Author Archives: Hilda Demuth-Lutze

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

“Here We Come a-Wassailing”

wassail bowl printOn this twelfth day of Christmas I will stir up my last batch of wassail for the season and carry this traditional winter drink to a gathering of friends. Maybe at our hosts’ door I can convince my husband to sing “Here we come a-wassailing” with me as the Banvards did in Plank Road Winter when they arrived at the Mather Inn on Twelfth Night.

Most often my kettle of wassail simmers on the stove at home, a fragrant reminder of this season of hospitality.  I make the first batch for our winter solstice party, and while my family-friendly recipe, a mixture of fruit juices and cinnamon and cloves, is admittedly tamer than those that call for ale or wine as the base, many of our guests top off their wassail cups with something stronger.

You can learn more about the fascinating history of wassailing along with other Cornish winter holiday customs at the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies website.

Categories: Cornish in Wisconsin, Mather Inn, Plank Road Winter | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

“On the Feast of Stephen”

Whether you think of December 26 as Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day or simply the day after Christmas, we hope you enjoy making music and sharing family traditions during the winter holidays. Here’s a timely excerpt from Plank Road Winter:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even

Father’s voice in the familiar carol woke Sophie as it did
every year on the second day of Christmas. In her opinion, he
might be one of the finest singers in Yorkville, but the break of
day was hardly the ideal time to share that fact.
She and Linnie groaned and pulled the quilt up over their
heads. But Birdie sat right up in her trundle bed. After Father
boomed out the saintly king’s verse, she chimed right in with
the little page’s response. Sophie and Linnie had no choice but
to swell the chorus:


good king wenceslas

Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.


By the time they sang about the little page treading in his
master’s footsteps, John Alton joined them from the next room:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing!

Sophie was still humming the carol when she made her way
down the back stairs to the kitchen, where Mother was serving
up breakfast. While Sophie was not fond of many of the
old-timers’ traditions in Yorkville, she thoroughly approved of
the way the Caswells ended the Christmas season. Back in the
plank road days the Cornish settlers would go a-wassailing on
Twelfth Night. All the wassailers came last to the Mather Inn,
where they stayed on for dancing to see Christmas out.

(from Chapter 25: Boxing Day)

Categories: Cornish in Wisconsin, Mather Inn, Plank Road Winter, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Thanksgiving at the Mather Inn

May readers everywhere give thanks with those they love.  In honor of the day, here are two timely excerpts from Plank Road Winter:

(from Chapter 21: At the Smithy)

On the day before Thanksgiving, the aroma of cinnamon
and nutmeg and baking pumpkin wafted through the Mather
Inn.

Sophie looked up from her task of rolling dough.
“The Grand Duke’s latest banquet, you know, featured a
charlotte russe. And it was adorned with spun-sugar eagles and
bears, and the flags of the United States and Russia. I don’t see why we have to serve something as ordinary as pumpkin pie.”

Mother set down the mixing bowl with a thump. “I hope
the Grand Duke’s kitchen crew works harder and complains
less than mine. Go out to the smithy, will ’ee, and tell Father to give his arm a rest.”

“I think we ought to honor the Grand Duke’s visit by cutting little eagles and bears of pastry scraps to decorate the pies.”

“Sophie, go out now.”

Sophie wrapped a shawl over her shoulders and crossed
the yard to the smithy, stepping in time to the ringing of the
hammer as Father and John Alton worked together at the
forge, singing the refrain of one of their favorite songs:

And sing WHOA, my lads, sing WHOA!
Drive on, my lads, I-HO,
And who wouldn’t lead the life
Of a jolly wagoner?

* * * * * *

(from Chapter 22: Thanksgiving)

Though Hans was in no mood for celebration, all of
the McEachron families joined the Caswells at the Inn for
Thanksgiving dinner. The sideboard in the dining room was
covered with pies, and the aroma of roasting turkey wafted
through all the rooms downstairs.

After helping Elsa take her coat off, Hans piled their wraps on the bed in the freshening-up room. In the dining room, benches lined the end of the long table where extra planks had been added to extend the length.

