Leaving Home

Lowell L. Getz

For many who have left their childhood homes to have their careers and to live out their lives elsewhere, the first move away also was the last. Most returned only now and then for a few holidays and, unfortunately, for funerals. For others of us, however, we left home in stages with different degrees of separation. As an example, I grew up on small farm one and a half miles over dirt roads from a small village, Chesterfield, population around 250, in west-central Illinois. Although I lived out of town, Chesterfield was for all intents and purposes my "Home." It was there I went through eight years of grade school and the first two years of high school, until the district consolidated with the high school in the nearby county seat, Carlinville. It was in Chesterfield that all of my boyhood friends lived, where I spent weekends and summers playing softball and night games such as kick the can and talley ho, built trenches and forts during World War II, and had rock fights (Yes, ROCK fights. I still have a scar in the center of my forehead to verify such.). I left home in stages, the first few times increasingly distant and longer periods between visits, finally somewhat closer, but still few visits. And now, I am leaving for the last time. This is my story.

The first time I "left home" was in September 1949, when I left to attend the University of Illinois. Champaign-Urbana was close (135 miles) enough to Chesterfield that I returned home each holiday vacation. Still, it was the first time I essentially was on my own, no longer living "under the roof" of my parents, and was away from my boyhood friends. The next time I "left home" was in 1953 when, upon graduation, I married and left for Massachusetts and active duty in the army. Then, in 1955, we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for graduate school and post-doctoral research. This was closer, but we visited home infrequently. In September 1961 we left for a faculty position at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. From there, we could come home only once a year. In September 1969 we moved back to Champaign and the faculty of the University of Illinois. Relative to where we had been for the past 16 years, we were almost "back home." At first, we made frequent trips to Chesterfield. But, the family began "leaving us" and soon we had no relatives or reason to visit there.

The years have finally caught up with us. Our bodies have let us down. The daughters have concluded, and rightly so, we no longer should live alone. We have agreed, albeit reluctantly, to move to a "retirement facility" near our daughter in Skokie, north of Chicago. This is the last time I will "leave home." I will not "return home", ever again. Before she takes us to Skokie, I have asked our daughter to take me back to Chesterfield so that I can have one last look at what remains of my home town, and of my memories.

May I indulge you to accompany me on the trip through Chesterfield? It will not take long. After all, it was and still is a small town. On our trip through Chesterfield, I will refer to the official street names designated years after I left home. These are given in the two maps accompanying the account.

My Home Town

We come into the town from the south, on Illinois State Highway 111, "Main Street", after having turned off onto the highway from a county road about a quarter mile south of town. We turn to the west on the first street we encounter, Pine Street. On the south side of the street, is the site where Chesterfield High School stood. The sturdy brick building also served for years as the community center and holds so many memories: PTA meetings, followed by desert time-no one any more bakes such tasty pies and cakes, from "scratch", as did the women in town; my freshman year, when so ordered to do so by the upper classmen, we had to "salute" by placing our forefinger on our nose, bowing down and reciting: "I am a greenie freshman, As green as I can be, To hell with Mr. Massey, And the whole damn faculty." (Mr. Massey was the High School principal); having to march around the study hall one morning before going to our classes, with no explanation at all by Mr. Massey, singing at the tops of our voices, "It's a Long Way To Tipperary"; the PTA meeting in January 1945 honoring Junior Wheeler, a high school graduate and a close friend of my mom and dad, who had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge; and many, many more memories that could be recalled, if we had the time. Now only a crushed rock-covered scar on the ground remains of all those memories.

The street turns north onto Walnut. On the corner, Floyd Rands' house stood. His son "Buddy" was my best friend while growing up. We spent days and nights together whenever possible. The barn in back was our "barracks" during World War II. We spent many evenings and night in the bunks in the loft talking and puffing (not inhaling) on cigarettes. The house and barn are long gone and a new house stands were the old one did.

We turn to the west again, onto 1st South Street. On the south side of the street, stood Bill Stigall's two large dilapidated houses. Bill was a recluse who raised goats in his yard. We were scared of him, never entering the wooden fence around his houses. Now only cleared vacant lots remain. On the opposite side of the street, is the house where Minni Lee lived. Mrs. Lee was the janitor for the grade school for many years, small and seemly frail, but did the job. Back on the south side again, Charley Reynolds' low long brick house. His son, Charles, called "Buck" to distinguish him from his dad, was one of the smartest kids in town. I spent many of an evening here with him and as we played with his chemistry set. Buck was the best man at my wedding. The house still stands, but Buck long has been gone.

