Article #16- O'Fallon's "first" library
Article #17- Town nicknames
Article #18- Nicknames (cont)
Article #19- Stories
Published Sept. 10, 2003
Published Sept. 24, 2003
Published Oct. 8, 2003
Published Oct. 22, 2003
Published Nov. 5, 2003
Article #16- O'Fallon's "first" library..
A number of years ago, this paper ran a story about my mother as O'Fallon's first librarian. It was a simple little article and her long-time friend, Rosie Moorhead, saw the article and called Mom as soon as she read it. For those of you who didn't know Rosie (and those of you who did will confirm this), she was a slight but fiery little lady who spoke her mind as easily as the rest of us breathe. She was Aunt Rosie to my sisters and I; a self-appointed title that sprang from her friendship with our mother. Ever vigilant for truth, justice, and the American Way, Aunt Rosie had to call Mom to correct the article and inform her that she had indeed, NOT been O'Fallon's first librarian.
Well, I mentioned O'Fallon's REAL first library a couple of articles back and asked anyone who knew anything about this library to contact me and tell me more. Marie Gentemann Orf called Mom to say she remembered O'Fallon's first library and would be glad to tell me about it. As it turns out, O'Fallon's first library was housed on Main St. right about where Ann's Bra Shop now sits. Johnny Phillips' family lived in a two-story white house on Main St. and his parents owned the house just to the north. His parents lived there for a while but when they moved out to the country, they rented out the house on Main Street. On the first floor was a single room that you could enter from the side of the house where Miss Emily Watson set up a library. Marie told me, "Miss Emily Watson took care of the library there-it was just one room. Lucille and Bunny Meinert lived there and I would go up to play with them and then we'd go in and talk to Miss Emily."
O'Fallon's "first" library was in a side room of the
one-story house shown here on Main Street.
(Photo courtesy by Charlie Fierling)
Miss Emily Watson and her two sisters, all spinsters, lived in the house at the corner of School Street and Church Street and their brother lived across the street. Marie didn't know many details of either the Watson sisters or the library, having been a young child at the time. She just remembered that she and her little friends would take a break from their playing to stop in and see Miss Emily. She recalled walls lined with books and Miss Emily sitting straight-backed at a desk in the far corner ("or maybe it was just a table"). She was referred to as an old maid, though probably not over forty years old; a slight woman with hair set in a bun on the top of her head. There were no children's books so there wasn't anything for Marie and her little friends to check out. Grown-ups made their promise to return a book simply by signing their name on a slip of paper. I don't know how long the library was there; I don't know if people paid a subscription to use it or if it was just someone's good-willed community service. But as far as I can tell, it really was O'Fallon's first library.
As so often happens, I went in pursuit of one story and ended up finding another. Among the pictures Marie pulled out to show me was the house she was born in ninety-one years ago the ninth of this month. It stood at the southeast corner of Main St. and Elm where O'Fallon Garage is now. Marie was born to John and Anna (?) Gentemann in the home of her grandmother, Caroline Talleur. Having been raised in a town with an Irish name populated largely by Germans, to me Caroline Talleur's name has the sound of clear water running over soft rocks. Caroline Talleur.
What caught my attention the most was when Marie told me that it was her grandmother who was responsible for building the movie theatre that sat near the Mill Pond. People have described that building to me in a number of ways, depending on how they themselves used it and during which decade. I've heard it referred to as the movie hall, the VFW Hall, and as Lee Ethier's dance hall. "We had movies there, silent movies, and my uncles, her two sons, ran the movie theatre. They were silent movies, of course, and you had to read what they were saying. And then, my mother played the piano during the show." Marie didn't remember if admission was 5 cents or 10 cents at the time.
