to dawdling. As long as I was home for supper, no one seemed to care. In fact, I came to suspect that my father was a dawdler when he was a youngster. Unfortunately, it’s too late to find out about that now; like so many other things, I’d like to get his take on the subject.

Unfortunately, things have changed over the last 60 years when it comes to allowing children to have fun by doing nothing at all. Often for good reason, most parents fear to have their children wandering around loose these days. There are simply too many nuts around and too many other dangerous things for children to get involved in.

It’s a shame when innocent activities—like dawdling near a local creek—that are real learning experiences are all too often unavailable to modern kids because of fears for their safety, even if those fears are well founded. It is one of the prices we must pay as we continue to grow, I suppose, but it often seems as if it’s an awfully high one.

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