Category Archives: family

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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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, Fox River, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego

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

Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

Watching television when I was a youngster was always a treat, especially when “The Cisco Kid” or one of the other westerns was on Sunday afternoons.

But often just as entertaining were the commercials. CET, a Chicago retailer, sold televisions featuring a very deep-voiced fellow singing to the beat of a tom-tom about CET and television, always ending with the phone number, “MOhawk four, four one hundred.”

Rug cleaning companies also advertised a lot back in those days before ScotchGuard and other stain resistant carpeting systems. Magikist was a prominent television advertiser, as was Boushelle. Boushelle also had a catchy jingle (not as catchy as CET’s Mohawk Indian tom-tom, but close) sung by another very deep-voiced fellow that ended with him singing the company’s phone number, “HUdson three two-seven-hundred.”

I checked on-line the other day, and Magikist went out of business in 2001, although some of its signature signs with huge Magikist lips, soldiered on (I remember a big one on the Kennedy Expressway) for a few more years before being dismantled.

Boushelle, however, is still very much a going concern—with the same phone number no less, although you have to dial a 773 area code first. (All you kids out there can listen to a 1970s era Boushelle commercial on YouTube.)

Back in the day, companies like Boushelle would come right to your home, roll up the area rug, and take it off to a large factory-type building, where it would be cleaned. Gradually, though, wall-to-wall carpeting came into favor as prices dropped far enough so that just about everyone could afford it. And with the disappearance of area rugs went some of the earliest area rug cleaning companies.

Rugs and carpeting—and keeping them clean—have been major preoccupations here in the Fox Valley almost from the time the pioneers arrived. Especially at this time of year, spring cleaning was a major thing, as was fall house cleaning after the summer season had ended.

Log Cabin

Some of the earliest log cabins built by the pioneers had packed earthen floors, later replaced by puncheon floors.

The earliest pioneer cabins, at least some of them anyway, didn’t even have floors, much less carpeting. Often, a pioneer family’s first cabin was built with a dirt floor inside. The soil was compacted into a hard surface that the wife swept daily. Sometimes pioneer women who missed their carpets and rugs back East drew designs on the packed earthen the floor and used crushed chalk to create colorful designs.

Not until the family got settled were logs split in half and planed smooth to create puncheons that were laid on the packed earth, flat sides up, to create wooden floors.

As soon as the first pioneer millwrights arrived, their sawmills began turning out sawn lumber for floors. And remarkably soon after that, Chicago became a giant lumber clearinghouse for pine, fur, and other timber cut up in Wisconsin and Michigan and shipped down the lake to the fast-growing city. Wooden floors—and frame houses—quickly became cheap enough for everyone.

Rug technology for the masses stayed pretty simple throughout the 19th century. Rag rugs were very popular with newly settled areas because they were relatively simple to make and were inexpensive because their main ingredient was recycled cloth. During the winter, women would sit (sometimes in groups to provide a social respite from the daily grind) and tear rags into 1″ wide strips, sew them together end-to-end, and roll the strips into large balls. When enough of the right colors were stockpiled, they were taken to the local rug weaver.

Rug looms were simple, but rugged affairs. They only needed to be two-harness looms, the most simple kind, which used mechanical means to separate the strings that formed the warp so that the shuttle carrying the end of a rag strip could be fed through. After each pass of the shuttle, the beater was pulled back smartly packing the cloth strip tightly against the previous strip. The tighter the weaver made the rug, the longer it lasted. But this created a dilemma for the rug maker. A rug not packed as tightly was easier and quicker to make; but customers might not return if the resulting rug didn’t hold up well.

rug loom in use

A rug weaver using a loom very similar to the one my great-great-grandfather built for my great-great-grandmother and which is still a family keepsake.

My great-great-grandmother made rugs on a homemade loom in her home here on North Adams Street to supplement her family’s income. The loom, which we have today in our son’s basement, is of 3” thick oak timbers and is of a very old design—old even in the 1870s when this one was likely built by my great- great-grandfather. We saw one exactly like it in the Pennsylvania Farm Museum. That loom was said to have been more than 200 years old. Looms of roughly the same design date back many hundreds of years.

