Category Archives: family

Maintaining an eclectic palate makes life more interesting

Anyone who’s ever read this blog knows that I enjoy food. And one of the initially alarming things about this stupid pandemic we’re suffering through were rumors and reports about the disruptions in the chain of food deliveries from growers to grocery stores. Fortunately, those dark days seem to have gradually passed by, though it’s not out of the question that they might return.

When we lived out on the farm, the food chain was pretty short. That was in the early 1950s, so we had indoor running water and a flush toilet along with electricity and a party line telephone. But in many ways, we were still living as farmers had from the end of World War I through the Great Depression and World War II.

Our Wheatland Township farm, about 1950.

My dad’s job was to farm. He grew the crops, raised the livestock—pigs and feeder cattle—milked the cow (when we had one), repaired machinery and our car and truck, and cut my hair. My mom was responsible for the house, keeping it clean and tidy, cooking the meals, raising chickens (which, with the eggs they produced, were traded for groceries in town), and maintaining the garden and our small orchard.

Every Saturday, my mom, my two older sisters, and I would head to town, where we’d drop my sisters off at their piano lessons, while mom and I would drive down the street to the grocery store. There, mom would deliver one or two crates of eggs and sometimes freshly dressed chickens ready to be sold. They liked my mom’s eggs because they were always clean and fresh with no cracked shells. She’d get a receipt for them and then we’d shop for groceries, mostly staples, the bill for which was reduced by the amount she’d earned in credit for from the eggs and chickens.

Michaels Brother Grocery Store in Montgomery where my mother traded eggs for staples. Although this photo was taken around 1900, it looked much the same 50 years later. (From The History of Montgomery, Illinois in Words and Pictures)

Some of those groceries were for the school lunches for my sisters and me, like peanut butter, bologna, and liver sausage, and, depending on the season, fruit.

We were lucky growing up in the 1940s and 1950s because by then there was sufficient money for food. My mother recalled when she went to her rural neighborhood one-room school that some of the kids were so poor their school lunch sandwiches were bread and lard.

By the early 1950s when I started school, our lunches consisted of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, some kind of fruit, and dessert—my family was big on dessert. I don’t recall eating salty things like potato chips, but I suppose we might have.

My grandmother happily holding up a hog’s head as she and her father-in-law make up a batch of head cheese on Hinman Street in Aurora about 1910.

Living on a farm during that era meant you got a lot of food choices that my town cousins and friends didn’t. Early on I developed a taste for sandwiches made with the pickled heart and pickled tongue my grandmother made after my family did their annual beef butchering. And then there was head cheese, a product whose creation I won’t go into detail about here, although I will note there’s a surprising amount of edible meat on a hog’s head. My grandmother had a frequent hankering for headcheese, as did her son-in-law, my father, although by the time I came along we ate the store-boughten stuff (as grandma put it), the days of using everything but the squeal on the butchered hog having passed on into history. Anyway, I still love the stuff.

Bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seemed to predominate at lunch time during those early school years, but I always favored an eclectic mix that didn’t much interest my classmates when sandwich trades were in the wind.

Liver sausage—also called liverwurst and Braunschweiger (technically, Braunschweiger is the smoked variety of liver sausage) by some of my German friends and relatives—was one of my favorites. My buddy Glenn’s dad used to frequently remark, “Of all the things I like the best, I like liver wurst.” But I really liked liver sausage from the time I was a little kid, along with pickled tongue and head cheese, any one of which gave most of my lunch mates a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.

While I hated liver as a child—and still do as an adult, for that matter—I’ve always liked liver sausage. Don’t ask me why, except that the two, as far as my taste buds are concerned, are not even in the same food universe. Early on, my father attempted to get me to like liver as much as he did—which was a LOT. But there was something about the taste and consistency of the stuff I couldn’t stand. It was difficult for my parents to cajole me into eating liver since my mother couldn’t stand it, either, which made the whole “encourage by example” thing moot. Luckily for my father, he found a kindred spirit after I married my wife, and the two of them enjoyed liver and onions to their hearts’ content.

Still hard to beat Oscar Meyer’s recipe for liver sausage.

I got a real taste for the Oscar Mayer brand of liver sausage around fifth grade, and carried it in my lunch for several years. Liver sausage, dill pickle slices, and mustard was my standard lunch, and when Fritos were introduced, they provided a perfect compliment.

Out on the farm, my mother made jelly and jam from the fruit she grew in our farm’s small orchard, and pickles—sweet and dill—from the cucumbers she grew in the garden. We had a small grape arbor, and so did my grandparents, both of which seemed to produce lots of grapes for jelly as well. So peanut butter and jelly were my go-to sandwiches, along with bologna and cheese, for the two and a half years I went to one-room school when we lived on the farm, along with an occasional pickled tongue, liver sausage, or pickled heart sandwich treat.

But pickled heart or pickled tongue or head cheese sandwiches just aren’t very marketable in the sandwich trading market that often goes on during school lunchtimes. Even in my one-room country school, it was vanishingly rare to find anyone who’d risk a trade. Which was fine with me because it was hard to beat any of those sandwich fillings anyway.

My one-room school where we ate lunch at our desks and occasionally traded sandwiches–though few wanted to trade with me.

My grandparents retired from farming a year or so after my parents did, and moved into town. There, my grandmother still made the occasional batch of pickled tongue or pickled heart that made great sandwiches, though not ones anyone at school would have a thing to do with.

After my grandmother died, my sister Elaine continued the tradition and would make me an occasional batch of pickled tongue. I wrote a column several years ago about the joys of a good pickled tongue sandwich, lamenting my wife would have nothing to do with even the concept of pickled tongue. My editor and good friend, strongly agreed, stating she would definitely not have a thing to do with a recipe that began: “First peel the tongue.”

I did, however, manage to convince my son that unpopular foods might actually taste good. And that came in handy when we were traveling through West Virginia one time. We’d stopped at a local diner for breakfast, and he noticed something on the menu called “country sausage,” which was plainly differentiated from usual pork sausage. He asked the waitress what was in it, but she seemed a bit unsure what the difference might be. Turned out, it was a good pork sausage with a bit of a kick to it, and it was excellent.

Then there was our trip to Scotland. I was working on a book with my buddy Paul and it was also my 30th wedding anniversary, so I talked my wife into taking a celebratory trip to Scotland to do research for the book and generally have fun. It didn’t take much talking, either.

Scrooge McDuck was not a fan of Haggis. It turned out to taste pretty good.

That was back in the CompuServe days and I was able to make connections with people in Scotland who could help me out, and who became reasonably close on-line friends. We even stayed with one couple and their sons for a few days and enjoyed the kinds of Scottish food and pub visits you are denied with packaged tours. Our host told us he was preparing a true Scottish treat: Haggis, neeps, and tatties. That turned out to be haggis, served with yellow Swedish turnips and mashed potatoes.

I admit to having had a dim view of haggis since my days reading Scrooge McDuck comics—he claimed haggis nearly did him in. And, of course, haggis has been a banned Scottish import to the U.S. since 1971 just because it’s got sheep lungs in it. I mean, come on! We export Twinkies, which I suspect are far more deadly than the occasional sheep lung.

Haggis itself consists of sheep’s pluck minced and mixed with spices, oatmeal (wouldn’t be Scottish without it!), and suet, and then it’s all traditionally packed into a sheep’s stomach (artificial casings are favored these days) and then boiled, as are the Swedish turnips and potatoes, both of which are served on the side, mashed with butter and salt.

A hearty meal of haggis (center), neeps (right), and tatties looking much as it did when my friend Ian served it for my wife and I near St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Haggis is Scotland’s national dish.

So our friend Ian made the Haggis—the Scottish national dish, by the way—although his wife Sue would have nothing to do with it. He was fairly impressed when both my wife and I not only ate it, but really enjoyed it. I did, however, put my foot down at blood sausage as well as everything else the British insist on calling “sausage.” I don’t know what that stuff is, but it’s NOT sausage.

So my message today is that an outright refusal to try regional or national foods just because they’re a little off-putting (okay, haggis may be more than a little off-putting) is being short-sighted. Trying some adventurous food choices makes traveling—if this damned coronavirus ever allows us to get back to doing such a thing—a lot more interesting, and can even add a bit of a historical dimension as well. From colonial Williamsburg’s rabbit stew to Acadia National Park’s popovers to West Virginia’s country sausage to Lordsburg, New Mexico’s green salsa, there are tasty chances to be taken. Some of them might even make for a good school lunch.

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, Farming, Food, Montgomery, Nostalgia, People in History, travel

That’s a lot of bologna…

Was just making out our sheltering-in-place grocery list and found myself adding Oscar Mayer bologna. Which, of course, started the

My bologna has a first name;
it’s O-S-C-A-R.
My bologna has a second name;
it’s M-A-Y-E-R.

jingle rattling through my head nonstop.

