Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Chances are, if you live in the United States, or have visited here, and do any hiking, walking, running, or canoeing in local, state, or national forests, you have probably passed by or sought protection from the elements in structures similar to these.

IMG_3699Built during the Depression years, shelters and bridges were erected from stone and wood, perhaps made of adobe or other locally harvested and hauled materials. The structures pictured here are found in Fullersburg Woods. The stones were hauled in the ’30s from Waterfall Glen. The structures were built during the tenure of one of the most successful programs ever instituted by the government between 1933 and 1941 – the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC.

It is also likely that your outdoor adventures take place under the canopy of trees; trees planted by the men of the CCC. These crews were often referred to as the tree army. For the men who enlisted in the CCC, it was a meaningful, useful way to work in a time where no work was to be found. They learned a marketable skill or trade, regained a sense of pride in putting in a good day’s work – and sent much-needed money home to their families. They were fed, clothed, sheltered and paid $30, 25 dollars of which was sent home to family.


The CCC was also a massive conservation initiative. The nation’s farmland was devastated by over-cropping and unsustainable farming practices. Much of the country was a “dust bowl”, with land ravaged by soil that nature never intended for farming. Farms were devastated, as were the people on them. With no trees to hold soil in place and no trees to buffer the wind, dust storms turned the skies, then homes and lungs dark with dust, President Franklin Roosevelt led the charge to put men to work building bridges, roads and shelters – as well as planting trees.

On Tuesday morning a small group of us walked through a popular forest preserve in the area, Fullersburg Woods. While I knew that the CCC had a presence in Fullersburg during the 1930’s, I thought of it in terms of what is now the Nature Center. I did not realize, nor, if truth-be-told, even think of trees, assuming they were always part of the landscape. It was a revelation to discover that this forest had been primarily prairie. The trees were planted by the CCC, as they likely were in most of the preserves in Du Page and in Cook County.

Our guide was Chris Gingrich of the Forest Preserve District of Du Page County. He was also the speaker at our garden club meeting last week. He was as engaging and informative a guide as he was a speaker and walked us up hill and down dale through these amazing woods, showing us quite a number of shelters and sites that I had no idea existed here – or just failed to notice.

It is amazing, is it not, what we see in our lives and what we miss?

This is a sitting shelter. Salt Creek wanders behind it. It is open on all sides, with benches on two and a series of logs in between. A sturdy structure, it is well placed and made for resting during a long hike.


IMG_3718We walked up slight inclines, down others, one of which seems vaguely familiar to me. AHA! I think it might have been where I landed in a cup of tomato soup while trying to cross-country ski one winter. We passed a reclaimed prairie where once stood the CCC camp, where men slept and ate, read books, and played Monopoly, a popular board game of the time. Did you ever play Monopoly?


It was a brisk morning; one of the first of true fall-like weather. It warmed a bit as we walked and talked and listened and learned. As we came to the end of the trail, we finished our tour at what it now known as the Nature Center. Chris talked about the stones that were used to build the shelter, originally a boat house. It wasn’t hard to imagine the river frozen in winter with ice skaters gliding across, coming to the boat house to warm up at the massive outdoor fireplace. It is just as easy to admire the building now with windows and doors, for, it still stands and is used, a testament to a corp of civilians who built it – and thousands of other shelters, roads, fought forest fires and helped heal the land.IMG_3388



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Where Kind Ladies Are

IMG_3484Hobos of the 1930’s had primitive symbols scribbled in perhaps charcoal, chalk or whatever else was available. They fashioned directions and information onto posts, boards and whatever else was at hand; a precursor, perhaps, of today’s text messaging. One of their signs was a simple cat, which meant “a kind lady is here”. These signs showed hobos houses where food would be shared by the kind lady there.

I first learned of hobo signs from a good friend who remembered her grandmother being known as a kind woman who would share food for those in need at her back door. My friend’s grandmother didn’t live in a rural area, but, rather in a suburban home. In the Great Depression, there were many in need, everywhere. Food was scarce and those who shared what they had were appreciated.

In a year of celebrating our garden club’s 90th anniversary, we are marking each meeting by revisiting a decade. Monday’s decade was the 1930’s. We used this hobo sign in the entryway of the Wilder Mansion, where our garden club holds their monthly meetings. Teri kindly drew it, copying a sign shown on a website. Teri is an incredible artist and was the one who made the fabulous dishes and pottery I shared from the Elmhurst Garden Walk. In this endeavor, however, we needed something very basic. This was drawn on a piece of cardboard, which was fitting, as was the Soup Line sign.

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Our hostesses for October made a fabulous buffet of the kinds of food that would have been eaten during the 1930’s. The overlying theme was a soup kitchen. The food was tasty and nourishing, as it always is at our club’s meeting.

