Part Four: The End of the Old Country | Essay | Chicago Reader

Part Four: The End of the Old Country 

A Serial in 12 Parts

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In 1910 a commercial traveler for a big midwestern brewery passed through Edwardsville and happened to sample Sehnert's Ale. He was so impressed that he immediately sought out George Sehnert and offered him a job as a brewmaster. The brewery was in Joliet, on the other side of the state, but George accepted on the spot. A month later, he and his wife and children left Edwardsville and never came back.

That was the end of the family business. Nobody even considered hiring another brewmaster; they knew they'd never find one as good as George. They sold off the brewery and left the last remaining kegs of George's finest to go cloudy and sour at the back of the warehouse. It wasn't long before only the family remembered how good the beer had been, but not even an empty bottle or a label survived among the family's heirlooms.

George's departure was also the signal for a more general exodus from the Brown Street house. The next to go were his brothers Louie and Dick: they opened a small saloon in the old German neighborhood on the north side of town, and when that succeeded they each bought a house nearby. (After Prohibition closed them down Louie took up farming; Dick, who had a head for figures, became a land surveyor for the county.) Their sister Minnie married a man named Joseph Maclean who worked with Bosh at the Nelson company, manufacturer of porcelain and brass plumbing fixtures; they moved into a little house in Leclaire. The last daughter, Daisy, married a grocer named Jim Revelle and soon accompanied him back to Topeka, Kansas, where he'd inherited the family business. That left old Franciska. In 1905 she and J.L. had moved into the house to preside over a brood of children and grandchildren; ten years later she was living in the house alone.

She didn't take well to solitude. She grew querulous and demanding, much given to bending the ears of visitors about her unworthy children. Her particular target was Bosh. He was the only one of the children to come by regularly and to stay longer than duty required. But she never tired of calling him a fool to his face while praising him to everybody else as her lone example of filial piety. He never got angry with her. He insisted on bringing along his children and filling the Brown Street house with their giddy, door-slamming, silence-shattering vitality; he even managed to coax his mother out of the house for the occasional carriage ride around town.

Franciska hated most of what she saw in the outside world--in particular the things everybody else called improvements. In those years the town was making a gesture of welcome to the new century by paving the streets: the commercial district had already been torn up and bricks laid down. Concrete sidewalks replaced the wooden planking, and rows of electric streetlights sprouted like vines. Gradually the work crews invaded the residential neighborhoods. The soft clop of hooves on dust was replaced by the rattle of wheels on brick, the new streetlights lit the town at night, and over every main street and intersection trolley wires loomed. The pace of town life seemed to accelerate, worsening Franciska's frazzled nerves.

But a bigger calamity awaited her. When the Great War came her immediate family was spared; her sons were too old to serve and her grandsons too young. But the German culture of Edwardsville disappeared overnight. German stores changed their names and pulled their German-made goods from the shelves (or risked having their windows broken); schools dropped their German classes and the churches their German services; anybody heard speaking German on the streets was taunted and sometimes physically harassed--it wasn't unusual for children to throw rocks at German speakers while their parents cheered them on. Nor did any of the old culture return after the war was over. On those rare times when Franciska left the house she found few traces of the world she remembered. Everybody spoke English on the streets and in the stores; most of her grandchildren didn't know a word of German. Only a scattering of old street signs--Krafft Street, Schwarz Street, Eberhardt Avenue--remained to prove that Germans had ever been in Edwardsville.

The people of Edwardsville built bonfires at the crossroads on Halloween and set off fireworks in the parks on Decoration Day; their churches were standing room only on Easter and Christmas, and all church bells rang out at the stroke of midnight on New Year's eve. On summer afternoons, traveling Wild West shows performed in the town square; in the spring and fall, traveling theatrical companies put on shows at the opera house; and on any clear, warm evening my great-grandparents Bosh and Agnes could walk with their children across Troy Road to Leclaire Lake, where people swam and strolled on the grass as a brass band played. The calendar was crowded with fish fries and church dances and ice cream socials; every week there was at least one occasion when the whole town gathered.

During the dog days of summer the Chautauqua came through. Full-page ads and schedules of events were published in the local paper, and the clerks in stores all over town sported big red-white-and-blue buttons that read "I'm Going!" and "I've Got My Ticket!" It was held in a wide meadow in the open country east of town. Every day for a week people swarmed out to its tents to hear oompah concerts, lurid arias from operettas, solemnly edifying lectures, and sword-clacking enactments of scenes from classic drama. The Chautauqua was a tamed and secularized relic of the wild revival meetings and river baptisms of the old times.

