Category Archives: Nostalgia

It was all relative…but not all of the time

It was such a beautiful day Sunday here in the Fox Valley that we did considerable work outside. As a reward for my son doing some chores, some up on a ladder, I grilled bratwurst and then simmered them in beer (I figure it’s what God invented Pabst Blue Ribbon for) and yellow onions for our first meal out on the patio this year.

As we ate, we chatted about families, and our family in particular. My son noted that our concept of family doesn’t match that of many of his friends. In my family, formerly almost all farmers, extended family members are all considered aunts, uncles, and cousins no matter how far removed. Apparently, among his friends this is no longer a common family practice.

At our yearly family reunion—we’ll be holding the 89th annual event on the second Sunday in August—second, third, and fourth cousins abound.

And, in fact, it got me to thinking about my early childhood in a close-knit farming community where several of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents were actually no relation at all.

1915 abt Wheatland "Scotch" Church.jpg

The Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church about 1915 was a relatively new building, and served a neighborhood of majority Scots immigrant farmers. (Little White School Museum collection)

There was Granny Ferguson, who lived down by the neighborhood one-room school where a tiny sort of residential subdivision had grown up, seemingly by accident. The Wheatland United Presbyterian Church, nicknamed the Scotch Church because of its overwhelmingly Scottish early membership, was at the intersection of modern Heggs and Ferguson roads, across Ferguson Road from the school, which was known (naturally) as Church School.

That’s where my sisters and I went to elementary school, my oldest sister going through all eight grades where she was the only one in her class for virtually all eight years.

A few houses, including Granny Ferguson’s, had sprung up around the church-school intersection. I was of absolutely no relation to Granny Ferguson, nor to Uncle Lloyd and Auntie Bernice Bower, who lived right next to the church across from the school. They were among my parents’ best friends, and so became default uncle and aunt. Unlike my parents’ friends, Octa and Howard Gengler, who were also dear friends, but who were never an uncle nor aunt, but were just plain Howard and Octa. However, the neighbors to our farm to the north were Auntie Grace and Uncle Herb Norris—again, no relationship whatsoever, but close friends so for some mysterious reason became aunt and uncle. Grandma Rance, Auntie Grace’s mother, lived in the little next door to the Norris’s classic American Foursquare.

1936 abt Clarence Lloyd Bernice

A typically out-of-focus snapshot taken by my mother of (L-R) my dad and Uncle Lloyd and Auntie Bernice Bower, the men looking particularly natty in their tall boots, during a Wisconsin trip about 1936.

And not only that, but Auntie Bernice Bower’s mother and father became Grandma and Grandpa Anderson. Who were not to be confused with Granny Stewart lived in the neighborhood and who mysteriously faded in and out of my childhood memories. So far as I know, not a drop of shared blood was in our veins.

And I shouldn’t give Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim McMicken short shrift, either. When my dad, a young former Kansas cowboy and oilfield roustabout, arrived in the neighborhood looking for farmwork, they hired him and introduced him to the Scotch Church community, where he met his future father-in-law, and through him, my mother. I should mention that my grandparents were Lutherans, but since there was no Lutheran church in the farm neighborhood, they went to the nearby Scotch Church. Because that’s what Protestants do. Or did, at least. Didn’t like the Methodist minister? Okay, we’ll go to the Presbyterian Church until he goes somewhere else. My Catholic friends never could get their minds around this practice.

1910 McMicken, Jim & Bess farm E

Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim McMicken’s Wheatland Township farm, with its stately Four-Square house, was a place I visited frequently as a child. (Little White School Museum collection)

But anyway, my dad worked for the McMickens before he and my mom married in 1930, and forever after, the Matiles were all considered family. Aunt Bess looked after me when I was a youngster, and she made the most delicious cottage cheese from the leftover milk from our productive Guernsey cow, Daisy. When my wife and I were married, the McMickens gave us a piece of their family furniture, a glass door fronted Mission Style bookcase that still fills a prominent corner of our living room.

And then there was Grandma Fitzpatrick, who was the mother of my actual uncle-by-marriage, Les Penn. I was a little unclear until a bit later in life why Grandma Fitzpatrick could be Uncle Les Penn’s mother when they had different last names, but in the welter of random aunts, uncles, and grandparents in which I lived it was not as big a deal as it might have been for some.

1945 Gerald Holzhueter

My uncle and first cousin once removed Gerald, who requested that my grandparents legally adopt him before he went off to serve in World War II.

And if that wasn’t confusing enough, there a number of uncles in my life who were related, but who weren’t actually uncles. Rather, they were cousins of various degrees. My Uncle Gerald, for instance, started out his life as my first cousin once removed—his mother and my grandmother were sisters, who were extremely close all their lives. Unfortunately, Aunt Edith (my grandmother’s sister) died almost immediately after giving to her seventh child—Gerald. On her deathbed, Edith asked my grandmother to promise to raise Gerald as her own child, which my grandmother faithfully did. Before he went off to fight in World War II, Gerald asked my grandparents to officially adopt him, which they did, and so he became not only my first cousin once removed but also my uncle by adoption. His two children are not only my first cousins, but also my second cousins.