Next on the south side of the street is the old three story brick Chesterfield Grade School. I went through all eight years of my grade school here. Now an empty deteriorating sructure, but filled with memories. The basement and the "first story" space housed the gymnasium where the high school and grade school basketball teams played, the second story was where the classrooms were located and the third was used for storage (and where the "paddle machine" supposedly was kept; it never was used on anyone, but the threat was always there). So many memories of the eight years. I can mention only a very few. The pump in front (there was no running water in the building) where we lined up to drink from our collapsible aluminum cups; restlessly lining up on the stairs to await the final bell to go to our rooms; the four years with my teacher, Mrs Wheeler, who had also been my mom's first grade teacher; playing "rounders" at recess in the ball diamond behind the school (now only a weed patch); the Monday morning, 8 December 1941, as we excitedly yelled from the balcony of the gymn to those down below which service we were going to join when we were old enough; our Eighth Grade Graduation on the stage in the gym, the speaker quoted the only thing I remember from any of my four graduation speakers-"Two men looked through prison bars, one saw mud, the other saw stars." And many more memories, long buried in the recesses of the brain, but, if wanted, could be pulled forward.

On the lot to the west of the school was Paul Miller's house. His daughter, Flora, was my first date, winter of 1942 (I was in the fifth grade and Flora in the third grade). I took her to a basketball game and afterwards to Chet Towse's (more about Chet later) drug store for a milk shake. I kept trying to date her again, without success, until finally giving up when we were in high school. But, we have remained friends ever since.

We continue on down the street, this part of the street back then was called the "Back Alley", it is now called "W Lincoln Ave"; it really was and still is only an ALLEY. At the end of the street we turn to the north onto Elm Street. On the east side of the street was Mrs Padget's small low "spooky" house that sat back in the midst of a lot full of small trees and under-brush. We thought she was a witch-acted and looked like one. Needless to say, we did not go near her house. On the opposite, west, side of the street, the small frame house where my Great Aunt Nell and Uncle Joe lived. It was here that I would stop on my way to school to leave my galoshes that my mom made me wear to school and of which the "town" kids would make fun of me for wearing. Aunt Nell usually washed my ears before I went on to school, saying my mom did not do a good enough job doing so. Naturally, this did not go over well with my mom. Once again, we turn, this time to the west onto Depot Street (which my dad called "Plum Street." Ran "plum" through town.). On the north side was the small shack of Ross Rigsby. Ross moved to Chesterfield from Kentucky in the early 1930s. He had "done it" with a 15 year old girl there. Her father understandably was upset and fired a shotgun into Ross at point blank range. Ross threw his up his arm, which took most of the blast, but enough missed is arm to take out an eye. By the time I knew him, he looked exactly like the popular cartoon character of the time, "Popeye." He was always pointing his pipe at us as if going to shoot us with a gun. All three houses are now gone, only vacant lots remain.

As we move on west, we pass the place where Glenn ("Spreader") Bond's house stood. His daughter, Judy, was attractive. We made an attempt at dating, but did not do so until after she had left Chesterfield and moved a 100 miles away. Too far away; nothing came of it. She's gone now. Across the street on the north side was the large lumber and feed storage shed for the Chesterfield Grain Elevator. As kids we spent a lot of time climbing over the lumber and the feed bags in the loft. In those days livestock feed came in flowered cloth bags, suitable for making dresses. When he went to buy cattle feed supplements, my dad would ask of my mom what kind of print she wanted for her next dress. Almost all dresses worn by farm women during the depression of the 1930s were made from feed sacks.

At the end of Depot Street were the Grain Elevator and the depot for the Chicago, Springfield and St. Louis (CS&StL) railroad. The elevator was a magical place for me. I would ride the wheat wagons to the elevator when we were threshing in the summer. It was "cool" to watch the wagons lifted up in front, with the wheat spilling out the open end gate and down through the slotted floor into the elevator. Seems like was only yesterday. Inside the office, the manager, Bill Followell, kept a large tin ice water cooler, with a small spout. I can still smell the dusty interior of the elevator office, with its paper-cluttered desks, and taste the ice-cold water on hot July days. On the east side of the elevator was a curvy brushy-sided road that went north to North Walnut Street, (which runs out of town and on to nearby Rockbridge). The seclusion of the road made it ideal for couples who wanted to "make out." We called it Pigalle, but with of our Midwestern "French fluency", pronounced it "Pig Alley." Now-days it is named "Grain Street." So much for historic continuity. Grain Street is straightened and cleared of brush, not suitable for "privacy." We do not turn on it.