And there were parades--for national holidays and local ones, for any reason or none at all. The town was always eager to spend an afternoon cheering. Sometimes it seemed as though history manifested itself only in the changing procession of floats. At the centennial parade of 1914 the automobile made its first major incursion. Cars were still rare sights then, and it would be decades before horse-drawn wagons altogether disappeared from downtown. But the cars came down the parade route in a chugging, rattling, exhaust-banging line, draped in bunting and swarmed by brilliant balloons, every auto in private hands in the county: there were 50 of them in all.

Out at my great-grandparents' house on Second Avenue it seemed as if history would never arrive. "Second Avenue" had a grand sound, but it was only a ragged dirt track off Troy Road; the nearest streetlight was a mile away, and from the front porch on any clear night you could see the Milky Way in full flood above the trees. There were times in winter, as the house shook in a blizzard, when it seemed as lonely and isolated as a pioneer homestead. When they were snowed in, Bosh would gather the family around the kitchen stove and tell stories--the terrifying folktales he'd heard in his own childhood about the witches' sabbaths in the forest glades and the Erl-King riding in mad pursuit down winter roads at night, hungry for children's souls. At other times he would give dramatic readings of the Sunday funnies: as the wind roared in the chimney and snow pelted the windows he would act out the latest antics of the Katzenjammer Kids or hold his audience spellbound with Little Nemo's voyage to Mars.

Bosh and Agnes had six children. The oldest, my grandfather Clarence, seemed to everyone like a throwback to the early days of the family. He had the old Sehnert look: stocky, firm, with a moon face and blobby nose and a bristling crop of wiry dark hair. He was a slow-talking, slow-thinking boy who had none of Bosh's easy camaraderie with strangers. But he did have a sense of humor--a peculiarly subterranean one that tended to emerge at the worst possible moment in the form of a joke that he alone thought was funny. When he was a senior in high school, he was assigned Edwardsville's industry as a theme; he got up before the class, announced that he had chosen as his subject the local coal mines, and began, "Coal is black as hell."

That was as far as he got. The teacher sent him to the principal and the principal expelled him. It was the standard penalty in those days for using profanity in school.

But Clarence was stubborn. He spent the following year idling around town; he took up pool and became almost as good as his father (his friends started calling him "Jasper," after a riverboat gambler in an old melodrama). But all the while he was determined to go back to school. The following fall he reapplied, repeated the 12th grade--stone-faced and impervious to the teasing of his classmates--and graduated. He was the first of the Sehnerts to get a high school diploma. And he was the last, for another 20 years.

The second son, Oliver, died when he was a year and a half old. A note in the family records says, "Scalded in the bath." Maybe it was a sign the world was changing that somebody bothered to note a cause.

The oldest daughter, Pearl, was born two years after Oliver. She was strong, pretty, and exuberant. The town gossips said she was a good girl but maybe a little too eager to get out of the gate. She dropped out of school when she was 15, and Bosh got her a job in the Nelson company shipping department.

This was considered relatively dainty work--most of the crew were women. Pearl spent her day filling up crates with brass plumbing fixtures and porcelain sinks and toilet bowls; before she got used to it her hands were chafed raw by the wood and the needlelike straw packing. The crates went down the line from her station to be nailed shut and then were loaded up on skids and swung on a big winch out through the wide doors of the department to a boxcar waiting on a siding. Men worked the winch, and in the swelter of summer they shrugged aside their modesty with their shirts. One of the men was huge and loud, with a booming laugh and an odd, unplaceable accent.

His name was Cecil Bilyeu. People thought he had come up the Mississippi from Cajun country (an idea that lingers in the Sehnert family to this day). But the Bilyeus were in fact descendants of French trappers and homesteaders who'd settled Illinois hundreds of years before the first German or Englishman arrived. At any rate, Cecil was an anomaly among the dour and proper inhabitants of Edwardsville: no older than Agnes, he was wild, profane, and good-hearted, with a boundless appetite for drink and hard work. Almost as soon as he and Pearl started flirting with each other they were having tumultuous fights and passionate reconciliations that were the talk of the Nelson company.

