Sunday, February 26, 2012

Going Home

In 1940, two years after his passing, Thomas Wolfe’s final work was published.  In it he wrote, "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."  It is a concept with which we all struggle – wanting to again touch the magic of our childhood.  While Wolfe is correct that we can never truly return to those days, from time to time we are given an opportunity to at least visit them briefly, and by walking those familiar paths and touching the old structures, we try to sweep away the accumulated years as if they were a thick layer of dust.  That is just what I was able to share with my father several years ago when we traveled to Illinois to visit his childhood homes.

Born in the Amish country of Arthur, Illinois in 1922, my father found himself moving from home to home in his early years before finally settling in Indianapolis, Indiana after WWII.  His family, however, remained in Tuscola, Illinois, the town in which he had spent his teen years and early manhood, and that is where our adventure began.

Dad and brother-in-law building house on Overton
Applying the siding.

We left the city of Indianapolis behind us and headed off through the Hoosier farmland along US 36 which connected it with Tuscola.  We passed over Raccoon Lake, our weekend retreat, and through the rolling hills and woods of Rockville.  Nearing Illinois, we passed through the small town of Dana, the birthplace of Ernie Pyle.  Leaving Montezuma, we crossed the Wabash River, and I noticed the brown soil of Indiana gave way to the rich, black prairie soil of Illinois.  We would continue on for another 45 minutes before I would start looking for the Tuscola water tower that had always signaled our destination was near.  From memory I knew that soon after entering the town we would look for the cemetery which abutted South Prairie Street, and that is where we would turn north.  On this trip, however, the cemetery was actually our first stop as Dad and I paid our respects to his parents.  Grandpa had passed in 1983 and Grandma had followed five years later.  Continuing on Prairie, I then looked for the half-buried wagon wheel which for so many years had signaled our turn onto Overton St., the road which was home to my grandparents the last 40 years of their lives.    I had not visited the town since Grandma’s death, and I struggled to pick out the old house which family and friends had built from a kit manufactured in Charleston, Illinois around 1946.  Gone was the wide, reddish-brown siding and in its place was aluminum siding resembling narrow, crisp white clapboards.  Something else seemed amiss with the old house, and that is when Dad and I realized that the new owners had removed the covered entry that for so many years had protected us from the rain as we rang the school bell that hung outside the side door to announce our arrival.  The large elm, heavily damaged during a severe ice storm that struck on my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1967, had long since been removed leaving the front yard bare.  It was on this tree as a boy that I spotted my first brown creeper spiraling up its thick trunk, and from whose bark I had collected the shed skins of newly emerged cicadas.
Dad's family on the stoop of the house on Overton

On the corner across from my grandparents’ home stood a small, nondescript apartment complex, but many decades earlier the lot had housed a large, white Victorian farmhouse where Dad had lived as a teenager.  In fact, the house is briefly visible in the background on the old home movie of my grandfather cleaning up the damage from that ’67 ice storm.  It had been a relatively modest farm with a small barn and a chicken house out back, a few fruit trees and the single milk cow the family had been allowed to keep after the Great Depression.  But on this day, there was no hint of my father’s boyhood home.  

We now left Tuscola and headed into the country towards the Sulfur Springs area, known affectionately to some of the locals as Chicken Bristle.  In 1929, the family, then living in Atwood, had loaded their possessions onto the hay wagon and moved to a rented farm in this rural area northwest of Tuscola.  Obviously, nearly 70 years later, the area had changed, but by using the various farms and creeks as landmarks, my father was able to eventually locate his boyhood home.  The house at Sulphur Springs was the site of a couple firsts for my father and his family.  It was the first home to have a basement, and it was also the first house to have a bathtub, although there was still no running water or electricity.  The tub sat in a bathroom on the main floor and emptied into a drain in the basement. 
House in Sulphur Springs. 

We pulled into the drive and my father went to the door to explain to the owners his connection to their home and to see if they would allow us to walk the property.  Thankfully, they granted us permission, so Dad and I walked around to the back of the property to see the land.  We were instantly greeted by a pair of riding horses, but seven decades earlier horses had served a very different function – they were needed to work the farm.  On one particular morning all those many years ago, my Dad’s older brother, Earl, was given the task of disking the soil.  Dad was sitting on the front of the harrow swatting the horses with a switch to keep them moving when suddenly he slipped off the bar and fell below the blades.  His brother quickly reined the horses to a stop, but it was too late.  Dad lay trapped and half-buried below the equipment.  Panicked, Earl jumped down and ran back to the house to get their mother, but thankfully by the time they returned, Dad had managed to dig himself out with only a cut on his arm.  Happily, on this day there would be no accidents nor near tragedies; we only stood and petted the horses.
Another view of the back of the Sulphur Springs property

