Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part I

This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].

Grandma’s Narrative:

I was born Aug. 8 – 1889, at Greenview, Menard Co. Illinois. I was the oldest of 10 children. My father & mother were running a resturant [sic] in Greenview. But when I was about a month old, we moved to a small farm, about 10 or 12 miles from there.

Millie, age 5, and her sister Mabel, 3.

My father’s name was John Oliver Gunsten, and his folks were Norwegian, altho he was born in this country. My mother’s name was Sarah Elizabeth Foster. My father did not farm, but was a carpenter as were quite a few cousins of two other Gunsten families who lived near by.

They all worked together, with my father as Boss Contractor. He never had but little education, but was an excellent carpenter, and drew all his plans and then had them blueprinted. He also made a lot of our furniture, such as dressers, desks etc.

Several years later we moved to Lincoln, Logan Co. Illinois. There was a Feeble-minded Institution there, and they always kept several carpenters for repair jobs & other work that needed to be done. So my father was Boss Carpenter there.

School Days

I also had my first two years of school in Lincoln. Then we moved to Middletown, also in Logan Co, and about 25 miles from Springfield.

Later quite a few of my fathers relatives moved there, as did a few other Norwegian families.

My mother’s folks still lived in Greenview, about 10 miles away, but quite a trip in horse & buggy.

I finished my schooling in Middletown, which had 8 grades, and 2 yrs. High School, as most small towns had.

This was all one 2-room building – one downstairs and one upstairs, with two teachers.

I even taught several times in the lower room, when the teacher was sick or had to be away.

I was large for age and also rather quick to learn, so I suppose that was the reason I was chosen.

In those days only the “well-to-do” tho’t of going away to High School or College.

Small Town Life

After finishing school, we moved to Lowpoint, Ill. a very small town in Woodford Co. But it was a very important town, and was practically owned by three brothers. They had a large general store, lumber yard, elevator, coal, etc.

Millie, age 18.

They always kept a Carpenter for their house building etc. thru out the country, so that was my Dad. The telephone exchange was in the middle of the General store, and there were wires extending from there to different parts of the store for the cash boxes. So I was the telephone and cashier there.

There was a blacksmith, but he was independent, and let everybody know it.

Several years later we moved to Springfield. My mother’s sister lived there, and later most of the rest of her family moved there. 

The older ones lived there until their deaths. I still have one sister living there. My mother’s father lived to rather a good age, and her mother [Martha Elizabeth Smith Foster] lived to be 100. She was in good health always and able to get around rather well altho her hearing was not too good. She was knitting a suit for one of her grown up grand-daughters, and finished it soon after.

But she seemed to give up at 100 years, and 6 mos. later she died.

Marriage and Family

William P. Sommers, around age 30.

I worked as telephone operator in Springfield for awhile, then later did office work, until I was married on May 29, 1912 to Wm P. Sommers of Metamora, Illinos. He and his father [Peter Anton Sommers] owned and operated the Telephone Exchange in Metamora, as in those days most of Telephone Exchanges were privately owned.

My husband was a Telegraph Operator, and railroaded since quite young (14 yrs.) Those days they worked as apprentices ˆ(and general roustabout) in a station until they learned Telegraphy and then they were on their own.

One of Grandpa’s telegraph keys, an unusual Foote, Pierson & Co. “Twentieth Century” key from the early 1900s, popularly known as a “Pump Handle Key.” Larry F. Sommers photo.

We lived in Metamora 23 yrs. Our 5 children (4 boys & 1 girl) were born there. My husband was station agent there for awhile, then he went to work for Sinclair [Oil Corporation]. At that time they dispatched their oil [on their oil pipeline] by telegraph, and had pumping stations every 40 miles (I believe). He had to work as relief Opr. at different places at vacation time until a permanent place was open. Finally we moved to Dahinda, Knox Co., Ills. We lived there 8 yrs. but as the children had to drive 10 miles to High School, we moved into Knoxville where we still live (or at least I do.) My husband died Jan. 1957. He had retired from Sinclair after 16 yrs. The children all live away now.

Our children all graduated from Knoxville High School. The oldest Edward went to University of Washington 2 yrs. Then enlisted in the Naval Cadet Program, which was being pushed at that time on account of W.W. 2 looming up. After 4 yrs in Navy, he went with Pan American Airway where has been [sic] ever since. 

He married Mary Nelson of Knoxville, and have three children and 3 grandchildren.

Next oldest is Mabel, who married Robert Hiler of Knoxville, who is mechanic for United Airlines in California. They have one son.

The third was Stanley, who went to Knox College 2 yrs. & then enlisted as Aviation Cadet. He became a Pilot and 2ndLt. He married Mary Parkins of Galesburg just before going overseas.  

He was killed in So Pacific. Dec-1st 1942.

The youngest Franklin was also a pilot and 2nd Lt. He was killed in France at age 20 years. Sept 2 – 1943.

The next to youngest was Lloyd went into the Army, just after High School.

He spent 3½ yrs. in So Pacific and came home in fairly good shape. He then went to Knox College for 4 yrs, and taught H. School for 3 yrs. [Mistaken: Actually 2 years.]

He is now Chemist for Johns-Manville in Waukegan, Ills. He married Barbara La Follette of Knoxville, and they have two children. Cynda, the youngest is in first yr. college.

Larry who is overseas with Army Air Corp [actually, U.S. Air Force], works as interpeter [sic] of Communist broadcasts, for one thing.

Millie Sommers, 1950s

He went to a Chinese language school & studied the Chinese language. Since being in Okinawa part of the time, he has studied Japanese language. He is the one who gave me the idea of writing these memoirs. He wanted me to write of some of the things we did differently in the days when I was young, and what we did for fun. So I will try and think of some things that might be interesting.

Next Week: Fin-de-Siècle Pastimes

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

The Units

Daddy’s friend Clark drove standing up. That’s the first thing I noticed. “That’s how milk trucks are,” he explained. “You have to drive standing up.” I was still amazed at this when we arrived at the circus. 

A three-ring circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows. Public Domain image from State Archives of Florida, published under Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 license.

There in the gathering darkness: a big tent on a dusty lot. We sat high up and saw people called “acrobats” fly through the air and drop into a big, bouncy net. And there came a little car that drove around the three circus rings and dropped off clowns, one by one—at least a dozen of them. The little truck, by some magic, seemed to to have an inexhaustible supply of clowns. 

A milk truck. You had to stand up. “DSC_5874” by improbcat is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 .

Clark drove the milk truck but did not own it. He was not a regular milkman. He was a college student like Daddy. He drove an early morning milk route for extra cash and could use the truck in off hours.

It was 1949; I was four. We lived in The Units—three or four rows of jerry-built shacks on the campus of Knox College. Each unit, one of three connected side by side, had a kitchen, a bath, a small livingroom, and two small bedrooms. Each unit housed a mommy, a daddy, and one or two very young children.

The occupants were families of war veterans attending college on the newly-enacted GI Bill. We moved in when I was three months old, in September 1945, and left in June 1949, not long after Daddy took me to the circus. 

Special Bond

The families who lived in The Units shared a special bond and a certain kind of outlook. The men were college students, the women housewives. They were all, on average, four or more years older than the typical entering freshman. They were householders, married, with young children. The usual campus hijinks of the era held no charm for them. They had their own hijinks. 

They were more serious men, you see, having just fought a war. Yet, like all students everywhere, they sometimes put studies on the back burner, accepting lower grades as a  reasonable price for the rich social life of The Units. That social life included beer, cigarettes, the needs of their toddlers, and late-night bridge games.

