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

Original Emancipation Proclamation Manuscript burned in Chicago Fire

The official engrossed document

The official engrossed document

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation–the document  that freed the slaves in the rebelling states and allowed them to join the Union Army. The National Archives invites people to come and see the “original” proclamation. Though you can certainly see the official proclamation, neatly handwritten by the engrosser and signed by President Lincoln on New Year’s Day, 1863, at the National Archives, you will not see the manuscript originally written by Abraham Lincoln.

Alas, that original manuscript burned in the Chicago Fire of 1871. I came across this tidbit of information while researching the fire for  Plank Road Winter, but no one at the Chicago Historical Society seemed able to explain why the Emancipation Proclamation was in Chicago or why no one saved it.

So, having spent more time than necessary for our novel investigating this mystery, I can now tell you more about Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation than most people.

Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he finished on Dec. 31, 1862, arrived in Chicago in the fall of 1863. The women of Chicago were having a fair to raise money to help the many horribly wounded soldiers coming back from the war. They asked Abraham Lincoln if he would donate his original draft of the Emanicpation Proclamation, with the understanding that a subscription would to opened to purchase it for the Historical Society of Chicago. This was his reply:

“According to the request made in your behalf, the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation is herewith inclosed. The formal words at the top and the conclusion, except the signature, you perceive, are not in my handwriting. They were written at the State Department. The printed part was cut from the preliminary Proclamation and pasted on merely to save writing.

I had some desire to retain the paper, but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers, that will be better.

Your obedient servant,
A. Lincoln”

The final manuscript draft in Lincoln's handwritng.

The final manuscript draft in Lincoln’s handwritng.

After the fair was over and the money raised, the  proclamation was framed and displayed at the Chicago Historical Society, until that fateful October night when a fire started in the O’Leary barn. Samuel Stone, a member and curator of the Society’s collection, was awakened at home at 2 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1871, and told that Chicago was burning. He went to the Historical Society, where he found a number of people bringing boxes and bundles to the Society for safe-keeping. Stone at once took charge of the basement door, refusing to open the door to anymore ignitable items.Soon Stone heard voices calling from outside telling him that he was in danger.  He pushed a trunk against the basement door to secure it, then went up stairs. A blast of wind, fire, and smoke filled the street, and an entire casement window was suddenly ablaze. Stone hastened to the Reception Room to get the Society’s record book and the Emancipation Proclamation. He attempted to break the frame–“but the frame was so stout it was not easily done, and just as I was making the attempt, there came another blast of fire and smoke, filling the whole heavens and frightfully dashing firebrands against the reception room window. … Believing that a minute more in trying to save the Proclamation, would make it too late for my escape, I made for the basement door.”

As the smoke outside was suffocating, Stone found a camel’s hair shawl in one of the now-smouldering bundles in the basement, covered his head and sprang out with great speed. He recalled, “Glancing around, I could see the steps overhead, the sidewalks, front fences, Mr. Girard’s cottage, and every building south, one mass of flames, while firebrands were flying in every direction.”

Later, Stone “mounted a some high stone steps on Erie Street in the rear of the Historical Building, to take a last look of the destruction of our fifteen years’ labor of valuable gatherings. The entire building and everything surrounding it was one mass of flame, the fire burning every brick apparently, as there was no woodwork on that side of the building. It was painful to see it.” As the heat became more intense, he continued his escape past flames 150 feet high.

“There were times when I saw buildings melt down in from three to five minutes. Such sights I never saw before. Had I known the speed and the heat of the coming fire, I could have left my post at the basement door earlier and could have secured the records and the Proclamation, but it was beyond all my experience.”

Now you also know the fate of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And should you wonder how I happen to have an image of it here–photographic copies had been made of it back in the 1860s. This image is from the New York State Library–see all the pages on their website:

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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.

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