A Child’s Christmas in Downstate Illinois, Part II

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting all year. Waiting in a little town on the prairie. 

Waiting through the commotion at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s brown board house under the big elm on the Square. Waiting in bed at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’ quiet house, with the lone blue light in its window, waiting with dreams of an electric train or a trap drum set, waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer, if only they would—

It’s morning. Christmas morning!

I jump out of bed and dash into the living room. And there I find . . . NOT the amazing trap drum set from the Sears catalog. Not even a Lionel electric train, which I know for a fact Santa keeps plenty of on hand, and gives to lots of boys my age.

Something has gone terribly wrong. Under the tree, instead of a train on a loop of metal track, sits a big flat thing wrapped in red and green paper. I pick it up and rip off the paper, while the thing underneath makes clicking sounds. It’s a clear plastic box. A bunch of little metal balls inside it roll around and bump into things as I tilt it sideways.

“Look, Larry, it’s a pinball game,” says Mom, in her nightgown and robe. 

“Here,” says Dad, in his wrinkled pajamas. “You work it like this.” He takes it out of my hands, tilts it so all the little balls roll down to the corner, pulls back on a handle and lets it go. One of the balls shoots up and goes bouncing around between pegs and plastic fences until it comes back to the bottom. Wow.

“Here, let me try.” I reach up, take the thing back and start shooting metal balls. I’m so busy watching the balls bounce around that I almost, not quite, forget the trap drums. 

“Why the long face?” Grandpa hollers. With his pointy nose and his wire-rimmed glasses, he stares at me like a bird getting after a worm. “Y’oughta count yourself goddam lucky to have a nice game like that!”

“Maybe when you’re a little older,” Mom says, “Santa Claus will bring you an electric train.” She doesn’t mention the trap drum set. 

Girl and doll. Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash.

Although I have given them quite a few hours of free informational talks on it, I have never heard either Mom nor Dad actually speak the words “trap drum set.” Still, Mom just said “electric train.” So there is hope for the future.

Cynda gets her heart’s desire, a stupid doll named Betsy Wetsy. Mom brings a little glass of water to pour in its mouth, so my little sister can watch as the stupid thing pees its pants. Cynda is carried away with joy. She pours more and more water until not only the doll’s panties but also its dress, its hair, its chubby hands, and its sappy face are all dripping. 

“Now let’s put Betsy Wetsy away for a while,” Mom says, “until she dries out.” Cynda starts crying and carrying on as Mom takes the doll from her hands. Betsy Wetsy, to her, is what a trap drum set is to me. She has no right to complain. Hmph.

There are socks, bigger than we can wear, hung by Grandma’s fake fireplace with care. In them are oranges and nickels and candy canes and Mars bars and a few things like that. 

We dress, eat, pile into the car and drive down Main Street to the fun grandparents’ house. Grandpa and Grandpa Sommers will come along later.

A Flexible Flyer sled within the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of IndianapolisCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The place is already humming when we get there. The bottom of the tree swims in a sea of presents. The biggest one is for me, and I grab it right away, because it is too big to be wrapped: an American Flyer sled, longer than I am tall. It has shiny wooden slats on two red metal runners, with a wood steering bar to make it turn.

Now, this is more like it. “Mom, where’s my coat? I’m going outside to try my sled.” 

“Wait a bit,” Dad says. “We’re about to open all the presents, and then we’ll eat. You can play with your sled in the afternoon.” 

More waiting. Sigh. I give the steering bar a twist or two. It doesn’t seem like it really works. The runners don’t hardly bend. “Dad, the runners don’t hardly bend.” 

“It’s just fine, son. You’ll see.” 

My cousin Steve is there, his eyes big and round behind his glasses. He doesn’t need to be jealous of my sled. I’ll let him ride it this afternoon. He has already done pretty well at his Grandma and Grandpa Stucki’s house. He got a cowboy hat and BB gun there. His little sister, Betsy, got, guess what—a Betsy Wetsy doll! Even though she’s only two.