The family next door, with whom we shared a wall, was Bud and Helen Steele and their daughter Heather. Helen and Bud played bridge with Mommy and Daddy most nights in their place or ours. When the visiting couple got the contract, the one who was dummy got up and ran next door to check on the ostensibly sleeping child. Bud, whose name was Virgil, was a wiry man with a ready smile, from a family that farmed just south of Galesburg. Helen was a fresh-faced and friendly young woman from Saskatchewan. I don’t know how they managed to find each other, but they made a great match. They remained fast friends with our family long after The Units and until their dying days. My younger sister and I still keep in touch with Heather and her siblings, Hugh and Linelle.

Diversions and Hijinks

One of the men in The Units sought to beautify the little patch of green grass in front of his place by planting two or three sapling trees. Several of his colleagues, by dark of night, dug up the trees and, perhaps inspired by the beer, re-planted them upside-down.

Iceman and children. German Federal Archives, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Life was likewise fun for us tots. A small pack of us roamed The Units, outdoors in almost any weather, older ones picking on younger ones. In summer the iceman came twice a week. Our iceboxes had to be replenished with large blocks of ice, which were slid into the upper compartment to cool the meat, butter, eggs, and milk in the lower compartment. The iceman used black wrought-iron tongs to lug these ice blocks into our kitchens. We kids waited beside the iceman’s idling truck until he came out, tongs empty, to get another ice-cake. Then the boldest of us, Dale Price, begged ice chips from the iceman. He gave us each a two- or three-inch sliver of ice to hold in our hands, very cold under the hot sun. You had to brush dirt and sawdust off the ice chip. Then you sucked on it for as long as you could stand, dropped it, and ran off to play another game. 

It may not sound like much, Gentle Reader; but for us it was a treat.

One time Dale Price drank turpentine from an old Campbell’s soup can my mommy had left on the back stoop, midway through a furniture painting project. Dale was rushed to the hospital to get his stomach pumped out. “Darn that Dale Price,” Mommy said. “Always getting into things.”

The Railroad

Burlington engine No. 5633, no longer going anywhere, on static display in Douglas, Wyoming. Photo by Wusel007, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Galesburg was a railroad town, astride two great lines: The Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe, and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy. The Units stood across South Cherry Street from the main line of the CB&Q. I clearly remember standing in our front yard on a bright morning, watching a fast train zoom by, pulled by a chugging black steam locomotive, perhaps a 4-8-4 “Northern,” a long cone of white smoke streaming out behind it. At night, I lay in my crib beside Teddy, my bear and best friend, and listened to the imponderable chug, roll, and bump of iron thunder as switch engines sorted and grouped railcars in the nearby Burlington yards. 

Mrs. Grable’s School

Life went on. Daddy had a part-time job taking the Galesburg Register-Mail to the outlying district of Bushnell in the afternoons. The GI Bill provided tuition, subsistence, books and supplies, equipment, and counseling services for veterans in college; but daily  expenses, beyond “subsistence,” could be tight. When I was three, Mommy got a part-time job as a secretary in an auto parts company, and I began attending a nursery school, “Mrs. Grable’s.” 

1950 DeSoto Suburban ad, Public Domain. Scanned by Alden Jewell, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Mrs. Grable had a large house with a big backyard and lots of toys and crayons. One or two other old ladies helped her wrangle kids. She had maybe a dozen of us. She picked us in the morning in her DeSoto Suburban—a big car with jump seats and room enough for the whole dozen of us. Later in the day she drove around The Units and dropped us off one by one, like circus clowns alighting from a mystery vehicle every afternoon at three.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Colleville by the Sea

December 9, 1954—Edward turned right at Formigny, and the little German car divided the French fields en route to Omaha Beach. Millie, riding in back beside Mary, watched the hamlet of St. Laurent-sur-Mer slide by her window. No bigger than Knoxville, she thought. Not many people out. Probably taking their siesta.

Frankie’s headstone at Colleville, 2009.
Steven Sommers photo.

At the cemetery, all four got out of the car. The sun came out, but a stiff wind drove the cold into one’s bones. The caretaker, wearing a beret, led the way to Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32. Millie was glad Will had bought a new overcoat in Galesburg before they left. Thin and wiry as he was, the cold went right through him. Not like me, she thought.

There it was: 

FRANKLIN W. SOMMERS

2LT   559 BOMB SQ   387 BOMB GP (M)

ILLINOIS   SEPT 2 1943

Will polished his specs, stuffed the handkerchief back in a pocket. He stared at the cross.

That’s the look he gives to kids cutting across his vegetable patch, Millie thought. 

Edward frowned as if embarrassed how the Luftwaffe had treated his youngest brother. Mary stood by him, eyes closed, lips moving silently, hands clasped in front of her. 

Will stepped up, bent forward, ran the fingers of one hand over the letters cut into the cross. 

Frankie, second from left, and crew of Janet’s Dream, 1943.

“He was flying a Marauder, Pop,” said Edward, the pilot. “B-26.” 

Will straightened up, turned away. “Doesn’t matter much, now.”

Grandpa catches his hat. From film by Edward Sommers.

The wind was blowing from land to sea. You could see the English Channel from here. At least Frankie has a view, she thought. What a thing to think.

Will brushed his cheek with the edge of his hand as he walked away from the grave. “God-damned wind. Smarts the eyes.” 

The wind took his fedora, and he chased it across the memorial colonnade.

A fictionalized account of true events.

#

After a War

CARE package, 1948. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

Western Europe today is modern, progressive, and well-to-do—a success story. But in the 1950s, when my grandparents made their only visit there, the place was a wreck. In the first half of the twentieth century, it had been destroyed, partly rebuilt, then destroyed all over again. When peace came in 1945, standing Europe back on its feet was a monumental task. There was the Marshall Plan, but that was hardly enough. We were urged by radio announcements to support the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, which sent “CARE packages” to needy Europeans. When Grandpa and Grandma, Will and Millie Sommers, visited at the end of 1954, the contrast between American prosperity and European austerity remained sharp. 

Older Younger

He was 70; she was 65. That equates to 80 and 75 in today’s world. Folks got older younger in those days. They were not wealthy but were thrifty. Still, they might not have made the trip had they not had a ready entrée to Europe. Their eldest son, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways. He and his family lived in Bad Homburg, an old mineral-springs resort town about ten miles northeast of Frankfurt.

Due to a flight delay in Boston, Grandma and Grandpa missed connections in London and had to stay overnight at the Richmond Hill Hotel. There, at 4:00 pm on November 10, according to Millie’s notes, they had “tea, milk, and hot water; sandwiches of fish and cheese—very good; bread, butter, and marmalade.” You may think of “English High Tea” as something a bit more elaborate, but remember: This was less than ten years after the most destructive war in history. As to the hotel—“Rooms cold,” she reports, “so to bed early.

Remains of Hitler’s bunker, after 1947 demolition. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

They flew on to Frankfurt to stay with Ed and his family. In the following weeks, with Ed or his wife, Mary, at the wheel, they visited Freiburg; Alzenau and Michelbach in Bavaria, in quest of Sommers family records; and Berlin, including a brief trip into the Russian sector. While in Berlin they saw the bunker where Hitler spent his last days. “Mass of rubble – right in business section,” Grandma reports. 

At this point in her narration, she pauses to wax philosophical: “It has been said that after hearing of all the destruction, you may say, ‘There’s nothing left to see.’ But turning to what remains, there is more than any traveler is likely to take in during a lifetime.” Clearly, she was impressed by the sights of Europe.

There was one sight, however, that must have evoked strong emotions. (Understand, Dear Reader, in our family strong emotions are something to be avoided rather than sought or indulged.) On Monday, December 6, they left for France by auto with Ed and Mary. Grandma lists every city and town through which they drove. 

