Glenn Miller - String of Pearls

John - as monkey

This turned out to be the site of our new house. The diving tree with a nailed-on ladder was preserved

Sewer line (top)
water line (bot)
Looking out the living room window
The high dive (tree), the low dive (with cousin Rose) and the bag swing on the right

One day in 1947 or 48, when I was about sixteen, our parents asked my brother and I if we would like to take a ride.  “Where to,” we asked.

“You'll see," they replied. With surprise in the air, we got in the car and took a short ride down Main street, as though we were going to grandmas, but at the last minute we turned right, up Aurora road and after only a mile or so, right across from where the high school is now, we turned down a long, narrow winding dirt road, dense with acres of maple trees on either side. We got out of the car in the middle of a small clearing just south of the river. The water of what seemed like a small lake could just be seen in the distance, through the trees. My mother had not packed a lunch for a picnic and we were somewhat mystified as to the reason for this trip. 

We had come to what was known as the Little Quarry, the smallest of the three stone quarries in Naperville, the only one that the city did not own. We kids, of course, had heard some few things about the Little Quarry, of which the most intriguing was that it was known as a place where some older boys and girls occasionally skinny dipped; and who knew what else went on.  It was even rumored that old cars, perhaps with the dead bodies still in them, were sunk in its depths.  In short, the place had a rather gamy nose about it. What were we doing here?

To our astonishment we were informed that we were going to live here in a little while after dad built a new house here. As we wandered about, mom said—dad was already off looking around and dreaming—that dad and another man, Harry Ridley, who owned the Chrysler dealership across from the shop, had bought the quarry and the surrounding woods from the von Oven sisters, the heiresses of Naperville Nurseries. Much of the woods surrounding the quarry consisted of regularly spaced small maple trees because the land had been used by the company as a tree nursery after the stone had been quarried. They pointed out a frame house on the other side of the quarry that was still occupied by one Leonard Hedstrom, an old Scandinavian fellow who had worked for years at the nursery, was then retired, and who was to live there until he died; that was part of the deal with the von Oven sisters. Apparently, the von Ovens had owned considerable property in the area including land south of Aurora road. (I found out later that their father had also owned the double-quarry at one time, still the site of Centennial Beach, where my brother and I swam nearly every day during past summers.)

It was kind of hard to see how this could be our home since it was so woodsy and uncivilized, unlike our well established home on Mill street. But if dad said he was going to build a house, I had not the slightest doubt that he would do it. What I would only gradually come to find out was how much my brother and I, and mom as well, were to be involved in the project. The rest of that year, that summer and fall, the four of us commuted to this place quite regularly from home, after school and work, clearing the undergrowth, building rock walls, and performing all manner of clean-up trying to accommodate the site to the goal of building the house we were to live in.

We almost always had a large fire burning just to get rid of the deadwood and the undergrowth that had not been cleaned up for years. We also adopted the practice of cutting down two of every three maple trees, there in great abundance, trimming them, and stacking their trunks in large piles to dry. The trees had originally been intended to be dug up and sold by the nursery and they were crowding each other out. Thinning them in this way, would permit the remainder to grow to full maturity. At least that was the plan. We quickly got tired of playing lumberjack, though it was kind of neat to swing a two-bladed ax like Paul Bunyan. Chainsaws had yet to be invented.

That winter my father engaged an architect, John S. Van Bergen. Supposedly, he designed in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright, trying to fit the house into the look of the land rather than forcing the land to accommodate to the traditional needs of a house. My folks had come to like this style. I remember a one-day trip to the architect’s house near Barrington, Illinois where he and his wife lived. It was built on a very tall hill, one could almost say a small mountain, and it overlooked miles and miles of apple trees. The view was spectacular. My father tried to describe the quarry area and Mr. Van Bergen quickly produced a number of hand-drawn rough sketches. The way he could rough-out plans so quickly, and free hand, was quite impressive. The house in Barrington also impressed because it was so different than anything we had seen before. The floor was a concrete slab that was finished merely with a colored wax. The roof was flat and the windows were huge and fixed, looking out over the great tree covered hills. One almost had the feeling of living out of doors.

