Monday, December 17, 2007

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 2)

From when I was born in 1960 until 1969 we went to my grandparents’ home in northwest Iowa for Christmas each year. For several years we flew (Ozark Airlines DC-3 propeller planes Iowa City to Sioux City) because it was much easier than trying to fight snow and ice for a seven hour drive.

My grandparents always had long needle pine Christmas trees. The tree was always set up in the parlor off the living room, a room whose only other regular use was to provide a place for Grandpa to take his after noon-dinner naps for 15 minutes before going back to work as an independent electrician. What made their tree spectacular were the lights. The lights on their tree looked like glowing snowballs. They were enormous and multi-colored. I didn’t know of anyone else who had lights like them.

In 2005 when we moved in here at Foxcroft my dad gave me an Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice box and said he thought I would appreciate the contents. I opened it up and found this:

And these:

All together I have over two dozen bulbs. Now they are on our tree:

I think they look great, especially since to go along with the snowball lights, we have these behind our regular lights:

That make this:

I had bought a huge box of old Christmas stuff over 20 years ago at an auction, and 15 of these were in there. I’m embarrassed to admit it took me three Christmases to figure out what they were.

In an age where we are buying incredibly expensive, but reputedly long lasting compact florescent lights, why are these lights all working nearly 50 years later?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 1)

I don’t know why I started in the north corner of the attic when I began cleaning it out in December of 2004, shortly after Helen’s death. Perhaps it seemed the least daunting. There were a set of wooden shelves built into the eaves, and one of the very first things I found there, as I started going through, was a wooden block that had been carved to show the front of the house:

It was in a box with printer’s ink and rollers. I saved the wood block away and thought it was cool. I knew that Helen was a very accomplished artist, and knew it was her work.

Three months later, while STILL working to clear out the attic I found a hand printed Christmas card/booklet. It was tied together with a fancy green, red and gold string. The front looked familiar:

At the bottom of the card is printed:

This is the house our jack built

“Jack” being a slang term for money

This was page two of the card:

This is the Cat that lives in the house our jack built

Page three:

These are the people who care for the Cat who lives in the house our jack built

Page four:

This is the greeting card sent by the people who care for the Cat that lives in the house our jack built “A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to each of you”

And in the manner of Bess' and Helen's verse, I humbly add the following:

And this is the story made by the people who lovingly cherish the greeting card sent by the people who care for the Cat that lives in the house their jack built

2008 Update: “This post was written for as part of a sweepstakes sponsored by SC Johnson’s Right At Home contest:

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Amatuer Archivist

I decided to take a two and half hour break from shoveling ice yesterday and pulled down a box from above the bookcases in the library. Stored above the bookcases are about a dozen boxes with memorabilia from the builders of our home. These all came from upstairs when we cleared out second floor, and took the 1200 sq ft attic and finished it into three bedrooms and a bath. The cousin who inherited the contents of the house asked me to keep whatever papers and photos I wanted, hence the dozen boxes stacked above the bookcases..

Our house was built in 1928 by Bess Fox, a widow and her 18 year old daughter Helen. We moved into the house six months after Helen’s death at age 92, in late 2004. We owned the house for a year before Helen died and I got to know some of her family’s story.

What I need to mention is that over at the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections Department is a collection called “Papers of the Fox Family” that were donated by Helen Fox Angell in 1985. This collection includes letters written by Bess Fox to her husband while he was serving in France before his death during World War I, and his letters to her. Also in the collection are letters from Bess to her daughter, Helen, while she served overseas in the American Red Cross during World War II. When we first bought the house I looked at this collection, but only to find pictures of the house. The photos that are in the blog banner are from that collection.

A brief synopsis of the family history that will help in look at the information below: Helen was a French major and started at the UI in the fall of 1928. In the summer of 1929 she made her first trip to Europe as part of a student language group. She returned to Europe in the summer of 1931. She taught French and English in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, from 1937 to 1943. She then enlisted in the American Red Cross and since she was fluent in French was sent overseas following the Normandy invasion. After the war Helen decided to stay in the Red Cross and was posted to the Panama Canal Zone to serve as the recreation director at a rehabilitation hospital for head wound patients. It was there she met and married Mick Angell, who was ten years her junior, and recovering from a sniper bullet to the head he received in France two weeks after the Normandy invasion.

