Friday, August 24, 2007

A Peek into the Past - Bernice





I have been scanning old pictures and arranging family history information so much that a movie of other people's lives seems to play in my head all day, and even at night in my dreams. It's interesting to me to be able to put together old photos with written material. Each one begins to come alive in a new way.

Back in the 1990's I was very interested in storytelling and oral history projects, and I had my grandmother make tapes and write memories for the family. This is a little piece from her recollections of being about twenty or so. I can drive to the places she describes, but today they're hard to recognize. The cherry orchard she describes is overgrown, the old white painted cherry stand I remember has been swallowed by brush. I think Linden Terrace is gone too.

From the autobiography of Bernice Adams Tess (1903 - 2002). This part of her story takes place in the early 1920s.

"The summers at Troy were my favorite time. The DeWitt boys were there then, and they had a big Hudson. We were really good friends, and I was invited to go to most of the places they went. Our special spot was the beach on Booth Lake, where they kept a canoe in the boat house belonging to Linden Terrace Hotel. We had grand times there, swimming, picnicking and canoeing. Linden Terrace is still there but no longer a hotel. It has been remodeled. and now is a supper club. The boat house and the beach are gone.

Bill DeWitt was especially nice to me. He used to take me dancing and to Elkhorn to see the movies. I looked upon both the boys as big brothers, until Bill surprised me by proposing. I wasn’t ready for that. I had just been having a good time, and I felt bad, because by refusing him I was afraid of spoiling our friendship... Bill started dating other girls then and I went out more often with the East Troy boys. There were three rather special ones. Vince O’Connor, very Irish, had black, curly hair, George O’Malley, also Irish, who owned a filling station and was a marvelous dancer, and Howard Tess, who was the boy I finally married. I went with Vince first, but broke up with him when he pressured me to turn Catholic and to marry him. George O’Malley was next, and he showed me a wonderful time. We went all over the county to dances, and got very good at it. I used to be very flattered when the other dancers would stand on the sidelines and applaud us, but George was such a marvelous dancer that he could make any partner look good. After a year, that also came to an end, for much the same reasons that I broke up with Vince...

I started going with Howard when my friend Virginia came out from Milwaukee to spend the weekend. The boy I was going out with at the time brought Howard along as a date for Virginia. I don’t remember where the boys took us, But I do remember that before the evening was over we had switched partners and I ended up with Howard. I was very impressed with him. He was quiet and a little shy, but I didn’t have to worry about fighting off unwelcome advances. Our courtship would probably never have gotten off to a good start except that Howard’s best friend, Bruce Aldridge, was married to my best friend, Grace. They lived on a farm in Spring Prairie, and that winter Howard stayed with them and helped build a small barn. Howard was a mason by trade, but in those days masons couldn’t work in bad weather, and that winter was one of our worst. Grace and Bruce had a big bobsled, and they would hitch up the horses and come to Troy to pick us up. I’d stay for several days at a time, and once we were snowed in for a week. The four of us had a lot of good times that winter, and if we wanted to go anywhere we had our sled and horses to take us. One weekend Grace and I wanted to go to a big celebration in East Troy. Bruce and Howard spent all that day shoveling out snow banks on the big hill between our farm and East Troy so the horses and sled could get through...

The next summer Howard bought a Model T Ford to take us around in. We were sure proud of that shiny new coupe, and spent nearly every Sunday exploring the countryside. The year before the road that passed our Troy home had been paved with concrete. It was a magic ribbon of a road, stretching from East Troy to Elkhorn and beyond. We could go to Elkhorn to the movies in record time, and we felt very citified. The side roads, however, were still bad, filled with ruts and dust in the summer and mud during spring and fall. None of this mattered to us, though. We were just happy to have a car to drive and places to go.

We also saw radio come into being while we lived in Troy. My first look at the magic box came when a boy I dated casually asked several of us to meet at the East Troy bank where he worked. There was a great deal of static, but in between the strains of music floated out and voices talked to us. It was unbelievable. We could not imagine anything more awe inspiring. I am sure that if anyone tried to explain television to us we would have considered them candidates for the mental ward.

Another big change happened when the DeWitt boys decided to turn their farmland, which they had been renting out, into a cherry orchard. All the neighbors thought they were crazy. Cherry trees, they were told, would never survive our harsh winters, and if they did survive, the late spring frosts would surely kill the blossoms. The boys were determined though, and spent all of their combined capital on cherry trees. I had expected small trees, and was dismayed when I saw the dried up sticks they were planting. I couldn’t imagine that they would ever turn into fruit bearing trees. It took a lot of hard work, and before the boys got their irrigation system going, many hundreds of pails of water were carried. Eventually it all paid off. The trees grew beautifully, and though we didn’t live in Troy long enough to see them bear fruit, in time they produced a beautiful harvest. The DeWitt boys made a nice living from them. Bradley DeWitt still lives in East Troy with his wife. Bill DeWitt helped out with the orchard, but moved to Milwaukee where he owned a wholesale carpet business."

1 comment:

frenchfryedfreud said...

I can't say enough about how much I enjoy these bits of Oral History & your own reminiscences(SP?).

There is probably not a better use for blogs that I can think of and you do it with such care and feeling.

I appreciate that it takes much time and effort and I thank you for sharing.

The part about visiting WLS in Chicago was especially thrilling to me as I am an Old Time Radio buff and I got vicariously carried away and it raised a few goosebumps but the whole thing is just a treasure.