I could hardly imagine what sort of place we might now live in. A house like our humble Mill street home was certainly not in the picture. We left with a roll of sketches on a thin, brownish, tissue-like paper that I later learned was called in the trade by the suggestive name of “bum wad”. (Curiously, one of my several later careers became that of architectural draftsman.) My dad could hardly wait to get back. Later he signed an agreement with Mr. Van Bergen who then visited the quarry area, taking measurements and discussing options with my folks.

After some months, and many changes and corrections, the final plans were completed and shortly thereafter, the next spring as I recall, construction began. It was not an easy job because of the stone. A deep trench was dug using a large backhoe for thousands of yards from the Little Quarry down the wide path that passed between the Big Quarry and the river, part of an area that has now come to be known as the Riverwalk, and a large sewer pipe was laid in it connecting to the city’s sewer system. One could not use a septic tank because the area around the quarries was all stone with the exception of perhaps a foot or so of topsoil. In order to get water a temporary dam was built across the DuPage River, half at a time, and another trench was dug in its lee for a cast iron water pipe which connected to the city water supply at Centennial Beach. These were major projects merely to build a single house in a rather isolated and unaccommodating place.

My father had sent someone he trusted to Iowa to check out and bring back a small Caterpillar tractor he had somehow located. Later, at the shop, he fabricated a large steel tooth to go on the front of it as well as a large steel blade, as on a conventional bulldozer. He also made a steel bucket, almost like those on a backhoe. These implements could be swapped-out in just a few minutes time. The tooth was used to rip up surface stone from an area where it was still exposed near the west end of the quarry a few feet above the water line. The stone was to be used to build the walls of our house. After a pass with the tooth, men selected suitable stones and threw them on a truck. This was backbreaking labor and I was expected to help. 

The resulting one-story house, built in the small area just between the river and the quarry, was novel in many respects. First of all, largely built of quarry stone, it blended smoothly and naturally into the landscape. As in our architect’s house in Barrington, the floor was simply a concrete slab. An intricate hot water piping system was embedded in the concrete; this provided the heat for the house. In the cold winters it was very pleasant; the floor was always just a little toasty warm on your feet. The roof was flat and the edges of the roof were built up a couple inches so that water could be kept on the roof all year round. In the summer, ice cold spring water was pumped from the depths of the quarry onto the roof to help keep the house cool and counter-intuitively, to protect the roof itself. In the winters, which seemed colder then than now, the water on the roof would naturally freeze and deep snow would collect on the roof, providing insulation, like an igloo. Sometimes, when the temperature dropped very fast in the winter, the ice on the roof would crack like thunder as it froze and shrank. Very large, twin-glass, “Thermopane” windows, which were then a new product, overlooked the quarry and essentially made the walls of the living room disappear. Unfortunately this was a problem for the many birds that crashed into them and usually died. Today this sort of construction might be called “eco-friendly” (except for the birds), but the term, in 1948, had not yet been coined.

My father did not hire a contractor to construct the house. Instead, he closed the shop and the guys who worked there were put to building it. Machinists and welders became excavators, stonemasons, carpenters, pipe fitters, electricians and general all around constructors, a quite remarkable transformation. It was a very interesting experience to be somewhat involved in its construction myself.

It was fantastic to live there, a huge change from living on Mill Street. And of course my brother and I were getting older. In the summers we swam in the quarry, our own huge swimming pool. The top ten feet or so, heated by the sun, was quite warm. Sometimes the whole family swam together, even in the late evening in the warm, silky water, light provided only by the moon. One day my brother, something of a monkey at that time, climbed very high into a large tree near the bank of the quarry and fastened a long rope onto a large horizontal limb for a bag swing. On the lower end of the rope we fastened a burlap bag stuffed with pieces of foam rubber. We would pull the bag back up the hill and stand at the very top of the bank, then jump onto the bag and swing way out over the quarry, leaping off at the end of the swing for a marvelous plunge. Dad also put in a diving board, and a wooden raft was built and put out in the quarry in the summer. All my boyhood friends joined us frequently, and of course all our relations were happy to come over. Sometimes at night we just sat out on the screened porch in the dark, not talking, just quietly listening to the crickets and the locusts and taking in the evening.