Ring bologna

Ring bologna’s never been one of my favs, but my dad really liked the stuff, thanks to childhood memories.

But it also brought up bologna for lunches in decades past. LOTS of decades. My dad had a soft spot in his heart for bologna. Turned out that when he was a little kid growing up in poor, rural Kansas and the family would take the horse and wagon into the little village of Madison to do the weekly shopping, the children looked forward to a treat. If there was enough money left over after buying the necessary staples, the kids would be treated to sharing a ring bologna as they sat, swinging their barefooted legs, on the back of the wagon on the way home.

So we ate quite a bit of it when I was a kid growing up on a farm out in then-rural Wheatland Township here in Illinois. We never, however, ate the stuff fried. Long after I was grown and raised I heard some people actually eat their bologna fried—and LIKE it. The thought of it sort of gives me a queasy stomach to this day.

At home, early on, I preferred my bologna with a slice of good old American cheese (none of that fancy-schmancy Longhorn or Colby stuff for me!) and mustard. But I also came to enjoy my sisters’ and my mom’s favorite method of making a sandwich with bologna, lettuce and Miracle Whip—which my mother always called salad dressing, for some reason.

1953 interior grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School in the spring of 1953. No cafeteria–we had to take our lunches–but we did have a fireplace!

When I was 6 and went to school—no kindergarten out in the country (or in many towns for that matter)—we all carried our lunches in colorful lithographed steel lunchboxes with a Thermos bottle clipped inside. Those glass-lined Thermos bottles were marvels that kept soup hot or milk cold. But they also broke easily when dropped, and kids drop things a lot. The standard procedure after dropping our lunchbox with the Thermos inside, or dropping the Thermos itself was to shake it and listen for the sound of broken class scritching around inside.

For those first two and a half years of school, I alternated between bologna and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and that largely continued until we moved to town in the middle of my third grade year.

But in town, we had at least three choices for lunch during the school year. We could continue taking our lunch from home, although colorful steel lunchboxes were out in terms of fashion and brown lunch bags were in. My mother, a great saver, insisted that I bring the bags home to be reused.

1961 OHS Cafeteria ladies

The cafeteria ladies at Oswego High School fed every kid in town who wanted a hot lunch. In fact, it’s where I ate every hot lunch during my school years from the second half of my third grade year until I graduated from high school. After all these years, I only recognize two of them, Mrs. Fiscus on the far left (mother of my classmate Terry Fiscus) and Bernice Bower on the far right (an old, old family friend).

The second choice was to get a hot meal at the cafeteria. Our small town had one cafeteria in the high school basement, several blocks east of our elementary building. That meant that when the bell rang for lunch, anyone wanting a hot meal had to run the blocks up Polk Street to the high school, rush down the basement, and stand in the queue while waiting to go through the lunch line. We quickly learned which foods it was worth all the trouble to run the blocks there and back. For me, that included their toasted cheese sandwiches, which were cheese sandwiches that had been wrapped in tinfoil and baked instead of being fried on a griddle. I have tried—and failed—as an adult to recreate those things with their crunchy outside and tender, gooey interior with no luck at all.

1957 Red Brick flag raising

Rob Chada (right) and Mike Ode raise the flag at the old Red Brick School in the spring of 1957. For lunch, we either ate in, walked to the high school cafeteria several blocks away, or went home. (Little White School Museum collection)

I’ve always thought that it was remarkable that school authorities allowed all of us elementary students to take off and go all that way for lunch. And as an adult, I’ve also thought it was remarkable that we all came back again. But in those days, if we misbehaved on the way to the cafeteria someone would be bound to call our parents at home to let them know. In those days, the whole village was interested in raising children, whether the children liked it or not.

My third option in town was to be invited to my grandmother’s for lunch. She made the best pancakes in the world, and it was only a couple blocks to my grandparents’ house, just a couple minutes on my bike. I’ve never been able to figure out why Grandma’s pancakes were so much better than my mother’s ever were. The best I’ve had since are at the Bob Evans restaurants.

Oscar Mayer bologna

After all these years, Oscar Mayer is still my favorite bologna.

Throughout junior high and high school, I still had the occasional bologna sandwich in my school lunch, although they were much more common as lunches at home, especially during the summer when those bologna, lettuce, and Miracle Whip sandwiches were a lunch staple at our kitchen table.

After my wife and I married, I was pleased to find out that she liked bologna sandwich as much—if not more—than I do. We imparted that love to our daughter, but our son never caught the bologna fever. And frankly, he’s never been able to figure out what the lure of the stuff is.

But it’s well into spring, and there are warm sunny days now. And after working out in the yard during these shelter-in-place days, our fancy turns to bologna, lettuce, and Miracle Whip (or do you call it salad dressing?) between two slices of fresh Butternut or Rainbo bread that not only satisfy our hunger but also bring back the memories of a couple family generations.

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Filed under Education, entertainment, family, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

These are a few of my…

It’s just about Christmas, and most of us are looking forward to some quality family time around the tree, maybe at church, and possibly at the dinner table.

It sounds as if we’ll be enjoying one of those spiral-cut hams here at the Matile Manse on Christmas Day. No Christmas goose for this family, Uncle Scrooge. We tried doing goose for Christmas back in the 1970s and both times we were so sick with the respiratory flu we couldn’t get out of bed, much less participate in a family dinner. We decided Someone was trying to tell us something, so no more goose on the Matile table.

This is also the time of year we remember those Christmases past and the special treats we enjoyed so much. My Aunt Evelyn’s divinity, Grandma Holzhueter’s sugar and molasses cookies, and my mom’s apple and pumpkin pies were all integral parts of Christmas we looked forward to.

1956 Schwinn Corvette

The Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 in a cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

And, of course, there were the presents under the tree. I remember the toy service station I got one year, along with a car transporter truck, loaded with four pastel-colored plastic Hudsons. And, of course, the Christmas when I was seven and got my first Lionel train. Yes, I did get a Red Ryder lever-action carbine when I was 9 or so, and that great red and chrome Schwinn Corvette bike when I was 11 was a beauty. It also taught me, the day I got it, to NEVER do a panic stop with the front wheel caliper brakes while going down our steep gravel driveway.

As the holiday approaches, and with nothing better to do than recover from the persistent cold I’ve had for the past several days, I thought I’d just list a few of my current favorite things, along with some of my pet peeves as 2019 comes to a close. So, with very little further ado, here are a few of my…

Favorite gadgets…

Towel bar

My trusty heated towel bar

When I take my shower every morning, I thank providence for my warming towel bar. The gadget is fixed to the wall in our first floor bath, and gently heats and dries our towels. There is NOTHING better than grabbing a warm towel after exiting the shower.

I’ve carried a pocketknife for decades, starting when I was in grade school. These days, students would probably be either jailed or sent for counseling if they turned up at school with a pocketknife but it was another time back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. To start with, I carried a farmer’s friend pocketknife just like my dad’s. Before he retired in 1964, he sold livestock feed for the Moorman Manufacturing Company of Quincy, IL. The company gave out premiums to farmers for buying their products, and one year around 1958 or so, the premium was a nice four-blade Case pocketknife. I carried that until I discovered Swiss Army Knives back some decades ago. My current Swiss Army version was a Christmas gift from my daughter about 15 years ago. One of my most useful gadgets, I use its knife blade, nail file, and folding scissors just about every day. Less frequently, I use the tiny built-in LED flashlight and retractable ballpoint pen. But its built-in 2gb thumb drive is something I frequently use to carry back-up files around. Clever people, those Swiss knife makers.

Swiss Army Knife

My Swiss Army Knife, complete with sneaker net USB drive.

Those of us with ankylosing spondylitis, after our spines finish calcifying, can no longer bend over to pick up errant coins dropped, shoes, or papers. So to deal with the situation, I’ve got my Gopher picker-uppers scattered around the house and out in the garage and in the storage shed. Since they fold, they’re easy to take on trips, too. A related tool I use just about every day is my collapsible shoehorn that lives on a shelf in my closet.

New food finds…

I tried Popeye’s much-ballyhooed chicken sandwich a couple weeks ago, and have to admit the ballyhoo was fully warranted. I tried Burger King’s spicy chicken sandwich a couple years ago, but didn’t really care for it. To me, there was just too much spice. Last week, I was hungry for another spicy chicken sandwich, but didn’t want to drive all the way over to Popeye’s, so decided to try Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich, which was enthusiastically boosted by my buddy Glenn. In doing so, I found that not only is Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich really good, but that their fries are even better. If you haven’t tried Wendy’s fries for awhile, I’d advise a visit sometime soon. In the end, though, Popeye’s sandwich is still the champ from my point of view.