Spoils of War

They drove through places famously scarred by the First World War: the Meuse River and Argonne Forest, Château-Thierry on the Marne. At Verdun, they saw a monument to André Maginot, whose fortifications failed to prevent the Nazi conquest of France in 1940. At Châlons-sur-Marne, they stayed in the Hotel de la Haute-Mère-Dieu, built in 1700. They drove through the Belleau Woods battlefield.

They rushed through Paris and Versailles in less than 24 hours—a shame bordering on a crime. They continued across France to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a newly-built resting place above the invasion beach. (This is the setting of the imagined vignette above. It’s a piece of fiction, but from my knowledge of the individuals involved, something very like it must have taken place.) 

Grandma and Grandpa at the grave, 1954.

While at the cemetery, they spoke with the its caretaker, whom Grandma describes as “very nice – American with French wife. 2 live there with 24 hr. supervision. He was in Normandy invasion. Cemetery on shore of channel where landing was made. This was after our boys were gone of course. [She’s referring to sons Stanley, lost over the Solomon Islands in 1942, and Frankie, lost over France in 1943.]

“Much wreckage still in Channel – which is covered during High Tide. Drove along water – Fort still partly standing there with German Gun still sticking out.” 

Later the same day they visited Dunquerque (which the British spell Dunkirk), site of a major battle early in World War II, a beach from which more than 330,000 men were spirited across the Channel in a huge boatlift. Grandma’s notes report: “Desolate country  . . . . Immense amount of damage. . . . Looked across at White Cliffs of Dover.”

#

Grass

by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 

Shovel them under and let me work— 

                                          I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 

Shovel them under and let me work. 

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 

                                          What place is this? 

                                          Where are we now? 

                                          I am the grass. 

                                          Let me work.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Onward and Upward, with Missionary Zeal

After a recent family reunion in Portsmouth, Virginia, my wife and I drove across North Carolina and stayed a couple of days with old friends in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Chattanooga!”

It sings. 

In fact, it has been mentioned in songs like “Chattanooga Choo-choo” and “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” With two doubled letters, it echoes the magic of  “Mississippi” and “Walla Walla.” With four syllables, Chat-ta-noo-ga, it is redolent of “Chattahoochee,” a river that has a song of its own.

The city has its own dedicated typeface, Chatype, released in 2012. It boasts the fastest Internet service in the Western Hemisphere. But I’m getting carried away with present-day embellishments. Whereas this blog, you know, kinda focuses on the past.

Lookout Mountain, 2007. Photo by Teke, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Chattanooga” may derive from a Creek word that means “rock rising to a point.” That would be Lookout Mountain, where they fought “the Battle Above the Clouds.”

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

You can’t imagine Chattanooga without remembering the Civil War. Tennessee was desperately contested from early in the conflict. President Lincoln wanted badly to protect the pro-Union folks in East Tennessee from being swallowed by the Confederacy. But first things had to come first: General Grant invaded West Tennessee. His hard-won victories at Fort Donelson and Shiloh meant the North would stay in the South. 

The next order of business was Vicksburg. The guns on its heights controlled traffic on the Mississippi. Grant wrested the city from the Southern grasp on July 4, 1863. The Confederacy was effectively broken into two parts.

Next Stop: Chattanooga

Chattanooga stood on the Tennessee River, in a place where great ridges of the Cumberland Plateau came together. A key point for river and rail transport, Chattanooga would be the ideal staging point from which to invade Georgia. On September 9, 1863, Union general Rosecrans occupied Chattanooga. That was the easy part. 

General Braxton Bragg. Public Domain.

Rebel general Braxton Bragg, failing to oust Union forces in the Battle of Chickamauga September 19-20, laid siege to the river city and tried to starve the bluecoats out. In mid-October, Grant—now commanding all Union forces in the region—wrote, “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards, I will be there as soon as possible.” He arrived four days later and immediately began planning a campaign to break Bragg’s siege. 

After a month spent building a logistical advantage, Grant’s troops assaulted the rebel-held high points on Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. 

Seeing the Sites

Our friends and hosts, Andy and Janet Johnson, longtime Chattanooga residents, graciously showed us the battle sites.

Lookout Mountain, its top preserved as part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, is as impressive now as it was then. It’s hard to imagine General Hooker’s men fighting their way up it to dislodge Bragg’s troops—but they did. 

The other two high points, Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, have been developed as residential real estate, but you can see the layout clearly from the top of Lookout Mountain. The final battle for Chattanooga was at Missionary Ridge. Union troops under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George H. Thomas stormed the steep heights. 

Sherman’s troops stalled on their way up the north end of the north-south ridge. In the center, George Thomas’s division stalled after capturing Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. As they milled around, having gained what many appaently thought was their final objective, rebels poured fire down on their heads from the top of the ridge.

On, Wisconsin

Officers and men of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry knew what the real objective was. They started up the hill, but their color bearer was wounded and dropped the flag. Civil War units used their flags as rallying points. It was crucial the men of the 24th be able to see the colors  mounting the hill ahead of them. 

“On, Wisconsin!” Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur leads the 24th Wisconsin at Missionary Ridge. Painting by Michael Thorson. Used by permission.

Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, an 18-year-old, snatched the flag from the fallen soldier’s hands and dashed up the hill, shouting, “On, Wisconsin!” The regiment responded with a ferocious charge. Other units left and right did the same. The seasoned Confederate soldiers manning the guns at the top of the ridge experienced what can only be described as a moment of simultaneous panic. They ran. General Bragg chased them, implored them to turn and make a stand, but he did not get the stampede under control until his Army was safely in Georgia. Chattanooga was secure.

Major General William T. Sherman. Photo by Mathew Brady. Public Domain.

Chattanooga capped a long string of victories in the West for Grant. He became general-in-chief of all Union Armies, and moved on to Virginia for the final confrontation with Robert E. Lee. Grant’s right-hand man, Sherman, was turned loose to range from Chattanooga through the State of Georgia. His march to the sea, still remembered with more than chagrin by Southerners, once again subdivided the Confederacy. 

It would be more than a year before the final battles in Virginia and North Carolina, but Chattanooga played a decisive role in the outcome.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not interested in the Civil War, this may all seem frightfully dull and remote. But everything runs into everything else. 

For his actions at Missionary Ridge November 25, 1863, Arthur MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890. Later, he would serve as military governor of the Philippine Islands, when the U.S. won them in the Spanish-American War.

Just as important for history, Arthur MacArthur fathered a son, named Douglas, who became an American military legend in his own right, was himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines in World War II, dictated the reconstruction of Japan along constitutional democratic lines after the war, and rescued South Korea from North Korea’s invasion in 1950.

“Plunge Right Through That Line”

And, by the way, Arthur MacArthur’s battle cry, “On, Wisconsin!” came to be  immortalized in a pretty catchy football tune.

And I, Dear Reader, will be eternally grateful to our Chattanooga friends, Andy and Janet Johnson, who helped me with my Civil War itinerary. As an unabashed Grantophile—any man who can’t hold his liquor is okay by me!—I had visited the sites of all Grant’s major victories, except this one. Now that box is checked.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Could Have Built Less, But Instead Built More

What is our fascination with the lives of the rich and famous? Is it envy? Incredulity? Wishful thinking?

My wife and I recently held a mini-reunion with family members in Virginia’s Tidewater region. Hankering also to see friends in Tennessee, we resolved to rent a car in Norfolk and drive it, after the reunion, to Chattanooga. This made a perfect excuse to stop in Asheville, North Carolina—a pleasant enough town in its own right, but most famous as the site of Biltmore, “the largest privately-owned house in the United States.” 