A year or two later, my dad and Ridley sold a piece of the property directly across the quarry from our house to my aunt and uncle, the ones with the two girls, Ann and Rose, first cousins near our age with whom my brother and I had very much liked to play with at grandmas. They built a house there and after they moved in we shared holiday meals, and both kids and adults often swam together in the quarry.

Our quarry house had a guest bedroom. This seemed a little odd since previously we had never ever had an overnight guest (at Mill Street they would have had to sleep on the couch anyway) and I suppose I just put it down to an architectural notion. But one day a year or two after we had moved in, my brother and I were told that we would be having a guest, and for a considerable period of time too. Dorothy was a friend of my parents who as I recall had gone to high school with my father. My brother and I did not know her, but our folks knew her, her family … and so forth. She had severe and crippling arthritis, could neither walk nor feed herself. She had a specially made wheelchair because she could not even bend her knees or hips. Since the disease had become debilitating she had been staying with her brother and his wife. Characteristically, we were not informed by our parents as to the whys or wherefores of the arrangement, but I suspect now that right about then my parents were feeling pretty lucky and felt as though they ought to right the balance somewhat and give a little something back. My mother, the nurse, may also have had thoughts of rehabilitation. I was not thrilled with the idea; we were a pretty close-knit, little family and the thought of having a stranger in our midst 24 hours a day did not appeal to me.

One day a week or so later, Dorothy arrived. The first days were stressful as everyone tried to adjust to something we had never before dealt with. My mother cut up her food and fed her because she could no longer feed herself. She had a specially made silver spoon that she could grasp in her deformed hand for the purpose but she seemed unable to use it. My mother’s first project was to try to help her get that facility back. Little by little, in her new surroundings, and drawing on her inner resources, she began to cope a little bit better. My mother and whoever else was available (it was difficult) got her out of bed every day and into her wheelchair. She was moved around to the living room where she could look over the quarry, into the kitchen to chat while mom was working, out on the screened-in porch on a nice day, and so forth. Some of her friends came over to visit. Occasionally her brother would come over to get her for dinner.  At our house she usually came tableside when we had dinner guests, some she knew and some were new to her. She spoke easily with everyone. I think my mother’s theory was that action would be a balm and give her strength for the difficult things she was trying to get her to do.

At the shop I built a little electrical gizmo out of aluminum and some micro-switches which she could manipulate with her crippled hand. With it she could turn her bedroom lights on and off herself, ring for my mother, and a couple other functions that I can’t remember.  Later, with the help of Western Electric, we tied in a newfangled speakerphone to one of the switches—probably one of the first to have left the lab—so she could call people on her own. Gradually, unaccountably, her wicked sense of humor began to reveal itself—from where one wonders—and, with that as a catalyst, she became a part of our family and we had had as much fun with her as she seemed to with us. I believe she stayed with us for well over a year, after which she had to go into a home with medical facilities. Unfortunately the only treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in those days was aspirin, of which she took about 30 a day, as an anti-inflammatory. Tylenol and steroidal treatments were yet to be invented. Little by little the aspirin destroyed her stomach. One day, shortly thereafter we went informed that she had died.

In the winters we skated on the ice of the quarry, and on the river too. Sometimes when the ice was just right, smooth and relatively free of snow, a few of us would sling rifles over our shoulders and head up river skating for miles up into farm country, shooting at crows or blackbirds, just having a good time. 

It was fascinating to watch the ice on the river break up in the spring. It would pile up in great thick sheets jumbled helter-skelter together. Where the river would narrow, which was right by our house, it would get stuck, the effect forming a dam until eventually the swollen water would create a critical mass in the ice jam and the whole pile would break up and float rapidly and dangerously down the fast-moving river. One year when the ice was particularly thick, and the water especially high, it jammed up in front of the then wooden footbridge at Eagle Street and a large crane with a big concrete ball at the end of a cable had to be brought in to break it up in order to save the bridge.

I also vividly recall several transcendently beautiful mornings in the very early spring, waking after an ice storm had hit. The trees and their millions of branches had turned to crystal, and our little family breakfasted in our large-windowed kitchen, almost raptly, in our bathrobes, alone in the middle of this fairyland.