Childhood Memories

Play Ball!

IMG_2484Hilda and I never played baseball with uniforms, referees, coaches, or practices. Baseball, to us, was the game you played on the diamond by the well pit or out in the sheep pasture, whenever a family picnic brought in enough players. Players ranged in age from the six-year-old just learning to swing a bat, to Dad, who was permanent pitcher.

With Dad pitching, the young child’s hit managed to roll right past the pitcher’s mound, yet Dad always seemed to catch the ball hit by the teenager. Our games were more about everyone playing together than keeping score.

When writing Hattie’s War, we drew on our childhood experiences to create the neighborhood ball games in Hattie’s yard. This Saturday, we’ll be watching the Milwaukee Cream Citys play vintage baseball. Their games, played in an open field in a park ringed by oak trees, are much more like our games in the pasture than like watching the Brewers at Miller Park.

Please join us at Greenfield Park at 1:00 on Saturday, May 2 to see how base ball was played in Hattie’s day. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and enjoy an afternoon outdoors.  Details can be found on the Cream Citys webpage. Books will be available for purchase as well.

 

 

Categories: Childhood Memories, Hattie's War, Racine County, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Fair Days

Katrina Lutze and her Hampshire lamb at the Porter County Fair in 1999

Katrina Lutze and her Hampshire lamb at the Porter County Fair in 1999

Fifteen years ago when my ten year-old daughter Katrina began showing 4-H lambs at the Porter County Fair in Northwest Indiana, her nine year-old cousin David came to visit from suburban Chicago.   City boy David swept the aisles between the animal pens so faithfully that the sheep barn won the Cleanest Barn contest.

When we were not at the fairgrounds, David’s mother Emily and I worked on an idea for a book we called “Girls of the Plank Road,” a story of pioneer Wisconsin featuring the first Racine County Fair.   We had fond memories of our own county fair days, and my daughter’s Hampshire lamb was descended from the sheep that Emily and our brothers and sisters and I had shown in the 1970’s as members of the Yorkville 4-H Club.

Back then, the sheep and many of the other animals were exhibited in tents, but today the fairgrounds features an extensive array of permanent structures, including a long row of livestock barns.   The Plank Road families of the nineteenth century would be amazed to see what enormous enterprises the county fairs of the Midwest have become.

The Racine County Fairgrounds looks considerably different from the open fields in which the first county fairs took place in the 1850s.

Today the Racine County Fairgrounds looks considerably different from the open fields in which the first county fair took place in the 1850s.

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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

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.

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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

Florence’s Fall Bouquet

In my mind, a good book is one that I have read more than once. Some I have read many times, and still enjoy them each time I flip the book open and start reading. I know the character’s lines and what they wear, and what is going to happen next.

We have one faithful fan who has read Plank Road Summer often enough to remember the bouquet that Florence Mather makes.

“On the first day of the fair, Florence stood in the parlor. In her hands she had plumes of goldenrod and a fiery blaze of sumac leaves.She was arranging them in a pitcher, already bright with late Queen Anne’s lace.”

A “Florence Bouquet” at our Plank Road Winter book launch.

Julie K.S. Moyer, who currently lives in the Mather Inn with her husband and children, made beautiful bouquets to place on each window sill of the old Yorkville School for our book launch. We suspect that not many of our other readers recognized the combination of flowers and leaves, but we were quick to notice and appreciate it.

Julie was also the force behind getting Yorkville School #4 on the Wisconsin National Register of Historic Places.  The bright 4-H green paint that covered the railings back when we used the the building for 4-H meetings and music and drama practices has been restored to the original colors, and the hardwood floor refinished. Her attention to detail shows in the beauty of the schoolhouse, and in our bouquets as well. We are honored to have such a great fan and neighbor.

Categories: Childhood Memories, county fair, Mather Inn, Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Winter, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Summer

The lilacs in my yard, some of which have been brought to Illinois from the McEachron homestead, have bloomed and faded. The cold, wet spring has turned overnight into a blazing hot Memorial Day. Though I have another week of school, I am looking forward to summer days when I can dedicate more of my time to writing. (Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.) Another revision of Plank Road Winter is underway, and other stories linger in my mind, waiting to make their way onto a printed page.

I also have a quilt to make, though not as intricate as those in Plank Road Summer. I’ll be cutting up old t-shirts to make a quilt for my son to take to college. Pieces of his grade school, middle school, and high school years will travel with him on his new adventure.  A piece of my grade school days just came back to me. Mr. Schmidt, my first principal, just commented on our “About the Authors” page. Please click to the Comments on that page to find a brief memory of my early years at Yorkville School.

As another summer arrives, I hope you all find time to enjoy whatever changes the season brings to your life.

Categories: Childhood Memories, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Winter, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Writer or Archaeologist?