Of Gerald’s brothers, only one, Oliver, was called uncle by me and my sisters. On the other hand, some of my other first cousins once removed—the children of one of my grandmother’s brothers—did get the designation. In that family were Uncle Herbert, Uncle Wilfred, and Aunt Esther.

This was particularly mystifying for a youngster because I never really knew at first whether an aunt, uncle, or grandparent was actually one, whether they were even tangentially related or not.

I suspect that figuring out who was who and then keeping all those relationships straight was what got me interested in history. When my wife and I got married, she had a bit of a struggle trying to figure out which grannies, aunties, and uncles were actually related, since calling non-blood relatives by those names was, in her family, pretty much not done. But, since she was a history major, too, it didn’t take long before she was able to keep track of what was what.

Today, all of those relatives by courtesy are long gone, although our era of claiming even the most distant cousins as part of the family continues pretty much unabated. It’s one remnant of those days when the term “extended family” meant more than precisely that, something that provided a warm, comfortable security blanket to those of us lucky to enjoy it.


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Filed under Farming, History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Tiger Ed, Harry, and the bear…

I got to thinking after my last post on the kind of sort of subsistence farming my parents and just about all our neighbors engaged in back in the early 1950s that one my relatives was a lot deeper into the subsistence thing than we ever were.

Uncle Charlie was one of those ‘uncles’ of my childhood who was an actual uncle, by marriage, unlike several other ‘uncles’ who were not at all related.

My grandmother’s sister married Uncle Charlie, and he was a kind soul though often coming up short on the ambition scale. He and Aunt Edith had six sons, of which five lived to adulthood. Aunt Edith died a few days after giving birth to their last child—their sixth son—who my grandmother promised Edith on her deathbed to raise as her own, which she did.

Of the other brothers, Clarence died when he was a year old, the rest living on to become adults. Among them was Ed, called Tiger Ed by friends and enemies alike. Tiger Ed was a reckless youngster whose emotional development seemed to plateau around age 14 or so.

A Tiger Ed story to elucidate: During the Depression (the great one, not this last pale echo) dairy farmers were organizing to get higher prices for their milk from the big dairy companies that were mercilessly squeezing them, and the result was the Pure Milk Association, a union in everything but name. Pure Milk activists conducted all sorts of protests, some violent, to persuade and if necessary force dairy farmers into joining.

An item from the Jan. 10, 1934 Kendall County Record illustrates some of their tactics:

As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch. Colby said he thought he could get by with his load because it consisted of cream and not milk. He did not recognize the men, and they took his writing materials so he was unable to get license numbers. After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.

Wading in cream three inches deep over the pavement, Colby loaded up the empty cans and returned to Yorkville. It is thought that the insurance carried on the truck will cover the loss.

Concrete milk house

The dairy farm milk house is where milking equipment, including the metal milk cans, are cleaned and stored until used during twice-daily milking. That’s also where the cooler was located to keep milk chilled until it was picked up and hauled to market.

Pure Milk activists were reportedly not beyond burning down stubborn farmers’ dairy barns if they refused to join. The fire that destroyed my great-uncle’s diary barn, with most of his herd inside, was chalked up to the Pure Milk Association, for instance.

So with that backdrop, the folks out in our farm neighborhood were tipped off one day that plans were afoot to burn a dairy barn. So a bunch of them decided to camp out in the milk house adjacent to the barn on the night it was all supposed to go burn. The dairy barn was a beautiful one; my best friend in first grade lived on the farm and I spent quite a bit of time in it as a youngster. Its milk house was state-of-the-art for the 1930s—it was poured concrete, walls, floor and ceiling, all whitewashed inside and out, making it simple  to keep clean (notice I didn’t say easy; keeping a milk house clean is not easy) and the milk pure.

That evening, the farmers gathered in the milk house to await developments and among them was a young Tiger Ed, who brought his revolver although most of the other men were armed with shotguns. Ed, being in his late teens at the time, was exuberant and eager for action, boasting what he planned to do. At which point he pulled the revolver from his waistband and began twirling it around his trigger finger like he’d seen cowboys do in the Saturday movie serials. At which point someone yelled at him to just put the damned gun away before he shot somebody, whereupon Ed angrily shoved it back into his waistband, causing the revolver to fire.

One of the people present said that when the pistol went off, the bullet ricocheted around the concrete interior of the milk house packed with terrified farmers for what seemed to be hours before it came to rest—in Tiger Ed’s rear end. The incident deflated the posse’s ardor and they all went home–except for Ed, who went to the doctor–but forever after, especially when he was working as a bartender, Tiger Ed would show you his wound if you asked nicely.

