Monday, September 24, 2012

Learning About Home

Me holding a postcard I found on eBay of Millard in the 1920s, where I grew up, more or less the same spot.

I grew up on a farm, land owned by my family since the 1840s, in Sugar Creek township, Walworth county, Wisconsin.  The nearest community, perhaps a mile away, was Millard, formerly known as Barkers Corners, but renamed for Millard Fillmore in the 1850s.  In its heyday, the place had a general store, a feed mill, a church, a school, a cheese factory/town hall, a couple taverns, and a couple blacksmith shops.  People socialized, had box lunches, ice cream socials, went to dances, played cards and had bowling and softball teams.  People expected Millard to become a city, once the railroad came through. My great great grandfather, an immigrant from Ontario, who had about a thousand acres of land in wheat production and a couple of mills, had high hopes for rail coming through, but died disappointed that the trains took another route, bypassing the hamlet. Through  generations sons sold off their acres, until my dad had 120 acres and a dairy operation when I lived at home.  After he died most of that land was sold, and now my brother lives on a couple acres, all that remains.

When I was small the general store was run by Ed and Vera Bray, nice people.  Vera gave my very first bag of corn chips, a special treat. In the 1950s the store no longer was a post office, but people stopped there all the time for gas from the single pump, groceries, or other sundries like school supplies, comic books, small toys, kitchen utensils, or even blue jeans.  I got into big trouble once when I was about ten when I rode my bicycle to the store because I wanted an frozen orange, but I neglected to let my parents know where I was headed.

Today there are no blacksmith shops, though there is a little machine shop.  The old feed mill burned in 1959, and was rebuilt down the road.  The elementary school closed when rural schools consolidated in the late 1950s, and is now a private home. The general store is a taxidermy shop, and little museum of dinosaur bones.  A hand lettered sign on the door says it is open weekends from 10 a.m. until 5, but I've stopped twice and never found open.  Some of the houses have burned down, or been torn down, and others are for sale.  The church is doing fine - I recently stopped by for the funeral of the organist who had been there when I sang in the church choir in high school.  She had been playing church music for 80 years.  I wanted to pay my respects, and I couldn't resist the luncheon the church ladies put on afterward.

My family, great grandparents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, parents, sister all all buried in the little cemetery, and I have walked the rows of stones since I was a toddler, since my mother always cleaned and decorated family graves.  Since she is gone, I visit at least twice a year, to set out silk flowers in the spring, and later in fall to pick them up again. It's a quiet place, a little overgrown, surrounded by farm fields. This year I was inspired to go a step further that just tending my family lots..  I decided to make sure that all the burials, especially the oldest ones, are posted on the internet (Find a Grave.Com) for people who are interested in local history and family genealogy. 

The stories the names and dates suggest fill my mind with questions.  Why were so many of the earliest settlers in Sugar Creek from Canada?  I expected many of them to be from New England, from Norway and Germany, but not so many from Nova Scotia.  What happened in the family who left behind three daughters, one dying each year for three years?  What happened in the family who sent two sons to the Civil war, had a new baby the next year after one of their soldier sons died, only to have the infant die as well?  Why are there so many single women, buried alone?  What happened to Nancy Tinker, the women whose stone I loved best when I was a child, but is nowhere to be found any more. I was surprised, though I supposed I shouldn't have been, to see how hopelessly intertwined by marriage the biggest family groups are.  Many local people have the same last names even now, and I suddenly had some insight into why my parents knew everyone and their family histories.  I'm just figuring it out, a little, now.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Capping Off Summer

 Dubuque Museum of Art - with huge statues to the left

Summer seems to be winding down here in southern Wisconsin.  The evenings are getting cooler, the nights filled with the sounds of crickets, the flowers looking tired and ragged.  My husband celebrated his birthday this week, and his desire was to take a multiple day bicycle ride home from the Mississippi River.  The weather forecast for the week looked good, so we drove west to Dubuque, and stayed over at the Hotel Julien Dubuque - very nice indeed.  Then he took his bicycle off the rack, hooked on the panniers, and left for a ride that included a side trip to the Quad Cities, a total of nearly 3oo miles by the time he returned home yesterday.

I had wanted to see the Dubuque Museum of Art, but it was closed on Monday when we arrived, so before I left Tuesday I waited around for it to open.  I wanted to see both their current exhibit of folk art, and their collection of Grant Wood art.  The museum opens at 10 o'clock, so I had time to sit in the park across the street and sketch the giant American Gothic figures that stand near the entrance.

My quick sketch of the statues - complete with a giant suitcase

The original Grant Wood painting, taken on a recent trip to the Chicago Art Institute

Before coming back home I drove north on the Iowa side of the Mississippi to McGregor, where I had made arrangements to be outfitted as a Victorian lady for a couple upcoming events with our historical society.  River Junction Trade Co. is a wonderful place, two stores, one for men and another for women.  It is filled with everything a historical society docent or re-enactor could need - hats, shoes, fans, dresses, undergarments, jewelry, anything.  I ended up with a walking skirt, mutton-sleeve shirtwaist, belt and cape.  I'm still considering what to do for a hat, but I had reached the full amount I had budgeted.

Mel helped me select clothing appropriate for a Victorian lady. My outfit is considerably less flashy than hers!

I had some time once I got home to read, water the garden, and take my annual trip to the Walworth County Fair.  It was hot, so I was not too surprised to find the midway uncrowded.  Or perhaps it was just because it was a weekday, and most adults were working.  Being retired, I not only got in for a reduced admission, but got to visit on a day the building were almost empty, and no lines at the stand with pork sandwiches, or cream puffs.  

It was crowded for the pig races, though.  These little porkers seem more than happy to scramble for the chance at an Oreo cookie.

I enjoy the fair, seeing the garden produce, the 4-H projects, the antiques.  I like wandering through the barns, seeing kids washing and brushing their cattle, feeding their chickens or rabbits, showing their goats or sheep.  But it always feels a little sad too, remembering how the fair was always a place to win ribbons, meet friends, ride the rides, mooch quarters off my dad or grandfather, who always seemed to be there too.  I did see one friend from school at the fair, but all in all, I felt a little like Rip Van Winkle, unrecognized in a familiar but changed place.