Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Workday Wednesday: H.E. Bucklen - Medicine Man, Real Estate Tycoon, Baseball Fan

On my other blog (My Amish Indiana), I was researching a Walldogs mural in Shipshewana, Indiana entitled "Shipshewana Indians," and in the process I ended up also writing a piece about a man whose story just had to be told:  Herbert Elijah Bucklen Sr. - Medicine Man, Real Estate Tycoon, and Baseball fan.  Read his story here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Those Places Thursday: The Farm That Became a Church

Recently I’ve been doing some research on the Erickson side of my family tree, working with my cousin Gene.  We’ve found some good stories, including a real “black sheep” of a great-great-grandfather who I’ll write about soon.  But today, the story of my great-grandfather Karl Erickson’s farm, and how it became a church.

Karl (a/k/a Charlie) Erickson came to America from Mecklenburg, Germany with his parents, Johann and Caroline, and his brother Johann Jr., when he was nine years old—that would have been 1868.  The family settled in Will County, Illinois, where his mother soon died and his father Johann Sr. made a living as a farmer (although not a very good one), and later as a laborer.   

Karl and his brother left home (or were turned out of the house, some stories say) to make their way through the world in their mid-teens, and both brothers managed to do so.  By the 1880 census, Karl (by then known as Charlie) was a farm laborer on the farm of John Leppert, where a young lady named Lena Schmidt worked as housekeeper.  Carl and Lena married later that year and settled down to farm on rented land in Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois.  Eventually they had ten children, nine of whom survived. 

Some years later (1903 to be exact) they bought their own farm, 160 acres in Will County which lay on both sides of Boughton Road in what is now Bolingbrook, Illinois.  They lived and farmed there until they retired around 1920 and “bought a house in town” (that town being Naperville).

But it’s the story of what happened to their Boughton Road farm sixty years later that is my main theme today. 

In the 1980s, a young congregation called Independent Baptist Church was looking for a property.  They purchased 18 acres of the old Erickson farm on the north side of Boughton Road—and instead of tearing down the 120-year-old barn, they remodeled it into a wonderful “barn church” in 1985, putting nearly 10,000 man-hours of volunteer labor into the remodeling.  The pastor of the church, David Shoaf, provided me with these old photos of the barn church—with the silo still standing proud.

about 1985

But the barn church didn’t last long...  On March 17, 1989 an arsonist burned the building to the ground.  Suspicion fell on a land developer who wanted the property to expand one of his projects, but nothing was ever proven.

Down but not out, the church rallied and built a new colonial-style church building on the site of the old barn.  Today they continue to meet and thrive at their church building on the old Erickson farm, 380 West Boughton Road in Bolingbrook.

One further note:
The old farmhouse, built in two sections (the older and plainer section visible on the right side, the newer and fancier section on the left) still stands on the church property.  The first photo below shows my great-grandparents, Karl and Lena Erickson, with four of their children, around 1910.  The second photo show the house in more modern times, nearly 100 years later—still standing.

Photos courtesy of Pastor David Shoaf and Independent Baptist Church of Bolingbrook, Illinois (  Old farmhouse photo courtesy of Gene Erickson.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Client Testimonial

I got this email from a recent client - it made my day!...

"My husband got the big surprise present on his birthday. He absolutely loves it. You’ve done such a marvelous job! There is so much information for him to process but each page gives him such thrills! He was impressed with those old records counting each animal they owned, where they lived and how much property they owned, those newspaper articles of mishaps etc. He got a real kick out of the “original” American ancestor having had a brewery. We will surely visit some of those places when we visit the area next time."

A photo I found online for the client's tree

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Census Sunday: Liz, Arthur, and Amy

My mom once sat down and told me about her mother and father’s siblings, and most of it wasn’t pretty!  I wrote down what she said about each one, and lately, I’ve been trying to sort out fact from fancy. 

My grandfather, Robert Johann Erickson, had five sisters, and one was named Mary Elizabeth (pictured)—but she was always called “Liz.”  Two of Liz’ sisters died of tuberculosis—I’ve written about them previously.  Here is what my mother said about her Aunt Liz:
“Liz had seven children and died in childbirth with the seventh. Their ages ranged from 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, down to the baby. My grandmother (Liz’ mother) raised the baby. The father hired a neighbor girl, 18 years old, to be housekeeper, and a year later she married him. They had four children, making 11 in all. He was kind of lazy...”
I’ll never know about the “lazy” part, but I wanted to find out more about this great-aunt and uncle that I never met.  Besides that, when someone dies young, there’s often a story there.

