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Telling Your Stories

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Books also are available from the Morrison Historical Society, the Behrens Flower Shed in Rock Falls the Fifth Third Bank Branch in Sterling and at Amazon.com

 


 

Preface

 

            Mrs. L.A. Abbott lived in the House by the Side of the Road for 66 years, from the day she married our grandfather in 1923 until the day she died in 1989. A hard-working farm wife, Grandma was the front line in watching over the homestead whether she was looking out the kitchen window, hanging laundry on the clothesline or gardening, her favorite activity.

            Active, observant and always willing to help, Grandma met a variety of interesting people who happened along the Road—U.S. Route 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway. These are her stories of some of those many and varied encounters in the age before interstate highways, reliable cars and cell phones.

            The House by the Side of the Road originally was built in 1848, when our great-great-grandfather, Asa M. Abbott, settled in Whiteside County, Illinois. The Road then wasn’t much more than a wagon trail that connected Ft. Dearborn (Chicago) with the “narrows” of the Mississippi River at Fulton. A gunsmith, Asa knew his business depended on being visible from the trail, so he built his home within 50 yards of the Road. Although the original house was replaced with the current structure in 1955, the location remains the same—close to the Road.

            When a farm’s front yard is as close to the Road as if you lived on a street in town, visibility is a given. Add a second house to the property, as occurred shortly after our grandparents married, and you become the most favorable option for travelers who need help: Double the number of houses served by one driveway means double the chance of finding someone home. 

            And, in the days when farm families made a trip to town not more than weekly, it was pretty likely that there would be someone home. That someone was our grandmother, who referred to herself as Mrs. L.A. Abbott far more than she referred to herself as Eunice Abbott—because that’s just the way it was done in her generation.

            In the evening, after the day’s work was done and the supper dishes had been washed, dried and put away, Grandma focused on creative pastimes. Many of her farm-wife friends did handiwork, such


as embroidery, knitting or quilting in those evening hours. Not Grandma. For her, it was reading and writing. The stories in this book are a result of the countless evenings Grandma spent in front of her manual Olympia typewriter—often until the wee hours, as evidenced by the light coming from her window that we could see from our house across the driveway.

            These are real-life stories of farm life along the busy Lincoln Highway from the 1920s through the 1980s. They take you back to a time when being neighborly meant opening your home to those in need—even if they were strangers. Grandma wrote about those who knocked on the door because they needed a gallon of gas or a tow to the nearest mechanic. Strangers working their way across the country in the Great Depression, willing to pick apples or strawberries in exchange for a place to camp out, their daily meals and a few dollars. Piano salesmen who knew that a thunderstorm would help them get a piano inside a farm house quickly. Hobos who chopped wood in exchange for a homemade supper. A bicycle rider who asked unusual questions and made residents of the House by the Side of the Road wonder if he were a spy trying to find the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. 

            To Grandma and those of her generation, “farm wife” was a full-time job with tremendous responsibility. While the “men-folk” tended to the crops and livestock from dawn until dusk, farm wives kept the family (and the hired hands) fed, supplied with clean clothes and a warm, inviting home. Before the advent of automatic washing machines and at a time when producing and preserving food took more than a trip to the store, it was a 24/7 job decades before that phrase took hold. Grandma wrote about everyday life on the family farm, including what apparently was not one of her favorite “extra duties”—picking corn. She also chronicles the stories passed down verbally for generations about the big, red barn and its role as a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s.

            Besides stories about rural life on the Abbott farm along the Lincoln Highway, Grandma also had a passion for two other topics—country schools and the Whiteside County Fair. Grandma taught at the Crouch School, a one-room school just a couple of miles from the House by the Side of the Road, before she married in the 1920s. Through her stories, she has recorded school-year highlights of these long-gone places, which served the social purpose of bringing rural neighbors together in celebration of life and their agricultural heritage.

As long-time superintendent of the Ag Products, Horticulture and Floriculture Departments at the Whiteside County Fair, celebrating its 135th edition in Morrison’s Sesquicentennial year of 2005, Grandma also took it upon herself to become Fair historian. She tells of a time when coming to the Fair was an extra-special outing demanding the finest of clothing and a picnic lunch on a white linen tablecloth underneath the big, shady oak trees. When one, thin dime could provide a day’s worth of entertainment to a small child—including a ride on the merry-go-round. When the old, wooden original structures on the fairgrounds were replaced by shiny, new, secure buildings to show off everything from sheep to vegetables to cakes and hobbies. And, she recounts the stories of the cabins built on the fairgrounds by the “Old Settlers,” the original families of Whiteside County.

House by the Side of the Road gives us all a peek into rural life throughout the early to mid-20th century. A time when the family farm was self-sustaining, horses were the ones providing horse power and getting the crops in before Thanksgiving was a milestone to be rewarded with a rabbit hunt on Turkey Day. When everyone was struggling to survive the Great Depression. When rural neighbors congregated at the local one-room school for Christmas pageants and the annual Corn Carnival. When residents of the House by the Side of the Road opened their hearts and home to the strangers who knocked on the door.

 

Susan Abbott Gidel

Jan Abbott Landow

March 2005