Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas 1953

I haven't posted for quite a while due to other facets of my life taking up lots of time, and that actually plays into today's post.

When we were emptying the contents of Foxcroft in 2005 and getting ready to renovate, I put some items in the upstairs storage space at my office and promptly forgot about them. We moved to new offices this fall, and as I was going through things I found several boxes of memorabelia stored away. One box contained a stereo viewer and 2 boxes of stereo slides, the viewer didn't work so I'd never looked at any of the slides.

I brought it home and took it apart and replaced the 2 D batteries and lo and behold it was functional. Then I started to look at the slides.

Apparently Helen and Mick bought a stereo realist camera some time in the late 1940's and began to take and make their own stereo slides. The two boxes have scenes from Foxcroft (when they would have been visiting Helen's mother, Bess prior to their moving in with her in 1955) and from vacations in the South Dakota badlands and Yellowstone National Park.

Here are a few scans from Christmas Day, 1953. They don't begin to do justice to how good the images look in stereo in the viewer, but it is a start. I passed the viewer and slides around to my family on Thanksgiving and we spent a very enjoyable two hours discussing the images!

Here's the companion to the above pic of Helen at the Christmas tree in the living room:

And the stereo view of Christmas dinner, which appears to be two whole chickens for 4 people!

Monday, July 18, 2011

STILL Painting

Yes it is year 5 and I am STILL painting the house. I picked up where I left off last summer near the front of the southeast side. Here was the scaffolding in place in late June:

By this point I had already heat gunned off all the paint on the chimney window, under the eaves, the side of the porch opening, and off the lookout boxes supporting the barge board. Here is a closer shot of the lookout and porch side:

And here they are completed:

The good news is that after I hung the wren box back up the wren came back.

Where next? No where to go but up:

Friday, May 13, 2011

3rd Annual Bungalow Blog Tour

For the past 6 years I have written about our adventures as the second family to live in our 1928 bungalow. A good deal of that has been about Bess and Helen, the mother and daughter who built Foxcroft in 1928.

However for the bungalow blog tour rather than focus on their now well documented story, I am going to tell a bit about my own family members who were contemporaries of the builders.

I went to Remsen, in northwest Iowa with my dad last weekend. The purpose of the trip ostensibly was for me to collect some cuttings of climbing roses and also some hops that all came from the oldest farmstead in my family. We traveled about 6 and half hours north while simultaneous going back about 50 years in time.

We pulled into my Aunt Martha's apartment about 1:00 on Friday afternoon. Martha is one of my dad's older twin sisters, she is 80. When I was a young boy she would have been referred to as a spinster. Martha never married and lived with my grandparents until they both passed away in their 90's. Her place is two blocks from my grandparent's old home, but in a town of 1,000 nothing is too far apart. Aunt Helen, my dad's younger sister, was at the apartment too with her new 6 month old grandchild. At 71, Helen is the baby of the family. Helen is at the left, Martha in the middle

After we had been there about 15 minutes Helen said to Martha, "Should we give Mike his coffee pot?" and Martha hurried away into the back room. She came back with an old enamel coffee pot, and said, "Look inside." Both she and Helen were looking like the cat who ate the canary.

After taking off the lid, I found a note inside a plastic bag. It read:

My Mom always kept her seeds inside this coffee pot. It hung in the store room over the kitchen on the farm. It was still there when we moved on in 1953. Glad John left it there for us. Mom put seeds in the little sacks.

Also inside the bag were two small cloth bags. One faintly said "onion seed" the other said "lady slippers."

Under that was a paper bag with onions, and two glass jars of white beans and two more jars of peas.

"It's from Aunt Florence." said Helen.

Aunt Florence is my great aunt. She is my grandmother's youngest sister. Being only 6 years older than Martha, and 16 years younger than her oldest sister, my grandmother, she was more like a cousin than an aunt to her nieces and nephews.