Across the tracks from the elevator was the small Chesterfield railroad depot. When we were kids, we would watch the freight trains, pulled by steam engines, go by without stopping, the outgoing mail bag, attached to a wooden hoop held by a post, snagged by an arm from the mail car. The incoming mail bag was thrown from the mail car. Sometimes we would put pennies on the rails to be flattened. But, more often, since a penny actually bought a lot back then, we would cross two pins on the rails to have them "welded" into "scissors." The CS&StL ceased operation in the summer of 1941.

We turn back to the east on Depot Street. Past Aunt Nell's house was the barber, Lenny Moore's (more about Lenny later) house and then George Dams' house. George and his wife had lived there with their unmarried daughter, Velma, since the 1920s. One of the big challenges of Halloween night from the early 1920s through 1944 was to try to turn over George's outhouse (Turning over outhouses was THE thing to do for excitement on Halloween in small towns. What else as exciting was there to do?). George, his wife and daughter defended the outhouse with something different and more elaborate each Halloween. The Halloween pranksters got it only twice, once in the mid 1920s and again in 1944. I was part of the distubance in front of the house that distracted them from defending the outhouse in 1944. After the war, this kind of activity no longer held much excitement and Gerorge's outhouse was safe .

We reach a "T" in the road at N Walnut Street (a continuation of County Road 22, from Rockbridge, into town). Directly across the street on the north side was Mr Massey's house. His son Gene was in the same grade as was I and a good friend the last three years of grade school and first two of high school, when his family moved away. Further on to the west was where Juanita Davidson and her family lived. Really thought she was great, but she was older than I. We kids spent a lot of winter nights skating on the pond north of her house.

We turn to the right. The street turns south almost immediately, becoming Walnut Street (or a continuation of County Road 22). On the right at the corner was a wooded lot, now empty and barren, where Grace Hall's house stood. Mrs. Hall, a widow, was aged and feeble, but with Gene Massey's help, she was able to live alone until the Massey's moved away. Directly across the street, on the left, was the old town cemetery, the "Peebles Cemetery." All the grave sites had long been filled (the first one in 1845, the last in 1931) and the cemetery overgrown with trees and shrubs. Spooky. We never went in, even in the daytime. It is now cleared of brush. As we drive on up the street we pass the entry to the "Back Hill" (now called "Clayton Street"), a short-cut over to Rt 111 as it goes out of town. The street is now closed at the bottom of the hill. Farther down, on right, was the Methodist Church. Years ago the Methodists joined with the Congregationalists in to form the United Church of Chesterfield, who now meet in the Congregational Church building. The old Methodist Church building was then used for the first 8 grades of Sunday School. It is gone.

Now we arrive back at Depot Street and the town "Square", a one-block square park with a number of large trees. When I was growing up, the sidewalks on the opposite side of the streets around the Square, were lined with stores. A low wooden fence/bench enclosed the park, an ideal place to sit and visit. There are two memorials in the park, a cement bench in honor of a mayor, Ostrum Sawtell, who was killed while trying to remove a downed power line during a large storm on 21 May 1933. Many a night a bunch of us would sit on the bench, usually on the back, with our feet in the seat. There was also a large granite memorial to the three men (Elmer Banks, William Sullivan, Tomas McCluskey) from Chesterfield who died in WW I. There is no memorial to the five men killed in WW II. During summer Sundays, we often played softball in the southeast corner of the Square. The trees caused problems, but no one took the games seriously, just a way to spend a hot summer Sunday in a small town.

Until the mid 1930s the park was the site of the Chesterfield Fish Fry and carnival. Because of the depth of the depression it had to be suspended. By the time the economy had recovered and the war was over, interest was not sufficient to continue the event. Throughout the 1930s and into the mid 1940s, from late spring to early autumn, free movies were shown in the park every Saturday night. On those nights, the town was crowded with shoppers and those there to see the movies. It was the main social event for Chesterfield and the nearby farmers .

A few yards to the west down the Depot Street, on the north, is the site of Doc Knoop's office. For decades he was the only doctor in town. He brought me into the world. But, in later years he was too much into the bottle and we started going to Doc McGuire in nearby Medora. His two story office building is gone, only a gravel lot remains. There is no doctor in town any more.

