Plank Road Summer book

The Creek — Where the Journey Begins

When I was growing up on the farm that a century earlier had been the McEachron homestead, walking to the creek was always an adventure. Alone, or with a friend or sibling, I explored the twists and turns as the creek wound through the cottonwoods and marshlands. Treasured finds were the big rock, perfect for picnicking; the glen carpeted with with white and purple violets, a muskrat swiftly swimming by, and pheasants that we startled into flight.

It was some time before I realized that, like Paddle to the Sea, (we watched the movie, based on Holling C. Holling’s book, every year at Yorkville School), I could follow this creek all the way to the ocean. Yes, the creek fed into the Root River, which poured into Lake Michigan, and from there one could get to the Atlantic Ocean and then anywhere in the world.  I imagined where it might take me, though I never followed very far in reality. Still I knew where it passed Observatory Hill, and where a branch went south to cross the Plank Road.

The Racine County Highway Department will be removing the large culvert currently at that spot on the Plank Road and replacing it with a bridge this fall. Careful readers of Plank Road Summer, as they cross that bridge, will be able to recall that in our book, a step in an important journey takes place at that site–a journey to a new life.

As for my life, and Hilda’s as well, our later years took us to Racine Lutheran High School, where that same creek, now the Root River, twisted right around us. Gym classes and track practice had me jogging across the river’s bridge many a time. And it was in the embrace of the river, at Lutheran High, that my first opportunity to cross the Atlantic came, when I took a German class trip to Germany.

And ever since, whether by road, or plane, by foot or river or flight of imagination, I have never ever lost my yearning to journey. For all of us carry Paddle to the Sea’s final words “Who knows how far you may go, who knows how far you have come.”

This weekend I look forward to journeying back to the Root River, to spend time in the author’s booth at the Root River Festival. Come see me on Aug. 27 from 4:00-5:00, and let’s share stories of where our journeys have taken us.

 

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

A Sweet Reminder of Our Plank Road Stories

On this fourth day of Christmas I spent the morning writing thank-you notes and eating holiday treats, including shortbread from Emily. Baked in a decorative pan, this traditional Christmas gift is as beautiful as it is delicious.  At our family celebration in Wisconsin, I admired the designs produced by Emily’s new pan. According to manufacturer Brown Bag Designs, “In the early years of our country, farm wives decorated their home-made butter by stamping it with carved wooden images. This shortbread pan reinterprets nine of these antiques designs to decorate shortbread – the best butter cookie of all.”

Plank Road shortbread pan

Emily’s “Plank Road” shortbread pan, officially titled American Butter Art by Brown Bag Designs

The nineteenth-century Yorkville families may well have used wooden butter stamps featuring images such as these.

At our Christmas celebration Emily and I conducted our own reinterpretation of the nine designs. We offer our list to readers:

  1. The fruit basket featuring an apple reminds us of Will McEachron’s orchard

2.  The pineapple, symbol of hospitality, reminds us of Vin Mather’s welcoming guests to the Mather Inn

3.  The acorns and oak leaves remind us of the oak grove near Gran Mather’s cabin and the lone oak on the Doanes’ front forty

4.  The horse reminds us of the race between Big Jim Doane’s chestnut stallion and David Banvard’s sorrel mare

5.  The eagle reminds us of Old Abe, famous Civil War mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin infantry and later emblem of J. I. Case Equipment in Racine

6.  The cow reminds us of livestock exhibited at the Racine County Fair and the Plank Road families’ new dairying venture

7.  The wild rose reminds us of the flowers in Grace Caswell’s Midsummer wreath and the hedgerows alongside the Yorkville settlers’ graveyard

8.  The sheaf of wheat reminds us of harvest time in Yorkville and farm wagons traveling the plank road to the Racine harbor

9.  The heart reminds us of the Plank Road community’s love and care for family, neighbors, and strangers

Categories: county fair, Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Winter | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abolitionists Pardoned!

