Making History at the Home Farm

Hilda and Emily Demuth grew up on Bo-Mar Farm in Yorkville, Wisconsin, a few miles north of Union Grove.

Hilda and Emily Demuth spent many hours working and playing in this barn in Yorkville, Wisconsin.

Tonight at 6:30 Emily and I will talk about our books in one of our favorite places–the hayloft of the big old barn at Bo-Mar Farm in Yorkville Township, Wisconsin.  The History Seekers of the Union Grove Area have invited us to speak, and our sister Gretchen Hansen and her husband are hosting the event.

Six of us Demuths grew up on Bo-Mar Farm, known to our readers as the McEachron homestead, and we have vivid memories of working and playing in that barn.  For many summers we sweated and scratched as we hauled and stacked bales of hay in that loft.  In cooler weather we built castles–complete with dungeons–of straw bales.  Our 4-H lambs were born in that barn, and Mr. Vyvyan came to shear every June.  My horse and our two ponies grazed in the pasture for many years.

After we all moved out and Mom and Dad no longer kept livestock, Dad laid a new floor in the empty hayloft, hung basketball hoops and a swing, fenced off the open end, and built a staircase up to “Grampa’s Playpen.”   Twenty Demuth grandchildren and plenty of adults have played in that hayloft in recent years, including musicians at a genuine barn dance.

barn building pic

In the year 1900, the Yorkville community worked together to build this barn.

One of the Demuth family treasures is a photograph of the barn-raising, a turn-of-the-century community event.  I hope the men who built the barn and the women who fed them all had time and energy for dancing when the work was done.

Many different kinds of activities have taken place in that barn over the past hundred and fourteen years, but one of the most unique occurred just a few years ago.  On a brisk autumn day our nephew Thomas Martin Hansen was baptized in that hayloft, which was hung with family quilts as a backdrop for a marble baptismal font and conveniently furnished with church pews.

 

Categories: Childhood Memories, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Glimpse of Hattie’s War

soldiers' aid fair signold abe at soldiers' aid fairEarly in Plank Road Winter, Hans and his father reminisce about seeing Old Abe, the eagle mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin regiment, at the Soldiers’ Home Fair in Milwaukee when Henry Hoffman returned from the war.  Later, when Sophie visits the Soldiers’ Home, she notices that her mother is “as proud of the new building as though the donations from Yorkville ladies had funded the entire project.”

 

women at soldiers' aid fair          The Soldiers’ Home Fair of 1865 was the most significant fundraising event of Civil War Wisconsin.  In this grand version of the popular soldiers’ aid fairs, Milwaukee women enlisted the help of communities statewide to raise over $100,000 to purchase land and build a permanent home for returning soldiers on property that still serves veterans today.

fish pond at soldiers' aid fair

 

In our forthcoming book Hattie’s War, Emily and I tell the story of eleven year-old Hattie Bigelow, a Milwaukee girl deeply involved in relief efforts, including the Soldiers’ Home Fair.

On June 21, 2014, the modern West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society of Milwaukee recreated the sights and sounds and smells of that fair, treating visitors to the Civil War Museum in Kenosha to a glimpse of Hattie’s world.  In the spirit of the dedicated nineteenth-century citizens who continued to support American soldiers after the war, the sponsors of this modern fair donated all proceeds to the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative.

Emily and I are eager to share the rich heritage of Wisconsin’s Civil War history with readers of Hattie’s War this fall.

Categories: Hattie's War, Plank Road Winter, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mom–Our Number One Fan

Marge Demuth at Plank Road Summer celebration at St. John's Lutheran School in Burlington, Wisconsin.

Mom attends many of our book events–and she schedules them for us, too.

Long before Emily and I began working on the story first known as “Girls of the Plank Road,”  our mother, Marjorie Demuth, encouraged us to write.  Mostly we wrote accounts of county fair projects for our 4-H record books, but we also wrote essays and speeches for local contests by groups such as the American Legion.  Back then I did not always appreciate my mother’s prodding or her forthright criticism of my writing and public speaking skills.

Now that Mom is our financial manager and number one promoter–she sells more books than Emily and I do, and she even gives presentations, using those public speaking skills she worked so hard to teach us–I am grateful for her long years of effort on our behalf.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!  The Plank Road books wouldn’t be here without you.

