Yorkville, Wisconsin

At the Well

Mather Inn Well

Emily Demuth and her daughter, Louisa, at the Mather Inn well excavation.

  

The archaeologist, Norm Meinholz, was digging at the site of Mather Inn again this month.  This time, I managed to get back to Wisconsin while the dig was still open. Meinholz had uncovered part of the old foundation and established the exact location of the Inn, when  it stood facing the Plank Road.   The Mather Inn itself still stands  a stone’s throw away–it was moved many years ago, and now faces what would have been the Section Line Road between the Mather and McEachron properties.   

Just a few paces west of the foundation, the archaeologist had found the well.  Stones formed a perfect semi-circle (only half had been uncovered).  It was easy to imagine Katie pulling a bucket  of water from the well, setting the bucket on the stone rim, and peering at her reflection–even though that scene was edited out of our book during an early revision.    

Many scenes never made it into the final version of Plank Road Summer, including one which our mother particularly liked.  This lost scene was the first introduction to the Mather Inn from Katie’s point of view:  

“Katie walked past the grand front door that led to the parlor and the ballroom upstairs–that was for guests.  She hurried round past the porch on the west side, which led to the dining room–that was for teamsters.  At the back of the house she rapped at the kitchen door–that was for neighbor children.  Mrs. Mather was very particular about the proper use of doors.”  

As I walked around the original site of the Inn and stood where the front door had once been, I slipped back in time–back to when traffic sounds were the creak of a harness or clopping of hooves, and when water came not from the faucet but from a bucket drawn daily from the well.  Had Hilda and I seen this circle of stones a couple of years ago, I’m sure we’d have kept the well scene in our book.  

Click here to read a newspaper article about the first dig.  

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Mather Inn, On Writing, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

A Return to Yorkville

The students at Yorkville Elementary School in Racine County, Wisconsin, have a distinct advantage over students elsewhere when it comes to imagining the scenes of Plank Road Summer. Their school buses travel down the plank road past the old McEachron and Mather homesteads, climb up over the Rise, and pass the pioneer cemetery on Old Yorkville Road.

The Modine-Benstead Observatory now stands on the Rise.

When I visited the school recently, the students enjoyed trying to figure out which local landmarks now stand at the places mentioned in the book.  For example, the high point of land known as the Rise is now the site of the Modine-Benstead Observatory.   The Waites’ Corners schoolhouse once stood among the oaks just south of today’s popular Country Rose Bakery and Cafe.

This week I received a packet from Mrs. Mary Jo North, the Yorkville teacher who coordinated my visit.  In the envelope were thank-you notes from representatives of the student body.  Here is a portion of one:

You taught us about the writing process and all the research you had to do to write your novels.  A lot of us love to read, including myself, and some of us dream about writing our own novels.  You helped us see what we’re up against, but that it’s also possible for dreams to come true. . .

. . . You taught us to never give up and keep going when things get rough.  Even though you submitted your story for publishing and got refused over 20 times, you and your sister never gave up.  Whether we ever attempt to write a novel or not, it will help us in whatever else we do.

Thank you, Kristina, for those beautiful words.  Your teachers at Yorkville School should be proud indeed.

Categories: On Writing, Racine County, 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

Friendly Competition at the Fair

IMG_4697IMG_4699The county fair is home to such competitions as cattle shows, tractor pulls, demolition derbies, pie auctions, and goat-milking contests.  I admit that my sister author Hilda rose victorious when we battled one another last weekend in the goat-milking competition at the Racine County Fair.  Oh, the humiliation we authors must suffer in search of publicity for our books.   Other than being soundly defeated in the competition, I had a lovely day at the fair.  

Our book tent featured an antique drum carder which fairgoers could crank to card wool for bookmark tassels.  We also had live music–our own fiddler Matt Lutze, Hilda on penny whistle, and editor Phil Martin on accordion.   We saw familiar faces and met new readers as people stopped by to purchase a book or find out more about Plank Road Summer.    Even the Fair Royalty visited our booth to add planks to the road we were building.

During every summer of our childhood Hilda and I spent five days at the Racine County Fair.   During the weeks prior to the fair we practiced showing our sheep, refinished furniture, sewed clothes, or worked on whatever other 4-H projects were to be entered into competition.  In our day, we could hardly take five steps at the fair without seeing someone we knew.   The fair was a community celebration, and everyone wanted to be part of it.

In Plank Road Summer this is the spirit we hope to communicate in our depiction of the first Racine County Fair.   I confess that after my defeat in the goat-milking contest, I am feeling a bit like the loser of the horse race.   But strike up the music– in a true community celebration, no matter who wins or loses, everyone can join in the dance.

Categories: Childhood Memories, county fair, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

“They wrestled for it”

“I think they wrestled for it.”  This was one Wisconsin student’s answer when we asked who had the right-of-way to the planks if two wagons were traveling toward one another on a one-lane plank road.

Since the book launch in May, Hilda and I  have spoken to various groups at schools and museums and bookstores.  Last week we were guest speakers at the Graham Public Library in Union Grove, Wisconsin, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of our hometown library.  In  our historical presentation, we spoke about how the stories we’d heard as children had influenced our writing.  Several members of the audience also had stories to share that evening.

The biggest news is that we think we have found the old McEachron tollhouse.  A former neighbor from a mile or so east on the plank road (just past the Rise) said that she had been told that her house was once a tollhouse.  As Hilda and I drove by the the house in question, beyond the tree branches and building additions we saw the unmistakable lines of a tollhouse like the one on the cover of Plank Road Summer.  We suspect that this is indeed “our” tollhouse, moved to that location after the Plank Road era.