Biltmore Estate (Original image cropped.) 
“IMG_0333” by wonderwolfpack is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

It’s hard for most of us to envision a house with 178,926 square feet of floor space. Louis XIV’s little place at Versailles is only four times larger. Here in America, Biltmore would  comfortably engulf the White House, the Hearst Castle, and Graceland combined.

It was built between 1889 and 1895 by George Vanderbilt, scion of one of America’s wealthiest families. George’s grandfather, “Commodore”  Cornelius Vanderbilt, started in 1810 as a boatman ferrying passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan and through entrepreneurship in the shipping and railroad industries amassed one of the largest fortunes in American history. At his death in 1877 his estate was estimated at $100 million—equivalent to $2.8 billion today.

Cornelius Vanderbilt. Public Domain.

The Commodore’s grandson, George, visited Asheville, in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, with his ailing mother in 1888. He fell in love with the place and began acquiring land—125,000 acres of it. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the estate grounds, Gifford Pinchot to manage its forests, and Richard Morris Hunt to design the house. 

A thousand workers, “ranging from local laborers to internationally known artists,” spent six years building the house, a French Renaissance château of 250 rooms. George and Edith Vanderbilt moved in and were soon joined by their infant daughter Cornelia. It took thirty servants to meet their domestic needs. Of course, the Vanderbilts did not live there alone. They entertained lots of guests. In luxury.

To walk through the four-story mansion requires energy and stamina. The rooms are large, the halls are long, the stairs are steep, and there are no elevators. But it’s worth the effort: You will see a concatenation of private rooms, public spaces, and connecting corridors arranged to offer a life of comfort, ease, elegance, and luxury beyond anything in your personal experience (unless your name is Rockefeller!). The 70,000-gallon  heated pool in the basement, for example, had to be drained and refilled every three days to meet guests’ needs; chlorination to keep the water fresh had not been invented yet. But who cares how much water you need to run, and heat, if you are among the super-rich?

George Washington Vanderbilt II. Biltmore Company. Public Domain.

After George’s death from complications of appendicitis at 52, his widow took over the running of the estate. She sold off approximately 86,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains at $5 per acre to the U.S. Government, which established it as the original core of the Pisgah National Forest. Later, daughter Cornelia and her husband, John Francis Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore to the public, “to increase area tourism during the Great Depression, and to generate income to preserve the estate,” according to the official Biltmore brochure. 

The house and its remaining 8,000 acres—including extensive gardens, the famous Biltmore Winery, the Antler Hill tourist village and hotel, and a number of on-estate restaurants and “light bites” venues—continue to be owned and managed by Cecil family descendants of George Vanderbilt. The paid staff numbers 2,700. The cost for a tour ticket is around $65, and there is no shortage of visitors. It’s a good example of an overly-ambitious project that has been saved after the fact by prudent management. 

Considering George Vanderbilt’s own personal resources, it’s amazing he managed to execute as much of his grand plan as he did. George’s share of the Commodore’s $100 million only came to about eight million, plus the income from another five million. Money went a lot farther in those days, of course. Even so, the size and scope of Biltmore boggles the mind.

My wife had visited Biltmore years ago so she stayed behind, enjoying a day of leisure at our hotel. My sister, however, accompanied me. The two of us toured the house but did not have the stamina to see the gardens as well. 

Before starting our tour, we had an excellent lunch at the Stable Café, a large restaurant adjacent to the house. As the name suggests, it was originally the George Vanderbilt’s stable. A huge barn, it is unlike any stable you may have seen. The walls are of glazed porcelain tile in a warm golden tone. The floor is of staggered red brick, also with a heavy glaze. A high row of arched casement windows sports an elaborate framework mechanism to open or close all of them at once. Diners sit at tables placed in former horse stalls—the straw bedding has been removed—with walls of laminated planks, topped by ornate metal grilles. 

I would like to have been one of Vanderbilt’s horses.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Say Goodnight, Gracie

Nattie Birnbaum was in a jam. He needed a new act. Nattie loved the vaudeville circuit, but it was not a secure living. 

Vaudeville was a form of theater—before cinema, radio, and television—that featured brief live performances: Songs, dances, song-and-dance teams, comedy acts, animal acts, jugglers, magicians.

Nattie was game for almost anything that got him a gig. He had been Glide of Goldie, Francis, and Glide; Jed Jackson of Jackson and Malone; Maurice Valente of Maurice Valente and His Wonder Dog; Harris of Harris and Dunlop; Jose of Jose and Dolores; at various times both Brown and Williams of Brown and Williams; Jack Garfield; and “Eddie Delight when the real Eddie Delight got out of show business and gave me all his left-over business cards.” 

However, after years of experience, Nattie still did not have a successful long-term act. For the past year he had performed with Billy Lorraine under the name George Burns, but the act was going nowhere fast. Then—

SHAZAM!

Show Business Magic happened. 

A woman named Rena Arnold brought a friend to see Burns and Lorraine perform. “Nattie,” Rena said, “this is Grace Allen.” 

Grace told Rena she would not consider performing with Billy Lorraine, who had a tendency to stutter when he was nervous. But she would not mind trying a partnership with the other one. “That was my big talent.” George Burns reflected in his 1988 book, Gracie: A Love Story. “I didn’t stammer.” That’s the kind of line that would cue a cigar puff. Whenever George delivered a funny line, he puffed on his cigar—a signal for the audience to laugh. You know, in case they couldn’t tell.

George and Gracie started with “a boy-girl act, a flirtation act.” George had most of the funny lines. “Just to make sure the audience knew I was the funny one in the act,” he wrote, “I dressed like a comedian. . . . I wore wide pants and a short coat, a hat with the brim turned up in front, and a trick bow tie on a swivel. That jazzbo tie was very important; this was long before I smoked a cigar onstage; I let the audience know I’d told a joke by whirling my bow tie. Being the straight man, Gracie wore a lovely dress.” 

Gracie Steals the Show

Burns and Allen, 1952. CBS Television. Public Domain.

They soon discovered that Gracie got more laughs than George. So George rewrote the material with himself as straight man and Gracie the funny girl. They became a  sensation. When vaudeville died, they made the transition to motion pictures and radio. In 1950 they dropped radio for television. For eight years they had a hit half-hour sitcom—in fact, they helped invent the form. Then Gracie retired, never to perform again.

George and Gracie were what vaudeville called a “Dumb Dora act.” The woman got the laughs by being silly, stupid—a featherbrain. But Gracie, from the beginning, was Something Different.

“The audience had created Gracie’s character,” George wrote. “I listened to the jokes they laughed at and gave Gracie more of that type. Gracie certainly wasn’t the first comedienne in vaudeville. There had been a long line of ‘Dumb Doras’ . . . . What made Gracie different was her sincerity. She didn’t try to be funny. Gracie never told a joke in her life, she simply answered the questions I asked her as best she could, and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience found her answers funny. Onstage, Gracie was totally honest, and honesty is the most important thing a performer can have. And if a performer can fake that, he can do anything.” 

Gentle Reader, if you have never seen Burns and Allen perform, you may not understand what George meant in the paragraph above. So we invite you, through the wonders of the Internet, to spend the next four minutes watching this. When you have done that, our symposium will reconvene here.

Many other samples of Burns and Allen’s work can be found online; you don’t need me to direct you to them. They include brief monologues when George tells jokes and puffs his cigar so you’ll know when to laugh. But, invariably and everlastingly, Gracie is the mainstay. George’s true genius lay in knowing how to cue Gracie appropriately, stay out of her way, and react naturally. His other true genius was in running all the business and managerial aspects of their show-business partnership. 