Bosh and Agnes didn't know what to do. Agnes was furious at Pearl and wanted to forbid her from seeing Cecil. Bosh came up with a compromise: Cecil could attend Sunday dinners at the Sehnerts' so long as he agreed never to see Pearl alone. This wasn't an agreement destined to last. The Christmas eve after Pearl turned 16 she and Cecil worked their half shift at the Nelson company and left the factory together. About what happened next, Cecil always liked to say, "We couldn't think of anything better to do." They got in his battered truck, drove down the snow-buried roads to Greenville, Illinois, found a justice of the peace, and got married.

They were too afraid of Agnes to tell her what they'd done. For weeks afterward they lived separately. Pearl went home to Second Avenue each night, while Cecil returned to the small house on the east side of town he shared with his mother and sister. It was Cecil's sister who put an end to the charade. One February day when Cecil was at work she found the marriage license in his bedroom, and in spite she sent it to the local newspaper. The following morning Bosh was greeted at the foundry by friends congratulating him on his daughter's wedding.

Bosh got angry then. Everybody said they'd never seen him that angry. He marched out of the foundry and across to the shipping room, where he confronted Pearl and demanded an explanation. She confessed on the spot. He ordered her go home and tell her mother. She left the shipping room in the middle of the shift and trudged home along Troy Road, through the snow and fog of that dreary morning. Ever afterward she thought of that as the most important moment of her life.

She reached home and told her mother. Agnes was apopleptic; Pearl refused to back down. She demanded to know what Agnes had against Cecil. Agnes drew herself up into a haughty silence--but then she deflated. "Oh, I like Cecil just fine," she said. "But it's never going to last. All you two ever do is fight."

And that was the end of the showdown. By the time Bosh returned from work, mother and daughter were reconciled. The next day Cecil took his bride home with him at the end of the shift, and for the first time they spent a whole night together.

Bosh and Agnes's second daughter, Hilda, was a different kind of rebel. She wore lots of makeup and bought glossy magazines to ogle the ads. In high school she hung around with a fast crowd. Most of Edwardsville's young people gathered at the roller rink after school; but Hilda snuck out of the house at night and drove off with her friends to country roadhouses, where they drank bootleg beer and listened to jazz bands. When she was 16 she told Bosh and Agnes she was going to drop out of school and become a saxophonist. Bosh shrewdly promised her that if she'd stay in school he'd buy her a saxophone. She agreed, and Bosh presented her with a top-of-the-line model. She spent a few dismal weeks tormenting the house with bizarre blats and wails and groans. Then she announced that she wanted to drop out of school to become a secretary. This time Bosh promised her that if she'd stay in school he'd buy her a typewriter. She practiced typing for one day; then the typewriter moved up to the attic by the saxophone.

The next time Hilda said she wanted to drop out Bosh came up with a new deal: Hilda could quit school only if she'd agree to take care of old Franciska, who was still living alone in the Brown Street house and growing increasingly frail. Hilda accepted at once. She had no idea what she was in for.

Franciska was nearly blind, but she still wanted the house kept immaculately clean. She drove Hilda through the ancient routine in which every day of the week had its own dawn-to-dusk task. Monday was washing day, Tuesday ironing day, Wednesday housecleaning day, Thursday bread-baking day, Friday the day for shopping and soap making and sewing, Saturday for bathing and cake baking, Sunday for church and the family dinner at Bosh's house. That was the only day when Franciska was willing to leave Brown Street. The schedule was so strict that the sight of washing on the line late in the week would bring neighbors over to find out what was wrong. And while drilling Hilda in clothes boiling and floor scrubbing and wallpaper scouring, Franciska bombarded her with an unending lecture on values. In the decades since her husband J.L. had died, Franciska had hardened in her view of the world. It was imperative to be married. It was irrelevant whether one's husband was faithful. One owed one's husband utter obedience even if one despised him--because one's true obedience was to God, and a bad husband like J.L. was only a test that God had sent.

Listening to Franciska made Hilda bone weary and heartsick. But she stayed, and she learned.

The next son, Eugene, was the shy sort who sat silently at the dinner table with his head down and excused himself the instant his plate was clean. He never spoke in class, was an indifferent student, and barely managed to drag himself through to the tenth grade. Bosh got him a job at Nelson, and he spent a year learning how to cut and polish porcelain slabs into sinks and toilet bowls. He worked hard without ever losing his perpetual air of sullen distraction. All he really wanted was to be left alone, and his only genuine enthusiasm in life was hunting.