Mary Elizabeth Erickson was born in 1884, the second of nine surviving children of Charlie and Lena Schmidt Erickson.  Liz, as she was called, married Arthur Stafford in March 1901, when she was just sixteen years old.  They had their first child, Mabel, a few months later—and more children came along in 1903, 1905, 1906, 1908, 1910, and 1913.

The 1910 census shows Arthur and Mary living on a farm in Will County, Illinois, next door to Arthur’s parents.  They had five children by then, and a sixth on the way.  But Liz’ luck ran out with child number seven…  Records on show that baby Earl was born on the 29th of January,1913 and Liz died a week later, on the 6th of February.  She was buried at Alexander Cemetery in Romeoville.

But what was Arthur to do?  The census records back up my mother’s assertion that the baby was raised by his grandparents.  The 1920 census shows young Earl Stafford living with Charlie and Lena Erickson.  He was still there for 1930 census, when he was seventeen.

It is very possible that Arthur brought in a young unmarried neighbor girl to help with the children and the housework—that would have been very common.  And when I checked the 1910 census, Arthur and his family live in the same census district in DuPage Township as 12-year-old Amy Shepherd and her parents.  By 1913, Amy would have been old enough to be “hired out”—and we know that she was Arthur’s wife probably by 1916, when their first child was born.

The 1920 census shows Arthur (age 39) living with new wife Amy (age 23).   They already have three young children (the oldest is three), and five of Arthur’s children live with them.  Arthur’s oldest child, Mabel, is only five years younger than her stepmother, and Mabel’s occupation is listed as “servant—at home.”  I can only imagine how dreary poor Mabel’s life was.  (Later census records show that within the year, young Mabel had ‘escaped’ her home via marriage—but by the 1930 census, she had five children of her own!)

The 1930 census shows Arthur (50) and Amy (32) living with two of his children and four of theirs.  So Arthur did indeed have eleven children.

Arthur outlived his young wife by eleven years.  They were buried together at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Joliet.

So, my mom was right about the seven children, the death in childbirth, the baby being raised by grandparents, the young second wife, and the four additional children…  But I’ll never know about the “lazy” part.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Travel Tuesday: The Gypsies

The other day I was looking over some family records, and I came across something my mother said years ago, in an interview with her cousin Gene, who was collecting the Erickson family history.  Mom said this about her childhood in the 1930s:

“Gypsies would come through the area every summer in their horse-drawn wagons during the Barbers Corner years.  They would steal the clothes off the clothesline, and steal chickens, turkeys, eggs, vegetables, bicycles, and everything else they could.  Everything had to be hidden or watched when the gypsies were passing through.  Sometimes they would come to the door and ask for food.” 

The whole topic of the Gypsies has always intrigued me, ever since I saw the wagons of the “Travellers” when I was in England and Ireland.  Could there really have been Gypsies in rural areas of America like Barbers Corner, Illinois in the 1930s?

So I did a little digging…  and it turns out there were. 

The website says that the Gypsies, more commonly known today as the “Roma,” came to the U.S. from Russia and the Balkan countries in the late 1800s.  Although their origins were in northwestern India, they were nicknamed “Gypsies” because it was mistakenly believed that they were Egyptians due to their dark skin, hair, and eyes.  They were persecuted almost everywhere they went; Hitler hated them like he hated the Jews, and he killed between half a million and a million of them.

The Gypsies were always a roving people (their name, Roma, means “wanderer”) and that held true in the United States during the Great Depression.  In those days they often traveled in caravans of covered wagons pulled by horses.  Elroy Hoffman remembers them from his Nebraska childhood.  “They’d park somewhere to feed the horses, eat there along the road…  They’d come up to our place to get food.”  Another Nebraskan, Mildred Opitz, remembers being afraid of them—they dressed differently than the locals, spoke a different language, and looked different.  She said the men were often horse traders, and the women made jewelry and baskets to sell or told fortunes.  She said they traveled in clans and had brightly painted wooden wagons.

