Posts Tagged With: pioneer life

A Return to Days Gone By

Among the many books that Emily and I read and reread during our childhood were the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We are looking forward to celebrating this favorite author’s Wisconsin heritage when we appear as part of “Days Gone By” at the Dousman Stagecoach Inn in Brookfield, Wisconsin, on Sunday, October 4.

In paging through my copy of Little House in the Big Woods, I realized how much Emily and I had been influenced by Wilder’s depictions of pioneer life. Wilder’s book has chapter titles like “Summertime” and “Harvest,” and the rhythm of the seasons shapes Plank Road Summer as well. Pa Ingall’s fiddle-playing is echoed by our Old Man Caswell, and the dancing at Grandpa’s house in the Big Woods is, of course, the same kind of dancing that the Yorkville settlers enjoyed at the Mather Inn and the Racine County Fair.

Visitors to the Days Gone By tribute to Laura Ingalls Wilder sponsored by the Elmbrook Historical Society will have the opportunity to play games that Laura or her parents would have played, churn and make butter, learn how to card and spin wool, listen to storytellers read from Wilder’s books, and enter a Laura Ingalls Wilder costume contest.  Other activities will include a scavenger hunt, demonstrations of sharpshooting and woodcarving, and tours of the Dousman Stagecoach Inn, which once served travelers along a plank road.

Emily and I will be on hand with our antique wool drum carder, ready to sign copies of  Plank Road Summer or just have a chat about the pleasures of reading and writing about Days Gone By.

Categories: On Writing, Plank Road Summer book | 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

Old-Time Dance in Yorkville, Wisconsin

This morning Patricia Lynch, Civil War dance instructor in Milwaukee and president of the West Side Soldiers Aid Society, emailed me a wonderful treasure–a PDF of a page from a dance tunebook used by Yorkville settlers in the plank road days.

According to the file description listed for this example of “Pioneer Dance Music” in the Racine Heritage Museum, the handwritten notebook of tunes and dance notations was “brought from the east by Rubin Waite in 1837 and used by three generations of the Waite family:  Rubin Sr., his son Lorenzo,  and his grandson Menzo, who donated the book to the Racine Co. Historical Room.”

The page is marked “3d Sett” and contains a reel and two jigs.   Neatly-inked quarter- and eighth-notes caper above a swirling script:

First 4  R & L/ Bal – 4  Swing/ Ladies chain/ All promenade //

These figures are familiar to square dancers and contra dancers today.  Old-time dance communities still flourish in the Midwest, following in the footsteps of the Yorkville settlers who promenaded in the Waite’s Corners schoolhouse or the ballroom of the Mather Inn.

Click here to see the 3rd Sett

If you attend the Plank Road Summer book launch at Yorkville Elementary School (see the Events page), you can join in old-time dancing with caller Dot Kent and the Hoosier Recruits, a contra dance band.  The Recruits may well be playing a dance or two out of the Waite family tunebook.

Categories: Racine County | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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