I didn’t always want to be a writer–I had other plans for my future.  For a long time, I wanted to be an archaeologist.  I remember digging up bits of old pottery from the rock pile behind the sheds. Finding a particularly colorful piece, I imagined some woman’s sadness about her favorite vase being broken.

My greatest archaeological discovery was a small arrowhead that I found in the pickle patch when I was twelve.  My brother and sister insist the only reason I found it was that I was too busy looking at rocks to pick pickles.

Seeing the Indiana Jones movies in high school fueled my desires–so much so that when I went away to college, I ended up with the nickname “Indiana Emy.” As it happens, my journey took me in another direction, and I never did find much more than that treasured arrowhead.

Archaeological dig at the original site of the Mather Inn

But last fall, an archaeological dig took place at the original site of the Mather Inn.   And I missed it!  A real archaelogist dug up shards of flow-blue pottery, and old nails, and even an entire jug, intact.  By the time I visited in October, the dig site had been covered back up.  But as I kicked about the site I spied a bit of white shining in the sun.  Not an arrowhead, but a broken shard of pottery.  Perhaps a bit off a plate, a platter, or a chamberpot from the Mather Inn. Somehow that little bit of physical evidence brought our Plank Road story closer to life.  Florence and Katie are fictional characters, but the Mather Inn was real.  Meals had been eaten, teamsters had been served, dishes had been washed.

I’m glad there are people at work, digging up bits of the past for us.  And though I’m not one of them, maybe my writing can help preserve the past as well.

Categories: Childhood Memories, History of Plank Roads, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

A Place on the Shelf

When Emily and I appeared at the Racine Lutheran High School Ladies’ Guild Harvest Fair, our Plank Road Summer book display was set up in an impressively renovated lobby which looked nothing like the entrance we remembered from our high school days. The RLHS Harvest Fair itself, on the other hand, seemed exactly the same–a gymnasium full of tables heaped with linens, books, craft items, baked goods, and the ever-popular “trash and treasure” selection in the corner.

During a break from book-signing, I wandered down a corridor in search of familiar flooring and fixtures. At the top of a stairwell I peered into the darkened classroom which had belonged to Mr. Adel. White-haired Mr. Adel, my ninth grade English teacher, was also the school librarian, and the little library adjoining his classroom became my favorite haven.

Mr. Adel recommended books and discussed them with me afterward. I set myself the ambitious goal of reading the entire fiction collection, beginning with Alcott and Austen and working my way through Zola.

Sophomore year I began writing a novel, an undertaking that cut into my reading time considerably. Faithful Mr. Adel read every word of the chapters I hammered out on my mother’s old manual typewriter. I knew exactly where my novel would be located on the Lutheran High library shelves; I could already picture the label FIC DEM on the spine.

While that unfinished novel is now in a box in my attic with other abandoned projects, the fact that a teacher took me seriously as a writer is a significant factor in my success today. Having Plank Road Summer on a shelf in a school library is sweeter than any display at Barnes & Noble. I think Mr. Adel would understand.

Categories: Childhood Memories, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Racine County | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Graue Mill Changed our Story

When Hilda and I first began working on Plank Road Summer, we didn’t exactly know how to go about writing historical fiction. One weekend when Hilda was visiting me in Elmhurst, I suggested that we go to nearby Graue Mill to “soak up some atmosphere.” I had been to Graue Mill before and knew that it was built in 1852–the exact year our story was set–so I thought the place would be a good source of inspiration.

We watched the miller grind corn and examined all the household items and farm tools on the upper floors. As we were looking at the display in the basement, Hilda said to me, “You know, we should put the Underground Railroad in our book.” Graue Mill, of course, is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad in Illinois–a place where fugitive slaves were hidden on their way to freedom in Canada.

“We can’t just ‘put it in,'” I said. I’m the historical stickler. I told Hilda we would have to prove that fugitive slaves traveled through the Wisconsin neighborhood in which Plank Road Summer takes place before we could put that information in our story. But then Hilda reminded me of childhood stories of a neighbor’s house with a tunnel to the swamp in which slaves had supposedly hidden. And we remembered that a building in Rochester was supposed to have been used in helping slaves.

When we started to research the subject, we did indeed find the solid evidence we needed to prove that slaves could have made their way past the properties in our book. (Saying any more than that would be a spoiler) But yes, Hilda, we could (and did) put the Underground Railroad into our book. In fact, it became a large part of our story–and all because of a visit to Graue Mill.

On Sunday, Sept. 6, I’ll be at Graue Mill from 12:00-4:00. Come buy a book, make a wool butterfly, add a plank to my road. And soak up the atmosphere of Graue Mill and the Civil War encampment on the grounds. It’ll be a great day for inspiration!

Categories: Childhood Memories, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Rochester Wisconsin, Underground Railroad, Why this story | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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