“The audience roared,” he wrote. “Either I was the greatest straight man who ever lived or Gracie was something special. By the time we finished those three days in Newark, Gracie had three-quarters of the punch lines. I didn’t mind, I still had 60 percent of our salary.”

Partners in Life, Too

When Nathan Birnbaum, from the Lower East Side of New York, and Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen, from Irish Catholic roots in San Francisco, started their vaudeville act, it was strictly a business partnership. Gracie was in love with a big star named Benny Ryan. But theirs was a long-distance relationship, since she and Ryan were always playing different cities. Soon, George fell in love with Gracie and began a determined campaign to woo and win her away from Benny Ryan.

With the disarmingly honest self-assessment that is one of his charms, Burns wrote: “I fell in love with Gracie because she was pretty, smart, nice, and talented. But I’ll tell you the truth. I also fell in love with Gracie because I fell in love with making a good living. If she had married Benny Ryan, what was I going to do for an act? I had no real affection for the seal [with whom he had once performed]. The Siamese twins already had partners. Where was I going to find another Gracie? Remember, she was born Gracie, she wasn’t manufactured. Gracie didn’t come by the dozen. I fell in love with her just like our audiences did.” 

Extra Tidbits

George Burns, who lived many years after Gracie’s death in 1964, turned out to be the bestselling author of ten books. I have not read any of the others. But I suppose Gracie, A Love Story is the one you need. Besides the tiny glimpses given above, it reveals many facts I had not previously known about George and Gracie, even though I grew up in the era when they were household names.

  • Gracie Allen ran as the Surprise Party’s candidate for President in 1940 against FDR and Wendell Willkie, on the slogan, “Down with common sense. Vote for Gracie.” She even did a whistle-stop tour.
  • Gracie was never seen in public except in full or three-quarter-length sleeves, because her upper arm had been badly scarred in a scalding accident when she was a child. 
  • She had one blue eye and one green eye. 
  • George and Gracie, unable to conceive, adopted two children, Sandy and Ronnie, as infants from a Catholic orphans’ home in Evanston, Illinois. Ronnie later appeared on television as their handsome young-adult son, Ronnie.
  • Jack Benny, fellow star of stage, screen, radio, and TV, was their dearest friend—a man beloved by all who knew him. His wife, Mary Livingstone (née Sadie Marks), not so much.
  • When Gracie retired in 1958, she was physically worn out and had a debilitating heart condition. In those days there were no heart transplants or coronary bypasses. She was given nitoglycerin pills to control the pain, but eventually her heart gave out.

Nattie summed it all up very fittingly in the opening line of the book: “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Antique Road Show, Part II

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, about 1950.

On October 7, 1949, my grandparents, 65 and 60 years old, cast their fate to the winds and drove Route 66 from Illinois to California in their 1946 Hudson sedan. Recently retired, but with enough savings to travel, frugally, they set off to see the Great West. 

They reached San Bruno, California, two weeks later. They had added 2,871 miles to the Hudson’s odometer and spent $143.11 in total for meals, lodgings, 150 gallons of gas, a new tire, and incidentals.

With Mabel and Bob

The reason they fetched up in San Bruno—near San Francisco International Airport— was that their daughter, Mabel Hiler, lived there with her husband, Bob, and their son, Dickie. Grandma and Grandpa must have let Mabel and Bob know they were coming—mustn’t they? Having known them, I cannot completely rule out the possibility they just showed up on Mabel and Bob’s doorstep one bright Thursday afternoon in October. 

Since Bob Hiler had a good full-time job as a mechanic with United Airlines, and since Dickie was a young boy, Mabel was almost certainly a full-time housewife. Later on I know she worked at a variety of jobs “outside the home,” as we used to say. 

Women drilling a wing bulkhead for a World War II transport plane at the Consolidated Aircraft. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, U.S. Office of War Information. Public Domain.

Probably most women of Aunt Mabel’s generation—which was also my mother’s generation—worked outside jobs at one time or another; but that’s not how it was supposed to be. For one brief, shining moment after World War II, all of America conspired to jam life back into “normal” channels. The men were to wear the pants, the women skirts and aprons. The men would bring home the bacon; the women would cook it, put it on the table, and wash up afterwards. 

Before long, that arrangement would crumble in household after household. How could we afford our everyday needs plus late-model cars plus television sets and of course the finer things of life that were advertised on those television sets, unless Mom took a part-time job “just in the middle of the day, while the kids are in school” to supplement the family’s income. In 1963, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique would advocate for women as full-time breadwinners, no longer to be chained to traditional women’s roles.

Bob and Mabel Hiler, second anniversary, 1938

But I sincerely hope Aunt Mabel was a full-time homemaker when her parents came to California, since they stayed seven months! Grandma kept careful notes on their ramble  across the range, full of where they stayed, where they ate, and what they saw. But not one word about the whole time spent in San Bruno. It’s a mystery. All the principals—Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, Aunt Mable, Uncle Bob, and Dickie Hiler—are gone; I cannot ask them now and did not know enough to ask them when they were still with us. 

Just to picture all five of them spending seven months together in a bungalow in San Bruno beggars the imagination. How did they ward off madness? They must have done something.

The Hudson’s mileage yields one clue. By May 1950, Grandpa and Grandma had clocked 5,326 miles driving to and from California; but their odometer was 8,232 miles older  than when they started. Therefore, while visiting in California, they drove 2,906 miles. That’s about what it would have taken to commute every day into the city from San Bruno—but that’s a silly thought; they had no reason to go downtown daily. They probably made shorter trips for everyday purposes but also drove from time to time to tourist destinations such as Yosemite. (Disneyland was not available yet.) However, they left no record of such trips, nor did I ever hear them spoken of.

Stint in Seattle

There was also a month and a half when they did not drive at all, because they left the Hudson behind. Grandma’s notebook says that on Valentine’s Day 1950 they went to Seattle and stayed a month and a half. They did not drive, they flew. The flight was two and a half hours from San Francisco to Seattle on a DC-6, a modern four-engine prop job. In those days, most airline employees got free flights as a benefit, and these were often transferable. Most likely, Grandpa and Grandma flew United Airlines to Seattle on Bob Hiler’s employee pass. 

In Seattle, they stayed with Edward, the elder of their two surviving sons, his wife, Mary, and their three children. Uncle Ed was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and at that time flew out of Seattle, to and from Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau. 

Grandma’s notebook gives glimpses of this interlude in Seattle: 

Grandma’s notebooks
  • “Sat Feb. 25 – Went to Everett by car with Mary & Edw. Called on Lloyd Engels’ at Everette [sic]. Up Monte Cristo Way as far as roads would permit. Too much snow Early in Season. Dinner in Marysville – nice town.”
  • “Sat. Mar 4. Went to Mt. Vernon. visited with Aunt Susan Beecher and daughters Eva – Ada – & Nina. Back by way of [Whidbey] Island.” They crossed the Deception Pass Bridge at the north end of Whidbey, drove the length of the island, and took the Mukilteo Ferry back to the Mainland near Everett.

Still, they must have passed a lot of time in humdrum ways. (The Space Needle and the Monorail did not yet exist.) Mary was a full-time homemaker and therefore, by prevailing notions, could entertain visiting inlaws without limit. When I knew her, later in life, she was a gracious, adaptable person. No doubt she met the challenge with aplomb.

On April 1, Grandpa and Grandma caught an overnight train from East Olympia for San Francisco, arriving at 11:20 am the next day. After another month and a half with Mabel and Bob in San Bruno, they headed home. 