Arby's gyro

Arby’s gyro passed the Matile taste test.

Bob, my partner in crime down at the museum, said the other day how good the gyros were at Arby’s. We hadn’t had gyros for quite awhile—it seemed like the 2008 recession killed off most of the nearby spots that sold them. Generally, we have pizza on Sunday night, but last night we decided to try Arby’s traditional Greek gyros, and were VERY favorably impressed. And at two for $6, the price couldn’t be beaten. Granted, gyros perfectionists may not like Arby’s substitution of flatbread for the traditional pita, but we thought the flatbread was softer and fluffier than pitas, and really tasty. And we really liked Arby’s

Year end pet peeves…

As 2019 grinds to a close, as a grumpy old man, I have to include a few of my lingering pet peeves, most of which involve the others I share the road with.

Using your vehicle’s turn signals is not some sort of politically correct suggestion. You’re required to use them by law when changing lanes and when making turns. And you’re supposed to use the signals BEFORE you turn, not as you’re turning in order to give drivers both behind and in front of you a bit of warning what you’re planning to do. In driver’s ed, I learned that on the highway, you’re supposed to use your turn signal 100 feet before you turn and in town, you’re supposed to use it 50 feet before you turn. Please have a little respect for your fellow motorists and use your turn signals like they’re supposed to be used.

Fox River Trail markerThe Matile Manse is located right on the Fox River Trail, a walking, running, and biking trail that extends from Oswego north all the way to the Wisconsin state line. It’s really nice to see so many people using it and seeming to have such a good time doing so. On a warm summer Sunday morning, I swear we see half of Oswego’s population walking, running, or biking on the trail. It’s certainly one of the most heavily used amenities in the Oswegoland area and we owe former Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Bert Gray and environmentalist, naturalist, author, and war hero Dick Young for doing all the deep spadework that made it a reality.

But as the trail passes in front of our house it’s situated right on North Adams Street, meaning all those walkers, runners, and bikers share the trail with cars on North Adams. Since that section of trail is on the street, the rules of the road prevail. That means walkers must walk AGAINST auto traffic and that cyclists must ride WITH the traffic. And, again, I do mean MUST, since it’s the law. It also means walkers and cyclists should NOT split up with half on one side of the street and half on the other side when they meet a vehicle. I usually give kids some leeway with the splitting up part—I remember doing the same dumb thing when I was a kid. But with adults, there’s simply no excuse for this dangerous habit.

Furthermore, North Adams is a dark street with only a few streetlights. Since walkers and cyclists share the street with motor vehicles, it’s extremely dangerous for those walkers and cyclists to be out after dark with no lights or reflective gear, especially if they’re on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! Several times when we’ve come home on dark, moonless nights we’ll suddenly come upon pedestrians dressed in dark clothing—black hoodies seem favored—with no warning. So my plea is for walkers, runners, and cyclists to please wear some reflective tape or carry one of those neat blinking strobe lights to give a bit of warning to hapless motorists on dark nights. And that goes for those out walking their dogs after dark, too, especially on rainy nights.

So there, my major peeves, new food finds, and favorite gadgets are all laid out just in time for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Hope you and yours have a very happy winter holiday season and that you’ll stop by in 2020 to enjoy more local history!

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, family, Food, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

A different world: Growing up on an Illinois farm in the early 1950s

I sometimes get the feeling that I grew up in a kind of time warp.

1952 Musselman house Aurora

The house on Douglas Avenue on the southeast side of Aurora where my wife lived when she was six years old.

My wife, for instance, cheerfully refers to herself as a “Subdivision Kid.” She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa (Radar O’Reilly’s hometown) and then moved around as her father was transferred with his job for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. As a result, she grew up in a series of subdivisions in Aurora here in Illinois, in St. Louis, and finally back to Illinois and Boulder Hill here in Kendall County where she lived in modern houses, watched television, had heated bathrooms and bedrooms, and never listened to “The Great Gildersleeve” on an RCA console radio.

For me, on the other hand, things were different. Very different.

When I was born, my folks took me home to the farm they were renting from Clarence and Elsie Butcher in Wheatland Township, just across the Will County line from Kendall County. The farm we lived on was considered relatively new, the buildings having only been built in the early l930s. But while the house might have been considered almost new when they moved in, it seemed to have been built in considerable haste.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm in Wheatland Township my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in the living room of that house, looking at the front door, and seeing it festooned with clean rags that had been carefully and tightly packed into its numerous cracks to keep out the stiff prairie wind that was barely slowed by the poor-quality storm door. While the door looked impressive, all those cracks and gaps meant it did little to keep those breezes out. That house was just plain COLD.

The bathroom in that farmhouse was in the basement, right beside the cistern. Houses don’t have cisterns these days, they having been replaced by water softeners. The cistern was a large open-topped concrete tank built into one corner of the basement where all the rain water from the gutters on the roof was directed. The collected rainwater, being ‘soft,’ was then used for washing clothes and anything else that required some suds since the water from the well was loaded with minerals and therefore ‘hard.’

1947 Dad, Roger, Boots

My father looks on as I view Boots, the family Border Collie, with suspicion. Boots and I went on to become fast friends.

The bathroom had been added to the house as an afterthought in the basement corner next to the cistern a few years before I was born. My sisters, aged 9 and 12 when my parents brought me home from Copley Hospital in 1946, loved the indoor plumbing, no matter how primitive it might seem to modern sensibilities. Because anything was better than braving rain, sleet, and snow to make it to the outhouse. Even so, it took real courage for my childhood self to go to the bathroom before bed after listening to the latest installment of “Inner Sanctum” on the radio, let me tell you.

We had no automatic water heater, of course. Hot water had to be produced via a hand-fired water heater that was fueled with corncobs. After I got old enough—six—it was my duty of a Saturday night, to make sure the water heater had been started early enough so that my date-bound sisters could take hot baths and otherwise get ready in time for their dates.

1947 Roger in wash tub

Nothing like a cool swim on a hot day. The family Buick is in the background. Bought used, the car was roundly hated by my father who always referred to it as “The Lemon.” For years, my sisters thought that was the brand name.

One particularly disastrous instance that has stuck in my mind all these years occurred when I had the fire going nicely, and then attempted to check its progress, only to burn my hand on the spiral metal lid handle. After I complained, my mother advised me to use a piece of cloth with which to pad my hand. There were plenty of random pieces of cloth lying around the basement, especially around the old wringer-type washing machine. Unfortunately, the piece of cloth I grabbed happened to be one of my sisters’ nylon unmentionables, which promptly welded itself right onto the hot metal handle while a large hole melted in the undergarment. My father, who came down to the rescue, thought it was pretty funny. My sisters were less amused.

We didn’t get our first TV set until that year I was six years old. I’d seen TVs before that, of course, at friends’ and relatives’ homes, but my major electronic entertainment came from the big console radio in the living room. I remember the first TV was a black and gold table-model RCA that my parents bought from Don Pennington’s store in Plainfield.

Prior to the delivery of the TV, as noted above, the only entertainment I remember was listening to the radio. My folks owned a large console RCA Victor radio with an ornate walnut case that sat off the floor on four turned wooden legs. I remember enjoying a number of radio programs, from soap operas to action-adventure programs.

The Ranger & Sgt. Preston

“The Lone Ranger” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” shows were two of my favorites on radio. Both got ported over to TV and became hits there, too.

My mother and sisters (when they were home from school during the summer) listened to soaps during the day, including “One Man’s Family,” “Portia Faces Life” (my sister Elaine’s all-time favorite), “Ma Perkins” (which seemed to feature excessive numbers of screen doors slamming shut), “Our Gal Sal,” and “Just Plain Bill.”

I wasn’t much into soaps, however, being a boy of five or six. Action-adventure was my cup of tea. I listened to “Gang Busters,” “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon,” and “The Lone Ranger” as often as I could. “Superman” (Up, up, and away!) was another really big favorite. Imagine my amazement when I watched George Reeves actually go up, up, and away on our new TV set for the very first time. I ran right out to the barn to tell my father about the amazing occurrence! Superman could REALLY FLY! I’d just seen it happen on the television set with my own eyes! Which resulted in a gentle lecture about special effects that might have been the start of the skepticism that led me to a career in journalism.

Comedy shows were another favorite of mine. I liked “Fibber McGee and Molly” since Fibber’s closet and mine seemed to enjoy a similar arrangement, at least according to my mother. “The Great Gildersleeve” was another favorite, as was “Amos and Andy.” I know “Amos and Andy” is not politically correct these days, but I really liked it a lot when I was a kid, and always figured the black guys who delivered the coal for our furnace from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora were probably very funny guys when they weren’t busy shoveling coal into our basement. On coal delivery day, I always waited patiently outside for them to tell a joke or two, but never with any success. Nowadays I wonder how they were able to restrain themselves from painting over the company’s motto lettered on the sides of the brown dump trucks they drove: “Our Name is Brown, Our Coal is Black, We Treat You White.”