As we turn to the east along the north side of the Square there was a continuum of buildings, first was Mrs. Reifenberg's Funeral home. Here is where I saw my first dead person, a friend, Dick McAfee, killed in an auto wreck when a young teenager. Here, my parents' and grandparents' funerals were held. Next was Chet Towse's drug store, the epitome of an "old time" drug store. Chet's was were we bought our comic books, usually the 5 cent ones, those he could not sell at full price (ten cents) and sent back the covers, after which he could sell them for a nickel. We bought our school books and supplies here each fall. Throughout the year Chet's was our source of penny "guess-whats" (two candy kisses and a small "prize" in a paper roll) and various penny candies. He had an old time soda fountain where we got our milk shakes, cherry cokes and vanilla phosphates. During the war, we would buy cigarettes for ourselves, which Chet thought we were buying for out dads. We also bought the "makings" of gunpowder (powdered charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate), which we learned to make from Buck Reynolds chemistry set. Chet cut us off when a pipe bomb Buddy Rands had made by filling a gas pipe with gun powder and then trying to get it burning like a Roman candle did not work as he had planned. Instead, it exploded, scaring half the town into thinking the bank had been robbed. No one hurt, just blew out the end of the pipe with a resounding "boom" heard all over town

Next in the line of stores were the two units of Edgar Lockyear's grocery and hardware store. The first unit was for groceries and the second for hardware. In the southeast corner of the latter unit were the fishing supplies. The "spring ritual" was to buy new fishing lines, bobbers, hooks, lead "sinkers", and leaders. On the west wall were the hats. Another spring ritual, was buying a new baseball hat, one that came only in specific sizes, not the adjustable tab things of today. And, we wore them with the bills in front, not in back. We understood the bill was there to keep the sun out of our eyes, not off the back of our neck. We wore the bills turned up-the very in thing those days, but did not keep much sun from our eyes.

Next came a storage unit for Lockyers' store. A long time ago it had been a movie theater. By the time I came along, there were too few local people that could afford to go to the movies and those that could went to the Marvel Theater in Carlinville, 12 miles away. Next was Tendick's Grocery store. This is where my Mom and Dad bought our "store-bought food", putting it "on the tab" to be settled up at the end of the month. Next to it was a storage unit for Tendick's. In the last unit on the north side of the square was Lenny Moore's barber shop and pool hall. Lenny nailed wooden cigar boxes on several trees in the park and kept them filled with hickory nuts for the resident fox squirrels. Of all these stores, only the funeral home is now used. The next two stores stand empty, the rest long ago removed, the space now a rocked parking lot for trucks.

We turn to the south on Rt 111, also "Main Street, as we move around the east side of the Square. On the left was the building housing Mr Holmes' "Cafe", the only beer hall in town. We kids bought soda and ice cream cones from him. On hot summer Sunday's, Mrs. Holmes would pile all the ice cream she could onto the cones so as to run out. "I'm sick and tired of standing on my head in this damned ice cream case", she would say. In front were two very large black locust trees, about six feet apart. Years earlier, someone had put a large board between the trees to serve as a bench. Memories flow of the days and evenings we spent visiting and drinking our sodas and maybe eating a "Babe Ruth" while sitting on that bench. On the south side of Holmes' Cafe was the Post Office, a gathering place for the people in town. There was no home delivery in the small towns. Both buildings are gone now.

On the east side of Main Street, as we slowly move south, was the building that housed Ed Banks' grocery store. Mr. Bank's store closed in the fall of 1937, when I had just begun grade school. The main thing I remember from the closing was that he sold the biggest bags of candy imaginable for only a penny. Next to the grocery store was the "Creamery" where farmers brought in cream, skimmed from some of their milk, and eggs to provide a little cash for things they needed from the grocery stores. Next was the Chesterfield State Bank. When my dad needed $300-400 to tide him through the summer, he had only to ask and the president, Mr. Parker, would put it in my dad's checking account. Not even a handshake. Small town banks were trusting in those days. Finally, the telephone offices for the switching board and operator. I used to spent a lot of time there watching the tangle of chords and listening to Mrs. Nixon and Mrs. Crowder make connections for the calls. The bank building has been replaced by a modern brick structure. The telephone "exchange" building is gone.

We turn back to the west along the south side of the Square, along 2nd East Street. On the left corner was Red Wallner's Mobile service station. There we would go during noon breaks at High School (only a block to the southwest) to play a simple card game, "Pitch" and buy cigarettes for a penny from Red to puff on (still did not inhale). Red always called me "Henry." My nickname at the time was "Hank" (do not remember, if I ever knew, why my friends called me that) and Red assumed it was short for "Henry." I never told him the difference. An ice house stood next to the filling station. Next, were a series of mostly abandoned buildings that had housed Cecil Murphy's lumber company. Cecil had moved his business to Carlinville shortly before I was born. Mrs. Reifenberg used the west part of the buildings as a garage for her hearse.