From left: Aunt Linda, Cynda at 2, Steve at 6, Betsy at 1, Larry at 7. Christmas 1952 at Grandma LaFollette’s house.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry—Mom’s aunt and uncle, everybody’s favorites—come in through the little wooden shed that stands outside the front door to keep the cold out. (Grandpa calls it “the vestibule.”) They have red-tipped noses and big smiles. They came later because they went to church for the Christmas morning service.

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers pull up in their big old Hudson. Grandpa’s wearing his suit and tie now, with his shoes shined and his hair slicked down. He’ll be on his best behavior—no yelling and cursing here. Grandma gives him the fish eye as they come in. 

We all sit down to open presents. The grownups sit in a big circle. Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda take the presents from the tree and hand them out, because they can read the tags. I can read, too, but not when it’s written in longhand.

It’s like a madhouse. Everybody unwraps presents, whooping and hollering, laughing, showing off, trying on new shirts and sweaters. I get some clothes that are nice, I guess. But my best presents are a coiled metal thing called a Slinky, and a tin Caterpillar bulldozer with rubber treads. It has a key on the side that you wind it up with.

Grownups in Grandma LaFollette’s dining room, Steve and Larry in foreground, Christmas 1952.

I have to wait to play with my new toys, because it’s time for dinner. We go down a step from the living room to the dining room. All the rooms in this house are one or two steps higher or lower than each other. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.

Steve and Betsy, Cynda and I, Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue eat in the kitchen. The grownups sit at the big table in the dining room. There is turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and sweet potatoes and stuffing and two different kinds of rice—Spanish, and glorified—and cranberry sauce. And three different pumpkin pies, each one a little different. Maybe I can try them all.

The kids’ table, Christmas 1952. Clockwise, from lower left: Steve, Aunt Sue, Aunt Linda, Cynda, Larry.

Aunt JoAnne comes into the kitchen with something called the wishbone. It was part of the turkey. I get to pull it with her. We each hold one end and pull to see where it breaks. Whoever gets the big end, their wish will come true. I hurry up and wish a wish. I close my eyes real tight to think.

“Oh, I know!” I shout. “I’ll wish for—”

“No, don’t tell!” Aunt JoAnne says. “If you tell your wish, then it won’t come true.”

Really? There are rules for wishes?  I didn’t know.

So I close my eyes again to remember my wish. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I can’t say what my wish is, but it’s not an electric train. Mom already said I might get an electric train next Christmas, so I don’t want to waste my wish on that. So I’m wishing for something else. Something that can make a loud noise.

I open my eyes. We pull the wishbone and it breaks on Aunt Jo’s side, so I win. “Hooray! Now I’ll get my train and my—oops.” 

I’ve waited long enough to play with my toys. When I get back to the living room, the uncles have set up the books from the Collier’s Encyclopedia to make stairs, and they have the Slinky walking down the steps. “This is just to show you how it’s done,” says Uncle Earl. 

Then he winds up my tin bulldozer and shows me how it can drive down the steps. This is so much fun that Uncle Dick does it next, and then Uncle Garrett, and then Richard Henderson—who isn’t even my uncle, yet. Next, they try to make it drive up the steps, but it won’t go. “Goddam grade’s too steep,” says Grandpa Sommers.

An earlier Christmas: 1950.

“We can’t give up now,” says Richard. He takes half the books out of the stack so it is shallower. Now the tractor goes up the steps just fine, but then  it turns and falls off the side.

“Maybe the damned thing needs a new driver,” Grandpa Sommers says. So finally it’s my turn to wind it up and aim it toward the book-stairs. It falls over when I start it, too.

Otto Graham. Bowman’s football card, 1954. Public domain.

By Sunday, when we go home, the Slinky has a bent coil and the Caterpillar tractor is dented, but we’ve all had a lot of fun playing with them. The sled works okay when you pull it with a rope, but when we get back to Streator, I know where a hill is, and that will be even more fun. 