In starting to document a single box, I am trying to imitate the information in the special collections catalog. Here is a listing of the box I went through:


1. Large portrait picture of ladies in kimonos on a porch (Bess not in picture)
2. Large portrait picture, back reads: “Helen Fox, John Fox, Mary Jane Cummins Fox, (Annette) Mrs. Carl Fox, Carl Fox. In front of 200 Jefferson St. West Union Iowa. About 1918 I suppose”
3. Large baggie of diaries: Helen’s

  • Five Year Diary 1975-79
  • Five Year Diary 1980-84
  • Five Year Diary 1985-87 (says in front cover: (too dilapidated to use more)
  • Five Year Diary 1988-92
  • Five Year Diary 1993-97
  • One Year Diary 1998?
  • One Year Diary 1999
  • Memorandum book with entries Jan 2-8, 1999 which were transferred to diary

4. Bundles of Letters all tied together and marked:

  • Box Ville de Paris B.H. Dyas Co handwritten: “Summer of 1929" Letters from Helen to Bess during trip to Europe. Letters all numbered in pencil in the following order: 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 27, 28, 30

  • Bundle Labeled “Templar Park Summer 1930.” Letters from Helen to Bess from Templar Park in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Letters postmarked from June 19, 1930 to August 26, 1930. Numbered in pencil 1-27
  • Unlabeled bundle. 34 letters most are from Bess to Helen (numbered in pencil 1-21) some others to Helen some from Bess to others, all seem to be from Helen’s 2nd trip to France and postmarked June to August 1931
  • Bundle labeled “Helen Bliss Lake 1935 Mrs. Eastman.” 3 letters and 5 postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked August 1935
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1937-38.” 56 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 4, 1937- June 9, 1938
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1939.” 52 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 6, 1938- June 6, 1939
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1940.” 34 letters and cards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 15, 1940- June 15, 1941
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1941-42.” 49 letters and postcards from Sept. 2, 1941 to June 3, 1942
  • Loose pile of letters. 41 letters from Bess to Helen postmarked Sept. 11, 1942 to May 22, 1943. One from Grandma to Helen and one from Mother to Bess.
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1943.” 56 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept 7, 1942 to June 7, 1943
  • Bundle labeled “Mick in Germany 1949-50.”37 letters and 4 telegrams most from Mick or Helen to Bess from military bases in Germany or U.S.
  • Bundle labeled “1950 Going to San Antonio.” 17 letters and postcards (numbered in pencil) to Bess from Helen
  • Bundle labeled “Colorado Springs 1951” Letters and postcards (numbered in pencil 1-83) from Helen to Bess
  • Bundle labeled “MP School Augusta GA May 1951.” 7 letters from Mick to Bess
    15. Bundle labeled “Colorado Springs 1953.” Letters and postcards (numbered in pencil 1-22) from Helen to Bess
  • Bundle labeled “Wis Trip 1956.” 11 postcards from Mick and Helen to Bess

By my count this is 566 letters and cards in this ONE BOX! (and it isn't all that full) Remember there are eleven more, plus other boxes that I've taken to my office, including the one that documents building the house!

I sat down last night an read the bundle from Bess to Helen when she was in Paris, summer of 1931. It took nearly two hours. I'm grateful Bess typed her letters. Bess mentions that SHE numbered her envelopes so that Helen would know if she was getting them in order(!) They are chatty and newsys and have a lot of information about everyday life and how the Cubs were doing (She listened to every game on the radio)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dec. 5th, 1933

I really should have put up posts about salvaging paving stones from the neighbors to make a walk, or the new dining room rug, or removing the rest of the vinyl floor from the kitchen, but I haven't.

Instead I present a post from Helen's diary. I have previously posted samples from her mother, Bess, who also kept daily journals:

Bess' Diary

70 Years ago Today

Here is December 5th 1933:


Started 4th Expo. Mrs. Koser over for tea + Mr. also for oyster stew. Resumed reading Arabian Nights: volume 4.6
Zebra fish arrived.

Prohibition formally repealed

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I Like Hillary Well Enough...

...but I wish she'd stop calling me at dinner time.