Since I was a child, I've seen pictures of my sisters on the stage of this building at various recitals and programs without knowing that's where they'd been taken. In later years when it was no longer used as a movie theatre, the Methodist Church held their chili suppers there and once held a minstrel show on the stage. The firemen held their dances there for a number of years and the old movie house saw its share of New Year's Eve Dances. My sister, Mary Johnson, remembers standing outside watching countless wedding parties as they went in for the receptions. I suppose wedding gowns and bridesmaid's dresses and the romance that goes with them has always captured little girls' attentions.
I just try to imagine a woman, a widowed grandmother in 1920 or thereabouts, building a movie theatre in a town that must not have had more than a few hundred people at the time and I am absolutely awed. So much of a town's history is really a history of its menfolk-the businesses they ran or the offices they held. It delights me to know that, in this case, it was a woman's entrepreneurial spirit that made such a mark. I like to think it was the French influence that led Mrs. Caroline Talleur to bring a cultural center to our little town. And I like thinking of all the different ways it was used over the years to lift people out of their everyday tasks and troubles even if only for an evening now and then.
Marie promised to tell me more stories on another day and I am looking forward to it. If you missed her birthday, now would be a good time to call her and maybe share a memory you have of some good time you had in Mrs. Caroline Talleur's movie theatre.
Article #17- Towns nicknames
I don't know why this is but have you noticed that no one seems to use nicknames anymore? Maybe we're too worried about being politically correct, or maybe we just concern ourselves a bit too much with trying to look sophisticated. Whatever the reason, I think we've become just a little too vanilla. We still have some really good nicknames around O'Fallon and I thought it might be interesting to find out how they got started.
When I was a kid, I used to like the nicknames people gave me. It made me feel kind of special, even when they weren't too flattering and, come to think of it, none of them were. Harry Becker-who had a nickname for almost everyone-walked by our house one day and saw me sitting on the front porch with a big scowl on my face and stopped to tell me I looked like a "Little Knothead." And Gil Shepherd who owned the jewelry store in town always called my dad Buckwheat and me Little Buckwheat though I have no idea what was going through his head when he came up with those names!
The first nickname that came to my mind was Scratchy Hibbeler who opened the Skelly station on Main St. on Dec. ll, 1957 and closed it "almost fifteen years to the day" later. He said he didn't mind telling the story of how he got his nickname because it wasn't from what most people think, though what other people think has never been much concern to Scratchy and that's always been part of his charm. In fact, his daughter once threatened to get a license plate that said, "Itchy" but apparently someone talked her out of it. So to set the record straight, here's the real scoop on how Scratchy got his nickname. When he was about ten or twelve years old, he and some friends were sledding in Ft. Zumwalt Park. Scratchy wanted to be the first one down the hill but it was too steep. He lost control of his sled and went right into a wild rose bush. His face got all scratched up; he'd managed to close his eyes but even his eyelids were scratched and he was bleeding all over the place. He and his friends walked on into town to Lee & Irene Ward's place, Town & Country Inn. Kenny Pund was in there and started calling him Scratchy and the name stuck from then on. Mystery solved.
Then there was Ducky Ohmes, born Emil Joseph Ohmes. Ducky worked, quite fittingly, for the water department in O'Fallon for who knows how many years. His daughter, Gloria, told me that for a long time, Ducky dug the trenches for the water hook-ups to people's homes by hand until the city finally hired Ches Sommerkamp to do that. His family lived on a farm adjacent to All Saint's Village near Cottleville. Walking to school meant wading through several creeks and I can imagine he arrived most days with pant legs and shoes soaked. Friends at school dubbed him "Ducky."
"Ducky" Ohmes at his retirement from the
City of O'Fallon in 1977.
If I were to ask you if you knew Eileen Burkemper you'd probably say you didn't, unless I went ahead and told you her last name has been Maher for the last fifty-odd years and then you'd probably say, "You mean Wink?" Weenie Winkle was a popular comic strip when Eileen was a child. She was a busy, always running, flighty kind of child just like the comic strip character and her dad started calling her Winkle. Somewhere along the way, Winkle got shortened to Wink and she's been Wink ever since. "It wasn't because I was winking at the guys-at least not until high school." (Did I say anything about that?)