Rag rugs were generally woven in varying lengths and were usually about 30 inches in width. The great advantage of rag rugs was their flexibility—they could be woven in virtually any length and in any color. In those days, they weren’t only used for hall runners or throw rugs, either. To create room-sized rugs, several 30-inch wide rag rugs of the correct length were sewn together to create a single carpet wide enough for a full room.

rag rugs

Traditional rag rugs are still pretty useful things; we’ve got several in our house. The trick is finding ones that have been woven tightly enough that they will last.

Padding for those early carpets was, on the farm at least, often a layer of straw under the rug. Fresh straw was laid down in the fall under the rug to help insulate against the cold and offer a bit of cushion. Then in the spring, the rug was taken apart into its component strips and hauled outside to be cleaned. Cleaning was generally accomplished by beating the straw dust and other dirt out of the rug using a wooden-handled rug beater.

Gradually other kinds of carpeting became available. Oriental rugs were always available for the rich, but the Industrial Revolution made other kinds of carpeting available, too. Dark red “ingrain” carpeting was the first non-rag rug carpeting to become popular. We found threads from such a kind of carpeting wound around tiny carpet tacks driven into the original floor of the Little White School Museum when we were restoring the building. The carpeting was apparently used on the building’s two aisles when it was the Oswego Methodist Episcopal Church from 1850 to 1912.

Nowadays, we’ve got synthetic yarn carpeting in all kinds of shades and colors with many styles to choose from. And on television, the ads of industrial carpet cleaning companyes have been replaced by those of carpet sellers and the makers of home carpet cleaning machines. But, while Empire Today’s commercials do tend to stick in one’s mind, no one has commercials quite as memorable as Boushelle; at least I can’t remember a modern phone number as easily as Boushelle’s HUdson 3-2700.

 

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So what’s in YOUR pie?

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend, one of my high school classmates, asked what her friends’ favorite pie is. And because I’m a lifelong wiseacre, a replied, “hot or cold.”

Which reply I admit I stole from my dad, a pie lover from way back. The only kind of pie my dad really did not like was raisin pie, and I have to admit I am with him on that one as well, and have been since someone tried to foist a piece of the stuff off on me when I was just a lad.

I’m not sure where my dad got his pie craving, but he had one and had it bad. Maybe it was because my mom was such a good pie baker. Whatever its origin, when my parents were young farmers back during the Great Depression and right up through the 1940s my mom baked roughly one pie a day.

Defective apple pie

This defective apple pie is a good example why it’s unwise to buy apple pies in most bakeries or restaurants (Gruenke’s in Bayfield, Wisconsin is a prime exception to this rule). While the apples are sliced and not chunked, they are sliced WAY too thick, thus preventing proper cooking down. The wise pie aficionado is very cautious about his or her apple pie.

Back then, farm work started before dawn with livestock chores: feeding the pigs and cattle and milking the family cow. By the time breakfast rolled around, my dad was really hungry and so needed a large meal. The one he ate for most of his life—at least for the portion of it I was present for—was a glass of fruit juice, a bowl of cereal, two eggs over easy and two slices of bacon or sausage patties. It’s a breakfast he ate until a couple days before he died from the results of lung cancer and a list of ailments too long to record here.

Back in those farm days, he also had a large piece of pie for dessert at all three meals, breakfast, dinner, and supper. You’ll notice what I did there: the noon meal on the farm was dinner, not the evening meal. Town folks ate dinner at night; out in the country the evening meal was a much lighter one. The dinner bell rang at noon. In fact, the weekday farm report show on WLS radio was named “Dinner Bell Time” (not to be confused with Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” or WJJD’s teenagers’ delight, “Suppertime Frolic).