Leaving the horses behind, Dad started walking the land trying to envision the farm of his youth.  There ahead of us near the old cow barn lay a ring of blocks that had once been the base of the farm’s silo but was now only a circular scar on the ground.  Dad turned and looked out across the pasture at the remains of the woodlot where his father had cut so much wood to heat the house and stove.  It was across this pasture, through the woodlot and over a stile my grandfather had built over the fence that my dad and his siblings would traverse each day to attend the small, one-room Sulphur Springs School.  The beloved Hallie Randolph was the teacher, and Dad was one of about 15 to 20 students.  An old school photo from October of 1929 shows my father standing with his classmates barefoot, hands buried deep in the pockets of his coveralls with a big fat pencil sticking out of his breast pocket.  His brother Earl has on shoes, and the family joke has always been that they could only afford to buy one pair of shoes and that was Earl’s week to wear them.
Dad (3rd from right in front) and Earl far right
Continuing our exploration and about 150 yards from the house, we came to the springs which gave the area its name.  Here in the summer my grandmother had chilled her homemade root beer in its cool water, only to have it occasionally pilfered by mischievous neighbors.  I can still hear the agitation in her voice as she recalled the thefts a half century later.  There had once been a water source much closer to the house, however, in the form of a rain cistern.  Just as she had made use of the spring to cool the root beer, Grandma would firm her butter by putting it in jars and hanging them in the cistern.  We left the pasture area and returned to the road.  Strolling past the house we spotted a large, red barn.  This had been the family’s horse barn.  To this city boy the barn looked quite large, but Dad informed me that when he had lived there the barn was even bigger.  For some reason, the subsequent resident had chosen to lower it by one floor, and that is how the barn remains today.

The old horse barn now one level lower

Grandma sweeping the old, rickety porch
We climbed back into the car and drove to the Arthur area where my father and his older siblings had been born.  As was the fashion of the day, the doctor had traveled the six miles by horse and buggy to deliver them.  This is where his parents had first set up housekeeping, farming a share of someone else’s property.  The house was old and rickety even then, and the porch was in such poor shape Grandma had to keep her gas powered washing machine outside in the yard.  Water would be fetched from the well across the street (which consequently placed it in the adjacent county) and was heated in a large, black kettle.  Time and progress had since claimed the old farm and all that survived on our visit was Dad’s memories. 
The Fifer farm then ...
...and now

The old pump is visible in the background on the porch
Not far from this area was my great grandfather’s farm purchased near the turn of the last century.  It consisted of several buildings in good repair and became known to our family simply as the “Fifer farm.”  When Dad and I had visited, it was owned by an Amish family.  The delightful consequence of this was that the farm had been practically preserved in a time capsule.  Here the land was still farmed by horsepower and no electricity flowed from the public grid.  We did not ask to enter the house, where once a long table flanked with benches made from split logs with wooden peg legs had graced the kitchen area.  However, peering through the window of the now enclosed porch we spied the old water pump still in use.  How many generations had pumped that handle to coax water from the well below?
The Fifer farm today.

I glanced over and spotted a large iron kettle rusting in the nearby weeds.  Dad instantly recognized it as the kettle that had stood in the wash house.  It was in this that his grandmother had made batch after batch of lye soap or boiled laundry.  Or was this the kettle in which she had cooked gallons of apple butter from the crop harvested from the family orchard in the fall?  Foolishly, we passed up an opportunity to purchase this old family heirloom.  Just as the old kettle had survived, so too had the wash house itself.  The boards were mostly bare of paint, standing silvery grey in the afternoon sun, and they had retreated from the ground as rot from water splashing off the soil had eaten away at their lower extremities.  Likewise, the barn and summer kitchen had likewise stood the test of time, albeit a little weatherworn.   
My great, great grandmother Hester, my great grandparents George and Jenny Fifer and my grandpa Jess along with his siblings.
"Aunt Sis" with the horses on the Fifer farm
My great grandfather, George Fifer, with his cattle
The horses that now work the farm

Dad took it all in, remembering all of his boyhood visits and experiences, and then it was over.  We climbed back into the car and left.  Behind us was a lifetime of memories, preserved in my father’s mind and reflected in the altered landscape and buildings of west central Illinois.  No, perhaps he could not “go home” as Thomas Wolfe had warned, but for one day Dad had at least brushed away some of the dust and looked upon the days of his youth once more.


  1. Mary Crenshaw GillespieFebruary 27, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Just beautiful, Scott. You really have a way with writing that brings the reader right into the story with you, as if he were actually there.

  2. Even though I am the oldest child, I am not the family chronicler. I did not know half of the information you shared in this blog. I remember when you and dad drove over to explore his past, and I remember how much I wish I could have gone with you. Thank goodness for your memory and love of family history that the rest of us can share our past. Thanks, brother.

  3. As Mary said, you have a wonderful way of writing, we really are allowed right into your life, and the lives of your family, each time getting to know a bit more about them, and you.
    The 'going back' is so true, though why do some of us still try to do it. You should never go back, they say. You should let the past be. Especially with friendships I have found. Friendships that may have been lost for one reason or another are best left that way. Even if at the time, you thought the frienship would stand the test of time and anything else life threw at you, and it didn't happen that way, it probably didn't happen that way for a reason. So don't try to resuscitate it, let it be, done with. Hard to do, but I have learnt the hard way that you can't retrieve something that is so irrevocably lost. Put it down to experience, enjoy the memories of the good times, and accept what happened,happened.
    Lovely post as usual Scott.