But I’m trying to get at subsistence farming here and for that we need to consider Tiger Ed’s older brother Harry. When Harry was a youngster, my father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and after some thought Harry said he figured he wanted to be a tramp.

And to be truthful, he did have a somewhat checkered career. In the early 1950s he somehow got hired as a motorcycle police officer. Back in the day, relatives on both sides of my mother’s family started a social group called the Can’t Be Beat Club that would have summer picnics and holiday parties. And at one of those picnics on a hot summer day at Aurora’s Phillips Park, Harry stopped by, in uniform, with his motorcycle and proceeded to ride it back and forth while doing tricks on it—standing on the seat, riding backwards, doing a handstand—it was thrilling for us little kids and, I assume, appalling for the adults.

Ma & Pa Kettle's farm

While Harry and Juinita’s northwoods farm didn’t look exactly like Ma and Pa Kettle’s farm, the atmosphere was fairly similar.

Eventually Harry became a true genius at welding and that’s how he made his living the rest of his life. And for a good part of that late life, he moved his family up into the wilds of northern Wisconsin where they lived on a hardscrabble farm in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest. Harry would farm and raise kids until the family was out of money, at which time he’d leave the northwoods to do welding jobs until he’d accumulated enough cash and then head back home before the cycle repeated.

Harry’s wife was a formidable redhead named Juanita. Harry and Juanita were, for the early 1960s, an unconventional couple. Along with their natural children, they (because they were the kindest folks you’d ever meet) also raised a tribe of foster children. I was a teenager when my folks took me to visit them at their farm in the woods, which strongly reminded me of the set for a Ma and Pa Kettle movie. The doors and windows were all open and chickens were wandering in and out of the house, along with numerous children, dogs, and cats. Having been raised in an extremely structured environment, it was truly a revelation to me, an initial point of reference as I lived through the years of hippies and communes.

Juanita gave us the complete tour of her house, including the cellar, which was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves groaning under hundreds of glass jars of every sort of fruit and vegetable that grew on their property. As she proudly waved her arms describing the results of the family’s labor to subsist on their own land, she also pointed to the meat they’d canned, pork, beef, chicken, “And there,” she pointed, “is the bear.”

Bear? my mother wondered with an odd catch in her voice. Yes, bear.


Not sure what model Farmall Harry and Juanita owned up in the northwoods, but it looked a lot like this one. It made a great bear retriever.

Turned out that a few weeks before, Juanita had sent the kids out to pick raspberries. They hadn’t been gone lone before they all came pelting back scared witless, screaming that a bear was in the berry patch. I believe I mentioned that Juanita was a formidable woman, and when something threatened her brood of natural and foster kids, she turned into a real tiger. Loading Harry’s shotgun, she hopped on their old Farmall tractor, and set off to the berry patch shouting at the kids to stay inside and that’s she’d “take care of that damned bear.”

Which she did. Killed it dead with three rounds from Harry’s Remington 12 gauge pump shotgun. Then she wrapped a log chain around the bear’s back legs and dragged behind the tractor it back to the house, where she skinned it and butchered it, and then she and the kids canned it for Sunday dinners during the winter.

Most of the rest of my family were pretty conventional farm folks, with a thick leavening of city folks mixed in, and none of them made living quite the adventure some of Uncle Charlie’s family did. But when it comes time for a good story, it’s hard to beat their adventures that have the added cachet of actually being the truth. At least pretty much, anyway.

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Filed under Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Nostalgia, People in History, Technology

Common sense seems to be a vanishing commodity

In February, new legislation in the State of Kentucky legalized what is called ‘herd sharing,’ meaning folks can buy into a herd of dairy cows, which will allow them to share the milk and other products the herd produces without such pesky requirements as requiring the raw milk to be pasteurized.

To celebrate the passage of the new law, a Kentucky legislator brought a jug of raw milk and passed it around to his lawmaking colleagues. Whereupon they all got sick. The politicians insist that it was mere coincidence they happened to become violently ill immediately after drinking raw, unpasteurized milk, and it may well have been. But probably not. At least nobody died that I know of, which may or may not be a good thing for the people of Kentucky.

The episode got me to thinking about my own childhood. I was either extremely lucky or disadvantaged, depending on your outlook on life, to have been born at a time when television had not yet become ubiquitous, indoor plumbing had only just become the norm, and diversified farming was morphing into the modern grain or livestock operations common today. It really was the end of an era, and the dawn of a new one.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher. The barn where my dad milked Daisy is in the background, the disused outhouse is hidden beside the garage at left, and my mother’s chicken house is barely visible through the trees at right.