Sophie rolled her eyes. “The benches from the plank road
days appear again. Mother likes to have them out on family
occasions. But, of course, she never has to sit on them.”

“Plenty of folks would be thankful to have a solid bench
and a fine feast like this,” Hans said, but Sophie had already
flounced away.

Elsa climbed onto a bench, and Hans sat down beside her.
Across from them sat Linnie and Birdie. Other cousins jostled
for seats on the benches, the boys elbowing one another and
the girls smoothing their skirts to make room. Billy slid in next to Hans, while Maggie Banvard, home for the holiday, was
given a chair among the grown-ups.

Grandpa and Grandma sat beside Sophie’s grandfather at
the head of the table. Granfer Mather had opened a hotel in
Burlington when the teamsters’ wagons no longer traveled the
plank road during the harvest season. Everyone joined hands
as Granfer Mather gave thanks for the harvest, though for
weeks the McEachrons had been talking of what a poor yield it
was. When Granfer Mather prayed that those who suffer would
be comforted, Hans tilted his head to glance at Mama, whose
shoulders gave a slight heave as she clenched Uncle Amos’s
hand.

Categories: Mather Inn, Plank Road Winter, Wisconsin | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Great Chicago Fire

One hundred forty-one years ago today, these prophetic words appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

“For days past alarm has followed alarm . . . [and] the
absence of rain for three weeks has left everything in so dry
and inflammable a condition that a spark might set a fire
which would sweep from end to end of the city.”

As Emily and I wrote Plank Road Winter, vivid illustrations and eyewitness accounts from period newspapers and magazines helped us to imagine the struggles of the Hoffman family in Chicago on that October day in 1871:

Fleeing the Chicago Fire, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 28, 1871

From Chapter 7:
A terrified whinny and shouts came from up the street, as
a horse careened around the corner, its wagonload aflame.
Above the constant roar of the crackling fire rose shouts and
cries, along with prayers for God’s mercy.
From behind him, Hans heard a clatter of exploding wood
and breaking glass, followed by a whoosh of warm air. Another
home had collapsed in flames. The crowd gasped as a flaming
plank sailed through the air and lodged in the rooftop of
a house up ahead. Mama’s steps became quicker, and Hans
hurried to keep up.
Now the embers fell like red snow, landing on coats and
bundles. Elsa’s scream pierced the air, as a glowing bit of ash
caught in her fine blonde hair where it sizzled until Mama
smothered it in her kid-gloved hand. As the smoky air swirled
about them, Elsa’s sobs turned into hacking coughs. Between
her coughs came the tearful words: “Mama, I can’t walk
anymore.” (Plank Road Winter, p. 42)

Rush of fugitives through the Potters Field toward Lincoln Park, from Harper’s Weekly, November 4, 1871

If you are interested in viewing an extensive collection of images and reading fascinating accounts of the Chicago fire, we recommend this website: The Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.

Categories: Chicago, Plank Road Winter | Leave a comment

A Portal to the Past

Hilda and Emily Demuth signing copies of Plank Road Winter

Back in the 1970s when Emily and I attended Yorkville 4-H meetings in the old schoolhouse we knew as the Clover Center, we never dreamed that someday we’d be signing books in that very building.

On a glorious Sunday afternoon in September our families and friends and neighbors gathered for the Plank Road Winter launch party.

Dancing at the Plank Road Winter launch party in the Yorkville 4-H Clover Center

The doorway into that 1886 schoolroom was a portal to the past as the musicians played old tunes and the dancers circled and stomped on the sturdy wood floor.

John and Susan Nicholson of Frogwater

Some of those in attendance wore period attire, and these visitors from the nineteenth century mingled easily with our twenty-first century guests.

Our caller, Patricia Lynch of the West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society, taught the figures of each dance.  Members of her Victorian Dancers group ably helped beginners of all ages and also demonstrated several Civil War dances.