Some of my earliest memories are being around the house and watching my mom, and when I was visiting down the road and around the corner, my grandmother, baking. My mom, as you might imagine after having all that practice, was a whiz at rolling out pie dough, which was the real stuff back then, with lard as a major ingredient. After making however many pies they planned that day, there was always a bit of piecrust left, so they’d both made what they called Poor Man’s Pie, usually in one or two small tart tins.

Poor Man's Pie

Found this image of Poor Man’s Pie somewhere on the Net. Not nearly enough cinnamon on top; the top should be dark brown all over with cinnamon.

I loved Poor Man’s Pie. It was a simple thing that only required milk, flour, and sugar for the filling, topped off with a pat of butter and sprinkled cinnamon on top.

Just about everyone out in the country had an orchard of one kind or another. Ours wasn’t very big, and included a towering pie cherry tree that produced quarts and quarts of the fruit. My grandparents’ orchard had number of plum trees, as well as a variety of apples and pears. Apples, pears, peaches, and cherries were all canned for use in pies during the winter. Apples, too, were stored fresh in the basement for later use.

Northern Illinois isn’t the best peach habitat, so while we had peach trees, they weren’t quite as prolific as apples, cherries, and pears. I remember relatives heading over to Michigan in a convoy to bring back peaches, which were divided up amongst the participants and then canned for winter table use and to bake pies.

Other than eating pickled herring when the clock struck 12 midnight on New Year’s Eve and somehow falling in love with oyster stew made with those awful canned oysters, my dad’s family really didn’t have many food habits or traditions. My mother’s German family—her mother was 100 percent Pennsylvania Dutch and her father was 100 percent East Prussian—however, loved their food, and that included dessert with every meal. Including breakfast. I remember my grandmother’s table always featured a pressed glass footed compote dish with jelly, so that even when there was no cake, pie, kuchen, or cookies (a rare occasion, indeed) there was always bread and jelly as a dessert fallback position.

wonderberry pie

To the uninitiated, wonderberries look like blueberries. But they’re a lot different and, in my estimation, make a superior pie. Unfortunately, hardly anybody grows them any more and it’s virtually impossible to find them at farmers’ markets, at least here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley.

Pie was always the queen of desserts in my family, with my grandmother, mother, and aunts using a wide variety of fillings from ground cherries, apples, peaches, rhubarb (“pie plant” to the Pennsylvania Dutch), cherries, pears, apricots, raspberries, wonderberries (also called garden huckleberries)—you name it.

Pies have been a human food item for thousands of years. According to pie historians, the first pies were invented by the ancient Egyptians, who made dough from oats, wheat, rye, or barley, doubled it over and filled it with honey. After a few thousand years someone decided you could create a nice meal by using bread dough to enclose meat and other savory fillings. Meat pies were far more popular than fruit-filled concoctions for a long, long time. But gradually, the dessert aspects of pie could no longer be denied. When some brilliant cook invented what we call today piecrust, the place was set for pie to come into its own.

Classic pasty

A classic pasty with its built-in handle for easy eating is one of our favorites up in northern Wisconsin, especially served with a side of creamy cucumbers.

Over in Merry Olde England, meat pies reigned supreme, with all sorts of meat combined with veggies and then baked into whole-meal pies. In Cornwall, innovative cooks took a piecrust circle, put a big scoop of diced potatoes, turnips, and other veggies with finely chopped or even minced meat on half, doubled the other half over, and crimped the half-moon edge. Baked at home, these robust meat pies—called pasties—were just fine for taking down into the coal mines to be heated over a flame on a handy shovel and eaten for a miner’s lunch, the crimped half-circle crust offering a handy handle to hold the pie while eating. Here in the New World, Cornish immigrants brought their pasties with them, and today the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is their Midwest natural habitat, with even most of the smallest cafes offering their own homemade varieties, as do delis in larger communities’ grocery stores.

Savory pies are all well and good—who doesn’t still enjoy a chicken or beef pot pie once in a while—but it’s the fruit variety that have tickled my fancy all these years. And thus my reply to my former high school classmate about my favorite variety. Baked fruit pies, single and double crust pies, cream pies (chocolate, custard, banana cream, coconut cream), pumpkin and sweet potato, and fresh fruit pies in season—who could possibly make a decision?