Bill Clinton made his very first campaign appearance for Hillary in Iowa City last July

For that matter, the daily email from John Edwards and Joe Biden are getting a little old too. While I'm whining, I'm tired of the two old guys in the barber shop talking about Dodd, during his commercial that runs during the 10:00 news. I'm even ready to snarl at the ubelievably earnest Obama volunteers who phone to invite us to picnics.

As a matter of fact, the only candidates not bombarding my family right now are Richardson and Kucinich.

I supported Kucinich at my local precinct caucus in 2004. We were viable! (arcane Iowa Caucus term that no one else cares about) This time around we will be in a new precinct. That should be interesting.

Our old precinct (Iowa City 20) had college student rental houses, senior citizen apartments, and a Catholic rectory all included in it's area, quite the diverse group. Our new precinct is the entire town of University Heights. Our county is HEAVILY Democratic. I think we Democrats get the biggest "public" structure in town, the Presbyterian Church. The Republicans will likely get a room at West High School, which is not located inside city limits, but is in Iowa City. In know that in 2004 the Republicans met at the elementary school that is inside city limits, but since people parked on the streets around it for more than the posted 1 hour time length, they all got ticketed!

One kind of cool spin off of the caucuses are the Iowa Electronic Markets. These are "futures" markets for political events. Here is the link to the Presidential 08 Market.

The two "futures" currently trading are the popular vote percentage for each major party (as of 11/13/08 Dem- .530 Rep. .493) and winner take all market (as of 11/13/08 Dem- .612 Rep. .397)

I am looking forward to January 4th. (The day after the caucuses)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Vegetarian Mincemeat: Green Tomato Pie

I cleared out most of the garden yesterday thinking that maybe we'd finally get a frost. Besides getting loads of bell peppers I had a bag full of cherry sized green tomatoes.

This means time for my annual green tomato pie. I use the recipe from my 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook:

Here is the recipe:

If you want to make this, here is Betty's (and my changes) in a downloadable (MS Word) version

Here is the step by step (my changes in parentheses):

Mix together:
•1 1/3 cups sugar
•6 2/3 tablespoons GOLD MEDAL flour (I use whatever flour and round to 7)
•1 ½ teaspoons of salt
•1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon or nutmeg (¾ t cinnamon AND ¾ t nutmeg)

Mix lightly through:
•4 cups green tomato slices
•4 tablespoons lemon juice or 1 ½ tablespoons mild vinegar (vinegar)
•1 1/3 teaspoons grated lemon rind (omit)

What I do is:
Put the cut up tomatoes in the bottom crust

Dump the mixed dry ingredients on top

Shake it a little bit

Dot the filling in the pan with:
• 1 ½ tablespoons of butter

Cover with top crust. Bake until nicely browned. Serve slightly warm.

TEMPERATURE: 425 hot oven
TIME: 35 to 45 minutes

My changes:

Usually I do the lattice top, just because its cool. I also mix egg whites, milk and sugar to brush over top crust

TIME: 45 to 55 minutes

I was cheating so I used frozen crusts, and got distracted taking out the top one so it looks pretty bad:

Usually I end up burning the edges so I often wrap foil around the pan, also this can get drippy so I always put a cookie sheet under it. I think the cookie sheet is why I always need to bake longer:

I forgot to brush on the milk/egg/sugar mixture so it didn't look quite as "golden" as usual:

I called the neighbors to invite them over when it was done and the girls were in bed. Mike, a phenomonal chef, proclaimed it good.

Over course the key question is: How does it taste? Well I've served it to people telling them it was apple, and they believed me. It's a little more tart, so my description is that it falls halfway between apple and mincemeat, hence today's title.

And here's how it looks half gone:

Friday, October 26, 2007

You Know it's a Home Football Game Weekend When...

...The Port-O-Potty guys drop off the bathroom for the neighbor's driveway:

Yep, I was just out shooting my last walnut-in-the-driveway picture, and couldn't resist getting this one.

The good news is that this season they deliver every Friday before a game and pick it up on the Monday after. Last season it sat there from the end of the August to the end of November. The only people in favor of that were the neighborhood kids, who found it tremendously convenient.

Maybe I'll get a shot tomorrow of the neighbor's yard piled with cars and people tailgaing. I think he's managed to squeeze in even more than last year.

Go Hawkeyes, beat Michigan State's Sparty tomorrow!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Smashing Good Time!