The website had a post on April 14, 2013, recalling the days of the Gypsies in western New York State during the Depression.  The article says that bands of Gypsies traveled in covered wagons and camped on the outskirts of town each spring from the early 1900s into the 1950s and beyond.  (In later years they favored Cadillacs over wagons!)  The women would work as healers or fortune tellers.  The police would warn local residents to stay away from them, and at times, if the Gypsies fleeced too many locals out of their money, they would either be arrested or told to leave the area.

And are there still ethnic Gypsies (Roma) in America today?  The Website says that there are probably as few as 100,000 or as many as a million, from several different ethnic subgroups.  They came to the United states from Russia or Eastern Europe (the Rom); Great Britain (the Romnichals); Sloviakia (the Baschalde); and Hungary (the Romungre); and another half dozen places in Europe.   The article says, “It is uncertain how many Gypsies are in the United States because many Gypsies’ entry was undocumented, and others were recorded by their country of origin and not as Gypsies.”  Also, “Many Roma themselves do not admit to their true ethic origins for economic and social reasons.”

Today many of them still travel, but others are settled in northern urban areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and Dallas, mostly in trailer parks.  Some more conservative groups have settled in rural Texas and Arkansas.  They still have a powerful group identity and don’t often socialize or intermarry with outsiders.  They have their own language, cuisine, clothing, marriage customs, music, and traditions about health, religion, and family dynamics.  Today they are often used car dealers and repairmen or sell watches and jewelry—along with the traditional trade of fortune-telling, which is alive and well.
Image:  Andrew Rowland via

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: Remembering Bruce

Lately I’ve been thinking about my only brother, Bruce.  He would have been 57 this week, had he not died of alcohol-related heart failure thirteen years ago.

Bruce and our sister and I grew up in a typical middle-class home of the 1950s and 1960s.  But Bruce was especially gifted in many ways.  He was big and strong from the time he was very young—75 pounds of brawn by the time he started first grade!  The first college football scout to notice him said to my father, when Bruce was just five, “If your boy plays football, I’d love to see that kid when he’s eighteen.”

And Bruce was athletic.  As he grew older, he excelled in every sport he tried—baseball, basketball, track and field…  But when it came time to choose one sport, it was football.  By his senior year in high school, he was a star.

Bruce was also very smart.  And good-looking.  And he lived in a stable Christian home, where college was a ‘given’ and the money was there to make it happen.  But he fell in with a wild crowd, where drinking and smoking and drugs were the norm, and he was the leader of the pack.  Bruce was also what would have been called “high strung”—and I think he inherited the tendency towards depression that runs in the males of our family.  And like many before him, substance abuse was his form of self-medicating.  At least, that’s what my sister and I theorized in long, late-night conversations, years later, on the topic of “what on earth happened to Bruce?”

So he grew up, married, had two daughters…  He somehow finished college (with honors), but drifted from job to job.  His marriage fell apart.  He tried to raise his two daughters, but their grandparents did most of the heavy lifting, while Bruce drifted along in a fog…  But as the years went by, the fog was much preferable to the loud, obnoxious, domineering, hot-tempered person he was when he was sober.  All of us spent less and less time with him.  Towards the end, I felt his hatred enough that I often felt unsafe, and looked over my shoulder when I walked from my garage to my back door.  (Later, after his death, more than one relative told me that my fears for my life were not unfounded.)

So the week of his funeral, we cried.  Not because we would miss him—but because our hearts broke for his wasted potential…  for the two daughters he had failed in many ways…  for what he could have been.

And the years went by—his grave unmarked and his life mostly unmourned.  Thinking about him, remembering him, was painful... 

But lately, I’ve begun to remember the boy I grew up with.  I recall the little guy who had a bit of a temper even then…  If any of us aggravated him to the point of retaliation, he would use the worst bad word he knew—he would call the offender (get ready for it) a “poo poo pie.”

I remember the little brother who, big and strong as he was, was never a bully—but rather, always stood up for the weak.  One time when he was about twelve, he was sent to the principal’s office for fighting, and our dad was called.  It turned out that one of the other boys in his class had a mother who regularly had “nervous breakdowns” and spent time in the local mental hospital.  The other boys were making fun of the kid on the playground, and Bruce stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen any more.