1952-53 Grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School during the 1952-53 school year.  The author is sitting in the lower left corner. His wardrobe–jeans and flannel shirt–has not changed appreciably since.

I attended a one-room school, Church School, located about a mile from our farm. When I started, there were six grades and nearly 30 students in one room, a far cry from schools in town where each grade had one or more rooms to itself. But at least I had classmates; five to start out with. My oldest sister went through eight years in two different rural one-room schools and was the only student in her class for all eight years.

By the time I started school, the seventh and eighth graders had already been moved into town, thanks to activism by my mother and other farm wives. The junior high in Oswego had much better facilities—a science lab, for instance—and there was no danger any student would have to go through their first eight grades as the only person in their class again.

But I started school almost at the end of the one-room country school in northern Illinois. Consolidation was being vigorously pursued by state education officials. When I started second grade, the fifth and sixth graders had been moved into town, and by third grade, the fourth graders followed. We moved off the farm in the middle of that third grade year and when I went to my first day of classes at my new school, there were more kids in my third grade classroom than there had been in our entire school out in the country.

And as part of the first real year of the Baby Boom, there was certainly no worry about me being the only student in my class. By the time we graduated from high school, we were the first class in school history to have more than 100 class members.

Farm technology was on the same cusp as electronic entertainment media at that time. Most farmers ran diversified farms, and my parents were no different. My dad took care of the livestock—cattle and hogs—out in the barn, and planted, tended, and harvested the fields that produced grain and forage crops. My mother’s realm was the garden, orchard, and chicken house as well as the farmhouse where she did the cooking, washing, and cleaning.

Diversified farms, as the name implies produced both grain and livestock, and my dad made a pretty good living on 120 acres of land. He often rented some more acreage from non-farming neighbors, but I don’t think he ever farmed more than 180 acres. My mom canned about everything that came out of the garden and the orchard, from fruits to vegetables. The chickens produced eggs that were, along with the dressed chickens themselves, traded in town for groceries. Meanwhile, my dad milked the family cow—a dappled golden brown and white Guernsey named Daisy by the time I came along—that provided milk and cream for the family with enough milk left over to have a family friend turn into cottage cheese. My grandmother churned the cream into butter and my father relished the buttermilk left over from the process. I never could stand the stuff straight, but it certainly made great pancakes.

Then I became a town kid when my father had to retire from farming. I hated leaving the farm, but it probably saved my life since I was violently allergic to just about everything on it from the hay and straw in the barn to the feathers on the chickens out in the chicken house. And by moving into town, I got to know and become intimately familiar with the Fox River in all its moods. It’s something I still enjoy since our house is located on the riverbank right across to the street from the house my parents moved to all those years ago.

It seems curious that when my family was trading eggs for groceries in Montgomery and taking extra cream and milk to the creamery in Yorkville that other kids my age were living in modern ranch homes on paved streets with sidewalks, and who never got a case of goosebumps in their lives from an episode of “Inner Sanctum.”

But time warp or not, the 1950s were a good time to grow up in my small corner of northern Illinois. And even though I have a hard time trying to fit my mind around it, I imagine today’s youngsters will look back just as fondly on their childhood days.

 

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Filed under family, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Women's History

Cheap or thrifty? You be the judge…

My family was barely middle class and far from rich. But my mother and my grandmother both knew how to make things look nice and very middle classy.

My mom’s family were all Germans, some more recently from the Old Country than others. In 1885, her father’s family immigrated from East Prussia. They had been employed on one of the Kaiser’s estates, where my great-grandfather had been a gardener. Her mother’s family, on the other hand, had arrived here in 1750, settling in Pennsylvania and becoming one of the Pennsylvania Dutch families that lived in and around Lancaster County. They emigrated to Illinois in 1852, nearly a century after they arrived here in the New World.

Image result for castle garden new york

Castle Garden in New York harbor was the original point of entry for immigrants before Ellis Island opened. It welcomed immigrants from 1820 to 1892.

Even though Grandma’s family had been in North America for a century, they still spoke German at home, so they mixed easily with the new German immigrants that had begun arriving in Illinois in the 1840s. My grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, although not so late they got here by the time Ellis Island was the main European immigrants’ processing center. Instead, they came through Castle Garden, Ellis Island’s predecessor, and then traveled west to Aurora, Illinois to join my great-grandmother’s family as part of the chain migration cycle that modern right wing politicians decry.

They were thrifty, hard workers, those German and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors of mine. They knew how to hang onto a dollar so tightly that, as the song says, the eagle on it grinned.

My mother said they were tight. My sisters said they were so tight they squeaked. My grandmother calmly explained to be once, “Well, that’s just the way we did.”

The rule was to hang onto what you had, make do, make it last, fix it if you need to, and keep using it until it was unusable. Even my teacher (of English descent) at our one-room rural school was part of the infrastructure that pounded thrift into us. “Waste not, want not” was her favorite saying. Because thrift was the thing back then for all of us, something left over from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the wartime rationing of the 1940s.

1895 abt Amelia, Edith, Mable Lantz Lantz Farm

The Lantz family farmhouse in 1894. Left to right are my great-grandmother, Amelia Minnich Lantz, my great-aunt, Edith Lantz, and my grandmother, Mabel Lantz.

For instance, when we moved to town after my dad retired from farming in 1954, I was introduced to student banking. Every week my third grade classmates would put a few coins in small brown envelopes that were sent off to the bank where we had our very own savings accounts. There was a lot of peer pressure to participate in student banking back then.

My mother ran a very thrifty household, but her mother seemed to think she was awfully liberal with her spending. For instance, my mother absolutely hated stale bread. Her one vice was to retire a loaf of bread as soon as it became even slightly stale. Not that she threw it away, of course. Instead, I grew up eating lots of bread pudding. That hit two birds with one stone, it prevented us from throwing out perfectly good bread and it provided dessert, with which no meal in my household was complete.

My grandmother was even thriftier than my mother. Stale bread was good bread as far as she was concerned. Moldy? Scrape it off and don’t complain. A little mold is probably good for you anyway.

But my grandmother’s parents were, hands down, the winners in the family thrift sweepstakes.

1899 Haines Inman Young at work

While working on the Watts Cutter house on Main Street in Oswego, Irvin “Irvy” Haines snapped this photo of the crew. Left to right are Dan Minnich, Lew Inman, Haines (note hand blurred when he pulled the cable to snap the shot), and Lou C. Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

My great-grandparents worked the family farm until they decided to retire in 1906 when my great-grandfather was 60 and my great-grandmother was 57. They bought land just outside the village limits of Oswego, Illinois on which to build their retirement home, selecting the vacant parcel between my great-grandmother’s parents’ house and her sisters’ house.

To build their new retirement home, they chose my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines (the family called him Irvy). Haines was a well-known Oswego contractor who worked, off and on, with a crew of other local carpenters including Lou C. Young, and two of Haines’ cousins, Lew Inman and Dan Minnich.

What they chose to have Haines build for them was a Queen Anne-style, story-and-a-half farmhouse design. Haines must have liked the design; he built at least three of them, including the one for my great-grandparents, one in neighboring Montgomery, Illinois, and one on a farm just outside of Oswego on Collins Road.

It was an interesting design, and relatively advanced for the period. On the exterior, it had clapboard siding that was wider on the first floor that narrowed on the second floor, drawing the eye up to the steeply-pitched roof making it look larger and taller than it actually was. Shingles and brackets in the peak provided a bit of interest, as did Greek Revival-like columns at the corners and which provided support for the front porch with its steep stairs. It was finished off with a fireproof lifetime roof of fiber-reinforced concrete shingles as protection against cinders and ash produced by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy locomotives that puffed through the backyard on the CB&Q’s Fox River Line. When they advertised them as lifetime shingles, they weren’t kidding. They’re still on the house and they’re still in great shape.

2005 Lantz-Matile House

The Queen Anne house Irvy Haines finished for his Aunt Amelia and Uncle John Peter Lantz in 1907 Note how the varying widths of clapboard siding draw the eye up towards the steep peak of the roof..

Inside, the home was fashionably dressed with long-leaf yellow pine woodwork throughout, including the tall kitchen cabinet, and built-in cabinets in the dining room and back parlor. The kitchen got a birdseye maple floor, while the rest of the house was floored with the same yellow pine used for the woodwork. It also included closets in each of the three upstairs bedrooms and a coat closet near the front door, relatively rare amenities that were rapidly gaining in popularity at the time. Also installed was a modern acetylene gas lighting system, powered by an acetylene gas generator in the basement.