West to East

Now the silence ends, and Grandma’s pithy travel notes resume the narrative.

They struck straight across country, going by way of Sacramento, Placerville, and Lake Tahoe. Grandma notes the rising topography: 

  • “Plenty Snow – Echo Summit – 7282 Elevation.” 
  • “State Line—Bijou Pines at Bijou near Lake Tahoe.  Spooner’s Summit, East Edge, L. Tahoe (10 miles from Carson City) – El. 7140 ft.” 

They spent a morning sightseeing in Carson City but still made Reno by noon. They got gas, oil, lube, lunch, and back on the road by 1:30. In those days you could leave the car at the gas station; they took care of everything, and you went to lunch.

Outside Heber, Utah, Grandma noted: “Drilling Surprise Wildcat No. 1”—a reference to a new oil well being opened up. Several more wells and refineries were noted as they made their way across Utah and into Colorado.

At Craig, Colorado, a flurry of notes:

  • “Interesting facts about Craig, & Moffat Co. – El. 6200 ft.
  • “(1) Largest wool shipping point in world.
  • “(2) Largest Gilsonite processing & shipping in world. 
  • “Moffatt [sic] County
  • “90 ft vein of coal.
  • “Enough to supply U. States for 900 yrs.
  • “1,600,000 sheep raised annually
  • “20,000 cattle raised annually.
  • “Many Deer.
  • “3,460,500 acres – area of county.”

Think on that, Gentle Reader: Moffat County, Colorado’s 90-foot vein of coal in 1950 was enough to supply the United States for 900 years! It gives one pause.

Enough Coal for 900 Years

First of all, how much coal is a 900-year supply? You need not guess, I can tell you.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration says total coal consumption in 1950 was just shy of 500 million short tons. So, a 900-year supply would have been almost 450 billion short tons. When you consider that just one short ton contains two thousand pounds—that’s a lotta coal.

Does Moffat County still have enough coal to supply the entire United States for 900 years? Probably not. For one thing, almost 70 years have passed, so now we’re talking about an 830-year supply. Except that we no longer use 500 million tons a year. The figure for 2018 is more like 700 million tons—so we’re using it up faster. 

That surprised me. I would have thought we use less coal now, because in 1950 we mostly heated our houses with coal—as a lad I shoveled it into our basement furnace three or four times a day. But now, we heat our houses with natural gas or fuel oil. So, why do we use more coal now? Because coal is burned to generate electricity, and we use way more electricity now than we did then. This graph tells the story:

Source: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=37692

So, what I thought I knew—that we’re using less coal today—is what Will Rogers would have called “things we do know, that ain’t so.”

Even though we use more coal now than in 1950, the consumption trend is steeply down, having peaked at about 1.1 billion tons in 2009. This is for multiple reasons, including government actions, but mostly because natural gas has gotten a lot cheaper recently. Indeed, coal consumption may plunge below 1950 levels and continue downward. 

There is a retrospective irony in all this. Moffat County could soon have a 900-year supply of coal once again, but it may no longer be worth mining. Still, economics being unpredictable, a resurgence of coal, or a plateau in its decline, may be in the offing. However, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Meanwhile, they still mine coal in Moffat County. 

Through the Rockies and Home

Grandpa and Grandma continued through the Rockies via Steamboat Springs, then on through snow-covered Rabbit Ears Pass at 9,680 feet, and across the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass—11,314 feet. Arriving in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Grandma wrote: “1418 miles Denver from San Bruno. Lg. wet snow with trees & elec. wires down making streets impassable – so had to stay here 3 days.” They left Englewood Saturday, May 27, and drove home through Kansas and Missouri, noting “Lots of black walnuts” around Seneca, Kansas, and “lots of apples & some peaches” near Troy, Kansas. 

On May 29, 1950, they arrived at Dwight, Illinois. Now, the thing about Dwight is that we lived there. My father, Lloyd E. Sommers, was the second of two sons who survived the Second World War. He was a radioman with the 132nd Infantry in the South Pacific. Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve pilot who continued to fly in his civilian capacity for Pan Am. Uncles Stanley and Franklin, bomber pilots, were shot down early in the war—Stanley in the Solomon Islands, Franklin over France. 

In 1950 we lived in Dwight, where Dad taught high school chemistry. I was nearly five. My sister, Cynda Jo, was born May 2, 1950. She was a 27-day-old baby when Grandma and Grandpa came to visit us on their way home. I would be fibbing if I said I remember their visit. But Grandma’s book says they stayed three days. They needed to ogle the new arrival, no doubt.

They reached home on June 2, having spent $143.30 for gas, oil, food, shelter, and incidentals on the road between California and Illinois. It was a long trip, but it must have satisfied their longings for that kind of adventure, for they never went West again.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Antique Road Show

. . . ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. . . . .
—Tennyson, “Ulysses” 

In the autumn of their lives—he was 65, she 60—my grandparents set off on an epic journey. 

Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, 1944

They had weathered two world wars, one Great Depression, and the daily trials of work and family in pre-electronic, not-yet-airconditioned America. They had lost their Pierce-Arrow touring car in the Depression; they had lost two of four sons in the Second World War. In that era, when men and women often seemed worn out at 50, Grandma and Grandpa Sommers had lived to an age when a slowdown was in order.

Instead, they plunged into the adventure that six decades of hard living had denied them. 

1946 Hudson Commodore. Photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz (CC BY 4.0)

They drove their Hudson sedan, a bulbous gray beast with dusty velour upholstery. It must have been about a 1946 model. I don’t know that for sure; but it had 36,410 miles on its odometer when they left their little house in the village of Knoxville, Illinois, at 7:30 am on Friday, October 7, 1949.

They were bound for California. Before coming home seven months later, they would add 8,232 miles to the Hudson’s clock.

“Is this Trip Really Necessary?”

What possessed them? Why undertake an odyssey at that stage of their life? 

For one thing, Grandpa didn’t have a job to worry about any more. When Dad got off the telephone and told Mom, “Pop’s been fired,” I cried. My four-year-old mind saw Grandpa blackened to a cinder from the flames. They had to do quite a bit of explaining before I understood that Grandpa’s boss had merely sent him home from work and told him not to come back.

Grandpa—William P. Sommers—was a piece of work. Trained as a young man in telegraphy and telephony, he had worked as a rural phone company manager for a few years, then as a railroad telegrapher and station agent many years, before settling down in Sinclair Oil’s pipeline company as a telegrapher and pumping station agent. His technical training and certain unfortunate family traits gave him a lifelong impression that he was the smartest guy in the room, and everyone else was a fool. And obviously, it was his plain duty to inform them all of that. It’s easy to imagine that he simply told his supervisor where to get off, and his supervisor in turn told him where to get off. 

Grandpa was too old to go back to work—and there was a whole world out there. During the Great War, the Chicago and Alton Railroad had sent him by rail to the Pacific Northwest. The rocky terrain he traveled through made a deep impression. I guess he had always itched to go back and see it again.

Grandma had never been anywhere outside of central Illinois. She was stolid, unromantic, matter-of-fact; whereas Grandpa was fiery, flighty, and mercurial. He must have said, “Millie, let’s go! You’ve got to see the West.” 

Test Run

A year before, in September 1948, they had made a swift dash across Iowa and Nebraska, traversed the high plains of Colorado, and ended up in the Front Range of Colorado. They had returned via Wyoming and the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. They returned home on the eighth day after they started, having logged 2,513 miles. 

            Napoleon I, miniature painting made in 1807 by Jean Baptiste Isabey. Public Domain.