But here’s what I’m willing to do…I pledge to keep trying every kind of pie I can find (except raisin), until I finally settle on my favorite.

This could take quite a while, but I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Generations growing up on Fox River…

Haven’t had much time to blog recently due to a family tragedy, but have had time during recent sleepless nights to think back over the years I’ve lived here along the banks of the Fox River, first with my parents, and then with my own wife and kids.

Two weeks ago, my funny, smart, talented, talkative daughter died of an apparent seizure, something we’re still trying to process as we deal with all the effects of that death.

I was eight when my parents moved off the farm to our riverside neighborhood; she was a year and a half old when my wife and I moved back here. We raised both her and her brother here and the river was always part of both of their childhood landscape.

Now I’m finally having a chance to sit here and watch the relatively fast-flowing current, brown with silt and other products of storm runoff, and I’m transported back to my own childhood growing up here in this riverside neighborhood.

We’ve had quite a bit of rain in this late summer of 2018. A lot of that rain fell, and continues to fall, up north along the northern reaches of the Fox, and the runoff has swelled the river virtually all summer. And that’s unusual. Generally, by this time of year, the river’s bones—gravel bars, boulders, old fallen tree snags—are clearly showing and it’s easy to walk across our narrow channel on stepping stones without getting the soles of our shoes wet. Not this year.

2018 Rising sawmill foundation stones

Tumbled and turned, the flagstones of the Rising sawmill’s foundation still mark the old mill’s location along the east bank of the Fox River at Troy Park in Oswego.

In those 1950s summers, we’d spend hours on the river in our scows, and we got to intimately know our stretch of river. We knew that it was almost impossible to pole up the channel along the west bank of the river because its bottom was smooth limestone. It could be done, sometimes, at low water, but never when there was much of a current. We could pole up over the middle of the old dam by expending a lot of effort. There were plenty of rocks and gravel on the bottom to give our poles good purchase. I didn’t know it then, but that gravel and those rocks were debris left over from the old mill dam that crossed the river there.

Dam building technology in the 19th Century called for building timber frames—cribs—out of squared-off oak and walnut trees, hauling them out into the stream, and then fastening the frames to the limestone bottom with hand-forged iron stakes. Those stakes were hefty things; we retrieved a couple over the years. They were about an inch and a half square and three or so feet long. After the cribbing was set firmly in place, it was gradually filled with gravel and rubble to create the dam. The structure was finished by being clad on the downstream side with thick wooden planks to encourage smooth water flow down the downstream side.

Well before we came along, the old dam had been damaged and virtually erased by floods—freshets, the old-timers called them—and spring ice floes. So all that was left was a low rubble mound from bank to bank that slowed but did not dam the river.

Along with a few of those giant stakes described above, there were also some of those old timber framing members still staked to the river bottom that would show up during periods of low water.

We learned to be careful around the remains of the old dam. The river was shallow on the crest of the destroyed dam, but on the downstream side, the action of water spilling over top of the dam for more than a half-century had eroded deep holes into the limestone riverbed. We learned where those holes were because while poling our scows in those areas, the bottom would sometimes seem to drop right out of the river and our longest poles couldn’t touch bottom.

If we had been inclined to wade in the river, that would have been even more vital information. But we were seldom lured into wading, and when we were, we always wore an old pair of tennis shoes because the river bottom was a virtual carpet of broken glass and scrap metal. And, of course, there was the water quality. In the 1950s, the river’s water was thick with heavy metals and other nasty pollutants that led to stunted, diseased fish and the extermination of most mollusks and crustaceans except for hardy crawfish. The major fish kills of the late 1950s, when a chemical factory upstream in North Aurora dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killed virtually everything in the river from Aurora to Yorkville. So, boating was in; wading was definitely out.

On either bank of the river at the ends of the old dam were the remains of the two mills, a gristmill on the west bank and a sawmill on the east bank. The only thing left of them when we started spending time of the river were the mills’ foundation stones, giant slabs of flagstone, probably mined just upstream on the west bank at the Wormley quarry.