When my mother brought me home from Copley Memorial Hospital in 1946, it was to a house with a new indoor bathroom that my preteen sisters greatly enjoyed. Granted the bathroom was in the basement, but that was a small trade-off given no more winter or rainy day trips across to the outhouse and the benefit of an indoor bathtub complete with a water heater. We listened to the radio, not TV, and my sisters’ music collections were filled with 78 rpm records that shattered if dropped—or if their little brother stepped on them.

By that time, subsistence farming was long gone in the United States, although vestiges of it remained. My mother did not work outside the house and my father did not work off the farm, but that aspect of farming life was beginning to change even then. Instead of working off the farm, my mother managed the garden and fruit orchard and raised chickens. It all sounds sort of like some modern suburban areas, but her garden was huge, and the orchard was sizable. Each year, she canned dozens and dozens of quarts of vegetables and fruit. And when my grandparents bought chest-type deepfreezes for their children one Christmas, all those veggies and fruits were frozen for use throughout the rest of the year.

Not only did her chickens produce eggs for family use, but the chickens themselves were a year round source of fresh meat. The eggs over and above those used by our family were carefully washed, candled, and packed in egg crates to be taken to town on Saturday and traded for the groceries we didn’t produced ourselves on the farm.

Guernsey cow

Maybe if you’ve seen one Guernsey you’ve seen ’em all, but this lady really does look a lot like the Daisy I remember.

Which brings me to that raw milk I mentioned above. We had a cow named Daisy, a gentle Guernsey. My dad favored Guernseys for his family’s cow because they produce milk with a very high butterfat content. That meant Daisy produced more cream per gallon of milk than the Holsteins most dairy farmers favored, but less actual milk than those black and white Holsteins.

My dad milked Daisy morning and night out in one of the former horse stalls in the barn. He was an expert hand-milker, sitting on his three-legged stool, quickly filling the polished steel milk pail with quick, sure pulls on Daisy’s teats. The barn cats were always drawn by the sound of the milk hitting the bucket, and as they gathered around, Dad would send a squirt of milk first to one and then to another, which they learned to catch in mid-air. Just writing that last sentence brings back the sounds and the smells of that time and place…the warmth of the barn even on a cold winter’s day, the excitement of the cats and kittens, and the glint of humor in my dad’s eye as he accurately shot those milky treats around the semi-circle of hungry cats.

Cream separator.jpg

Our cream separator sat in a corner of the basement. It had to be thoroughly cleaned after each use, a job my sisters did, but not all together willingly.

After Daisy was turned back out into the pasture, Dad took the milk in the house and down the basement, where he put a new filter in the separator, and poured in the milk. Our separator was blue in color and sort of resembled a miniature municipal water tower on four legs. The milk went in the top, and the ingenious tool used gravity and centrifugal force to separate most of the cream from the milk.

My folks used Daisy’s rich cream for their coffee, and mom used it for cooking. After enough of it was saved up in the refrigerator, we took it to my grandmother, who used her electric churn to turn it into rich butter. After being turned out of the churn, she would work it with a flat paddle in a large, shallow wooden bowl to force the buttermilk out, and then to work in the salt she sprinkled on. My dad loved buttermilk. It’s a taste I never acquired.

We drank the milk that came out of the separator and used it on our cereal, and mom used it for cooking. I wasn’t so fond of cream in those days, and even though it had been run through the separator, after a fresh batch of milk sat in the refrigerator over night, a thin skim of cream would form on the top—which my parents happily skimmed off with a teaspoon to color their morning coffee.

Daisy always produced more milk than the five of us could consume, so when enough extra was saved up, Mom and Dad took it over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who then turned it into cottage cheese by some magical process which I never really saw. All I knew was that milk went to Aunt Bess’s and wonderful cottage cheese came back packed in metal containers.

Some farmers during that era had begun pasteurizing their family’s milk, but my dad said that as long as you know where the milk came from, and if you made sure that cow was healthy, there would be no problems with drinking raw milk.

Which brings me back to those Kentucky politicians and their new law. My dad was a wise man, and his insistence that only raw milk from a known healthy cow was safe, it seems to me, is at risk with this ‘herd sharing’ scheme. Who, exactly, will be responsible for assuring every cow in that herd is approved to give healthy enough milk that it doesn’t need to be pasteurized? And what are the shared liability issues? If I were a parent with children, I certainly wouldn’t want to take a chance that milk might be safe when the simple process of pasteurization would assure its safety.

Assuring the safety of milk for human consumption was one of the great scientific achievements of the 19th Century, something that saved countless lives and avoided tragedy on what would be, for us modern Americans, an almost unbelievable scale. But now, well-meaning, but essentially clueless people who are alive today thanks to food safety and health regulations, from vaccinations to milk pasteurization, are eagerly discarding them for their own children in some sort of back to nature scheme. I guess I’m not very worried that parents with crackpot ideas may poison themselves or give themselves preventable diseases, but it does concern me that they may be sentencing their children to disease and death.