Nineteenth century and twenty-first century guests mingling on the dance floor at the 1886 Yorkville schoolhouse

Around three o’clock when the Packer game was about to start, which meant that nobody was in line to have a book signed, Emily and I were able to take a few turns on the dance floor ourselves.

Many thanks to everyone who attended the launch and to all who share our delight in preserving traditions such as old-time dancing, especially in places like that beautiful little Yorkville schoolhouse.

Categories: Plank Road Winter, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Introducing Plank Road Winter

On Sunday, September 30, 1:00-4:00 pm, Emy and I look forward to welcoming the public along with old friends and neighbors at the Plank Road Winter launch party.  The celebration will be held at the 4-H Clover Center, 17640 Old Yorkville Road, a few miles north of Union Grove,Wisconsin.  This 1885 schoolhouse stands at the very heart of the original Yorkville settlement.

Set almost twenty years after the adventures of Katie and Florence, Plank Road Winter features thirteen-year-old Sophie Caswell, who longs to escape the dull farming community of Yorkville. Sophie’s plans are thwarted when the Chicago Fire leads to the arrival of twelve-year-old Hans Hoffman and his family at the nearby McEachron farm. While Sophie stubbornly pursues her dreams, Hans struggles to adapt to a world very different from his bustling Chicago neighborhood.

In the spirit of nineteenth-century community gatherings, the entertainment at the Plank Road Winter launch party will include traditional music provided by John and Susan Nicholson of the Milwaukee band  Frogwater and old-time dancing called by Patricia Lynch of the West Side Victorian Dancers.

We hope to see you there!

Categories: On Writing, Plank Road Winter, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Independence Day in Wisconsin 1852

Happy Independence Day!

This passage from Plank Road Summer shows how our American holiday was celebrated 160 years ago:

Now known as Pioneer Park, the riverbank along which Richard Ela’s factory once stood in Rochester, Wisconsin, is still a beautiful picnic spot.

Along the river between the bridge and the factory, many families were spreading quilts on the grass.  Katie and Amos spread theirs in the shade of a maple where they had a good view of the side door of Mr. Ela’s factory.  The speakers would stand on the stone steps of the factory.  Nearby, the American flag flapped in the breeze.  Ma and Matilda unpacked the fried chicken, black raspberry tarts, thick slices of bread and butter, and peas in the pod. . .

A distinguished-looking man climbed the stone steps.  He held up a hand for silence, and the crowd quieted to listen.  “On behalf of my townsmen,” Richard Ela began, “I welcome all of you to Rochester on the anniversary of our Independence.  This glorious day on which our freedom was declared is one we Americans must never forget.  In honor of the occasion, Rochester’s own schoolmaster will now recite the Declaration of Independence.”

The schoolmaster’s clear voice rang out over the crowd.

   We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .

The familiar words echoed across the hot July air.  A shiver went down Katie’s back as she realized that across this vast country, from New York all the way west to California, Americans would pause from their daily work to hear these words and mark this day.

Categories: Plank Road Summer book, Racine County, Rochester Wisconsin, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Back to the Writing Life

Emily outside the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison

One of our favorite places to write is Madison, Wisconsin, and one of our favorite places in Madison is the Wisconsin Historical Society.  On our Plank Road trip back in the summer of 2000, Emily and I made fascinating discoveries in the Historical Society archives.

After showing proper identification, stowing our belongings in lockers, and putting on white gloves, we were allowed to touch the artifacts in the Society’s collection of historical images.  We were so delighted with our finds–a wagon on a plank road, a tollgate–that we probably annoyed other less excitable researchers in the room.

Reading Room of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Now that Plank Road Winter is in the hands of our trusty editor, Philip Martin of Crickhollow Books, Emily and I are back in Madison working on our new book.  This morning while I attended my class at UW Write-by-the-Lake, Emily spent hours at the Historical Society transcribing a Civil War soldier’s handwritten account.

Over lunch at the UW Union we discussed our respective mornings and plotted the next phase of our writing project. Then we spent a quiet hour together in the beautifully restored Reading Room of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Life is good.

Categories: On Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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