Florence and her husband had moved onto the family farm she had grown up on in '53 after her older brother, John, had bought a farm in South Dakota. This apparently caused some friction among the eight siblings. I was told this as my dad, Helen and Martha explained the contents of the coffee pot. The "my Mom" referred to in the note was my great grandmother Mary Marx Colling. That is her picture at the top of this post. It is was taken in roughly 1900, eight years before she married and nine before my grandmother was born. That picture is part of a group shot of Mary and her nine brothers and sisters. Mary died in 1965, I just barely remember her. Mary was born in 1885 (Bess Fox was born in 1882 and died in 1970) She married Fred Colling in 1908 and they moved on to a farm that Mary's grandparents had lived on in 1913.

After looking through everything in the coffee pot Martha called Florence. Martha told Florence said we were coming to visit. We then drove to Granville, and even smaller, more remote town than Remsen. Florence is preparing to move into a nursing home near her son in Omaha in August. Her husband passed nearly ten years ago. They moved in to town 20 years ago.

This is the first year since 1953 that Florence had not used the seeds in the coffee pot because that is where she stored the seeds that she saved. Since she will move before the growing season is over she "wasn't going to bother" (an exact quote) to plant this year. Florence told me the beans and peas in the coffee pot were the same ones her mother grew. I asked if it was possible that Mary's parents or grandparents had grown them and passed them on to her. "Yes." was the answer.

I already had some peas from my Great Aunt Marion (Florence and my grandmother's sister) but these are different. We also dug from her back yard a red climbing rose and white climber too. She moved these and the hops from the farm when they came to town. What I am most interested in however are the hops. Florence said these were strictly grown for ornamental purposes, but when I consider that she was born during prohibition, I'm sure that's what she was always told...

Here are the hops are on my fence. I'll be optimistic.

I have already given away peas, beans and onions for planting to Sue and Jean at work and my neighbor, Mike. But the best part is that when I came home on Saturday I immediately went to our garden. My youngest has decided to have her own portion of the garden this year so I watched her plant peas and beans just like 7 generations of her family before her...

Next Tour Stop: At Home Alterations

Previous Tour Stop: 1916 Bungalow

Saturday, April 23, 2011

April 24, 1932

Bess’ Diary

April 24th, 1932
Sun. 45 Rain
H to WAA breakfast at 8. Daylight Savings time starts
at 2 a.m. today. Furnace fire after 2 days without, H
to supper with Prof. Bush to meet Stephen Vincent
Benet. Covered violets and azaleas

Comments: Helen was a junior at the University of Iowa at this time. She was a member of the Tri Delt sorority and many other groups. The WAA appears to have been the "Women's Athletic Association." Here is info from the UI Women's archives:

"The Women’s Athletic Association (WAA), an intramural organization with both an athletic and social focus, was organized in 1911 to “promote a spirit of fair play and sportsmanship among girls.” The WAA offered a variety of clubs, including Orchesis (dance), Seals (swimming), outing, hockey, canoeing, archery, badminton, tennis, basketball, and handicrafts. The group sponsored tournaments, play days, intramurals, sport club activities, classes in social dancing, and all-freshmen parties."

Helen was a member of the rifle team, Bess often mentions Helen practicing shooting.

Daylight Saving Time started nationally during WWI but was suspended in 1919. Apparently Iowa must have gone back to it sometime after that, and before it was nationally adopted in 1966.

Earlier in the week Bess' diary mentions she had bought an additional half ton of coal. The furnace fires would have been fueled with that.

Prof. Bush was French professor Stephen Bush. Helen was a French major, and had made her first trip to France, with Professor Bush, in the summer of 1929. She returned to France in 1931, also with Prof. Bush. He remained her mentor and I have read letters well into the 1950's where Bess updates Helen on Prof. Bush's health. I have also found a 1902 book citation that thanks Prof. Bush for his help in translating a work, his career at UI certainly seemed to have spanned half a century.

