The two people riding
 on the horse drawn
 reaper are my mother,
Maudaleen Speakman,
and her foster grandfather,
James O. Ward. 
The man on the ground is
George Sigler
who was another foster
child that the Wards raised. 
The man standing is either a
neighbor or hired man.
Contributed by Hank Weaver

ILLINOIS TRAILS CUMBERLAND COUNTY

HENRY A. WEAVER'S MEMORIES OF HIS
CHILDHOOD IN CUMBERLAND COUNTY

I remember that dirt roads were usually traveled on with my grandparents, my mother's parents, and indeed they lead to a neat place, like the Victorian farm house at Hazel Dell where my grandmother was raised, or a fishing/ camping/ picnicking spot on a creek bank where we fished, played and, in the spring, hunted mushrooms or hiked around through the woods.  These were all fun activities we spent with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

If we went to “the farm” in the spring, we watched the men relatives plant soybeans, or in the fall everyone would glean a cornfield by picking corn off the ground, corn that the mechanical corn picker had missed, shucking it and throwing the shucked ears of corn into a specially built wagon.  These wagons had one side higher than the other.  This high side was called the “bang board” and it was always opposite the row we were gleaning, and we'd throw the corn ears against the bang board making a loud banging sound as they bounced into the wagon.  The bangboard provided a bigger target, which was needed because we were usually throwing from a stooped position.  We didn't perform this activity for long because, I'm sure, we were very young and not accustomed to farm work.  Besides that, we were there for fun on the weekend, not to work in the fields.  I'm also sure that the activity, however long, was planned to teach us town kids about farming.  My family was like that.

The house had an old cast iron cook stove and our grandmother, our mother and aunts would fire it up and cook a meal on it.  Upstairs in the house was a beautiful old Walnut pump organ, sheet music, Audubon color prints of songbirds printed by the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and several antique clip-on candle holders for decorating a Christmas tree.  My dad once said the candleholders were often the cause for houses burning down, and I'm sure that happened.  We never took any of these things from the house, but I wish we had now.  I suppose at the time we wanted it all to be there the next time we visited.

The house also had a beautiful Victorian lamp hanging from the ceiling of the dining room.  This was a kerosene lamp with hand painted globe and fuel reservoir and was suspended from the ceiling by two chains attached to a mechanism, atop the lamp, used to raise and lower the lamp.  It was lowered over the table during mealtime and raised up, out of the, way when not in use.  My dad took it down and electrified it and hung it from the ceiling in my grandparent's dining room in Casey.  After they died, he brought it to our house and we used it over our dining table for many years.  It now hangs from the ceiling in my dining room.  

Besides learning about the actual farming and household activities on the farm, we learned about nature.  The farm had no indoor plumbing unless you can define plumbing as a water well pump in the kitchen.  They had an outhouse complete with a quarter moon cutout for ventilation and a path leading to it from the back door of the house.  I used this bit of nature many times when nature called on the farm.  There was a feral cat inhabiting the old barn near the house.  My sister, Martha, and I would always venture out there to see if we could catch a glimpse of the cat.  He never disappointed us, but a glimpse is all we ever got.  There were coons living in the attic of the house and one day my surprised grandmother opened a cubbyhole upstairs and found a grown raccoon staring back at her. This was the source of my first pet raccoon, a great pet that we caught as a baby and nursed with a bottle until he could take solid food.  I had Chooney for a couple of years until we turned him loose one summer day in the woods at the Timothy farm. He was a fun pet. He used to climb the cherry trees with me in our back yard and I would pick the cherries and he would reach into my shirt pockets and pant cuffs feeling for cherries I had place there for him.

The farmhouse also had honeybees living under the clapboard siding high up on the second floor.  Those were the meanest honeybees I've ever seen.  They were relatively small, rather black in color and would sting a person for just walking by. My dad once brought an extension ladder with us to the farm and climbed up the side of the house to get the bees out and take the honey.  He was stung so many times that day that he abandoned the project for another day. The bees flew up his pant legs and shirtsleeves and stung him all over.  I got stung twice just for standing on the ground watching from about 30 yards away.  The next time we went to the farm, my dad was equipped with a pair of gloves, tape for his pant legs and shirt cuffs and a pith helmet having a bee protective mask he and my mother crudely made out of cheesecloth.  The system worked better and he captured the honey, but the mask proved of little use against these determined, mean bees and he was stung many times again.  We had honey that year, but it was dark in color and had bits of wax mixed throughout.  Our dad never bothered the bees again.