But the biggest modern feature of the house was the indoor bathroom. Their farmhouse had never had such a modern thing, and it was something to behold with its white porcelain toilet and sink and its claw-foot cast iron tub.

1937 G&G Lantz smiling.jpg

My great-grandparents celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary in the house Irvy Haines built for them in Oswego, Illinois

It was a grand house and an upgrade from their farmhouse, but the thing in their minds as they moved into town in October 1907 seems to have been resale. After all, while they were healthy they were definitely getting on in years and who knew how long they’d live. So they decided it would be too easy to wear out this wonderful house young Irvy Haines built for them. So they had him add a full kitchen in the basement where they could spend most of their time, and made sure he included an outhouse at the end of the sidewalk in back of their combination town barn and chicken house so they didn’t wear out the nice modern kitchen and bathroom upstairs.

It was an interesting plan and sensible, I guess, from their point of view. The problem was, however, that they didn’t live there for 10 years and die. Instead, they lived in the house for more than 30 years and it finally got to the point that resale value was about the last thing they worried about as they celebrated their 73rd anniversary there, still cooking in the basement and using the outhouse so as not to wear out their nice kitchen and bathroom.

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The long-leaf yellow pine woodwork in my great-grandparents’ house is still in good shape after more than 110 years.

Ownership of the house devolved to my grandmother after her parents’ death. My aunt and uncle lived there during World War II, moving up into Oswego proper in the early 1950s. The house was available when my parents moved off the farm, so they bought it from my grandparents. My wife and I bought it from my mother in 1976 and owned it until we moved across the street last year. My son lives there now with his family, the fifth generation of our family to enjoy it. His son asked him if he has to live there when he grows up, and he was assured it would be a strictly voluntary thing.

The living-in-the-basement thing ended when my aunt and uncle move there in 1943. When my parents moved there, my mother did some remodeling in keeping with the 1950s, ‘modernizing’ it by removing the yellow pine plate rail in the dining room, the picture rails in the living and dining rooms, and the cornices on the door frames, so it’s not quite as elegant as it was when Irvy Haines wrapped up construction back in ’08.

But I like to think that our family’s recycling the home that’s been going on for the past four generations sort of reflects the ethos of my great-grandparents that you don’t get rid of something just because it isn’t new and further that you take good care of what your have and make it last as long as you can. So, while none of us have lived in the basement, and while the old outhouse has gone the way of the rest of that breed, we’re still maintaining the old homestead just as we’ve done for the past 112 years. And with the care and skill Irvy Haines used when he built the place, it’s not impossible it will still be standing tall when my grandson’s grandchildren wonder about its history.

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, family, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

There are no obvious answers to reversing the decline of rural America

There seems to be quite a bit of discussion in Washington, D.C. these days concerning what to do about the decline in quality of life many rural areas of the country are experiencing.

Economic opportunity seems to have disappeared from the less-populated areas of the country while it has steadily grown in larger urban areas, especially on the nation’s East and West Coasts, as well as the Chicago metro region, not to mention some of the larger urban areas in the Sunbelt.

But the old Rust Belt areas of the East and Midwest, Appalachia, and the farming areas in the center of the country have seen a steady drain on population as the farming, heavy industry, and mining on which the areas once depended have slowly shrunk or disappeared completely.

So what’s causing this economic dislocation? Different things get blamed in different areas of the country. In Appalachia, the coal mining that was once the dominant industry has all but disappeared as the use of coal has steadily declined to the point that mining jobs in, say, West Virginia have sharply dropped. These days, more than twice as many people are employed in health care as in mining. And, following the national trend, the pay for the jobs in growth fields is much less than the old jobs in mining and manufacturing.

Oswego village limits.jpg

While many rural communities in the agricultural Midwest have declined, sometimes sharply, Oswego, Illinois’ population has boomed due to its proximity to the Chicago Metro Region.

Meanwhile, here in the Midwest, which is what I’m concentrating today, the number of farmers continues to steadily decline, outpacing the loss or repurposing of agricultural land. Nowadays, with giant computerized agricultural equipment, one farmer can work more land than ten could farm 50 years ago. And with modern hybrids, and computerized planting and harvesting equipment that accurately record yields so that fertilizers and pesticides are only applied where needed, yields are typically several times what they were 50 years ago.

Farming was once extremely labor-intensive, especially in the production of the small grains of wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Until the middle of the 19th Century, planting, tilling, and harvesting small grains hadn’t changed all that much for the preceding 1,000 years. It was sown by hand and tended and cultivated by hand. Harvesting consisted of cutting it by hand using scythes, gathering the cut grain into bundles which were stacked in shocks to dry. Then threshing the grain from the stalks by hand using flails and then winnowing it—by hand—to separate the chaff from the grain before it could be bagged or shoveled into bins.

But shortly after the pioneer era ended here in Kendall County, farmers began to adopt a variety of machines to help in the small grain harvest, from horse-drawn harvesters that cut the grain—later models of which also tied the stalks into bundles—to other machines that were developed to thresh the grain from the stalks. By the early 20th Century, combined harvesters were developed that cut and threshed grain all in one pass.

In 1830, as Kendall County settlement was beginning, it took 250 to 300 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, efforts at horse-drawn mechanization were having a huge impact as it only took 40 to 50 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By the 1930s, with the introduction of gas-powered tractors, the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of wheat had been cut to just 15 to 20 hours. With today’s huge modern equipment, it takes a farmer less than three hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat.

1887 Binder at work

By 1887, harvesters had turned into binders that cut and bundled grain to ready it for threshing, greatly reducing the labor needed to produce a crop.

But wheat was not a major crop here in northern Illinois much past the settlement era since the humid climate doesn’t favor it. But our climate does favor growing corn, which was a major crop from the very beginning when Native People began farming the Illinois prairies. American settlers took up where the ancient people left off, turning over the wild prairie grasses with breaking plows and growing huge amounts of corn in ever increasing varieties.

Corn farming, like small grain farming, greatly benefited from mechanization. In 1840 it took one farmer about 280 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields were about 36 bushels per acre. By 1950 hybrids and modern fertilizers pushed yields to about 50 bushels per acre. But thanks to mechanization, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had been cut to only about 14 hours. Today, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields of more than 200 bushels per acre are common.

Successful efforts at mechanization have had fairly dramatic effects on farming across the nation, including here in Kendall County. Improvements in farm technology, from mechanization to better hybrids to improved fertilizers and pesticides have led, over the years, to fewer, larger farms. In 1950, there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County averaging 180 acres each. By 2012, the number had dropped to just 364 farms that were twice as large, averaging 356 acres.

John Deere corn harvester

Huge modern equipment allows one farmer to do the work it previously took 10 to do. The modernization of agriculture has had a significant impact on rural America.

The economic impact on Kendall County created by those profound changes in farming have not had a negative economic impact here, because beginning in the 1990s, instead of growing corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of farmland, we began growing residential and retail developments. Kendall County is at the end of the growth funnel created by the U.S. Route 34 corridor that continues to inject new residents here looking for less expensive housing than can be found to the immediate east, along with good schools, parks, libraries and other amenities families look for. Yes, that growth can often create problems. But the problems are minuscule compared with other rural areas of the Midwest are suffering as the result of changes created, I believe, in large part by the changes in agriculture.

All over Iowa, for instance, small towns are declining, watching their once-thriving business districts turn into vacant storefronts as the community is served, if they’re lucky, by a Casey’s General Store mini-mart and gas station. Up in Wisconsin, in country where there used to be thousands of small dairy farms, pastures and hayfields are now overgrown with brush and trees as barns and whole farmsteads are overtaken by the Northwoods. The smaller dairy farms were forced out of business by a combination of consolidation by larger corporate farms and implementation of stronger health standards that penalized smaller farms.

A case in point is the small northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls. My family has been heading up to Butternut Lake a couple miles north of town for more than 40 years now. And during that time the town’s population has declined by one-third.

So what’s going on in those areas not lucky enough to be near a vibrant region like the Chicago metro region? The answer I found lies in those farming statistics I cited above. One farm family can now take care of what 10 farm families tended 60 years ago. For every farm family left, there are nine fewer families to send their children to local schools, nine fewer families who go to church on Sunday, nine fewer families buying back-to-school clothes and supplies, and nine fewer farmers patronizing the local lumberyard, hardware store, and implement dealer. Even more population leaches out of communities as businesses leave and that makes it difficult to maintain public services from roads to fire departments to schools and impossible to attract any new classes of business that could conceivably replace agriculture. Most of these communities have seen their rail service, along with the tracks themselves, eliminated long ago by the frenzy of railroad consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s, and they’re too far from any Interstate highway, not to mention raw materials and potential customers, that could make locating a manufacturing operation there economical.

small depressed town

Small towns all over Iowa, central Illinois, and other areas of the rural Midwest are slowly dying as their populations evaporate.