As we put the final touches on Monday’s “spread”, the tables groaned with food, not to mention the row crock pots that were heating up five different kinds of soup. Have I ever told you what great cooks our members are? Did you know that Nestles’ Toll House cookies were introduced in the 30’s? SPAM? Fiestaware? Depression Glass ? All were from the 1930’s.

Wee were setting everything out, as women do, when we  noticed the strains of a guitar. We looked at each other. “Who arranged for that?” It was a wee bit loud, but, sounded good and helped hurry us about in finishing up our preparations, for hungry women were waiting, with their own bowls in hand. Some brought bowls, others brought tin cups, Mason jars, there was even a Mickey Mouse bowl, for rumor had it that Mickey was popular in the ’30s.

We asked and were asked who the musician was, and, dear reader, this is where art imitates life, or some such thing. The troubadour, a handsome young man, walked into the mansion and asked if he could play for awhile. The powers-that-be let him, and so he played, then, was offered some food, which he heartily ate before packing up his guitar and going on his way.

I think the sign was “spot on”, Monday. Kind ladies were, indeed, there.

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Harry_Volkman_WGN_TVIt was not quite midnight on a New Year’s Eve. One of the typical bitterly cold Chicago New Year’s Eves that are common hereabouts. I was wearing a long, black dress. It had colorful rick-rack on the hem and neckline and long black sleeves, accompanied by my long, brown hair; a girl in the ’70s dressed up for a movie, Love Story,  downtown on New Year’s Eve. A college student with nary a nickel to spare, my Aunt Christina gave me with the dress. I had casually mentioned seeing it in the window of a little dress shop near her house. A few days later, she gave me the dress so that I would have something nice to wear for my Uncle George’s surprise birthday party. I was so touched by her generous gift and her thoughtfulness – I still am.  I loved that dress and I wore it on many  occasions for years.

My New Year’s Eve date (can you guess who it was?) and I walked out of the Oriental Theater – and directly into bright lights! Really bright lights, and a television camera, only we didn’t see the camera right away. We didn’t see it until we accidentally walked right in front of it and Harry Volkman! Tom swiftly steered us away from the camera, whispering “it’s Harry Volkman“! We had just stepped into a weather forecast. There he was, Harry Volkman,  a weather map at his side, giving the late night weather report in downtown Chicago, the last forecast of 1970!

Tom and I reminisced about that New Year’s Eve on Friday. We hadn’t thought about it in decades, but, it was one of those moments, part of our own Love Story, that works its way back into our long running conversation of life. These moments in time that stay with us, sometimes hidden from thought for decades, but, reappear when such things as the news of the passing of a celebrity occur.

If you lived in the Chicagoland area between 1959 and the early 2000s, no matter which television station you got your news from, you probably heard your weather report from Harry Volkman at some point in time. He was among the first to use weather maps, sometimes drawing in crayon or chalk, to show weather patterns. Sometimes silly, even outrageous for the times in his on-air weather reports, he was a daily fixture in Chicago news television for many decades.

Harry Volkman brought many young children, now adults, to their television sets as he would often visit area schools to talk to students about the weather. It was customary for schools to honor him with a boutonniere. Mr. Volkman would then wear it during his evening’s forecasts and he would mention the school during the weather report. He also visited retirement homes.

Harry Volkman also encourage young viewers to call in weather conditions. He would mention them by first name on the air; names like Tom from Aurora reports . . .  It would be anything from cloud formations to rain or snowfall and temperatures. By-the-way,  that kid named Tom grew up to be our revered meteorologist, Tom Skilling, who now gets paid to report the weather and is a well-known and respected meteorologist in the Chicago area.

I was thinking about all of this as the news of Harry Volkman’s passing hit the airwaves last week, as well as of this rather noble idea of citizen scientists, which I mention here on the Cutoff from time-to-time. Harry Volkman made weather interesting. He captured our attention with weather details in a new way that we could relate to, and invited his viewers to be part of the process of not only predicting weather, but, in being active citizens – citizen scientists – as they noted weather conditions. He was a true mentor to those entering his profession, and a moment in time for two college kids out on a date.

Rest in peace, Mr. Volkman. Rest in peace.

Image from here.

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°IMG_7518 - Version 3On a recent, misty, Saturday afternoon, I took a trek in a nearby woods. It was a murky walk on muddy paths over fallen trees; a route less traveled except by an army of mosquitoes attacking from all fronts. I had on my “cone of protection“, but, they found my skin just-the-same, especially my ankles and the meaty mounds of my aging forearms.

There was an eclectic collection of participants; citizen scientists of uncertain age, students of nature as well as history buffs and those interested in conservation efforts. A few younger participants, at least younger from my perspective, appeared to be summer interns who came armed with pens and intelligent questions and there were those with sophisticated cameras, sketch pads and notebooks.

We were at McDowell Grove and the subject of the presentation in the stone shelter and the walk was how this forest preserve came to be. It was private property a century or so ago. By the 1930’s, now a forest preserve,  it took on a newer purpose. The stone shelter we met in was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was part of FDR’s New Deal. A corp of men resided in a location not far from the shelter. They built bridges,  as well as stone structures, fire pits, dams, and trails. It was later taken over by the military and the OSS. Today, it is a peaceful forest preserve, still growing and changing in its use and significance.