“Stone! Stone!” an advertisement in the July 7, 1881 Kendall County Record and signed by George D. Wormley announced. At his quarry located one mile north of Oswego on the west side of the river, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”

1974 Melissa & Roger fishermen

Father and daughter on a 1974 fishing expedition. Fishing was good, catching not so much…

Those giant slabs of flagstone where Nathaniel Rising built his sawmill about 100 feet north of where I’m writing this, provided perfect fishing platforms and boat landings for us, not to mention wonderful backdrops for hours of make-believe play.

The low dams of our Midwestern rivers seldom provided enough head for the big overshot water wheels that powered mills in southern Illinois and in the East. Instead, tub wheels early on and then turbines, both of which were horizontal and not vertical affairs, were the most common around these parts. One of those old turbines has been preserved by the Fox Valley Park District up in the Montgomery riverside park, on the west bank immediately north of the bridge.

The mill ruins on the west bank of the river, which I can just barely make out through the trees today, were less spectacular. I suspect much of that mill’s foundational flagstone was reused by local residents for other purposes.

During the years, a couple small islands had formed atop the ruins of the old dam, one here on the east bank, and another, sort of small double island, almost to the west bank. The west bank island had a small inlet that was handy to dock a boat while we fished off its shore into the fast current rushing along the west bank. The little island on the east bank—everyone called it the Little Island—was our territory for all sorts of escapades.

When I bought my first shotgun (a three-shot bolt-action Mossberg 20-gauge) my neighbor John Morley and I built a duck blind on the Little Island and for two autumns in a row lay in wait for waterfowl that never came. In that day of polluted river water, we never saw a duck or goose for two solid years, other than ones migrating high overhead in the fall. None of them were dumb enough to land on the poisoned waters of the Fox River.

As fall segued into winter, we prayed for dry weather, the drier the better. Because with dry weather, the river level dropped and the current stilled so that when the first cold days came along, the surface froze. We watched it carefully, gingerly walking out onto the ice with a hatchet to chop a hole to test its thickness. When it reached three or four inches it was time to get the skates out of the basement, taken them up to Crosby Sporting Goods in Aurora to get them sharpened, and head out onto the ice.

The cold during those winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s was intense, and the Fox Valley’s creeks and springs (instead of municipal sewer plants) were still the river’s major tributaries. So the river often froze over completely, bank to bank. From here just below the old dam, we could skate south to the Oswego Bridge, or after carefully picking our way over the old dam’s remains, head north three miles to Boulder Hill. It was on one of those skating expeditions downriver to the Oswego Bridge that I discovered another one of those holes in the river bottom. A spring emptied into the river near a small island about a half mile south of our house and that, unbeknownst to me, kept the ice in that channel thin. Skating along, I heard the ice crack, and before I knew it, I was on the ice, one leg through the surface and in the water, the other still on top. What concerned me is that I couldn’t feel the bottom with my submerged skate, something wholly unexpected—not to mention a bit frightening. But I was able to lay flat, work my leg back through the hole in the ice, and crawl to firm ice. On the skate home through the bitter cold, the soaked leg of my jeans froze solid, making it a little challenging to keep going—but I made it and was even able to conceal the adventure from my parents, who surely would have forbade any further ice skating adventures on the river.

2018 Melissa Marie Matile crop

Melissa Marie Matile 1966-2018

My daughter and her neighborhood friends played up and down the river during their childhood, too, and were even able to skate once in a great while, although by the early 1970s, the river was already warming during the winter due to increased use of river water upstream. When my son came along, he, too, and his friends made the river their territory, although skating by them was almost totally out of the question.

So I sit and watch this familiar, but ever-changing scene of river and island and shoreline enjoyed by six generations of my family, with a seventh just starting the process as my grandtwins, my daughter’s beloved niece and nephew, start to take up their own residence here. It keeps those memories of my daughter all those years ago alive somehow as we try to process her sudden disappearance from our lives.

 

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