There were huge oak trees in the front yard and smaller trees in the back.  They had wren house gourds hanging in the smaller trees and wrens were to been seen, and heard, coming and going in the summer.  This is where my grandfather taught us how to make a gourd wren house.  He had a pocketknife to cut a hole in the birdhouse gourd and clean it out.  I remember he taught us that the entry hole was cut the same size as a quarter and that is the pattern I use today in making my wren houses. My dad was astonished one day at the farm when I walked up and tickled a wren under his neck as he stuck his head out of his gourd house.  The wren seemed to enjoy it.

Using his pocketknife, Granddad, as we called him, also made little whistles from green branches.  I was not such an observer of this craft, but he would take a green twig about 3/8 inch diameter and six inches long and would hollow it out lengthwise, bore holes along the length for different tones and, for sound production, he would slice out a wedge near the end where we put our mouth to blow on the whistle.  I wish I had seen him make these because I'm not sure as to the tricks he used to hollow out the stick and to cut the sound producing wedge. I'm sure these are vital elements in the production of these whistles.

My dad and I found an opossum lying along “the lane” one night. The lane was another dirt road; only this one was an access road for farm implements, one lane, leading into the town of
Hazel Dell.  My dad stopped the car and we got out and went over to look at the possum because it was strange to find a possum appearing dead, lying along an abandon, one lane dirt road at night.  There were no signs of injury from being hit by an unlikely car or an attack from another animal.  We never did find out the fate of the possum, but we found that she had about eight or 10 baby possums in her pouch. They were about two inches long, hairless and were wriggling around in some clear gelatinous material.  I had learned that opossums are marsupials, like kangaroos, and their young are born the conventional way, but they wind up in a pouch located on the mother's belly where they fully develop. About an hour later, on our way back to the farm, the possum was gone from the roadside, not to be found.  I guess she had been “playing possum” during our inspection of her, just like I had always heard.

The access point for “the pond” was along the lane, the one lane dirt road where my dad and I found the opossum.  The pond was merely a low spot in the huge soybean field and there was always water in the pond, even in dry weather.  Cattails grew along the bank and big green frogs could be seen at the water's edge beyond the stand of cattails.  Martha and I, along with our cousins, wanted to eat frog legs, so our dad went into town and bought frog gigs for our use in harvesting frogs.  Before this, however, our dad tried shooting the frogs with a 22 pistol, but the frogs, whether shot or missed, would leap, along with every other frog in the pond, way out into the center of the pond, not to be seen again for a couple of hours.  The gigs didn't work either because we had to creep through the cattails in order to get close enough to gig the frogs.  No matter how careful we were in creeping through the cattails, the frogs would hear us coming, croak and leap with all the other frogs into the center of the pond, disappearing again for a couple of hours.  

Martha and I devised the ultimate weapon to use against the frogs. We made frog clubs that were long, straight wooden poles cut from sapling trees.  These frog clubs were about seven or eight feet long having one end about 1-1/2 inches in diameter and the other about one inch in diameter.  We walked out to the pond the next night, and when we spotted a frog through the cattails, we crouched beyond the cattails right behind him and, laying the club out behind us, big end away, both hands wrapped around the little end above our heads, we'd swing the club straight up, over head and down through the cattails as hard as we could, our feet coming off the ground, smashing the frog where he sat at the waters edge.  It worked like a charm and everyone in the family enjoyed frog legs because of our ingenuity.     

In the hottest part of the summertime, the dirt road running in front of this Victorian farmhouse formed dust up to our ankles.  I remember it was ground as fine as talcum powder and it felt both warm and cool standing ankle deep, barefooted in it on a hot summer day.  Shortly after my mother, her sisters and her brother decided to sell the farm and had closed the deal, the new owner, a corporate farmer, bulldozed the house down, the barn and the outhouse too, uprooted the big oak trees, filled in the low spot in the field where the frog pond had been and planted soybeans over the entire property.  Had it not been for my mother being with me many years later, I would not have been able to find the location of the farm.  My cousin told me earlier this year that the owner has recently plowed both the dirt road in front of the property and the one lane dirt road leading into town, and he is planting soybeans where the dirt roads once were.

I had dirt roads in my childhood, but there aren't many of them left these days.

Contributed for Genealogy Trails by Henry A. Weaver (henryweaver@cox.net)



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