Upon receiving news of this post, you may ask yourself what absurd detour I have taken this summer. I have episodes of the western trek unwritten. A half rendered account of the 5th Annual Muchmore Pie and Art Festival in the wings — now this. An explorer’s society? Forgive the absence of a context for moving on to this new development. I will fill in the gaps at a more opportune time. Suffice it to say that I liberated myself from my day-to-day life in the Queen City in order to connect with my roots and the people associated with them.
September 3: Return from the Pie and Art Festival
When I left work on August 28, I had plans to be out until September 8. I spent 5 days in Minneapolis doing all things artistic and planned to turnaround on the 4th and head out to Wisconsin. The Madison Quilt Expo was the following weekend and I’d wanted an adventure with my Mom. I did not leave Cincinnati on that day. Grey Kitty’s unfortunate choice of outdoor acquaintances necessitated fogging the house for fleas. In 12 years as a pet owner, this was my first encounter. My 40 ankle bites are testament to the ferocity and my tastiness.
September 5: The Escape
Add in a few other distractions and my actual departure was Friday, September 5th. I listened to 20 episodes of RadioLab, chatted with my cousin, Mary, and received the bad news that my Aunt Joanne had lost a second sister in two weeks. When I reached Hwy. 11 south of Darlington, WI, I realized that my gas tank was empty and I had no idea how long it had been that way. In my zeal to find a gas station, I overshot the turn to my Mom’s by 10 miles. This is embarrassing as I lived in that area for 10 years. Nevertheless, I arrived to the aroma of my favorite dishes. Mom’s long-cooked spaghetti and homemade fresh peach pie.
We had a fine weekend complete with the quilt show, meals with the boys and their significant others, and a video interview session on Sunday morning to record the details of her extraordinary life for posterity. Mom sent me home with Grandpa Van Bogaert’s suitcase which at some point in time I had indicated I would like to have. She mentioned a trip to Europe of which I was unaware and I left with questions for My aunt to answer.
Sunday I spent time with or dropping off CARE packages for several friends who had been sick or hospitalized and taking some of my people to breakfast. In the afternoon, Frank, Thomas, and I played six games of pool at the exclusive Bennett’s Meadowood “Country Club”and on Sunday night, I had a meal with Philip, his Jessica, and Thomas. Later, Thomas and I met up with Thomas’ Cassie for a beer. It was later than I thought when I tucked in for the night and I hoped for an early start on the next leg of the journey.
September 8: The Unexpected Inauguration of the Muchmore Explorer’s Society
The loss of my aunt’s sisters altered my travel plans and expanded them into a visit to offer condolences to my aunt in St. Charles, Illinois and, hopefully, a chance to offer the same to my cousins. Arriving around noon, my Aunt Joanne and I had lunch at Colonial’s, a local eatery that goes back to my childhood. My Aunt is a great historical repository of family and hometown information. I asked her questions about the originals of the Scott farm in LaFox where I grew up. She introduced me to a niece of our landlady’s who sadly has lost those memories. Aunt Joanne and I talked about the Garfield Farm Museum where my Grandpa Van Bogaert’s house was moved to preserve as a historic home. In the 20 years it’s been there, I’d never visited. My family had told me it looked nothing like we remembered. But on this day of days, I decided to drive by and look. With the ugly asbestos shingling that I remember removed, it really was a transformed house. I had trouble orienting myself to the inside initially, but eventually could see where Grandpa had sat dispensing crisp new bills on Christmas and the armchair was where he smoked his stogies and held court.
I spent two+ hours with the director who graciously let me explore and printed off out-of-print pages of history about my Grandpa’s farm and the farm on which I was raised. All this on a day the museum was closed.
Afterward, I drove past our old farm, chatted with the new people across the street, and checked out the family plots in the Elburn cemetery. Downtown, I parked next to the old library I loved as a kid and then settled in at Schmidt’s bar to read all the papers from the museum and call my cousin John and his wife for condolences and an impromptu visit. One beer turned into several and some tacos–pretty much a Belgian wake. They towed me home at dark where we drank one more and talked another hour.
But, “what?” you ask does this have to do with an explorer’s society? Patience. I am nearly there.
September 8: The Shabbona Tree
Periodically, mature individuals (of which I am one) comment about the vast amounts of information we have lost in the dark back waters of our minds. Now and again, I am surprised at the long forgotten things I dredge up. As I left Elburn yesterday, I passed a sign that said “Johnson’s Mound.” A little forest preserve that was the site of 4-H events and family gatherings 40 years ago. I drove a quarter mile past and felt a tug. The night before, I’d asked my cousin about an enormous tree that I remembered. He’s my youngest cousin and didn’t seem to remember. In truth, I started wondering if I had seen it elsewhere. But when I got to the park entrance, the name”Shabbona” popped into my head. I saw no monster climbing to the sky and no monument to any such wonder. Both sad and curious, I drove the next six hours determined to find out if my mind was mixing information or exaggerating memories.
Soon after getting home, I looked for Johnson’s Mound on the web and searched on the term “Shabbona.” Eureka! The Batavia Historical Society and Library delivered.
Volume 43, Issue 1 from January, 2002, reported the Shabbona Elm was felled in 1972 having taken two years to die of Dutch Elm disease. I was astonished and my memory validated as I read of its 8 foot girth and saw a picture of the dwarfed arborists next to the toppled giant. Yes. I had remembered the tree’s name and the massive elm. But why was there no picture of it live and heroic stretching out across the preserve or standing guard by troops of 4-hers and scouts?
For a good hour, I dug through more web search results, tried different term combinations, and finally had an aha. Why no readily available pictures? Because this was pre-general internet access. Although frustrated and very determined to see the tree in its glory, I relished the chance to do old-fashioned detective work. Inquiry that actually connects you to live people and the chance of making an unlikely friend or travel to an unexpected place. And so, I have dug through information that got me phone numbers for the park’s office and to the answering machine at Frank and Mary Saupp’s house. Frank’s family tree service felled the tree in sub-zero weather that year. The article says he has the fallen tree photo over his desk. Maybe he took a “before” shot, too. I hope he calls back. True explorers want to know.