It’s a negative feedback loop that turns into a death spiral: Children of the families that remain graduate from high school and can find no jobs, so they move away as do families with skills or wherewithal to find new jobs and start new lives elsewhere, increasing the population drain and leaving behind a populace that is increasingly unskilled, elderly, and impoverished that today is often also afflicted by the nation’s tragic opioid epidemic.

So, what’s to be done? I have no idea. Farmers certainly aren’t going to go back to growing crops with horse-drawn equipment. The local department, grocery, and hardware stores, even if they tried to come back, couldn’t compete with Walmart.

It’s probably a good thing that people are starting to look at these depressed areas with a view towards doing something to help them. But it’s going to take a much smarter person than I to figure out how to counteract the negative impact of nearly 200 years of technological progress on rural America.

 

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Filed under Business, family, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Recalling food favorites of the good old (and not so old) days…

Anyone who knows me or who reads this blog regularly (or both, come to think of it) knows I really like food.

The other day, I got to thinking about the many different kinds of food I’ve had over the years, from childhood on, that I’ll not likely be able to enjoy again.

What brought on the introspection was starting off my meal at an area buffet restaurant with cottage cheese and pickled beets. Granted, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid. And while pickled beets and cottage cheese are available in just about every grocery store in the country, it was the cottage cheese that prompted memories of my favorite kind when I was a little kid growing up out on the farm.

In those days, we had our own cow, a placid Guernsey my sisters had named Daisy. My dad milked her twice a day in a stall in the barn, sitting a three-legged milking stool, occasionally expertly aiming a shot of fresh milk from Daisy’s udder to one of the barn cats that crowded around waiting for a treat. When he was done milking, Dad would take the bucket of fresh milk in the house and down the basement to run it through the separator that separated (most of) the cream from the milk.

My family used Daisy’s milk for a number of things, from morning cereal to coffee cream (the real thing!) to ingredients for baking and cooking. That milk was also manufactured into two other products that we really enjoyed, meaning now we’re getting back to the cottage cheese part of the story.

Cottage cheese container

Sort of, kind of the containers we’d get from Aunt Bess filled with homemade cottage cheese.

My mother would occasionally take a large container or two of Daisy’s milk over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who was one of the many aunts and uncles I had out in that neighborhood who were of absolutely no blood relation to me at all. But they were all like family, especially Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim. Aunt Bess would then somehow magically transform the milk my mother took to her into cottage cheese, which we were invited to go back and pick up a few days later. She always packaged in in two tall aluminum containers, and it tasted wonderful.

It’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever have the chance to taste Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese again, in this lifetime at least. Nor will I ever be able to taste the butter my grandmother made from Daisy’s cream. I remember her making it with an electric churn, and then working out the buttermilk and the salt in using a wooden paddle in a large wooden bowl. My dad loved buttermilk, but I was never able to acquire a taste for it, although using it in pancakes, banana nut muffins, and the like is a really good idea. The taste of my grandmother’s homemade butter is another thing I’m probably never going to be able to enjoy again.

A couple more of my grandmother’s foods I’ll likely never see again are her molasses cookies (my dad would sometimes crumble up a couple in a bowl and have them for breakfast with some of Daisy’s milk) and her homemade bread, which my grandfather didn’t particularly care for. My grandfather, instead, loved sliced commercial bakery bread delivered by the Peter Wheat Bread man. That, however, was fine with me because that meant more of grandma’s amazing homemade bread for me.

Cookstove

Grandma’s cookstove looked something like this, and it dominated her farmhouse kitchen.

Grandma’s baking was all done in her huge black and white porcelain wood-fired cook stove that dominated her kitchen. She had a modern propane-fueled range, too, but she favored her cookstove for baking. How, I once asked her, did she regulate the temperature to get the right results? “Well,” she said, “you just stick your hand in the oven and when it’s the right heat, then you do your baking.”

When I was really little, we still butchered our own pork and beef, using hogs and steers my dad had carefully picked out and fed especially for the purpose. After butchering, we’d get the occasional covered bowl of pickled heart or pickled tongue from grandma that made really great sandwiches. Those are things you just don’t see in the grocery store these days, at least not around these parts.

During those long ago summers, my family seemed to attend a never-ending series of picnics, each of which featured a wonderful potluck dinner or supper. My mother’s specialty for these occasions was her baked fried chicken, which was outstanding. She made it by first dredging the chicken parts in seasoned flour and then frying it in her big cast aluminum Pan-American frying pan. Then she finished it by baking it in the oven. It came out nearly falling off the bone, cooked through, moist and tasting wonderful. That kind of chicken used to be available at the Amana Colonies out in Iowa, but in recent years it’s been dropped in favor of regular fried chicken—a culinary loss to the Midwest.

At our annual family reunion in August, along with my mother’s chicken, we enjoyed a huge selection of desserts, some of which I’ll likely never taste again such as wonderberry pie and ground cherry pie. Both wonderberries and ground cherries are relatively labor-intensive to grow and as they are considered heirloom plants these days, are not easily available at your local garden center. But back in that day and age, they were found in lots of farm gardens. My grandmother had a ground cherry patch outside her back door. They always reminded me of tiny yellow cherries growing inside Japanese lanterns.

In the early spring each year, the Wheatland United Presbyterian Church just down the road from our farm held their annual pancake supper, put on by the young farming families. It was their major fundraiser for the year, and was extremely popular, drawing visitors from far and wide. One of the major draws was the sausage they served with their pancakes. It was whole hog sausage, made from a couple entire hogs, which were donated by a congregation member and made by the volunteer sausage committee members. For my taste, it was seasoned perfectly with just the right amount of salt, pepper and—most importantly—sage, because you can’t have decent breakfast sausage without sage.

Scrapple & egg

About the only thing better for breakfast than fried mush and eggs is scrapple and eggs. Our neighbor Sam’s homemade scrapple was a true gourmet treat of my childhood.

Enjoying that quality of sausage ever again is unlikely, as is the scrapple our neighbor Sam made after we moved into town. He called it by another of its Pennsylvania Dutch names, pon haus, and it was wonderful. You can buy canned scrapple these days, but it resembles scrapple about as much as Spam resembles ham. If you can wait, it’s really best to make a special trip east to Pennsylvania Dutch country in Pennsylvania or Delaware and either buy it at a farmers’ market or at a small country diner. But however you are able to get hold of some these days, it won’t hold a candle to the taste of Sam’s pon haus.

Image result for watermelon ahead sign

On our summer Kansas trips during my childhood we’d keep a sharp eye out for a sign advertising a roadside watermelon stand, where an ice cold slice could be had for 15 or 20 cents, welcome relief in those pre-air conditioned auto days.

Some of the foods I enjoyed in my younger life tasted good, I suspect, just because of the situation I was in when eating them. Ice cold watermelon at the picnic table of a roadside stand on the dusty Kansas prairie during a hot summer trip to visit relatives; fresh lobster boiled while we watched at a picnic table at a roadside stand along the Connecticut shore; Yorkshire pudding and roast beef in a Yorkshire, England restaurant; a fountain-mixed root beer at the soda fountain in Oswego’s Main Cafe on a hot 1959 summer afternoon; and a 2” thick slice of raspberry pie at a country diner during the Kansas wheat harvest all left wonderful memories of those times and places.

I recall asking my grandmother one time whether she’d ever like to go back to visit “the gold old days” of her younger life. After thinking for a moment, she ventured “Maybe for supper.” She explained that she missed the canned roast beef they used to put up when she was a youngster and a young married woman in the days before home freezers. She said the taste and texture of the meat, tender and moist, was simply not available any more.

So I seem to come by my food nostalgia naturally; it’s apparently embedded in my DNA. Some of those eating experiences are gone forever—Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese—but there’s an outside chance that I may someday still get a chance to enjoy a good scrapple breakfast again or maybe even a slice of wonderberry pie. A person can certainly hope…

 

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Filed under entertainment, family, Farming, Food, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Women's History

When it was summer and the livin’ was easy…

Summer has not yet quite officially arrived in the Fox Valley, although summer vacation has. Family vacations are on the horizon, and the newly out-of-school kids are able to ignore the fact they’ll have to get back in the academic harness in a few months. Instead, they’re settling into whatever summer routines their parents have mapped out for them.

