1936 Plymouth Coupe
Acres and Acres
Glenn Miller - Sunrise Serenade
I was in fact born in Aurora, Illinois, about nine miles
west of Naperville,
in 1934, as, three years later, was my brother John, because Naperville had no
hospital in those days, only several doctors’ offices—usually just a room of
their homes—and Edwards’ TB sanitarium,
which only later was to become a general hospital. My mother was a nurse and
believed in modern medicine; one ought to be born in a proper hospital. We
were, incidentally, both born through caesarean section, a rather unusual
procedure in those days. Nevertheless, though having been extracted, so to say,
It was then quite a small town. It is about 30 miles west of Chicago and now no longer small, having (2005) a population in the neighborhood of 130 thousand. This would have been inconceivable to us when we were young, since whatever small changes that occurred there as we grew up were so imperceptible to us as to create the illusion that the town never changed, when of course it did.
When we were boys, the population was about 5000 souls, as the older people might then have said, and the town was the focus of the thousands and thousands of acres of pancake-flat farmland that surrounded it. It contained: a feed store; a blacksmith shop (ours); numerous churches, a mix of most of the Christian varieties; a Catholic grammar school (where we went), several small public elementary schools and one public high school; small grocery stores and meat markets; a police station; a YMCA and, next to it, a quite nice little library that was built of local stone; several drugstores and dry goods stores; Chrysler, Ford and Chevrolet dealerships and quite a number of small gas stations; some few bars and restaurants, at least in comparison to today.
Most numerous of all though were neat orderly rows of small clapboard houses almost all built with screened-in front porches (mosquitoes—no DDT then). Today many of these homes would seem small cottages; even outhouses were not completely unknown. I am told that some of these small homes are now being sold merely for the purpose of being torn down in order that more grand homes may be built on the land they occupy.
The eastern side of town—we lived on the western side—was a little more well-to-do or, as we might say today, upscale. It contained, among other fine cultural amenities: North Central College, a protestant Christian college of the Methodist persuasion from which my brother later graduated, nevermind that we were Catholics; the grand, steepled, Roman Catholic church with the Catholic grammar school we attended; several other fine churches (though a small and rather plain, wooden, appropriately stern-looking, Lutheran church rested comfortably on the west side, separate from its cousins, as though to whisper, “I’m humble”). There were also many fine homes of stone and brick. Washington Street, the nexus of the town’s small business district, divides the east side from the west side.
There were vast tracts of what we just called woods, mainly
along the Dupage River which bisects the town: maple trees, elms, cottonwoods,
sumacs, oaks and numerous others unidentifiable by us, underbrush and weeds
proliferating below the treetops. These woods also grew outside of the town
along the river, and on land too stony, hilly, or otherwise too poor to farm.
The immense fields—largely of corn, but also of wheat, grasses for animals, and
later soybeans—were everywhere else. In the country, gravel roads were laid out
on a more or less regular grid for access to the farms, generally
was incorporated as a city of 350 people in 1833, while Naperville was founded
in 1831 by one Captain
Joseph Naper. So it is easy to understand the fundamentally agricultural
orientation of the
Only in a small way was Naperville also a bedroom community
Ethnically, most of the inhabitants were of German stock: Wiesbrooks, Meisingers, Beckers, Hildebrands, Falhaubers, Fredericks and of course a passel of Goetsches, to name only a few of my family’s friends, relatives and acquaintances. I am sure this recitation overstates the case considerably, nevertheless I believe my remark was truer than not when I was a boy. Yet at that time of course, because we were young, we rarely thought of things in that way. We were not really aware of race, and I suppose we assumed that people everywhere were pretty much the same as us, though we were made aware that big cities like Chicago, and even Aurora, nine miles further west, were, to some extent, different.
It was understood, if rarely stated, that colored people, to
use the vernacular of the time, were not permitted in
There was also one family of Jews in
My immediate family moved from Naperville to Pittsburgh in 1960, planning to stay for a year, but apparently it got out of hand as I’m still here in Pittsburgh some four or five decades later, an indication of how well one can typically plan one’s life. But some of the most poignant memories I have are from my earliest days in Naperville and that is what I want to write about here, the small town I knew then, and which still occupies a large, and rosy, space in my memory.