One woman recalled that when she taught at Waites Corners School, Edith McEachron would visit and tell stories of the early days in Yorkville.  Potawatomi Indians were present at the birth of one McEachron baby.  When the child was born, the Indians took the baby outside and tossed it to one another, leaving the McEachrons to wonder whether they would get their child back safely.  They did.

One man mentioned that his family home in New York State was on the national registry of Underground Railroad stations.  Every plank road, every community and crossroads, has stories to share–and some are better than fiction.

As to the question of the right-of-way, the more heavily laden wagon stayed on the planks, while the lighter wagon would pull onto the dirt lane.  But I bet that somewhere along those many miles of plank roads, there’s a story of how two men wrestled for the right-of-way.  Let us know, please, if you uncover such a tale.

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Underground Railroad, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Midsummer Eve: Keeping the Fires of Cornwall

During my Valparaiso University semester abroad, in Cornwall I enjoyed reading by the hearth in the youth hostel, hiking along the cliffs, and watching the sea.  I remember standing at Land’s End looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, thinking about the many emigrants who had watched their homeland fade into a gray haze of sea and sky.

I did not know then that my sister Emily and I would write about the Cornish settlers of our own Wisconsin community.  In the tree-shaded Yorkville Methodist cemetery, the pale weathered stones of the pioneers are scattered among the sharp granite markers of their descendants.

In the Plank Road days, Cornish settlers must have sought ways to connect the old ways with the new.  Along with telling stories of the old country, they shared the tastes of home–pasties every day and saffron cake on special occasions–and worshiped together at the Methodist “mud chapel,” singing hymns and carols known for generations.

Other traditions must have persisted as well.  There are no cliffs in Yorkville, so on Midsummer Eve the Cornish pioneers were never to see “a chain of fires on the clifftops stretching all along the seacoast,”  as Gran Mather described the custom to Florence.  Yet lighting a bonfire on June 23 and sharing a ritual for prosperity in the coming year would be one way of honoring the old ways and helping the young people to appreciate the place they knew “only through stories and songs, the land where others shared in the keeping of the fires.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, such Midsummer traditions had died out even in Cornwall, but in the 1920s various organizations were formed to preserve the Cornish heritage.  The motto of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies is “Cuntelleugh an brewyon us gesys na vo kellys travyth” (Gather up the fragments that are left that nothing be lost).  You can learn more about Midsummer Eve fires and other Cornish customs at the Federation website: <http://www.oldcornwall.org/&gt;

The Plank Road Summer Resources for Teachers include materials related to immigration and Cornish traditions provided by the Wisconsin historic site of Pendarvis.


Categories: Cornish in Wisconsin, Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joining the Dance: the Joys of Community Life

Yesterday the Hoosier Recruits provided old-time music for another Plank Road Summer book event, this one at the Blackbird Cafe in Valparaiso, Indiana.  My table was placed so that when I wasn’t signing books, I could turn my chair around and play the piano, thus spending the afternoon as both writer and musician.

“I’m going to be a writer and a musician”–That’s what I told a reporter back when I was a senior in high school.   Back then I imagined myself living in my Wisconsin hometown writing articles for the Westine Report and playing the organ at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

I planned to write novels, too, of course, but I never imagined anything like the rejoicing of the Yorkville community in the publication of Plank Road Summer.  I never imagined hundreds of people–everybody from my first-grade teacher to my high school principal, from elementary school classmates to old college friends–standing in line for a book signing at Yorkville School.  I never imagined my own contra dance band traveling all the way from Indiana to celebrate a book launch.

I first learned about contra dancing as a member of the Hoosier Recruits, the house band of the Valparaiso Oldtime Dance Society.  Soon afterward, Emily and I rewrote passages of our manuscript to reflect our new understanding of old-time dance traditions, such as the practice of choosing a new partner for each dance or the freedom of women to ask men to dance.

Like the dancers at the Racine County Fair in the closing chapter of Plank Road Summer, the dancers at the Yorkville book launch included “young and old, native and foreign-born, townspeople and country folk.”   Although my chair at the signing table was far from the stage where my band was playing, I rejoiced in my good fortune, not only as a writer and a musician but as a member of the warm and welcoming community of Yorkville, Wisconsin.

Categories: Plank Road Summer book, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cinnamon Twists

Hilda's Birthday and Book Launch CakePlank Road Cinnamon Twists from the Country RoseSome book clubs serve food appropriate to the book  they are reading.   When my son’s class read To Kill a Mockingbird, students were asked to bring Southern food to class for the final discussion.   So when it came time for the Plank Road Summer book launch, it seemed only right that we serve cinnamon twists.

In Plank Road Summer, a teamster says to another traveler,  “Now you’ll have a rare treat.  From Janesville to Racine and back again, you won’t find cinnamon twists like those of the Mather Inn.”   That’s just the beginning of the leitmotiv–we’ll leave it to readers to find the rest of the references.

In our search for cinnamon twists for the book launch, we went straight to The Country Rose, a restaurant and bakery beside the grove of oak trees that once sheltered Katie and Florence’s school.  And Rose came through with delicious cinnamon twists, which were devoured by family, friends, and all who attended the celebration.  Said my son, “They taste awesome.  You should get more of them.”

As an additional surprise, Mom asked The Country Rose to make Hilda’s birthday cake.   Her cake was a reproduction of the book cover, which looked too beautiful to eat–although that didn’t stop us from doing so later that evening, back at the McEachron homestead.

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

Blog at WordPress.com.