Categories: Childhood Memories, county fair, On Writing | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Delicious Celebration in the Classroom

 

Sixth graders welcome grandparents to a celebration of Midwestern history

Sixth graders welcome grandparents to a celebration of Midwestern history

Plankroad-0062As mentioned in the previous post, after reading Plank Road Summer, students in Burlington, Wisconsin, shared their knowledge of Midwestern history at the “1852 6th Grade Fair” held on Grandparents’ Day.  No fair is complete without food, of course.  Plankroad-9999In addition to building plank roads, coloring quilt blocks, and learning about the Underground Railroad, the visitors baked scones and drank freshly-squeezed lemonade.  Inspired by pioneer girls Katie and Florence in Plank Road Summer, one student even provided a taste test of strawberry preserves.

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Photo credits to Gretchen Hansen of Gigi’s Joy Photography.

 

 

Categories: Cornish in Wisconsin, county fair, Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Generations Celebrate Wisconsin History Together

Grandparents' Day guides at St. John's Lutheran School

Grandparents’ Day guides at St. John’s Lutheran School

Mrs. Rehberger and her students assist visiting grandparents in building a plank road

Mrs. Rehberger and her students assist visiting grandparents in building a plank road

On March 14, sixth graders at St. John’s Lutheran School in Burlington, Wisconsin, celebrated Grandparents’ Day by hosting an interactive classroom fair inspired by Plank Road Summer.

A visiting grandmother colors a quilt block

A visiting grandmother colors a quilt block

The students in Mrs. Claire Rehberger’s class chose their own projects, which resulted in a fascinating variety of activities and exhibits for the older guests.  Visitors to the classroom were invited to build a plank road, make scones and lemonade, color quilt blocks, taste strawberry preserves, listen to a live reading of Plank Road Summer, experience an audiovisual presentation about the Underground Railroad, and play a memory game about technology “Then and Now.”

 

Two grandfathers make scones in the sixth grade classroom at St. John's

Two grandfathers make scones in the sixth grade classroom at St. John’s

Photo credits to Gretchen Hansen of Gigi’s Joy Photography

 

Categories: Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Brigid’s Day!

Today is Brigid’s Day, also known as St. Bridget’s Day, but many readers may not realize the significance of that name in the Plank Road books.

In Plank Road Summer, Gran Mather’s given name appears only twice.  At the Yorkville smithy, Old Man Caswell calls Gran by her first name, and at the Ives Grove store, Gran introduces herself to Marshal Carter: “I’m Brigid Mather.”

I chose “Brigid” as Florence’s grandmother’s name because of its connection with the ancient Celtic world.  Gran Mather is a healer in the pioneer community who speaks the old Cornish language and cherishes the traditions of her native Cornwall.

The Celtic Brigid, or Brighid, triple goddess of fire–the fire of inspiration, the fire of the hearth, and the fire of the forge–was Christianized as St. Brigid, or Bridget, patron saint of poets, midwives, blacksmiths, travelers, and fugitives.

Readers of Plank Road Summer will surely recognize the significance of those occupations to our story.

And careful readers of Plank Road Winter may realize that little Birdie is named after her great-grandmother–when the schoolmaster calls the roll, she responds to the name “Brigid Caswell.”

Interestingly,  Saint Bridget is also the patron saint of milkmaids.

Categories: Cornish in Wisconsin, Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Winter, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Authors and Artists

Plank Road dolls needle-felted by fiber artist Kat Lutze

Plank Road dolls designed by Kat Lutze

Once a story has been read, the characters are no longer solely the author’s creations; they are continually reshaped by the minds of readers.

Recently my daughter Kat Lutze literally shaped the Plank Road Summer characters Katie McEachron and Florence Mather by needle-felting little dolls of wool roving, Katie with brown braids and a crimson dress, Florence with fair hair and a green dress.

When the dolls were posed with copies of our books for a craft fair in Union Grove, Wisconsin, I was reminded of another artist’s interpretation of the Plank Road characters. In 2009 Kathleen Spale sent several cover sketches to our editor Phil Martin of Crickhollow Books. As you can see here, one of those concepts looks startlingly like the photograph of those felted dolls.