When he was in eighth grade, I came home after school one day and Bruce was in bed—his face beaten to a pulp, almost unrecognizable.  It turned out some gangbanger-wannabes were hassling a girl at his school.  He faced them down and told them to leave her alone.  A few moments later they jumped him from behind and knocked him down and out…  But I don’t think he ever had regrets for standing up for the helpless, no matter what the cost.

I remember the outstanding scholar he was.  Schoolwork was nearly effortless for him.  (I’m pretty sure he had a photographic memory like our father did, and like one of his daughters.)  His seventh grade math teacher put it well, in a parent-teacher conference:  “It really bugs me that I have to give Bruce A’s, when I know perfectly well that he does his homework leaned up against a locker five minutes before class!”

Everyone remembers the outstanding athlete he was.  The week he died, we got a note from Neal Ormond, who announced the West Aurora football games on the radio during the years Bruce played (three years of varsity).  Twenty-five years later, Mr. Ormond still remembered his pleasure in announcing Bruce’s plays on the field. 

I was away at college all three years that Bruce played varsity football, and I’d never seen him play.  So for his last game, the great crosstown rivalry of East Aurora vs. West Aurora in the fall of 1975, I flew home in a small chartered plane to see him play—and it was worth it.  West Aurora had lost every single game of Bruce’s senior year, in spite of his heroic efforts every Friday night.  But that night, Bruce ran the only touchdown of the game into the end zone—and then scored the extra points.  West Aurora won, 8 to 3. 
Bruce never played college football—he was too troubled by then, and burned out, and he became a father not long after high school.  But oh, the memories!…  Our dad kept a scrapbook of it all.

So now I choose to remember not the rude, abrasive, menacing alcoholic of the later years—but the boy I grew up with.  The person he could have been.  The person God meant for him to be.  I think it’s time I had a grave marker made for my little brother—he deserves that.  Bruce, I hope you found peace.  I think I finally have.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Funny: Stories About Grandpa

The other day I rediscovered some stories about my grandpa, Sture Nels Wallin, that my father wrote down many years ago.  I don’t remember much about Grandpa Wallin; he mostly watched baseball with my dad when we visited them.  So it’s nice to get to know him better through these stories, written down by his oldest son...

“Dad got a job as a hired hand when he was young, and was considered a very good one.  He was not big—about  5’8” and 160 pounds—but he was very strong and a great athlete.

The youthful pranks of his day were funnier and less destructive than now.  Once he and a friend named Freeman Larson made a big batch of pancake batter and fried several about half an inch thick and the size of the frying pan.  They used them with frosting to make a layer cake and sneaked it into the kitchen of the church party.  They found a vantage point to watch as a lady cut the cake, looked puzzled, tasted it, and called a friend over.  More women gathered, and he said the ladies ate almost the whole cake as each of them tasted it and tried to find out who had brought it.

(Pictured:  Jack Phelps, Carl Peterson, Sture Wallin)

Sara Elizabeth Peterson (his future wife) came to Hordeville to work in the bank, which is how they came to meet at a church social.  Must have been love at first sight, as on the way home Mom asked a girlfriend, “Who was that smart-aleck with Agdie Samuelson?” 

Once when we were small one of us asked Dad if Mom could run fast when she was young.  “I'll say she could,” Dad answered.  “I chased her for seven years before I caught her.”  Much of this was caused by WWI, as Dad enlisted the day after war was declared in 1917 and did not get back from Europe until late 1919.

In the summer of 1942 the hired man and I were struggling to load 100-pound sacks of fertilizer into a box wagon whose top was about 6 feet above the ground.  Dad came over, picked a bag off the ground with one hand, and in one motion one-armed it straight over his head and handed it to Butch, who was in the wagon.  He would have been 49 years old at that time.  He walked away without a word, and we quit griping.

Dad really abhorred pettiness and tiny revenges for fancied wrongs.  On the other hand, he took no abuse.  Once in 1913 when the railroad was being built, he took exception to a remark some lout on the crew made as he was escorting Mom past the drug store. He took her to her rooming house, came back and decked the guy—rendering him unconscious and knocking out some teeth in the process.  The next day the sheriff phoned and said he had a warrant for him and he could save some fees if he went to the courthouse in Aurora without being fetched—so he did.  The judge heard all the testimony and arrived at his decision:  “Guilty.  That will be a dollar and costs, and there won't be any costs.”   

Grandpa, I feel like I know you a little better now!