We drive along between the fields of corn stubble on Sunday afternoon. Dad switches on the car radio. The Detroit Lions are playing the Cleveland Browns. “Bobby Layne versus Otto Graham,” Dad says. I don’t pay much attention to that because I’m dreaming about my electric train and trap drum set.

Detroit wins. “Guess Otto Graham will have to wait till next year,” Dad says.

Blessings and Merry Christmas, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part III

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 mentioned transportation, but didn’t say what kind. It was horse drawn of course, and usually was a “spring wagon,” which was a light wagon with two spring seats with leather cushioned seat & back.

Spring wagon. Public Domain.

My grandparents never did have anything with a top. They had umbrellas for sun or rain in Summer, and when it was snowing or raining in the winter, I think we mostly stayed at home. We did go quite often in sleigh or bobsled when there was snow on the ground. We always had sleighbells on.

The sleigh was not one of those fancy looking ones with large round runners. But I rather think it may have been home made. Anyway it was made of wood, painted red, and had two seats. Then there was straw in the bottom and hot bricks to keep warm.

Millie Marie Gunsten, age 18.

We never tho’t of anything better. There were top [?] buggies and “surries with the fringe on top,” but very few around then. 

Later came the Klondikes or enclosed buggies, but we never had any of those.

When our family was small, we usually went to Greenview for Xmas, but later spent it at home. There were now several families of relatives living there, and they would take turns having family dinners—one at Xmas, one at New Years, another at Thanksgiving etc.

Age of the Telegraph

When we moved to Middletown there were still no telephones. When Election time came, the returns would come in by telegraph at the R.R. station.

Everyone would go to the hall or Opera House and there would be some kind of entertainment.

Every so often a Messenger would come from the station with a Bulletin, which would be read.

How to Keep Food Fresh

Most every one had a small vegetable garden and fruit trees. But we didn’t know how to can vegetables then, except tomatoes. We canned fruit, but not a lot, as we did after I was married.

Vegetables, such as beans etc., were dried, and we also dried some fruit.

Most everyone had cellars or caves which would keep apples, Potatoes, cabbage etc. 

Girls were pressed into service as “icemen” during World War I. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain.

Most people baked their own bread, but when there was a bakery near by, the bread would be shipped in, in large baskets, unwrapped. The loaves were baked in large pans & were stuck together. They were put in wall cases with sliding doors, and when you wanted to buy some, they would tear off as many loaves as you wanted, and wrap it.

Of course there were no Electric refrigerators or freezers. The fresh meat was sold in Butcher shops, who had large coolers, cooled with ice. They did their own butchering, as did all private families who had butchering to do. and also smoked their own hams, bacon, etc. The sausage & some other meat was fried, and put in stone jars, and covered with Grease so it would keep.

It all tasted much better than the meat we get today, or so I tho’t.

Dairy Products

Our milkman had a horse-drawn covered wagon & the milk was in a large Milk Can. We would take a pitcher or something out & he would dip out as much milk as we wanted. That was in larger towns. In smaller towns most people had their own cow & some sold milk, but you would usually have to go after it.

Milk wagon. Public Domain.

My own folks never had a cow, that I remember, but we bought milk & butter from a farmer who lived on the edge of town.

My grandparents were Norgeian [sic], and they always had 2 kinds of cheese on the table for Breakfast. One was made from what we call cottage cheese. It was wrapped in cloth after being drained & salted, and laid away until it became real strong. I didn’t like that quite as well as what was made from the whey. It was boiled down to about ¼ of what it was, and then a little sweetening and thickening added. There were small grains of the cheese as it had not been strained. I tho’t this was super & could eat it at every meal

Well this is all I have written at the present time. I may think of more later.

June. 5 – 1969.  .

And that’s all she wrote.

Next Week: Something Completely Different!

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

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

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