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Filed under Farming, Food, Frustration, Local History, Nostalgia, Uncategorized

Once you could get it all at Sears…

Back in 1992, just as the world was on the cusp of the Internet revolution, Sears, Roebuck and Company announced the elimination of their “Big Book” catalog as a cost saving measure. It was a decision that perfectly illustrated the shortsightedness of big business.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

Not only did they leave the business of selling everything to everyone just as the Internet was giving that particular business model new life, but also, with that announcement, a living link to the nation’s past died.

The Sears catalog was a godsend to farm families and pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether they lived on the desolate plains of Nebraska and Kansas or in the prosperous farming communities of Illinois and Indiana, rural families could buy just about anything else rural life required from the Sears catalog.

Gradually, the breadth of items included in the catalog was trimmed, and special catalogs were introduced. For instance, the Farm and Ranch catalog of 1992 included a lot of stuff that used to be included in the Big Book.

Financial analysts complained the Big Book had no focus. Unlike L.L. Bean (clothes) or Cabella’s (sporting goods), the Big Book offered a bit of everything for almost everyone. And that breadth of offerings apparently made the bean counters nervous.

Of course there was no ‘focus!’ The Big Book was the place you looked when you couldn’t find something anywhere else. Need a water heater? How about home nursing equipment? Need a swing set or bikes for the kids (or yourself)? Swimming pool? Auto parts? Furnace? The Big Book had it all and then some.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

In the fall of 1900, Sears published such a wildly comprehensive selection that many of the items are prohibited by law these days. For instance, in the drug section, Sears promised to cure—not just treat—morphine and opium addiction (there were apparently quite a few folks who couldn’t “Just Say No” 116 years ago, either), asthma (called catarrh back then), alcoholism (“Our 50 Cent Liquor Habit Cure”), Dr. Echols’ Australian cure for heart trouble, and my favorite, their all-purpose “60-Cent Nerve and Brain Pills” which were guaranteed to cure you if you felt “generally miserable.”

What great stuff! Today, the Food and Drug Administration or some other such wet blanket would rule the medicines (1) had no curative values at all, and (2) they would probably cause more problems than they would help. Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to buy something that guaranteed a cure, even if you just felt “generally miserable? ”

You could buy (young freckled ladies, please note) “Lily White Face Wash” for 40 cents. And you could not only buy watches of all prices, but you could buy an amazing 166 watchmaking tools in case you wanted to build one yourself.

There were rings, and silverware, and excellent clocks of all shapes and sizes.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

And guns. Boy, could you buy guns in 1900. There were lever-action Winchesters like the Rifleman used on TV, fine L.C. Smith double barreled shotguns, and three pages of handguns, ranging from .22 to .38 caliber. Our modern fascination with military-style weapons is nothing new—the catalog included a Harrington and Richardson “Automatic Bayonet Revolver,” which was included that year, the copywriter explained, because of the “many inquiries for a bayonet revolver” the company had received.

You could buy handcuffs or a beekeeper’s hat and net and smoker or fishing equipment, or a complete darkroom and camera outfit. And for just $54, you could purchase a complete stereopticon magic lantern show on the Spanish-American War.

And, of course, there were the clothes. Oh, the outerwear was popular (in fact, it’s amazing how much a man’s suit from 1900 looks like one from the 1960s Beatle era), but it’s no secret that the boys of that day and age used the Sears catalog to find out just what women looked like under all those clothes they wore. There on page 572 are a bevy of fetching young women dressed in (gasp!) tight- fitting Union suits! And on page 682 is the ever-popular display of summer corsets.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

There were chests of tools, tombstones, iceboxes, cast iron stoves, horsedrawn carriages and harnesses—you name it.

In fact, Sears became the world’s largest retailer not by having a ‘focus’ but by offering things people needed and wanted—strangely enough, Sears’ focus was their customers. What a concept! And the ad copy was cleverly written to make sure everyone ended up wanting something.

By the last winter it was published, the Big Book had grown to 1,640 pages from 1900’s 1,120 pages and a Yuppy lady on the front of 1992’s fall-winter Big Book replaced the stylized barefoot lady with flowing robes on the 1900 book. But the 1992 Big Book still contained an awesome collection of clothing, appliances, tools, and just plain neat stuff.

The “New Home Cabinet Organ” of 1900 had given way to 1992’s electronic keyboards and “The Optigraph or Moving Picture Machine” had made way for the video camera. But the bicycles were still there (starting on page 1444), as were the women’s corsets (called “Support Garments” in 1992 and starting on page 205), although young fellows can see a lot more skin nowadays on daytime soap operas than in Big Book ad copy.