These days, in fact, kids are heavily scheduled and deeply involved in a variety of organized sports, from the littlest tots to teens. Practice for upcoming Youth Tackle Football League games is starting along with soccer practice, tennis practice, and a variety of other sports leagues that would have astonished us here in Oswego 60 years ago. And that doesn’t even count the swimming lessons, craft activities, reading programs, and all the other things parents get their kids involved in.

1958 Fishing expedition

Oswego kids line up at the Red Brick School for a 1958 fishing derby at Hafenrichter’s Pond sponsored by the Oswego Park District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in the late 1950s when I was just a kid, the group I traveled with loathed structured activities of any kind, which was probably a good thing, since there weren’t too many of those kinds of things to do anyway. We did have Little League baseball, provided by the park district, but I lost my enthusiasm for that when John Seidelman threw a high hard one inside and managed to hit me right in the ear hole of my batting helmet one day. After picking myself up off the batter’s box, I found my enthusiasm for baseball had disappeared. In fact, I haven’t liked baseball all that much ever since.

We also had the summer youth programs of the Oswego (later Oswegoland) Park District overseen by Ford Lippold up at the Little White School and the Red Brick School, but we weren’t much interested in them, either.

Spanky & the Gang

The Little Rascals, with Spanky third from the left.

Mostly, we hung around in a group and played along Waubonsie Creek and the Fox River. Our games were greatly influenced by two books, Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington and The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, not to mention “The Little Rascals” movie short comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Penrod and Sam concerned two boys growing up in the early years of the 20th Century. Their adventures enthralled us, and we tried to pattern ourselves after Penrod, Sam, and their friends. The Story of a Bad Boy, on the other hand, was Aldrich’s semi-autobiography about a boy growing up in a small New England town in the 1850s who wasn’t a bad boy at all. He did get into some interesting scrapes, though. And he and his friends had the neatest snowball war any of us had ever heard about. The “Our Gang” comedies, of course, involved Alfalfa, Spanky, the beautiful Darla, and their gang of friends who had the neatest adventures and cobbled together the most wonderful inventions ever.

Daguerrotype of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Daguerrotype in the Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Upon rereading as an adult, however, Penrod and Sam, published in 1916, is startling for its casual racism. During the 1950s growing up here along the banks of the Fox River, though, none of us knew what racism was. I recall being extremely confused when a friend who had traveled through the South reported there were separate bathrooms and water fountains just for black people, and it made us all wonder how come black people couldn’t drink out of everybody else’s water fountains. After all, we’d been going to school with black kids for years and they didn’t have to do that in Oswego. It really puzzled us. Even with its early 20th Century racism, however, Penrod and Sam is still an extremely funny book and we all read it several times.

The Story of a Bad Boy is still one of my very favorite books, although I can’t seem to persuade anyone else of its worth. And there, too, there was disappointment when I got old enough to learn more about Aldrich. Despite his charming book, Aldrich turned out to be an adherent of preventing immigration, particularly that of Catholics. But it’s possible to forget Aldrich’s foibles when submerged in his marvelous tale about his youthful hero, Tom Bailey, and his friends growing up in a small 19th Century seacoast town.

1957 Pinochle Bunch kids

Nothing like cold watermelon on a hot summer day. The author, in his favorite cap won at a carnival in Oswego, is third from left.

“The Little Rascals” movies, that we watched as part of the numerous local kids’ TV shows of the 1950s have worn extremely well. Even so, every once in a while, some Hollywood genius decides to try reviving them with always disastrous results. It’s really impossible to improve on or recreate a true classic.

After having studied up using the right books and absorbed as much “Rascals” lore as we could, we ventured forth each summer to have fun—and have fun we did. The woods near my home became our special preserve. We built bicycle trails throughout the stand of young soft maples woods, and built a series of three villages located on those trails. We maintained the houses and trails in the woods for about two years, I think, before we were forced to move elsewhere by unfriendly neighbors.

1962 Paul & fish

We spent a LOT of time on the Fox River. Above, my fishing buddy Paul holds up a big carp he caught. We still go fishing together twice a year.

Shortly before the move, we obtained our first river boats, and so became even more independent. My boat was purchased from a young man in Aurora, as I recall. It resembled nothing so much as the kind of large wooden box that contractors mix cement in.

It was very heavy, made of one inch lumber throughout, with a three-quarter inch plywood bottom. It even had a keel, for what reason I was never able to determine. About all the keel did was to catch on the rocks on the bottom of the shallow Fox River.

Granted, my boat was very heavy, but that meant it was also very stable. Three of my friends could stand on the gunwale at one time, and the boat would come nowhere near to tipping over.

The nice thing about the Fox, of course, was that it was so shallow that it was difficult—though not impossible—to find a place deep enough in which to drown. There were holes, of course, but we learned where nearly all of them were and stayed away from them.

After it became too much of a hassle to keep our towns on the mainland, we moved to a large island in the river where we built similar houses and forts.

The move to the island occasioned the need for a communications system from the island to the mainland, and from there to our tree house. It was determined that tying letters to arrows and shooting them from the island to the mainland and from there to the tree house was the answer to our problems. On the first test of our new communications system, the fellow standing in the field on the mainland came within six inches of getting the arrow with the message through his foot, but he gamely picked up the arrow and message and shot it up to the base of the tree in which we had our fort. The plan was then to attach the note to a hunting arrow and shoot it up into the bottom of the trapdoor of the tree house. As he shot the arrow, however, the fellow on the ground yelled, “Here it comes!” Not quite hearing him, another of my compatriots opened up the trap door to ask what he said, just as the hunting arrow whistled past his ear. After narrowly averting disaster twice during the first message test, we decided to scrap the system for something a little less hazardous.

Image result for Elmer the Elephant chicago tv

Elmer the Elephant: Gone but not forgotten.

I’m not sure what kids read these days, but I suspect that neither Penrod and Sam nor The Story of a Bad Boy are among the books parents will allow in the house. And, sadly, “The Little Rascals” comedies are not broadcast daily on the kind of live-action kids’ shows we tuned into back in the day like “Here’s Geraldine” or “Elmer the Elephant.”

I suppose, with the number of kids we have today, all these modern structured activities might really be necessary. I’m glad I never had to cope with them, though. For me, it was much more fun spending the summer with Penrod, Spanky, and Tom Bailey.

 

 

 

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Believe it or not, dandelions not only taste good, they’re good for you, too.

They come with the spring. Kids pick them to make colorful chains and rub their blooms on each other to create satisfying yellow smudges. Adults, meanwhile, roll out the heavy artillery—the power sprayers, the lawn care services—to try to do their best to eradicate them.

Yes, it won’t be long before dandelion season is in full bloom once again.

The farm my Pennsylvania German ancestors settled along the Will-DuPage County line here in northern Illinois has disappeared under an up-scale businesses and streetscapes of posh new homes, but those bright yellow flowers starting to pop up along roadsides and in median strips are a visible reminder of pioneer settlement days on the flat prairies between the Fox and DuPage rivers.

A family tradition, possibly apocryphal but maybe not, tells the story of how the Pennsylvania German families carving farms out of the prairie between the DuPage and Fox Rivers were disappointed when they discovered in their first spring on the prairie the absence of one of their favorite all-purpose plants. As a result, my settler relatives wrote home and requested family back in Lancaster County send dandelion seeds, which they did.

The rest, as they always seem to say, is history.

Each spring, lawns throughout the Fox Valley are covered with a myriad of colorful, yellow flowerets as the descendants of those fluffy Pennsylvania seeds begin their hardy life cycles. While homeowners try, with varied success, to eradicate these hardy plants, others ease towards a live and let live policy.

Dandelion C

Dandelions are native to Europe where they’ve been used medicinally for centuries, thus their scientific name, Taraxacum officianale.

“There are really few sights as spectacular as a rich green, well-watered lawn, several acres in extent, perhaps under the spreading trees of a cloistered university campus, covered with a carpet of golden dandelions,” Dr. Harold Moldenke rhapsodized in American Wild Flowers. Clearly, Dr. Moldenke is not a lawn monoculture zealot.

While dandelions may be pretty to look at for some, especially when we remember those dandelion chain necklaces of our childhood, others see them as noxious weeds that do little more than choke out expensively sodded or seeded lawns. Such unkind thoughts towards dandelions are one reason platoons of tank trucks loaded with tons of herbicides invade Fox Valley neighborhoods on a daily basis to fight the spread of those golden flowers that resemble nothing so much as acres of innocent smiley faces.

Dandelions aren’t from around here. By that I mean not even from this continent. The plant is a native of Europe, probably Greece, although its name comes from the French, dent de lion, literally “lions tooth.” Most experts agree the name refers to the plant’s toothed leaves, although one herbalist devoted several paragraphs in a scholarly book to discussing whether the name refers to the plant’s leaves, its flowerets, or its root, which may illustrate how little some herbalists have to do with their time.