My mission being equal portions of curiosity and field work, I went to determine if this would be a fitting outing for my garden club, I found the tour fascinating with a lingering sense wonder at how much more I wanted to know.

This walk in the woods and presentation in the stone shelter were interesting and awakened my curiosity about how our forest preserve districts have come about, what other purposes they may have had, and curiosity over who walked the paths before us. It also increased my gratitude for the men and women who deeded their properties for public use and for the citizens who saw the value in preserving valuable tracts of land so that generations of those who love nature or will come to love nature will have a place to walk and wonder.

I live close to many of woods of the Forest Preserve Districts of Cook and Du Page County. They house nature centers and equestrian trails, bike trails for the casual ride through the woods as well as staging areas for mountain biking. Canoeing and kayaking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, groves for picnics and for family reunions, and now, even camping is allowed in some locations.

The State of Illinois, more often known for its crooked politicians, crime, prairies and skyscrapers, actually has more acres of forest preserve than most other states. These public places with acres upon acres of wonder and welcome are also places of both solitude and recreational gatherings. They provide safe harbor to wildlife and healthy living in equal measure for the weekend wanderer or the life-time outdoorsmen and women.

Have you been to a forest preserve or nature center lately?

Have you learned some new,  historical, scientific, environmental?

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BraveCompanionsI was looking for something to read; a book to pick up with a stand-alone chapter to pass an hour or so on my Independence Day afternoon. David McCullough’s” 1776″ and “Truman” were standing at attention as I reached for his “Brave Companions: Portraits in History”.  A bookmark with early scenes of Boston rested inside. It reminded me of the charming bookstore, Toad Hall, where I purchased “Brave Companions ”  on a trip to Massachusetts several years ago. Just what I needed on a slow, holiday afternoon.

I enjoy reading David McCullough’s books. His conversational style of writing brings historical characters, events and places alive.His unique voice and storytelling style often make me want to learn more. Be it about Harry Truman or the first year of the Revolutionary War, I always come away from McCullough’s books feeling a wee bit more knowledgeable about subjects I love.

So it was on this Fourth of July that I opened “Brave Companions”, surveyed the chapters’ topics,  landed on Washington on the Potomac, and took a brisk stroll with Mr. McCullough. We walked past historic venues and notable spots, with bits and pieces of the people and places and occurrences that make Washington, D.C. a remarkable capital city.

I finished the chapter, a fitting essay to read on this day, then I rested my eyes for a spell, thinking about my favorite Fourth of July. It was the summer we took our girls to D.C. for a family vacation. We did the touristy things one does in D.C., but the memory that stands clearest was how we spent the Fourth of July.  We walked from our hotel across the Mall and heard a dramatic early morn reading of the Declaration of Independence in front of the National Archives. We took the trolley to Arlington Cemetery, then to the Lincoln Memorial, several buildings of the Smithsonian, the Vietnam Wall . . . and walked and rode on and on, ending our day with fireworks on the Mall, the Washington monument looming above as if holding the colorful display for all to see.

It was nice to remember that Independence Day, appreciating Mr. McCullough’s words on the pages just read, and feeling grateful for what I have.

How about you? Have you read any history or historical fiction lately? Have you read anything by David McCullough?

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I slipped outside, without my cell phone, my camera, my notebook, a freshly brewed cup of tea balancing on a saucer, steam rising on this misty morning. I was walking toward the arbor, hoping not to spill. My eyes were on the piping hot tea in my cup, which reflected the overcast sky. The sky always seems to be overcast on Memorial Day. It is as if it is part of the tradition, honoring our heroes among the clouds, collectively shedding our tears.

I spent some time earlier, checking my emails, my blog, your blog, clicking “likes” on Facebook while simultaneously surfing the morning news on the television. It is easy to honor veterans from the comfort of home, not having to help a veteran put on her prosthesis or witness a friend dealing with the myriad of stress disorders veterans carry – or placing a wreath on a loved one’s grave.

I paused in my journey out back and said a prayer for those who have fallen.

As I stopped, I could see in the green vista more creeping Charlie and clover than grass. A woodchuck was nibbling on his morning meal. A doe was trimming the trees; an ever-changing browse line defining our little territory. A robin took her morning bath, me still in my pajamas, hoping the neighbors wouldn’t see me and I was keenly aware of the liberty I have, walking my little acreage on a misty morning in May, aware in equal measure of those who gave their lives in battle, gratitude in my heart, in my soul.

Memorial Day


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“This we know: All things are connected like the blood that unites us.  We did not weave the web of life.  We are merely a strand in it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

Attributed to Chief Seattle.

Cover image from Susan Jeffer’s “Brother Eagle, Sister Sky”.

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