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, in Aurora’s more sophisticated Copley hospital, we were soon brought home to Naperville.

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 160 acre plots. I suppose this basic plan then continued west as far as Iowa, or even farther, with spotty eruptions of town and city life. Though we were largely unaware of the fact, this topography shaped our lives.

Chicago 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 Naperville of my day, nevermind it’s proximity to the big city of Chicago. Zooming out, it can be said that as Naperville was the locus of the thousands of acres of farms surrounding it, Chicago was the locus of the millions of agricultural acres that came to surround it.

Only in a small way was Naperville also a bedroom community of Chicago for a hundred or so people who made the daily commute on the Burlington railroad into the big city each day. I know because for a time I woke up very early and sold newspapers at the train station to suited, tied and hatted commuters as they boarded their train for their hour-or-so trip to the canyons of the big city. Yet the general population seemed to me to be largely oblivious of this aspect of the town and viewed Chicago as simply a large but remote place that everyone knew was at the other end of the railroad track and Ogden Avenue. Until I was able to drive a car myself, I doubt I had visited the city of Chicago with my parents more than a half dozen times, perhaps less.

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 Naperville after dark. I could not say whether that prohibition was actually in the statute books or not, but there certainly were no people of color in Naperville at that time, unless you count the temporary Mexican labor that worked at the mushroom plant and lived in dormitories on the premises. Come to think of it more carefully though, there was a single African-American inhabitant: my mother’s best friend, Charlotte Hermes, whose father was bedridden with a stroke and required constant care, employed a live-in colored maid. I remember that her name was Josie, and that she had been instructed by Charlotte to finish her errands and be back home before dark. I was admonished not to reveal her surreptitious occupancy for fear Charlotte might lose Josie’s assistance.

There was also one family of Jews in Naperville, the Rubins. The father, Sam, was the proprietor of a dry goods store, and later Alfred, his son—we just called him Al—ran a restaurant called the Rafter House. I remember it rather fondly because they made excellent, fresh doughnuts in a gleaming, semi-automated, stainless steel donut machine stationed dominantly in the middle of the restaurant. When I worked at the shop, which was nearby (of which more later), we had coffee breaks there twice a day. I remember that one day each year they would give away the “holes” of all the doughnuts made that year. I don’t remember any overt racism toward the family, but I was probably not old enough to have detected it even had it existed.

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.