Stephen Vincent Benet (pictured above) was an American Poet best known for John Brown's Body , which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Another well known work is the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster . Benet undoubtedly was speaking on the UI campus. This appearance would have pre-dated the formal establishment of the now internationally renowned UI Writer's Workshop, which continues to attract well know poets and authors to Iowa City.

With a high of 45 that day, it was likely below freezing that night. Covering the violets and azaleas would be to protect them from a killing frost. In last 40 years Iowa City has a 50% chance of frost on or After April 15th.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy 100th Helen!

Today, March 20, 2011, would have been Helen's 100th birthday. She was 17 when her mother built Foxcroft in 1928, and she started as a freshman at the University of Iowa. Here they are in 1929:

To celebrate we invited Ann, Helen's cousin, over for dinner. It had been far too long since she had been here, she didn't come at Thanksgiving because due to my Dad being hospitalized we didn't have a celebration. At Christmas time Ann was not feeling well so she wasn't here for that get together either.

We had our "Irish" dinner of corned beef and cabbage. After eating the girls excused themselves and Lisa, Ann and I visited for quite a while.

Ann said it still felt like home here at Foxcroft, and it should, considering that not only had she visited here her entire life, but had lived her for two and half years as Helen's caretaker before her passing in December of 2004. Ann had many reminisces about Helen and Bess.

We made a special cake for tonight, from one of Helen's cookbooks: Walnut cake with caramel icing.

The walnuts we used were from the black walnut tree in the backyard. Here is a picture of Helen posing with the tree in 1932, above the recipe:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Goodbye Princess Pink...

...Hello Hootenanny!

Younger daughter has been begging for two years to re-paint her bedroom. Her most persistent line of reasoning is that she chose her room color when she was 4, and that now she has reached the ripe old age of 9 a change is in order.

We relented and decided that spring break was a good time to do this, so we started clearing her room out Friday night and on Saturday I set to work. "Hootenanny" is the color of green she chose. She painted the smiley face herself.

Here we are conferring after finishing the test wall and starting to turn the corner. Since the original paint was relatively new I merely cleaned the walls and re-coated rather than clean, prime then re-coat.

This photo gives a chance to show off her cast. Due to a buckle fracture in her left radius she gets to wear that for a month.

And here she is sleeping this morning with the cat standing guard.

Other major spring break projects to follow!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Washington's Birthday in the Atomic Age

February 22nd 1950-1954 at Foxcroft, from Bess' diary:

Wed. 30
Walter gone 31 years today. Helen hemmed skirts and I crocheted on bedspread – basted hems in her cream tablecloth + cut her 9 napkins. Betty here in PM to bring coffee bread + Mrs. K brought cookies. “Winned” the canasta games by beating Helen – Walked to grocery store for carrots, oranges and (unreadable) 99¢

Thur. 35
Made a cherry pie with whipped cream + hatchet crust top which took all a.m. Wrote cards to Blanche + John Dornnan. Dottie looked over so here 3 – 5:30 We had tea + pie – she took 2 pieces home – Bob dashed over to borrow some whiskey for an unexpected guest. Bed 6:30

Fri 36
Baked cherry pie – Started to take a couple pieces to Rays when they drove in around 6 but Bob said “I’d rather eat them in your house.” So they did. Worked in basement again in a.m. got several seed orders into the flats - Telephone visit with Mrs. Whipple who called to see if I was OK. Slept a while mid afternoon Bed at 7

Sun. 34
Cold wind – Watered plants – Put cherry pie together took 2 pieces to Dottie and 3 to Wilsons when I went down to dinner at noon. Saw lovely pictures of Rickey’s baby + (unreadable) Home at 1:30 – Wrote Jean - Blanche – Wil + Book of Month - grate fire - Grace phoned - Bed at 6.

