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 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