MidTown Tavern, once owned by John Gentemann, the Forbecks and probably others I don't even know about, was, from my earliest memories, referred to simply as Cotton's. Cotton Schneider owned it then and his sister, Bernice Meyer, called me to tell me how he got his nickname. She dropped off his picture at our office with a note that said, "My Dad called him 'Cotton Top' (because of his pale blond hair) as a little boy. No one knew his name was Alvin."
Alvin "Cotton" Schneider as a child.
Finally, at least for now, is Toots Sigmund, who protested that she's too old to be called such a provocative name though I think she still wears it well. Anna Henke Sigmund, a.k.a. Toots, got her name from her brother, Porter Henke. He started calling her "Tootsie" when she was a baby and even though it was shortened to Toots, she's never known any other name. So next time you see her, say, "Hi there, Anna!" and see if she even looks up!
There's a lot more to come on this nickname topic. There's Hambone Koch (O'Fallon's most famous nickname of all), and there's the whole Molitor clan that, as far as I can tell, used nothing but nicknames. And if you think of anymore or if you know where they came from, I'd appreciate it if you'd give Knothead a call
Article #18- Nicknames (cont)
Last week we talked about nicknames-those endearing words we use to describe the people in our lives. Nicknames are just words until they're attached to someone for so long they become as ordinary to us as Jane or Dick or Harry. Nicknames tell us something about the people to whom they're attached. They might tell us something about their physical characteristics like Tiny or Slim. They tell us that we were the apple of somebody's eye or, at the very least, that someone was paying close attention to us.
Take Pee Wee Westhoff, for example. Born Wilfred Westhoff, grandson to Frederick Westhoff who founded Westhoff Mercantile & Grain in 1897, Pee Wee doesn't seem like a very dignified name for a man who, as a very young man, took charge of a family business that supplied virtually everything but grocery needs for an entire town. He was known for his acute attention to details in the store and everyone called him Pee Wee simply because of his height, or lack thereof, but from what I can tell, everyone in town looked up to him.
And speaking of looking up to people, one of the kindest faces I remember as a kid belonged to Judge Algermissen, a man who loomed over most people--not just my own diminutive clan. He worked most of his life as a carpenter and before he and his wife, Loraine Hunn Algermissen were married, Othmar David Algermissen played the part of a judge in a play put on by the drama club at All Saint's Church. Apparently he did a heck of a job because the name stuck with him. Though a few people knew him as O.D., most knew him as "Judge" throughout his life.
O.D. alias The "Judge"
Sometimes nicknames don't give us any clues, like Pud Molitor whose real name was Harold. I called Ted Molitor to ask if he knew how Pud got his nickname but Ted said he never knew him by anything other than Cousin Pud. So he put me on to Evelyn Molitor Orf, Pud's sister. Evelyn said that her dad gave her brother, Harold, the nickname Pud as a very young child presumably because he reminded him of a man he was friends with who had the same name. There were a lot of nicknames among the Molitor clan. Evelyn's husband's name was Albinus, pronounced Al-Been-Us, and was nicknamed Beanie. And she remembers her Uncle Albert who everyone called Taters, a name that went back to a family joke that had to do with passing the potatoes. In a family of twelve children, I can imagine he might have been making sure he got his fair share! And by the way, Ted, how is it your mother has such a beautiful name like Isabel but everyone knows her as "Dit?" Well, I just had to know so I called him back and the story is that when Isabel was a baby, her brother couldn't say "Isabel." It came out "Ditabel" which got shortened to "Dit" and there you have it.
Sometimes nicknames create mini-mysteries-as in "how did they get that name?" and one of those mysteries got solved last week when we found out that Scratchy Hibbeler's nickname came very innocently from a run-in with a rose bush. One O'Fallon nickname is just going to have to remain a mystery, at least for now. Unfortunately, it just happens to be our most infamous nickname-Hambone Koch.