So far they have broken our gazing ball, put a major hole in the girls' plastic toy box, and scared us every time one has hit the garage roof. (They sound as loud as a gunshot) What I am talking about? Our walnuts of course.

We have three very walnut large trees, and we've had more nuts this year than in any previous. I've taken 7 wheelbarrow loads to the ravine, and filled a 20 gallon garbage can for my two aunts, Martha and Helen, who came to visit last week. Aunt Martha took the garbage can load, and we also filled the rest of her car trunk as well. She cracks walnuts every winter and was delighted to have them.

This got me thinking that I should try to save and crack some this winter myself. Lisa mentioned that black walnuts sell at the farmer's market for about $8/pint.

So in the three days since we loaded up Aunt Martha, we have once again filled the garbage can:

And a laundry basket:

And still have quite a few laying around:

Martha says to wait until the husks turn black before you try to remove them. Getting the husks off is not easy. After the nuts are husked, she then gets a big tub of water and throws the nuts into the water. Any nuts that float don't have any meat in them so she throws them away. She gets out the ones that sink and spreads them out to dry in her basement. She then cracks them as she watched TV at night.

I've been thinking about an easy way to husk the nuts. Many nuts drop right onto our driveway:

Those are best because then I can just use the automatic husking machine on them:

One pass and voila:

I think I should just rake them into two lines and run over them deliberately, instead of only getting those that land in the right spot by chance.

We'll see how far I get on this

I think the house is watching me...

Yes it's that time of year when the ghostly starts to appear at Foxcroft. I don't think there is any type of house that more easily lends itself to being scary than a side gable bungalow with a front dormer. Here it is from the inside:

But hang some plastic and you get this:

And it looks even better by night:

With the orange lights on the porch, it looks just like a huge open mouth with teeth.

It can be pretty frightening from the inside:

The girls say them been startled several times in the two weeks since we've put it up:

Our annual scarecrow-like stuffed people are out too, this year without heads:

Stay tuned for our other scary, or more accurately, dangerous house occurance: WALNUTS.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bess' Diary

For a school assignment Rowan had to bring an artifact that would be of interest to a historian. She asked if she could take one of Bess' diaries. I don't know when Bess started keeping a daily journal, but we have them from 1930 to 1970, when she died. She kept these in 5 year diaries where a single page would have space for five years worth of a single date. I told Rowan that I would type one page because Bess' handwriting was a little hard to read. Of course Rowan picked her own birthday, and then said 1950. So listed below is what happened at our house on Dec. 16 from 1950 to 1954. The number to the left of the year is the temperature on that day. I don't know if it was the high or low or at a specific time. Bess usually wrote before going to bed.

Wrote H.
Paul shoveled drifted walk 25¢
Hot shower + bed at 6 Grace phoned


25 19(50) Sat. Didn’t get much done. H’s check came + I walked to bridge + sent it airmail. Shopped at Lawson’s. Addressed about 50 cards. Cracked English walnuts - Took cake to Ray’s- They gave H + me each a hand painted (by Bob) plate lovely. Betty here AM gave her fruit + berries

-7 19(51) Sun. Put chocolate top on peppermints- got food around for supper- Heard Chicago Cards beat Bears. Fran + Helen came 4 – 7:30 Fran reported on her western trip. Bob brought his N.Y. report over just as we sat down to table – gave them fruit cake + cocktail napkins – did ducks + to bed at 8 - Postman brought mail in P.M. Clara S + Mabel phoned

40 19(52) Tue. Baked 2 2/3 recipe chocolate cookies – 1 maple fondant
I took roast to Ray’s – Coke to Spoon + (?) Helen whiffies (?)
Mrs. Armstrong brought a huge squash + I gave her cookies. H sewed awhile + beat me at Canasta. Made Turkish Creams. Bed at 8.

19(53) Wed. Cookies + candies all day. Mickey took cream to Grace + met me at Lawson’s + carried home groceries. H cracked + packed over 1 qt Walnuts
Spread sheet in back yard + put nut shells out for birds- they loved it - Illinois on front porch dominoes in evening

33 19(54) Thur. Mickey took car to work 1-10. All of us finished writing Christmas cards + most of ‘em mailed – H + M got a new tree at Lawson’s 2.39. I baked 7 fruit cakes - wrapped them in wine soaked cloths. Gretchen here for tea + we gave her her coverlet fruit cake and candies. Dottie here W/ Bob’s impossible Santa face - We combed whiskers for some time. Betty here a while early - Fran + Helen came for their 7 lbs. pecanettes. Left a poem + knit sock Mickey lost Dr. Hopp box 8 pecanettes Box came from Polish man

Monday, October 15, 2007

Green? No just cheap...