Grandpa, the towering figure in any group, was living confirmation of the Napoleon hypothesis, for he stood only about five feet tall. He wore size six shoes as an adult.  I can still see him driving that huge, high-riding Hudson sedan, peering out over the high dashboard from under the upper rim of the steering wheel! I can’t really remember how he managed to get his feet all the way to the pedals, but he must have.

That earlier trip perhaps gave them the confidence for the longer jaunt they now embarked on. It seems their plan from the beginning was to drive to California and stay a good, long while with their only daughter, Mabel, her husband Robert Hiler, and their little boy, Dickie. And also, if possible, get to Seattle and spend some time with their eldest son, Edward, and his family. Whether they knew when they set out how long they would stay, I really don’t know.

All There in the Book

Fortunately for me, Grandma kept a careful log in a wire-bound stenographer’s book, and my father left that book to me. She recorded dates, odometer readings, and expenses. But when they encountered something she thought was remarkable, she remarked. 

Bagnell Dam. Photo by KTrimble, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

They drove to Peoria and followed Route 66 southwest, with some deviations. They visited relatives and friends in Springfield and Gillespie, Illinois, and in the state-named town of California, Missouri. They visited the nearby Bagnell Dam—a modern wonder built eighteen years earlier to impound the Osage River and form the Lake of the Ozarks, thus gaining both hydroelectric and recreational benefits. (Wikipedia claims it’s still there.)

They drove through Joplin, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. That night, near Sapulpa, they stayed at the Wild Horse Cabins. Ah, the romance of the West! To lifelong residents of Illinois—where the horses are all tame—what could better hint of high plains adventure? The word “cabins” may suggest a certain rusticity, and that may have been the case. But in those days, “cabins” was simply a word for inexpensive roadside lodgings, which could be quite sketchy for creature comforts. The modern motel had not been invented—neither the word nor the item itself.

Petroleum Fever

Oil derrick. Photo by Egeswender – Own work, Public Domain. 

As they drifted west, Grandma frequently noted oil derricks, drilling rigs, pumps, and refineries. That’s because Grandpa had a definite interest in oil. I suppose he figured his great natural intelligence (which was an actual fact), combined with his technical mastery of telegraphy and telephony, qualified him in the oil business. In later years, he acquired  an idée fixe that by poring over geologic maps of the western states, he could pick winners in the great wildcat game and make a fortune. He invested what must have been only small amounts of money in dozens of oil-drilling partnerships to open wells in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. My mother, who was never intimidated by the old man, used to laugh at this obsessive hobby of his. But the old man had the last laugh: His complex portfolio of oil royalties continues even now, more than sixty years later, to trickle dollars into our family’s coffers.

Rugged Travel Days

Grandma and Grandpa crossed into Arizona and she noted that they “slept in car 1st time” before driving on the next morning. Probably there was no convenient overnight  cabin near the Arizona border. Bear in mind, Dear Reader, that a long motor trip was still a big adventure in 1949. The best roads were two-lane, two-way ribbons of concrete. Other roads were more iffy. Hotels, tourist cabins, restaurants, and gas stations were strewn haphazardly about the landscape. You might find one, you might not. I’ll bet Grandpa had stowed a five-gallon can of gasoline in the trunk—just in case.

Arizona Meteor Crater. “467” by bunnygoth is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

On Friday morning, October 14—one full week into their journey—they drove by the “Immense Munition Depot” at Holbrook, Arizona, but stopped to see the Arizona Meteor Crater and its museum near Winslow. That afternoon they drove out of Williams, Arizona, at 3:00 pm, and Grandma added a plaintive note: “Decide not to visit Canyon as too late in afternoon & no good place to stay overnite, so head for Boulder Dam.” What a letdown, having traveled so far, to forgo a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Grand Canyon! But Grandma’s notes contain no hint of disappointment; just the matter-of-fact account of a decision made. Maybe the Grand Canyon was not a high priority, since it contained no oil wells.

The next day they did spend about three hours seeing the Boulder Dam, the name of which had been changed to “Hoover Dam” not too long before. “Took in free movie showing building of dam,” Grandma noted. 

Eventually, they rolled through Las Vegas, Nevada (“wonderful city”) and entered California over the Clark Mountain Pass. By the time they crossed the desert and reached  Los Angeles, they had fulfilled Bobby Troups’s 1946 hit song—having visited Kingman, Barstow, and San Bernardino. The Hudson came down with a flat tire at San Berdoo. I wish I could have seen Grandpa make change that huge tire. The little Bantam rooster must have made short work of it, by might and main, with no expletives deleted. 

They arrived in the City of Angels, where they stayed with an “Aunt Annie” for three days and also visited some cousins in Compton. On their way out of town they bought a new tire; evidently the flattened one was beyond repair.

“Open Up That Golden Gate”

They drove up the coast to San Francisco—or actually, San Bruno, a southern suburb, where Mabel and Bob Hiler lived—arriving on Thursday, October 20, the fourteenth day of their trip. They visited the Hudson Motor Company, where they got a lube job for $1.50, tires rotated for $1.00, five quarts of new oil installed for $2.25, and 6.8 gallons of gas for $1.82. All this by way of putting the car right after its long trek.

Their outward journey encompassed 2,871 miles and used 150.4 gallons of gas, an average of 19 miles per gallon. They spent $55.44 on “gas oil etc.,” $23.10 for “meals etc.,” $23.00 for “Cabins,” $24.92 for “other incidentals,” and $16.65 for the new tire. 

A harbinger of things to come: $31.71 of the automotive total was bought on a credit card, which must have been a newfangled thing. Grandma’s notes do not say which credit card it was, but this was more than eight years before the 1958 launch of BankAmericard, the first general-purpose credit card. It must have been an oil company card. It may even have been an embossed metal “Charga-Plate,” which some merchants issued to favored customers and which enabled easy recording of transactions.

Once at San Bruno, Grandma and Grandpa stayed put for several months, with Mabel and Bob Hiler and their little son, Dickie. Grandma recorded nothing about that stay—but it was not without events. 

In those days, you stayed with family. For Grandma and Grandpa to rent a hotel room, or even a “cabin,” in a town where family lived, would have been unprecedented. Still, months of their constant presence may have been trying to Mabel and Bob. And equally trying to Grandma and Grandpa. 

If my read on Grandpa’s mind is accurate, he would hardly have minded imposing on his daughter and her family. It would have been a welcome change from going to work every day, to take orders from the know-nothing young popinjay who gave him his walking papers. Mabel’s house in San Bruno was, by contrast, an adventure. It was the West.

NEXT WEEK: More adventures in the West.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

 

Grandma’s Trip Books

Mrs. Schmieden– wife of officer in W.W. I with 1 son. Husband died & [she] married a Nazi General of WW2.

“While her son was in hospital from being wounded, he was given orders to go fight Russians.

“She found that her husband had given these orders, so she left him as she was fed up with Nazis anyway.

“The Gen had been jealous of this son. He was later tried in the War Crimes Court but was exonerated.

“Her father had been a Banker & they were well to do before the War. She had English Governess etc, & never had to work etc.” 

—from Grandma Sommers’ travel notes

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

—Psalm 90:10 (King James Version)

In America today, many of us will exceed threescore and ten, or even fourscore years, in good health and strength. But we know that before long, the words of the Psalmist will be fulfilled, and we too shall fly away.

Like many other septuagenarians, I am trying to reduce, not enlarge, my collection of mementoes. Some of them, however, I just can’t part with. 

In my basement there is a box labeled with my name: It holds photos, notes, artifacts, even scraps of paper linked to people or events that linger large in my memory. I have a similar box for my parents; and one each for my uncles Stanley and Franklin, both of whom died in World War II. And there is a shoebox labeled “Old Folks,” compassing traces of earlier generations. 