In Plank Road Summer, Yorkville pioneer families debate whether citizens in the free state of Wisconsin should help runaway slaves. Today it is hard to believe that such actions could be considered criminal, but in the 1840s and ’50s, aiding fugitive slaves was against the law even in Northern states.  Nobody can ever know just how many unknown abolitionists risked their livelihoods and reputations by assisting runaways, but records exist of those who were caught and convicted of the crime.

How inspiring to read that Illinois governor Pat Quinn recently granted clemency to three 19th-century abolitionists. Back in 1842, Dr. Richard Eells of Quincy, Illinois, gave Charley, a runaway slave, a change of clothes and tried to transport him to a school for missionaries that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. When Charley and his conductor were caught, Dr. Eells was found guilty and fined $400. Today the Eells home serves as a museum recognized by the National Park Service, but until a few days ago, Dr. Eells was still a convicted criminal.

Two years ago, the Friends of the Dr. Richard Eells House began seeking a pardon for Eells. As Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon worked to assemble the case, the stories of two more Illinois abolitionists were uncovered. In 1843, Julius and Samuel Willard, a father and son from Jacksonville, were convicted of trying to help an escaped slave.  According to Lt. Gov. Simon, “It’s important for all of us to remember heroes who spoke up and acted at great risk to themselves for what was right, even when they knew it was not what the law would support.” After reviewing the cases, Governor Quinn issued pardons for all three abolitionists, calling them “early warriors for freedom.” (For full Chicago Tribune story, click here.)

Hattie’s War and the Plank Road books celebrate the lives of ordinary people who work together to do what is right, whether by assisting fugitive slaves, aiding families devastated by disaster, or supporting veterans and their families. In this New Year, may each of us remember the unsung heroes and do our part in our communities and our world.

Categories: Hattie's War, Plank Road Summer book, Underground Railroad | 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

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

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

A Writers’ Retreat over Winter Break

After celebrating Christmas and the New Year with our families, Hilda and I snuck away for a much-needed writers’ retreat. We escaped to Wisconsin, where we holed up for two nights at the Lawson House Bed & Breakfast in Hales Corners.

Though we had already completed several drafts of “Plank Road Winter,” we worked through another rewrite, changing the point of view from first person to third person, shifting a main character in the book, and strengthening the sequel’s connections to “Plank Road Summer.”

The Lawson House could not have been a more perfect place to write. We learned that the house is located along what had once been the old Janesville Plank Road, which runs into Milwaukee. We enjoyed fabulous breakfasts and wonderful hospitality. The large front room with a fireplace and comfortable furniture allowed us to settle in for hours of reading our manuscript aloud, editing old chapters, drafting new ones, and laughing and crying together as sisters do.

During breaks from our writing tasks, I leafed through various historical books scattered about the room. In one, I read about the Hales Corners Stock Fair that had taken place once a month from 1871-1958. This bit of local history actually wound up in our novel. We left the Lawson House inspired and refreshed with a manuscript ready for our editor to see.

Categories: History of Plank Roads, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Winter, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Crossword Puzzling

A few weeks ago, while doing the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Tribune, I came upon the clue “Toll road toll unit.” Glancing at the puzzle, I saw that it was a four letter answer and the second letter was x. Without a moment’s hesitation, I wrote “oxen” in the spaces. I was thrilled that a crossword puzzle writer would know that tolls were based on how many oxen or other animals were pulling a wagon. In fact, as I worked the puzzle I was composing a letter in my head to that writer. I was going to tell him or her all about Plank Road Summer, and thank her for putting such a great historical tidbit into the puzzle.

However, my puzzling soon faltered as I struggled to complete the puzzle. Alas, I had made a mistake. “Oxen” was not the correct toll unit. The correct answer was “axle.” Do you suppose I was the only person working the Tribune puzzle that day who tried the word “oxen?”

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Plank Road Summer book | 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

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