The company, I believe, began its slow decline when the accountants took control of the business from salesmen. After all, Richard Warren Sears started out in 1886 by selling watches no one else wanted, while Alvah Curtis Roebuck began by repairing watches for Sears. By 1891, the pair were publishing a catalog (with all the ad copy written by Sears) and by 1894, Sears and Roebuck had become the nation’s shopkeeper. Their success was driven both by the sales genius of Sears, helped along by the U.S. Government’s institution of Rural Free Delivery. With the introduction of RFD, mail orders were delivered right to the mailbox out in front of every farmhouse in America instead of to the post office where customers had to go pick them up. It’s an eerily similar situation to the success on-line retailers like Amazon have realized making use of the Internet, another government developed and encouraged communications innovation.

R.W. Sears made millions not by watching the bottom line, but by giving people what they wanted or what they thought they wanted. With the guys from the business end now in charge, Sears has been in financial trouble for years. The company’s destructive corporate culture has already nearly eliminated Kmart as a viable company and seems well on its way to destroying R.W. Sears’ brainchild.


Filed under Business, History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Ice skating and other winter memories…

For some reason, I got to thinking this morning about ice skating on the Fox when I was a kid

So decided to, as one of my blogging heroes Brad DeLong puts it, hoist a January 2013 post from the archives about when we used to skate on the Fox.

This year, with December’s heavy rains, the Fox is nearly at flood stage so even if global climate change and development hadn’t ruined the river for skating, the high water would have precluded freezing anyway. The best years for skating featured dry autumn weather so that the water level and the current were both at low ebb, which encouraged freezing the river solid.

I recently went through bunches of family photos, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any photos of us ice skating. But we do have a few ice skating-related photos in the collections of the Little White School Museum, some of which are in this post.

Here it is…enjoy!

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Science stuff

Who is General Tso and why am I eating his chicken?*

Maybe it was sort of in honor of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” playing in a loop on Ted Turner’s old TBS and TNT stations, or maybe not. Whatever the reason, on Christmas Eve both my wife and I were hungry for Chinese food, which we ordered and drove over and picked up.

The last time we had Chinese, we decided to try General Tso’s chicken (the name had fascinated me for years), and we enjoyed it, although we went back to our old sesame chicken Christmas Eve. As I looked the menu over this time, I got to wondering about good old Gen Tso, and why somebody named a chicken dish in his honor.

Turns out, he was a major mover and shaker in the late 19th Century in China’s Qing Dynasty, not only an accomplished military leader, but also an effective diplomat. Oddly enough, he was not commemorated in his own country with a dish named in his honor. Rather, General Tso’s chicken was invented in the 1970s here in the U.S. in New York City, inspired by a dish developed by a Taiwanese chef named Peng.

And that, of course got me to thinking about all the other foods and dishes named after individuals, although their origins are mostly unknown these days.

As Vince put it, "Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff." Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it's named after Bakers German's Sweet Chocolate, developed by Bob German.

As Vince put it, “Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff.” Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it’s named after Bakers German’s Sweet Chocolate, developed by Sam German.

German chocolate cake is a good example. It’s not German, as in the country, but rather German as in Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which was developed in 1852 by Sam German for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. The recipe for the cake was first published in the Dallas Morning Star in 1957 using German’s Sweet Chocolate. Over the years, the name has been shortened, dropping the apostrophe “s” suggesting to the unwary that Germans had something to do with it.

Graham crackers are another familiar food—no S’Mores with out ‘em!—that carry the name of their inventor, this time a guy by the name of Sylvester Graham. Graham was a Presbyterian minister back in the 1800s who was a health food fanatic who developed a process for milling whole wheat flour to be used in what he considered healthy eating. I suspect Sylvester would be horrified at what generations of Girl and Boy Scouts have done to his healthy crackers.

Which brings us to Fettuccine Alfredo, one of my favorite pasta dishes, that was created by early 20th Century Italian chef Alfredo di Lelio. He developed it as a mild dish for his pregnant wife. Tourists eating at his restaurant in Rome liked it and spread the recipe around the world.

A number of fruits and vegetables are named after the folks who developed them, including boysenberries. Rudolf Boysen, a botanist who was also the superintendent of parks in Anaheim, California, crossed a loganberry, raspberry, and blackberry sometime in the 1920s to arrive at the boysenberry. Its fame was assured when Walter Knott started pushing boysenberry jam, jelly, and syrup at his Knott’s Berry Farm California tourist trap.

Clementines, those delicious little oranges, are named after Père Clément Rodier. The good father either came across a mandarin orange mutation while serving in North Africa in the early 20th Century, or he himself made a mandarin and Seville orange cross to create the tiny, sweet fruit. That’s at least one story, the other being clementines may have been created by some nameless Asian horticulturalist long before Father Clement got into the act.