The countryside around Edwardsville was mostly fenced in and cultivated by then, and the big game of the old times was long gone. But farther from town there were woodlands and meadows where deer lingered and marshlands swarming with waterfowl. Eugene took to spending days at a time out in the deep countryside. He put in a lot of time around Alhambra, where his mother had been born and where her family still lived. In recent years there had been a cautious rapprochement between Agnes and her relatives--they were willing to talk to her again once they heard she'd left the Catholic church--and when Eugene introduced himself he was welcomed with open arms. He grew particularly close to Agnes's brother August, who owned a big farm just outside of town. August gave Eugene permission to hunt in his fields and pastures, and often Eugene returned home to Edwardsville with rabbits, a deer haunch, and a couple of big buckets overflowing with wild blueberries and morel mushrooms.

On the farm Eugene made his closest friend. This was August's younger brother Frank. Frank was a reclusive figure who rarely left the farmhouse and didn't like to be approached too closely, avoiding eye contact and ducking away as though looking for the nearest shadow. This was a legacy of his childhood, when he'd suffered such a bad case of eczema he couldn't go out in public--his family had home-schooled him and kept him soothed in ointments and swathed in loose wrappings of cotton, the only clothing he could tolerate. Nor was that the end of his misfortunes. One day when he was ten, his brothers were shooting arrows at a fence and thought it would be funny to push him up behind the knothole they were using as a target; he lost an eye. He was somebody who, as the family said, "had a tough break in life."

But by the time Eugene met him things had changed. The eczema had vanished, and he had grown into a gaunt but oddly handsome man with a roguish eye patch. He was eternally grateful to his brother August for taking him in. One of his nieces remembers: "Frank did everything for August. He kept house, cooked, canned, baked darn good bread, washed, milked, farmed, you name it. August said Frank did everything for him but have a baby, and he would have done that if he could."

Frank hated strangers but gradually unbent around Eugene, and sometimes even accompanied him on his hunting trips--pointing out good blinds and hard-to-spot cuts in the most tangled underbrush. He couldn't do any shooting because of his eye, but he was a good companion who knew how to keep silent. He and Eugene sometimes spent days together with no company but Eugene's hunting dogs. Both were perfectly content not to say a word.

Bosh and Agnes's youngest child, Helen, grew up to be tall, big-boned, plain, and ungainly. She was more soft-spoken even than Eugene--except that in her case something always seemed to be stewing behind her silence, some grievance she wouldn't disclose. She hated to be noticed, detested being made fun of by her siblings, got red-faced and unintelligible whenever she was ever called on in class. She never talked back, but sometimes a sly, lemon-tart look crossed her face, as though she'd just thought of the snippiest comeback in the world but had too much self-regard to say it.

Her main pleasure in life was the movies. There was a movie theater opposite the old town square (it had once been a burlesque house where Al Jolson and W.C. Fields had played), and Bosh took the whole family there every Saturday night. Bosh loved the comedies; sometimes as they walked home he would imitate Charlie Chaplin and make a mad silhouette against the night sky, twirling and prancing and kicking up clouds of dust from the road. But Helen was wild for exotic romances, The Sheik and The Count of Monte Cristo. She was inconsolable for weeks after Rudolf Valentino died.

For years it seemed as though graduating from high school was going to be Clarence's only accomplishment. Even with the diploma he had a hard time finding work. Just like his father, he went through a lot of jobs--so many that afterward the family couldn't remember them all. He did day labor at the radiator factory; he spent one miserable winter trudging from door to door selling "real silk hosiery." But his best job was with a local passenger railroad. He sorted mail on the daily run between Saint Louis and Chicago. He knew nothing about either city when he started, and he never saw any more of them than their rail terminals; but as day after day he looked up addresses in the battered street guide and shoved the envelopes into the pigeonholes labeled with the names of the branch post offices, he gradually built up a mental image of the city grids--what ethnic names were clustered in what neighborhoods, which business districts were flourishing and which were getting dunned by mobs of creditors. He got to the point where he figured he could find his way around either city blindfolded without having set foot on a single street. In the summer of 1926, he announced to Bosh and Agnes that he was moving to Chicago to try his luck there.

Next week: The Champion Distancer

Previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.

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