An early cover concept sketch by artist Kathleen Spale

An early cover concept sketch by Kathleen Spale

Categories: On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Winter, Uncategorized, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Plank Road Visions

Some of us tell stories in words, others in pictures.  Our photographer sister Gretchen captures moments in light and shadow, and her visions have included the Plank Road world of the twenty-first century.

John G reading PRS at night

This award-winning photograph shows a young reader in the very bedroom in which Emily and I imagined the McEachron sisters looking out over the lilacs behind the farmhouse.  Careful observers may be able to recognize the book in this picture, a choice that gladdened our hearts.

The autumn photograph below shows four children at home watching their Yorkville neighbors harvesting the fields once farmed by the McEachrons.

children watching Yorkville harvest

Like our favorite stories, Gretchen’s visions have a timeless quality. It’s easy to understand why she specializes in photographing babies and children in southeastern Wisconsin. You will find more of her work at Gigi’s Joy Photography.

Categories: Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: | 1 Comment

Lessons from our Fathers

Last April, a flooded basement put one third of our living space out of commission. Like many others in the Chicago area, we were faced with the ordeal of salvaging, cleaning up and rebuilding–again.

As my husband took off for a five-week trip to Asia, I was left to try to reconstruct our sons’ bedroom. On more than one occasion, I was brought to tears wishing that my father was still alive. Dad would have known how to do this. Dad would have come down to help me. Dad could have fixed this.

I recruited friends from church to help me put up drywall. Perhaps I should rephrase that–Greg and John put up drywall, and my son and I helped. Once it was in place, I spent Mother’s Day taping and mudding. Unfortunately, I had never done this before, and the book on drywalling that I had checked out of the library wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped it would be.

Still, I kept at it, and halfway through the room I realized that I begun imitating what I had seen Dad do when patching holes in our plaster walls at home. By using the same kind of  pressure on the drywall knives that Dad had, I was getting smoother walls. Too bad I was working in the closet by this time.

Lessons from our fathers stay with us long after they have left us. What a blessing when we discover a lesson that we didn’t even know had been taught.

In Plank Road Winter, Hans’s father dies in the Chicago Fire. But as writers, and as daughters whose father died six years ago, we know that Hans will continue to learn lessons from his father.

Thanks, Dad, for all you continue to teach me.

Categories: Chicago, Childhood Memories, Plank Road Winter, When We're Not Writing | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The Way of the Road

Last week, I spoke at an adult forum at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Elmhurst, Illinois. I had led a discussion at the church when Plank Road Summer was published; in that book the moral dilemma of whether or not to break the law to help runaway slaves  provided a natural link to a discussion about how we make ethical decisions.

Until I sat down to prepare for this new presentation, I did not see any such obvious connection to faith issues in Plank Road Winter.  I began by considering the scenes involving disaster relief, since that is  a familiar topic to many churches. But as I delved further into the book, I discovered that the entire story is about stewardship, or managing one’s life with respect and regard for the needs of others. Though Hilda and I certainly instilled our own values into the characters and plot, only now do I understand how tightly the idea of serving others is woven into the fabric of the story.

From Papa going back to help the Kreuschers, to the community-wide disaster relief efforts, to a Pullman porter “loaning” money for train tickets home, Plank Road Winter is about using one’s time, resources, and abilities to serve the greater good of society. According to that Pullman porter, this is “Just friends helping friends. It’s the way of the road.” Summer readers will recognize “the way of the road” as the words of Gran Mather, first spoken when she instructed Florence to pull their light wagon off the planks onto the dirt lane to let a heavily-laden wagon go by. According to Gran Mather, “We are to ease the journey of those who are burdened.”

If your reading group or class would like to use “The Way of the Road: Lessons in Serving” or explore other aspects of the Plank Road books, take a look at our page of Resources for Teachers. The free, downloadable materials include a discussion guide on The Way of the Road and an eight-page Teacher’s Guide with discussion questions, classroom activities, and historical notes.  Other curriculum materials include spelling and vocabulary lists for both books and links to websites providing historical background and additional educational activities.

We would love to hear about how readers use these resources to dig deeper into our Plank Road Stories.

Categories: Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas, Plank Road Winter | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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