Granny Smith apples, named after BLANK, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Granny Smith apples, named after Marie Anna “Granny” Smith, the Australian woman who first cultivated them, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Lots of varieties of apples are named after the orchardists who developed them by cross-breeding. The Granny Smith apple, which was discovered, and then propagated, in in Australia in 1868 by Marie Anna “Granny” Smith was named in her honor. Closer to home here in Kendall County, the Minkler apple was named after 19th Century orchardist Smith Minkler, who developed it from seedlings given him in lieu of cash when he worked for local French American businessman and property owner Pierre Lamsette, who was also known as Peter Specie. While Granny Smiths are still very popular, Minklers are mostly only found now in old farmyard orchards and at nurseries that feature heirloom apples.

As well as fruit, we Americans love our salads. Last week we ate out at one of our local pizza/Italian beef/hot dog joints and I had a great Cobb salad, which I though was probably so named because it had kernels of sweet corn in it. But no, the Cobb salad was invented by Robert H. Cobb, the owner of the famed Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood. Sometime around 1936, Cobb rustled up a salad for himself using ingredients he had in the kitchen. He apparently liked it so well, he started serving it in his restaurant after naming it after himself.

And you might think Caesar salad was named after Julius or one of the other long line of Caesars who ruled Rome, but you’d be wrong. Granted, its creator, Caesar Cardini, was of Italian ancestry, but he was an American restaurateur and chef. One of his buddies created the Caesar salad in the restaurant at the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Mexico and named it for the hotel and his friend.

Ever wonder about nachos? About 1943, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya created his original dish by making a bed of fried corn tortillas and then covered them with melted cheddar cheese and jalapeño peppers.

Hershey, Pennsylvania gets all the press about its famous chocolate candy, but really, Illinois probably ought to own the nation’s candy making crown. Heath bars, for instance, those delicious little English toffee bars were created in downstate Robinson by the owners of Heath Brothers Confectionery, Bayard and Everett Heath. A salesman brought the brothers a recipe developed by a Greek candy maker down in Champaign, and after some tweaking, the Heaths turned it into a local favorite during the Roaring 1920s. At the time, Crawford County was an oil production center, and the wildcatters who came and went carried those little Heath Bars with them all over the U.S. The orders rolled in and the rest is history.

Also developed right here in Illinois by Chicago’s Williamson Candy Company was the chewy Oh Henry! peanut, caramel, fudge and chocolate bar. The story goes that a young fellow by the name of Henry used to stop by the company’s offices who could be convinced to do odd jobs and the call for his services, “Oh Henry!” became so frequent they named a new candy bar in his honor in 1920. Although there are other explanations of the candy bar’s name, the company is sticking with their story about good old Henry.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it's almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it’s almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Not sure where we’d be these days if somebody hadn’t invented sandwiches. The name itself is easily traced back to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792). Now the Earl didn’t invent sandwiches; they were popular, especially among the lower classes for a long time before the Earl was a glint in his father’s eye. But the name for two pieces of bread with varied fillings is said to have been given the dish back during the Seven Years War when the Earl demanded food that could be easily and neatly handled while playing cards with his friends.

One of my favorite sandwiches is the Reuben sandwich. Although it’s almost impossible to find a true Reuben these days—it requires Russian dressing, not the almost-always-substituted Thousand Island Dressing—many local restaurants make a passable version. The best here in the Oswego area is at the Riverview Diner in Montgomery. Food historians believe the sandwich was invented at Reuben Kolakofsky’s restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska around 1925 to feed his poker buddies. On the other hand, some believe that Arnold Reuben, a New York City restaurateur, created it and named it after himself around 1914.

Finally, another of my favorite dishes is Salisbury steak, and it turns out the guy it was named for had dietary theories that pretty much exactly mirror my own. Dr. James H. Salisbury invented the dish named in his honor, and he strongly advised his patients to eat it three times a day, while limiting their intake of vegetables (which he considered to be somewhere between dangerous and evil) and starches.

A man truly after my own heart. And stomach.



*Turns out while I thought I was being original with this title, Kimberly Kohatsu already used it on a 2014 piece on Huffington Post. Oh well…


Filed under Food, History, Illinois History, Nostalgia, People in History, Uncategorized

When toy heaven opened on Main Street…

Holiday season has rolled around one more time, but somehow it doesn’t seem like Christmas just yet. Maybe this year’s singular lack of snow, ice, and nasty weather  here in northern Illinois has something to do with my feelings on the subject. Who knows?

Back when I was a fourth grade student at Oswego’s old Red Brick School, Christmas was considered by all of us youngsters a very special time of year. During the latter years of the 1950s, there weren’t as many commercials on television—we just had three channels to choose from back in the old days, so there wasn’t as much television, either. Today, commercials are aimed at the demographics advertisers figure watch whatever of the hundreds of channels are beamed into our homes. Lots of prescription drug and patent medicine ads on The Hallmark Channel and women’s products on Lifetime, for instance. And tune in Nickelodeon or one of the other kids’ commercial channels, and you’ll be inundated with commercials aimed at kids.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show's run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg's Sugar Corn Pops.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show’s run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops.