Hambone Koch was, well, let's just say he was a rebellious teenager. You've got to remember, though, that that was the fifties when Wally and The Beaver were setting the standards for teeenagers. I wasn't able to talk to Hambone himself but Judy Conn Armistead whose brother, Eddie, was one of Hambone's cronies, had her own nickname for him. She still calls him Hammie and remembers him as a young man of eighteen or so, honking the horn and playfully calling to her mother, Pauline, saying "Can Eddie come out and play?" She told me, "I know Hammie got into some mischief, but he was the kind of guy that if he was your friend, he was your friend. My dad used to play penny poker with the boys-probably to keep them out of mischief-and Hammie always called my dad 'Fuzzy' because all he had was little stubbles of hair and all the other kids picked up on it." So, just like the other stories, the search for one nickname led to another.
I'm going to be real honest with all of you and just admit that all the research I did for the Nicknames articles put me a little behind schedule. That, plus the fact that a few people who've promised me interviews haven't found time for them yet, means that I'm facing a deadline a bit empty-handed. It seems that every time I face a deadline, inspiration for another story comes from someplace and this time it's coming from all the people who take time to tell me how much they enjoy these articles.
When I think about it, the foundation for these articles was laid years ago when my sons were little and I was a stay-at-home mom. I started doing some genealogical research in my spare time. I'd always been curious about the names and faces that made up my family's history but I also needed something to counteract the barrage of brain-numbing tasks that make up early motherhood. However stimulating Sesame Street may have been for my two-year-old twins, when I found myself humming, "It isn't easy being green" while doing the ironing, I knew I needed help.
This was, of course, before the internet so genealogical research meant writing lots of letters and wading through census reports on microfilm. I managed to go quite a ways back but the disappointment was that, when I was done, all I had was a lot of names and dates. I still didn't know who these people were. I didn't know what brought them to this country to begin with, or why they moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then Indiana and north to Minnesota. I never knew what they did for a living or if they liked to dance or what their dreams were if they dared to dream at all. The most I ever learned was about my great-great-grandfather, Henry Bussinger, who fought in the Civil War in a cavalry regiment from Indiana. He was captured in the Battle of the Wilderness and died in the infamous Andersonville Prison just a few months before the war ended. Still, I don't know why he was there. I don't know if he was lured by the promise of income to feed the five children he and his wife had or if he was fueled by the injustice of slavery. If I knew which it was, I could find honor in either one.
That is why, when people assume that writing these articles means I'm an historian, I tell them that I'm really just a story-teller. I believe everyone has a story; that our collective history is a series of stories most of which, individually, are insignificant. Together, however, they make up our community's history in much the same way that singular threads are woven into rich tapestries. Who we are as a community is defined by how we each do our jobs and why, how we respond to each other's hardships and how we celebrate the tiny victories and simple pleasures of life in our own little worlds.
Clean-up day in O'Fallon. Photo courtesy of Gloria Ohmes.
Lately, it seems everywhere I go I run into someone who tells me how much they enjoy these articles and I am glad to hear it because I'm having a wonderful time writing them. Sometimes the families of the people I write about take time to let me know how much they appreciate some little tribute that's been paid to someone who's no longer here and I think that sometimes, in their voice, I hear a little healing going on. I think they find comfort in knowing that someone they loved hasn't been forgotten, and that the seemingly ordinary things they did mattered. Ultimately, I think that's what everyone wants out of life-to know they matter and that there is some purpose in their being here. I guess the message I want to get across in these stories is that we all matter, and that our purpose for being here lies in the countless things we all do that appear to go unnoticed.
Helping mom: Mrs. W. Menne.. Photo courtesy of G. Ohmes.
Bob Lindemann, whose parents owned Bill and Mabel's Café, gave me some stories he'd written about what he remembers of growing up in O'Fallon. He calls this collection of stories, "The Dash" because, as he explained, when you see someone's name on a monument, you always see their birth date and the date of their death inscribed on it. Their life, their story, is made up of all the stuff that happened in the dash that comes between. Next time you hear someone say they were "dashing around" trying to get things done, just smile and know that their life story is being written.