The ancients knew that the dandelion’s happy face masked its real potential as a medicinal herb. Its scientific name, Taraxacum officianale, is a living historical note on how well accepted the plant was by the ancient medical establishment.

In his 1763 book, The Natural History of Vegetables, English Dr. R. Brookes reported the dandelion was “accounted an aperient, and to open the obstructions of the viscera.” He observed that dandelions were eaten as a salad, but, he added with inborn English suspicion, only by the French.

dandelion BActually, more than the French liked the sharp taste of young dandelion leaves, for that is the main reason my relatives supposedly requested a packet of seeds from their German brethren in Pennsylvania. Not only can the leaves be eaten, but the plant’s colorful flowers can be harvested and used to make a delicious golden-hued wine.

But it is as an herb the dandelion has been most touted, both by 18th Century herbalists as well as by modern natural foods enthusiasts. One herbalist suggests that applications of the dandelion’s milky juice produced in late spring and summer can remove warts. Dandelion tea, made from the plant’s dried leaves, has been used for centuries as a treatment for rheumatism, and has a reputation for keeping the kidneys free from stones if used regularly.

Roasted dandelion roots can be dried, ground into powder, and used to make a coffee substitute that is high in vitamins and minerals, but which has zero caffeine. Nobody says much about the taste, however, and that might be one reason it hasn’t caught on at Starbucks just yet.

Dandelion greens

It’s important to pick only greens from dandelions that haven’t blossomed yet, otherwise bitterness will overtake the greens’ sharp, peppery taste.

Most area residents, however, will not make dandelion tea or coffee. But it is easy enough to harvest the tender young leaves of early spring dandelions and eat them mixed with other greens in salads or by themselves, wilted with vinegar and sugar. Make sure only young leaves are harvested before the plants flower, though, or the dandelion’s astringent qualities will dominate rather than its sharp good taste. Some dandelion lovers continue to eat the plants long after their tender young stage has gone by the boards by blanching the leaves before eating them to remove some of the bitterness.

My own family tradition calls for making a warm sweet and sour sauce which is poured over dandelion leaves to create a complementary dish for potatoes and meat, usually pork chops, pork steak, or a ham slice.

The recipe:

  • One egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup half & half or cream
  • 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

Dice and cook the bacon crisp, or retain a small amount of pan drippings in a frying pan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour hot mixture over dandelion greens, leaf lettuce, or head 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.

The egg gives it a pleasant yellow color (thus our family name for it: yellow gravy) and the half and half (or better yet, cream) provides the sweetness that compliments the vinegar.

Image result for digging dandelion greens In my mind’s eye, I can still see my grandmother in coat and sunbonnet digging dandelion greens in her farmyard before lunch on sunny windy spring days in preparation for a dinner of boiled potatoes, canned green beans, pan-fried ham slice, and yellow gravy. Which always makes me appreciate why those Pennsylvania German ancestors wrote home and begged for dandelion seeds.

But I strongly suspect those lawn fanatics who see anything except an unbroken carpet of hybrid bluegrass as an affront to their family honor would just as soon my pioneer ancestors had left well enough alone.

On the other hand, lawncare firms and garden departments in big box and hardware stores that annually rake in millions from dandelion haters may want to consider a monument to those heroic Pennsylvania German dandelion lovers of yesteryear.

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Filed under Environment, family, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Women's History

Growing up black and female in early 20th century Kendall County

The United States at the turn of the 20th century was not a particularly friendly place for many of those living here.

1894 Grove School

Whether in town or in the country, blacks and whites went to school together in 19th Century Kendall County. This is the student body of the Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, getting ready for a Mother Goose presentation in 1894. The Lucas kids are in the front row.

Down South, Jim Crow laws were fully in force against the region’s black population, severely restricting a vast number of civil activities we take for granted today. Everything from voting to drinking from a water fountain was governed by laws, both written and unwritten, that were not only enforced by the Southern legal system, but also by extralegal violence administered by forces including the Ku Klux Klan and unorganized mobs of white thugs.

Meanwhile, immigration was proceeding at a fairly rapid clip, and Catholic southern and eastern European and Irish immigrants faced considerable discrimination of their own from the mostly Protestant residents of the U.S., to the point that by the 1920s, the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan was rapidly growing in national membership.

Starting in the 1870s and extending through the 1880s, Kendall County had become home to a surprisingly large population of black Americans, starting out with black farmers who settled in the rural NaAuSay-Kendall-Oswego township area of the county, followed by other black families who moved into the county’s towns and villages. By the 1900s, the number of black farming families had already begun to decline as they either moved elsewhere to farm or gave up farming and moved to town where they made more money working in factories and retail businesses or starting their own businesses.

1903 Smith, Ferdinand color

Ferdinand Smith, OHS, Class of 1903

Ferdinand Smith became the first black high school graduate in Kendall County history, graduating with the Oswego High School Class of 1903. His sisters, Mary and Frances, graduated in 1904 and 1907, respectively, becoming the first black females to graduate from high school in Kendall County.

At the time, black residents of small towns like Oswego undoubtedly faced the kind of casual discrimination so common during that era, but it’s clear from the way the Smith family was treated in local news accounts that they were also socially accepted in a way their cousins elsewhere in the country at the time were not. The mere fact that they attended and graduated from Oswego High School alongside their white peers testifies to that fact.

Their father, Robert Ridley Smith, was a Civil War veteran, while their mother was the daughter of Nathan Hughes, another black veteran of the Civil War.

The Smiths’ son, Ferdinand, apparently harbored a keen intellect and was socially adaptable to the point that he became a valued member of, first, the Oswego community, and then of the Aurora community.

His sisters, as black women, faced a number of hurdles that Ferdinand did not. But all three Smith siblings were given a solid familial grounding growing up in a small northern Illinois town, and then an even more solid educational grounding when their parents sent them to high school.

High school was definitely not the norm during that era. In fact, it was much more equivalent to a college education today. Although more than a dozen one-room schools of that era educated children who could have attended Oswego High School, not to mention all the children living in town who were also eligible, high school classes were relatively small. Ferdinand’s class had a remarkable 15 members—one of the largest high school classes in the school’s history up to that time. Mary’s 1904 class was more typical, with seven members, while Frances’s class in 1907 also numbered seven.

1906 Smith, Frances 1906

Frances Smith, OHS, Class of 1906

In the South of that era, strictly segregated education was the rule—and the law. But in Oswego, and other northern and western small towns across the country of that era, integration was the rule. Blacks and whites attended classes side by side, and like their white counterparts, black students were expected to write a graduation address and present it, just like their white classmates. The two presentations given by the Smith girls offer an insight into how they viewed their lives then and what they looked forward to as they left school for other endeavors.

The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote of Mary Smith’s presentation: “Miss Mary A. Smith, the young colored lady of the class of ’04, had a strong paper on the ‘Labor Unions.’ She is a sister of Ferdinand Smith, the young man who graduated in the Oswego class of 1903 and who has the distinction of being the first colored graduate in the county. Miss Smith has a musical voice and talked in forceful logic on the methods of the unions and combines. It was one of the longest themes on the program and the speaker acquitted herself with honor.”

The topic of her paper offered a glimpse into the importance blacks gave to the power to organize for better wages and working conditions. During organized labor’s early history, most unions discriminated against blacks. Not until the 1930s did it finally occur to union members that prohibiting black membership provided a ready pool of strike breakers.

OHS Baseball team 1907

1906 Oswego High School Baseball Team. The photo was taken at the old Red Brick School. In their first game of the season, they beat West Aurora, 28-2.

In 1906, Mary Smith’s sister Frances spoke on a subject that illustrated the growing educational attainments of black Americans. According to the Kendall County Record’s account of the graduation ceremonies: “Chicago has been called the Negroes’ paradise; in Chicago the negro has become a successful politician, holding more well-paying political positions than in any other calling.’ With this opening shot, Miss Frances Smith, the successful colored member of the class began her oration on ‘Afro-American Progress.’ Miss Smith is the third one of her family to graduate from the Oswego high school. She is a bright student and her people and town friends are proud of her accomplishments. In the course of her oration, ‘Booker T. Washington,’ she said, ‘Could adjourn school tomorrow and go into the forest with his 2,000 students and in a short space of time erect a magic city with every line of life represented.’ It was all a masterly effort and Miss Smith won spontaneous applause from all.”

The Smith girls went on to found families of their own, as did their brother, and today Smith descendants not only have attended some of the nation’s premier educational institutions but teach there as well, have served as federal judges, and have made their ways in the world in a variety of professions. It’s an old-fashioned American success story we ought to all celebrate during this year’s Women’s History Month.

 

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Filed under Aurora, Civil War, Education, family, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Women's History