Grandma’s trip books.

In the “Old Folks” box I found two spiral-bound, stenographer-style notebooks, plus a thin bundle of 4” x 7” looseleaf pages. What I did not find, yet, was time enough to go through them page by page, for they certainly are worth that kind of scrutiny. Taken together, these little books contain my Grandma Sommers’ notes from two remarkable journeys she and Grandpa took. One was a driving trip from Illinois to California and back. They left October 7, 1949, and returned May 29, 1950, after a jaunt of nearly eight months! The other journey was their only visit to Europe—from November 8, 1954 to January 28, 1955—eleven weeks and four days.

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, c. 1955.

Today, few of us make such extended journeys. Perhaps our attention spans are shorter. But also, we lead busy lives. It’s hard to get away for more than a week or a month at a time. And travel is, relatively, less expensive now. What we don’t see this time, we can catch next time. Both of the trips recorded in Grandma’s journals were once-in-a-lifetime excursions for my grandparents. They were determined to make the most of them.

Grandma was a straightforward person. In conversation, you could be forgiven for thinking her a “ho-hum” person. But these notes show she was an astute observer, keen to see and hear everything, and keen to record the details. Unlike us, she had no frivolous and ephemeral way to do this. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram. All she could do was write notes in longhand in paper books. What worked for Julius Caesar, Marco Polo, and Meriwether Lewis, also worked for Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers.

Many of her notes were mundane. For example, from the California trip log: “Leave San Bruno – 9:30 am – 42187 [;] 6.6 gal. gas – 1.51 Castro Valley – 42213 [;] 1 qt oil – .41 . . .”

Other entries are more intriguing, like the one quoted above from the looseleaf addendum to the Europe trip book. It apparently records the results of a conversation she had with a real German woman, Frau Schmieden. Grandma’s summation of their talk contains the seeds of a big novel, maybe even a major motion picture. 

The Great Heidelberg Tun, largest wine barrel in the world. Photo by Larry Sommers.

Grandma’s Eurpean trip notes also tell of visiting Heidelberg, where they saw in Heidelberg Castle the famous Great Heidelberg Tun, the world’s largest wine barrel. “Built in 1196,” she notes. “Holds 50,000 gal. Stairs leading to top.” Imagine my surprise to learn that this German cultural icon, which I myself visited and photographed in 2015, had been on my grandparents’ itinerary sixty years earlier.

Grandma’s notebooks hold the promise of further tantalizing facts and memories. My ancestral duty to look into such things and, if possible, keep some of them alive in our communal recollection, is one of the joys of being in the “reducing” phase of life.

I’ll try to keep you posted.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

On the Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

Izzy Mahler was seven years old when he met George Washington. 

The old man was not tall and majestic but short and stoop-shouldered; he wore not a white wig but the white jacket of a railway porter on the Super Chief.

“I cannot tell a lie,” he said, friendly brown eyes sparkling amid the folds of his wrinkled brown face. “I been George Washington every day of my life. That other fella, the one with the cherry tree and the little hatchet, he just borrowed my name… only, he borrowed it before I got to it.” With a merry cackle, he showed Izzy his union card—evidence he was indeed “Geo. Washington.” 

Izzy’s mother had given the man a dollar at the vestibule entrance of the day coach, asked him to watch over Izzy and make sure he got off at Loseyville. 

Train 18, The Super Chief – El Capitan, east of Streator, Illinois
on January 28, 1967. A Roger Puta Photograph. Public Domain.

George Washington loomed over Izzy, swaying with the gentle rocking of the coach as the train pulled out of the Plumb station. 

“Goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, huh?” he asked. 

 “All week until Friday,” said Izzy, with a sigh.

“Ain’t you pleased to be seeing them?”

“Grandma, yes. Grandpa, no,” the boy replied.

George Washington raised an eyebrow.

“He’s mean,” said Izzy. “He yells at kids.”

“My daddy was like that,” replied the porter. “God rest his soul.”

“Well,” said Izzy, upping the ante, “he says naughty words, too. Words you’re not supposed to say.”

The old man nodded his gray head. “Sure do sound like my daddy.” 

Izzy was certain his Grandpa Mahler was nothing like the porter’s daddy, but he did not say so.

“Why do you go see this yellin’, cussin’ grandpa, if you don’t like him?” 

“They don’t get to see me as much as my other grandparents do,” said Izzy, “so Mom and Dad said I have to go.”

“Ah,” said the old man. 

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Two hours later, George Washington watched from the coach steps as Izzy stepped down from the train into the waiting arms of his grandmother, a large white woman in a floral-print dress, and followed her to a gray 1948 Hudson sedan.

Like Daniel goin’ to the lion’s den,the porter thought. He did not envy Izzy the prospect of spending a week with his grandfather—leastways, not if he’s anything like old Ennis P. Washington, God rest his soul.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Memory as Fiction

The vignette above is exerpted, with slight changes, from one of my Izzy Mahler stories, “The Lion’s Den,” which won honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest for 2018.

In all essentials, it is taken straight from my life. I made up the part about the porter being named George Washington. 

No Risk Too Trivial

Younger readers may doubt there was ever a time when a loving mother would send her young child on a train trip all alone, would casually give him over to the care of a lowly  railroad employee, with just the added fillip of a small gratuity. But in 1952, that’s how things worked. Back then, automobiles did not have seat belts, either—and most people didn’t lock their doors most of the time. 

Now airlines have official policies and hefty fees for transporting “unaccompanied minors.” Amtrak, today’s version of passenger rail service, is even worse. It refuses to let children under age 13 travel unaccompanied, period. Our cars not only have seat belts but also shoulder harnesses and airbags—all mandated by the federal government. I can’t prove it, but I think more of us lock our doors all the time, or at least most of the time.

We may be safer, but life seems more fraught with peril. Here endeth the digression.

Black Porters

A. Philip Randolph, 1963. John Bottega, New York World-Telegram and Sun.Public Domain.

Jobs as porters or railcar attendants on passenger trains in the pre-Amtrak era were almost monopolized by African Americans. One can say they were relegated, as second-class citizens, to menial roles in the rail industry. On the other hand, those were steady jobs with some of the country’s largest employers. Moreover, they were union jobs, starting in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Many black families built their economic lives on railroad jobs.

Hazards of War

Helping rail passengers was far from the only contribution African Americans made to American life. Toward the end of my Izzy Mahler story, “The Lion’s Den,” George Washington the porter reveals the shrapnel scars on his legs—souvenirs of service in the First World War as a member of the 92nd Division, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd was a segregated infantry division in the U.S. Army, organized late in 1917. In the Meuse-Argonne, the largest United States operation of the war, the 92nd suffered 120 killed and 1,527 wounded in action. That’s 1,647 casualties in a unit of approximately 15,000 officers and men.

When Izzy Mahler gets to his destination, the little town of Henderson Station, he spends time with his grandparents—the kindly grandmother and the abrasive grandfather. They, too, have had to cope with casualties of war. Two of their sons died as bomber pilots in the Second World War. That part of the story, too, is straight from life. My grandmother was a Gold Star Mother twice, for my uncles Stanley and Franklin.

Weaving Tales

Something as simple as a train ride can reveal who we are as individuals, as families, as a nation of people with disparate experiences but often with common purposes. I can’t speak for other authors, but when I write fiction, I can never make up something that strays far from the facts. 

While you wait with great patience for my novel Freedom’s Purchase to achieve publication, I hope you may enjoy some glimpses into the life of Izzy Mahler, a little boy of the 1950s, never far removed from the facts. You can find them herehere, and here.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author