I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank the publisher of this paper, Mr. Bob Huneke, for letting me share these stories with you, as well as for being the kind of man who understands that running a business and serving the community are one and the same.
By the time you read this, another Halloween will have just passed, but as I'm writing it, the stores and television are gearing up for it in a big way. In fact, that very commercialization seems to be the dividing factor between Halloween's Now and Halloween's Back When.
Without exception, everyone to whom I mentioned Halloween made comment about the fact that the costumes were very different years ago. As Marie Orf said, "We didn't make as big a deal out of it as they do now. We dressed up in any old stuff that we had around the house-dad's old shirt or mother's old hat." Even in the 50's, most kids I knew either put an old sheet over their head and went as a ghost or dressed up in old clothes, smeared dirt on their faces and went as a hobo. Hobos were scary people back then. If you were really lucky, you might have a witch's hat so that with a pillow case dyed black and belted around your waist, all you needed to complete your witch ensemble was to take along your mother's broom.
I have to admit I wasn't big on Halloween as a kid. First of all, I couldn't see anything wonderful about being a hobo and I always had a problem with the Trick or Treat thing. My mom, like most other mom's back then, had strict rules about asking for anything when you were at someone's house. So, knocking on someone's door, pretending to be something you weren't and then yelling "Trick or Treat" at them while you held out a bag for them to throw candy in, always sounded to me like something I ought to get in trouble for doing. And what was that "or" part about, anyway? Was it, "I'll do a trick or I don't get a treat" or "You either give me a treat or I'll play a trick on you?" I wondered about these things as a kid and apparently I still don't understand how it works.
In fact, I don't remember ever being asked to do a trick. Bob Lindemann remembers going to Mr. Keithly's house on Main St. where doing a trick was mandatory. "If you had the guts, Mr. Keithly would give you 50 cents but everybody knew that you had to do a trick to get it. He didn't get too many takers. I always went, I always sang a song and I always got my 50 cents."
Halloween at Twila Harshbarger's school. Photo Courtesy of Bob Lindemann.
The other thing that's changed over the years is the treats themselves. Before the days when everything had to be pre-packaged and sealed, home made treats were often the best. Art Steiner remembers getting homemade cookies and I can recall looking forward to Corrine Becker's popcorn balls though I have to admit to being dazzled by Mrs. Cronin who handed out full-sized Hershey bars! Treats were much simpler in Marie Orf's trick-or-treating days in the 1920's-"usually an apple or an orange or sometimes a piece of penny candy."
Halloween has always been a time for pranks and I grew up hearing stories of outhouses being turned over or set in the middle of Main Street. Then there's the classic prank that involves filling a paper bag with manure, setting it on fire on someone's porch then ringing the doorbell and running. The fun, I suppose, came when stamping out the fire left an unpleasant residue on the victim's shoes. Of course, I never knew anyone who actually pulled this stunt-but a lot of people liked to tell of it. Emily Schamma told me how, every Halloween, the outhouse from behind Bill and Mabel's Café ended up in a pond in front of the convent with a local attorney's sign on it, much to his dismay. Art Steiner worked at the IGA at the corner of Main and Elm from the time he was eleven years old until he went into the service and remembered going to work the morning after Halloween sometime in the late '50's. "They'd taken the bleachers from the ball park that used to be where the fire station was built and plunked them right in the middle of Main St." I asked Art who "they" were and suddenly his memory failed him. I have a sneaking suspicion that the prankster's names are buried somewhere in his subconscious but it looks like that's where they're going to stay.
I'm sure we'd react very differently to such pranks nowadays. But back then, everybody knew everybody was basically "decent folk," no real damage was ever done and order, along with the outhouses, was always restored the next day. Besides, it gave folks something to talk about for a while, speculating who "they" were.