We turn north back onto Walnut Street, and move along the west side of the Square. On the left was an abandoned lot (never knew what had been there) and next to it an abandoned brick building that had housed a general store years ago. The large faded sign painted on the top, "ALL MERCHANDISE TAKEN IN EXCHANGE", can still be made out. Next along the street was the Sinclair Service Station. It went out of business in the mid 1930s, the building remaining empty for years, until torn down. Finally, on the corner was the two-story brick "Alton Way Hotel", build in mid 1882. It did not sell alcoholic beverages. It was a long-standing joke that an early Irish Immigrant, Patty Adeo, upon trying to get something to drink, disgustedly exclaimed, "What kind of place is this, a Hinn and no Hale!" It had not been a hotel for several years by the time I came along. For a long time it served as apartments for two or three families. Later, it was restored to a hotel again. It was then that Chesterfield finally "came of age." Two women from Woodriver (a town 25 miles or so to the south,) set up "business" in a couple rooms. Chesterfield finally had its own Whore House (we never used the more sophisticated, "Bordello"). However, when the town officials found out, the girls were sent on their way to entertain elsewhere. Chesterfield regained its small town image. Not too long after that, in 1985, the old Alton Way burned down. Now a barren gravel lot.

We turn back along the north side of the Square and then to the left on Rt 111 as we head out of town. On the right was Mrs Reifenberg's large secluded frame house. Then, the old Congregational Church, now used by the United Church. Across the highway is the lot upon which, when the town was first founded in the 1830s, was Peter Etter's horse-powered cog mill flour grinder, the "industry" around which Chesterfield was built. Industry did not grow and neither did Chesterfield.

Next, on the right was George Adam's large frame house. It was a part of the Underground Highway prior to the Civil War. Back across the highway on the left, on a slight hill, was Jimmy Dawson's house. We had a lot of parties at his house and later in High School Jimmy and I attended innumerable Saturday night square dances together at farm houses and dance halls. Jimmy has long been gone. Next to Jimmy's house was the exit of the "Back Hill" onto Rt 111. A little farther on, is the street, Maple Strteet, that ran up to where Mrs. Wheeler lived, along with the houses of some of my mom's relatives and girlhood friends.

Still farther along on the left, a small house where our family friends, Ruth and Gus Crowder lived. Their daughter, "Little Ruth", and I played together as kids at my grandparents, making mud pies decorated with pressed-in flower petals. We even went skinny dipping in a small creek, Sugar Creek, in my grandparents pasture, but that is another story. Years later, Little Ruth became my aunt. Yet another story for another time.

Finally, as we leave town, on the right is the house and barn where my Great Aunt Lou and Uncle Rollie lived out their retirement. A few times each year I would spend the night there. The high-light was playing carroms with Aunt Lou in the evenings. When Uncle Rollie died, he left the house and lot to my mom. It was there she lived the final 29 years of her life.

So you have now seen and heard about some of "my town." Sorry, if I took too long for my last look, but it HAD been the first 18 years of my life. Even so, I did not bore you with many of the other people and incidents that came to mind as we drove along. Chesterfield was small, a nice place to grow up in, probably no better, or worse, than any of the nearby small towns, Rockbridge, Shipman, Scottville, Medora, Hettic, and Greenfield, but it was "my town", "my growing up place." Not much of the "old Chesterfield" left any more, just my memories. We very slowly accelerate up the highway as we leave Chesterfield behind, for the last time over a road that I have traveled thousands of times during my life. Even here something comes to mind. The night we "raided" Ed Leach's watermelon patch just to the south of the road. No one bothers to steal watermelons any more, nor chickens, either, for that matter. Common occurrences when I was a kid.

We move around a curve in the road. On the right is the new Chesterfield Cemetery. Very conspicuous on a slight rise next to the road is a simple gray tombstone, with the large engraving "GETZ" at the top and below, "Lowell Lee" and "Mary Ruth Clardy." Perhaps I was not completely forthright with you at the beginning. Actually, I will "return home" once more When I next return, it will be for good. Although I will not make it back into Chesterfield itself, resting in the Chesterfield Cemetery will essentially be "being back home." So many of my friends will be here, including Buck Reynolds, Jimmy Dawson, Virginia Mathais, Judy Bond, Flora Miller, Jimmy Guess, Della Fraizer, and 83 others, among the 200 or so graves, with whom I associate my "growing up years."

Now, all is behind us. I cannot see ahead well. Must be something in my eyes. Leaving home always was hard. Knowing this is the last time I will see my home town makes leaving so much harder. But, eventually we all leave home.

Fig. 1. Areal photograph of present-day Chesterfied. Google Earth.

Fig. 2. Street map of Chesterfield, current street names. Google maps.