If you’ve lived in Illinois for any time at all, you know that February is not the nicest month around these parts.
Despite all the love expressed on Valentine’s Day, the fact is, Illinois weather in February is just about the worst the region can offer. Cold, snow, sometimes rain and mud, followed by ice and frozen mud, are all things February throws at us every year.
Which is why it might puzzle you a bit that February was the month my parents chose to get married.
My mom mostly grew up on the east side of Aurora in what was then called “Dutch Town” because of the majority population of Germans that lived there.
My grandfather worked in the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops downtown while my grandmother kept house. But in 1920, my grandmother – a country girl – persuaded my grandfather to move out of town to a farm. So out to Wheatland Township they went, moving from their nice Queen Anne two-story home on Hinman Street into a dumpy little house on one of the Lewis McLaren farms they rented just up the road from the Tamarack School.
My grandfather continued in his job in Aurora for a couple of years, walking the mile and a half down 127th Street to the interurban trolley line where he caught a car into town, worked his 10 hours and commuted home again. Meanwhile my grandmother milked cows to sell the butter, milk and cream; raised chickens; tended a huge garden and large orchard; took care of the kids; and kept house.
It was about the same time my father, figuring the frequent drifts of dust blocking the back door of his family’s Kansas farmhouse were bad omens, decided to go with his buddy and a cousin to California to join the Navy. They stayed overnight at another cousin’s place, who talked them out of joining the peace-time Navy. The cousin added he heard there were jobs to be had in Illinois, so the trio turned around and headed back east, winding up in Ottawa. There they worked as steeplejacks for a couple of years before my dad decided he wanted to get back into farming. He took the interurban trolley from Ottawa to Joliet and from there to downtown Aurora, making sure to arrive on a Saturday night when farm families came to town for their weekly shopping.
He walked down Broadway, asking the first person he saw that looked like a farmer if he was hiring. No, the man said, but he knew who was. And so, with a few detours, my father found himself working for Jim and Bess McMicken out in the same Scots neighborhood my mother’s parents had moved to.
My grandfather and my dad met during a volunteer project at the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church. Grandpa was impressed by how hard a worker my dad was, and so invited him home for a meal. That’s where he met my mom, and where, nature taking its course, after their marriage in February 1930, my two older sisters and I eventually showed up.
But why did they pick February for their wedding date? Well, back then, many if not most farmers rented and did not own their own land. Farms were rented every spring, generally at the end of February or the first of March. And so if you were a young couple looking to rent a farm, it was smart to get chores – like your wedding, for instance – out of the way so you’d be ready to jump on the first available farm that came up for rent.
Throughout the region, families moved from farm to farm, leaving old neighborhoods and one-room schools behind to take up another farm elsewhere.
Keeping everyone abreast of the area’s moves, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Feb. 28, 1930: “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kuhns have moved to the L.D. Judd farm near Sugar Grove. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Meyer and family have moved into the place vacated by the Kuhns.”
By 1939, so many farm families were moving that the correspondent ran a special story on it each week during the spring season. “‘The time has come, the Walrus said’ for many farmers to pack up their household and farm equipment and move to another farm,” she wrote on March 1 before listing several family moves, and adding, “Other moves in this annual checker game will be given next week.”
In 1930, my newly married parents found a farm over on what’s now Ill. Route 126. An old house even then, it needed fixing up, which my grandfather, who by then had left the Burlington shops and was farming and doing carpenter work, did. Establishing a precedent, he went into town and bought whatever wallpaper was the cheapest and everyone pitched in to paper the walls and paint the woodwork.
From that farm, they moved to Minkler Road and the infamous Gates’ Place. The Gates’ Place forever after was the low point by which all other rented farmhouses were gauged. It was the place where snow drifted through the closed bedroom windows and the teakettle froze on the back burner of the cookstove at night.
From there, they moved to another one of the McLaren farms. With the farm came old Mrs. McLaren, whom my mother was expected to care for and who was then well into dementia, her paranoia dictating that she never turned her back on my father, even when climbing the stairs to go to bed, which she did by walking backwards.
It was a short trip down 127th Street to Tamarack Corners and then a couple miles north to the Butcher Place for the final farm my folks rented, and where I spent my first eight years. In December 1954, we moved to town and left the farm rental lottery for good.
Today, that once-common ritual of families moving from farm to farm is almost entirely a thing of the past. But at one time, there was a whole lot of movin’ going on around these parts at this time of year.
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