Plank Road Winter

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

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

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

“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

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: http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/ep/fep.htm

Categories: Chicago, Emancipation Proclamation, 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

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