Mon. 50
Washed – Helen + Mickey hung up clothes Micky took teacher stuff to Bigelows. He + Helen dyed his army shirts. I finished the knit baby blankets (unreadable) at last. Went to council meeting in evening and found out about paving assessments. Same as Mr. Knowher had given me. Heard last half of Iowa 83 Ill. 65 or thereabouts a big upset. Mrs. Baxter gave me a ride home


Walter was Bess' husband, he died in Serbia in 1919 while still under his enlistment during WWI. He was a doctor and was sent to help deal with a typhus epidemic, he contracted pneumonia and died. He was 37 years old, Bess was 36 at the time. She never re-married.

1951 & 52
The pie with the hatchet crust must have been very similar to the one pictured, which I photographed from my copyright 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (first edition) I'm certain Bess got the idea from this cookbook. It remains one of my favorite cookbooks too. Bob and Dottie were dear neighbors who moved next door in 1950. As a young faculty member I'm guessing Bob needed to do a fair bit of last minute entertaining!

Wilson's were other neighbors down the street. Blanche was Bess' sister who lived in northern California. Wil was former neighbor
Wilbur Schramm

Bigelows were yet another neighor. They built their house behind Foxcroft's fishpond in 1949. The old couple were still living there when we moved in, summer of 2005. As always Bess loved her sports, especially the Hawkeyes and Chicago Cubs.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Descent into the Maelstrom

Besides being the name of a short story in volume II of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe that I read over vacation between Christmas and New Year's, Descent into the Maelstrom,
is an appropriate description of painting the basement stairway, which I also did between Christmas and New Year's. The number of "untouched" spaces at Foxcroft keeps dwindling, and this was a good one to get out of the way.

For all the time Bess took in planning so much of Foxcroft before it was built, I cannot for the life of me understand why she did not have an entrance from outdoors straight into the basement. Cellar doors or anything would have been crucial in my mind, but apparently not in her's. So any time you had to go from outdoors to the basement you had to go through the kitchen. Lots of very dirty hands went down the stairway over the years, lots! To make matters worse, I'm pretty sure that the stairway was wearing its original 1928 paint until this project.

Here is the way down. I removed the door before starting (Stuccohouse will be so happy to see I did that)

And here is the other side. I took off the light switch covers and taped over the light switches to prevent paint splatters. I also removed the hand railings, which had been added at some later time, as the original handrails don't start until descending below the plaster:

As you can see from this pic and the two above, I primed the corners with a brush before rolling the rest:

We had a lot of "Hubbard Squash" left over from the living room, so that is what I used:

The light switch plate was pretty grungy, Here it is before clean up:

And after boiling in water and baking soda plus some 0000 steel wool:

And here it is back on the wall:

Don't ask about the second switch, it is a long story...

Saturday, February 05, 2011

On Heating Oil and Gov't. Checks

After posting Bess' diary entry for Monday Jan. 31. 1951 I did a little looking around. Currently the national average price for home heating oil in $3.478 per gallon. That is roughly an increase of 25 times Bess' 1951 price of 13.8 cents per gallon. Her 310 gallons today would have cost $1078.18 plus 6% sales tax of $64.69, for a total of $1142.87. The cost difference between 1951 and 2011 would be $1099.24.

An interesting aside is that I have no idea what she would have stored the heating oil in, or where in the basement a tank would have been located. The original heating source for the 1928 boiler would have been coal. The coal room is marked on the blueprints as being located in the basement at the driveway turnaround on the northwest wall. This was likely so that a truck could back in and unload through the coal door. That coal door has been replaced by a small basement window. The coal room is currently my workshop which means I store paint and tools in there. I'm guessing that is where the tank would have been?

The boiler was originally supposed to be in the middle of the basement, so that it was near the coal room. But was instead built near the chimney on the southeast wall toward the front of the house. This put it on the opposite wall from the coal room. When we moved in, the house had a 1979 boiler that ran on natural gas. So that is at least two different boilers with three different fuels to power them. We replaced the boiler with a geothermal system in 2005. Because of that, the only things running on natural gas are our oven, the clothes dryer, and the fireplace. Our monthly gas charge is always $16, which must be the minimum. The geothermal runs on electricity.