Since today is Blog Action Day, drawing attention to environmental issues, I thought I'd do my part.

This is hard, because for years I've known that the things I do, that others today refer to as "green," have not been motiviated by nobler purposes, but in fact are due to my being a cheapskate at heart.

When I was a kid my favorite day of the week on my early morning paper route was Friday. That was garbage day. I could see what other people had thrown away and bring it home with me. I remember bringing home a toilet when I was in 8th grade and making it into a chair for my room. For years at Thanksgiving my family used the giant turkey platter I brought home from the neighbor's trash. My father-in-law, a well known wildlife artist, raved about the incredible 2 foot tall carved eagle that I gave him for Christmas the year before Lisa and I were married. I never mentioned that I'd been carting it around for years since rescuing it out of a garbage can.

From those days until this I have scrounged whenever possible. In finishing our upstairs 90% of our finish wood was salvaged: flooring, casing and backbanding. I have storms and screens that have been picked up off the curb. I have personally diverted tons of waste from landfills, but don't thank me for it, I was happy to get the stuff at bargain prices.

Even my one truly "big ticket" item, our geothermal heating/cooling system was motivated by the fact that it was cheaper to do than add on to the existing boiler and install a high velocity air conditioning system.

Of course the kicker that truly sold me on geotheramal? Free hot water in the summer when the air conditioning is running, because the hot air in the house goes past the water heater before being piped back into the ground.

So happy Blog Action Day! Even if protecting the environment is my latent rather than manifest function!

Friday, October 12, 2007

What I do when I'm not house blogging…

Since a wee bit of time has past since my last update, here's a quick run down of what's been happening lately:

I picked up four storm and screen sets for the back of the house from Adams Architectural. They came already primed and I painted the screens and mounted them. I need to get moving on doing the storms.

I finished painting around the back door and the inside of the roof of the back porch.

Since I had to take the screen door off to complete the trim, I finished varnishing the wooden screen door at the same time.

I took down the back porch light, stripped off the paint and polished it a bit with 0000 steel wool. I then gave it a light coating of Neat's Foot Oil and put it back up.

I also did another Bondo Job on the porch barge board. I've now got it painted but won't get any further this fall probably.

I rescued a ton of straight vertical grain fir flooring from a job another house renovator was doing. This floor was salvaged by Friends of Historic Preservation (more on them later) last summer. These boards were all sold for an interior restoration, and some were rejected by the floor installers. I will use them to repair my damaged back porch floor and perhaps a future extension of the porch.

I also picked up three A& C tapered columns at a salvage place in Davenport. My long term goal is to use these (and build a fourth to match it) in a pergola in the back yard that will be adjacent to the fish pond that we will begin restoring next summer.

The floor and columns are currently residing in a secret location, known as the fortress of solitude…


As the current president of Friends of Historic Preservation I made a whirlwind trip up to St. Paul last week (along with the chair of the Iowa City Historic Preservation Comission, Tim Weitzel and Iowa City mayor pro tem, Regenia Bailey). We went to receive an Honor Award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation at their National Preservation Awards Ceremony in the Fitzgerald Theater (home of Prairie Home Companion). We were recognized for the public/private partnership that responded to the April 13, 2006 tornado that damaged three historic districts and two conservation districts in Iowa City. Sadly due to schedule conflicts we literally drove up, got the award, and drove home. I would have loved to have an opportunity to visit Twin City bloggers, who I regularly read especially Stucco House and Bungalow 23. Damn.

Other Things

We got another school year off to a good start, we have over 100 new teachers to the district, including 50 new to the profession teachers. This along with planning for a new student information system next year has kept me hopping.

The Fiddler’s Picnic was glorious this year. Once again, older daughter and I played together, this was the first time that we’d had a duet with her on the fiddle:

Since younger daughter was 5 years old, she made her debut on the ukulele:

As you can see things have been busy, but I promise not to wait so long for another update.