Back in those early TV days, an awful lot of programming aimed at kids seemed  to have been funded by food companies. “Wild Bill Hickok,” for instance, was sponsored by Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, to the extent that Wild Bill (played by Guy Madison in buckskins, who bore absolutely no resemblance to the real Wild Bill) decorated the Sugar Pops box. His image lingered there like one of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts years after the show was yanked from the airwaves. Sugar Corn Pops themselves have morphed these days into just plain Corn Pops, Kellogg’s apparently hoping no one will notice they’re coated with sugar if the word isn’t mentioned in the cereal’s name.

And there was also “Captain Midnight” and his chief mechanic and comic relief Icky Mudd (with two d’s), which was sponsored by Ovaltine. I hated evil-tasting Ovaltine. But then Captain Midnight went into syndication and was mysteriously transformed into Jet Jackson, whose show was sponsored by Jets cereal. I couldn’t stand Jets cereal, and it didn’t like me, either. God knows I tried to eat enough boxes of the stuff because I really needed those box tops, only to have my body reject it like some poor fellow rejecting his transplanted heart.

So, anyway, we had a lot of cereal advertising, but very little toy advertising. Until Christmas time, that is. When Christmas rolled around, all the afternoon and noontime shows—“The Two-Ton Baker Show,” “Elmer the Elephant,” “Super Circus,” “Uncle Johnny Coons” —featured a ton of toy advertisements aimed at us Baby Boomers, as we oozed through the nation’s social fabric like a giant rodent through a python.

Shuler's Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Shuler’s Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Our real problem, as ’50s kids, was not deciding what kind of toy we wanted most for Christmas, it was trying to get a look at the real thing. Here in Oswego, the only stores that sold toys were Carr’s Department Store and Shuler’s Drug Store. Carr’s had a tiny, not very good toy section, and Shuler’s selection of toys, which was only marginally better, was located on a couple of shelves at the back of the store. We had to deal with those conditions for most of the year. But at Christmas time, though, things changed drastically.

Al Shuler apparently loved Christmas, and, carrying on an Oswego drug store tradition that stretched back into pre-Civil War days, sponsored a huge Christmas toy sale and display in the second floor meeting hall above his store. He contracted with Mr. and Mrs. Carr, who owned the department store just down the block, to manage the sales portion of the annual event.

About Thanksgiving, the doors officially opened, and everyone was invited to climb the narrow, creaky, steep flight of stairs to what, for us, amounted to Toy Heaven.

After a hard day hitting the books (and sometimes each other) at the Red Brick School, we’d walk down to so some serious toy gazing before heading home. The school was located on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets, just two blocks from Shuler’s, and when the day’s final school bell rang, a mob of pushing and shoving munchkins would headed downtown, warmly dressed in zippered coats and five- buckle boots. To cross busy Madison Street—U.S. Route 34—to get

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego's old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego’s old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

downtown, we’d use the pedestrian crosswalk signal lights at Jackson Street. There is no power on Earth like that felt by a fourth grader who is able to stop a whole line of autos, buses, and semi-trucks–even if it wass the elderly Mr. Donnelly who did the actual button-pushing. As traffic ground to a halt, we’d amble across the roadway with the same feeling General Patton must have felt when he wielded complete control of the Third Army in World War II.

On Main Street, we’d clamber up the steep wooden stairway into a large room which was filled with long tables laden with more toys than any of us had ever seen in one place. Lionel and American Flyer electric trains, Mattel six-guns and rifles and dolls, Marx electric trains and toys, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets, Flexible Flyer sleds, Structo trucks and fire engines (that really worked!), and game and puzzle sets by the hundreds were spread before our eyes.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

We’d spend hours looking at all those toys, imagining what it would be like to own a Flexible Flyer, or a Mattel pistol that really shot plastic bullets—imagination was a big part of the whole Christmas scene, not to mention the rest of our lives as children.

Today, however, children are bombarded with ads for toys of all kinds on a daily basis all year long. The special feeling that Christmas used to generate when we hoped for that one much-desired and fantasized-about toy seems to have ended in a rush by parents for whatever seems to be on the current year’s hot list. Back then we never really knew what we’d get for Christmas—our parents usually decided that (at least in part) what we wanted for Christmas and what we needed were two entirely different things. I never noticed any feelings of guilt on the part of parents who bought their children a less expensive toy than the one hoped for.

As a Missouri newspaper editor put it in one of our exchanges down at the newspaper office some 30 years ago now, today’s parents are apparently confusing the word “disappoint” with “deprive” as they fight and trample heir way to the counter to snatch the last whatever hot-selling toy in stock.

It‘s hard to persuade children to be satisfied with less when they’re constantly bombarded with instructions to beg for more from their parents. But it’s not impossible. As our parents found out, “no” can sometimes be exactly the right word.


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Filed under History, Local History, Nostalgia, Uncategorized