The 1979 boiler is still sitting in our basement. My brother, Tom, said it is my duty to hold onto it for him, as someday the 1905 boiler in his house will fail completely. He likes the idea of having a backup readily at hand.

A final thought: If I used the same multiplier effect from above for the price of oil, Bess' still mysterious $75.00 gov't. check would be worth $1875.00 today. That would be a very nice chunk of change!

Monday, January 31, 2011

60 Years ago Today at Foxcroft

January 31, 1951

Wed. -5

Nuts – baked bread – cards to Judy Smith and musical chats. Dottie here for tea sent her home with bowl of spaghetti + 3 pieces cake. Wrote check for 310 gal oil @ .138 = 43.63. Gov’t check for 75.00 came –


"-5" Would have been the high temperature that day. Bess recorded the high each day. The day before (1-30-51) was -17, the day after (2-1-51) was -20. It was certainly a cold week. Below zero temps are forecast again for us on Thursday, but usually the high makes it upwards from there!

Nuts” probably meant she cracked nuts. Despite the black walnut trees not being listed in her 1956 yard map cracking nuts was a regular winter pastime. Bess had three other entries earlier this week that tell of cracking nuts. (I spent nearly 2 hours cracking black walnuts myself yesterday.)

Judy Smith and musical chats” I have no idea what this means. I haven’t seen this person’s name mentioned before.

Dottie” was the next door neighbor, who is a regular reader of this blog. In several other entries during this time period Bess mentions being alone all day, so these visits certainly meant a great deal to her.

310 gal oil” This would be a reference to heating oil to run the furnace. The price must have been 13.8 cents per gallon. Multiplying that price times the amount comes to $42.78. The additional 85 cents must have been sales tax? Bess’ Jan. 31, 1950 entry says “Fuel oil smell in house as tank overflowed.” Given the cold temps it must have been a comfort to have the tank filled.

Gov’t check” I’m not sure what this would have been. Bess was a WWI widow, but I don’t think this would have been a pension. I know that in the mid 1920’s the yearly support check for Helen as the minor child of a WWI soldier who died in active duty was $27.00 annually and that Bess had to send a detailed report to the Veteran’s Administration detailing how she spent the whole thing!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Marion's Prairie Prayers

My first post of 2011 is only tangentially related to Foxcroft but it is related. I've actually referred to Marion before, specifically here:

Heirloom peas

Aunt Marion was my father's aunt. She was my grandmother's closest sister, three years her junior. We always saw Marion and her husband, Bill when visiting at grandma's in the summer. They would come and play 6 handed pinochle with my grandparents and parents. Marion's home in Marcus, Iowa had a very large garden. Aunt Marion had a loom in her basement and wove rag rugs. After Bill died Marion always came to Thanksgiving at our house with Grandma and Grandpa. Marion was a favorite of mine.

Apparently Marion was a lot like both Bess and Helen, in even more ways than I have already related. (gardening, handwork). Marion and Helen were contemporaries, Helen was born in 1911, Marion in 1912. Both married later in life and apparently both were dedicated diarists. I had no idea Marion kept a journal. The article listed below is written by one of my dad's first cousins, whom I've never met.

Marion's Prairie Prayers

Considerably less educated than Helen, Marion, like my grandmother, was sent to live as a "cook girl" with a farm family at age 14 after the completion of 8th grade. Marion's journal seems to be far more insightful than anything I've read in either Helen's or Bess' journals. Of course I need to remember that I still have over 1,000 letters yet to read as well as what is at the UI main library from Bess and Helen.

As my brother commented to me " interesting to get a glimpse of the backstory I'd always wondered about..."

I'd love to get a transcript of Marion's writings and line them up with Bess and Helen's.