Friday, May 29, 2009

Pioneer Day Parades, 1957, 1958

The Aurora Branch Primary celebrated the 24th of July, or Pioneer Day, every year. In 1957 and 1958 the children dressed up as pioneers and Indians and paraded around the picnic ground on Mastodon Lake Island at Phillips Park.

“For some must push, and some must pull…” Reality matched the lyrics in 1958 when Doug Fisher and Doug Erekson pulled their handcart and Dean Fisher pushed his wheelbarrow.

Also in July 1958 Randy Erekson and Dottie Sullivan were ready to pull a covered wagon across the plains.

1957: Wearing a crepe paper bonnet and apron, Kathy Sullivan looks a little weary from the long march holding an 1847 sign. With her are Stephen Doty (Indian chief), Karen Doty (probably), Paul Doty (riding a tricycle), and Bucky Spahr.

The Aurora Branch Primary in 1957. Can you help me identify the ones I don’t know? Standing: --girl in bonnet?--, John Resch, Cris Erekson, Tom Erekson, --?--, Billy Spahr, Erek Erekson, Bucky Spahr (arms raised), Tommy Spahr?, --boy in hat?--.
Front: --tricycle/possibly a Boswell?--, Debbie Doty, Margaret Sullivan, -- Boswell?, --hidden--, Stephen Doty, -- girl in front?--, --back to camera?--, --boy?--, Paul Doty on tricycle.

In the early 1950s Primary was held in various homes; the Ereksons, Greers, and Spahrs are the ones that I remember. In 1956 Grandma [Myrtle] Greer became Primary president, and we began to hold Primary at the Odd Fellows Hall on Tuesday afternoons from 4:30 to 5:30. In the summer, however, she moved Primary to Phillips Park, where she would reserve the Bird House, a large enclosed pavilion with picnic tables. This had the advantage of being rent-free and the disadvantage of being rather distracting for children who were expected to be reverent in a park.

Thanks to a history of the Aurora Branch Primary, 1932-1961, that I found at my parents' house, we know that the Primary presidency for September 1956 through August 1957 consisted of Myrtle Greer, president; Pat Boswell and Mary Jane Greer, counselors; Gladys Sullivan, secretary; Kathleen McGuire, historian; chorister, Mary Jane Greer.

The Primary Presidency changed in 1957-58: Myrtle Greer, president; Mary Jane Greer and Gladys Sullivan counselors; Lucy Doty, secretary; Elinor Woolcott, historian.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Odd Fellows Hall, Part 2: Potluck Dinners

A potluck dinner on Fast Sunday and a rare look at the inside of the Odd Fellows Hall, ca. 1950-51. This is the back of the second floor meeting room, looking away from the windows and toward short, angled hallway that led to the kitchen. The closed door at the back led to a storeroom where tables and extra chairs were kept. The wooden chairs you see here were used for meetings and moved to the table for the meal. I had forgotten the coat hooks along the high wainscoting. Note the ceiling fans with metal blades. One time a missionary greeted the 4-year-old Robert Johnson (who came with John and Mable Wendt, perhaps a nephew) by picking him up and tossing him into the air. Unfortunately, he tossed the boy right into a fan. Robert was rushed to the hospital with severe cuts, but no permanent damage. Jimmy Greer recalls, “We almost didn’t have church that day.”

Seated around the table, clockwise from the front corner of the table: Myrtle Greer, Jimmy Greer, James T. Greer (branch president), Mary Jane Greer, unidentified adult, unidentified child, John Resch, Rosalee Resch.
Continuing on the other side of the table: Fred Woolcott, Mike Woolcott, Eleanore Woolcott, Don Tatton, [son] Tatton, Betty Tatton, [son] Tatton, Iris Dombrow, Ray Dombrow, Louise Greer Erekson, Tommy Erekson, boy with back to camera (probably Jimmy Resch). Bob Erekson took the picture.

In the excerpt below, I recall an Aurora Branch potluck dinner:

Sunday School at 10:00 and Sacrament meeting at 6:30 meant that friends could come over to play all afternoon. Later when the popular television show Disneyland began airing at 6 p.m., it was a weekly trial of our faith to leave it and head back to church.

On the first Sunday of each month the schedule varied because of Fast Sunday. On this day people were supposed to abstain from food and drink for 24 hours, but most people just skipped breakfast. Sunday School was shortened and fast and testimony meeting began immediately afterwards. After the song and prayer and the partaking of the sacrament, the time was turned over to the congregation for anyone and everyone to “bear their testimony” or stand and express thanks for blessings that month and witness that they knew the Church was true. Young and old stood up one after another. This kind of sharing built community more than anything else, unless it was the dinner that followed each month. Throughout old Brother August Kramer’s lengthy testimony in broken English, the smells of a church dinner wafted in from the kitchen in the back. Casseroles and pies warmed in the ovens during the meeting so that as soon as the last amen sounded, the brethren could set up the tables and move the chairs over for the Fast Day feast. Grandma Greer had baked mountains of rolls; Aunt Rosalie had brought her famous noodle-beef hot dish. Summers meant big platters of Grandpa Greer’s steaming sweet corn and plates of garden-fresh sliced tomatoes, green peppers, and cucumbers.

Fast Sundays also meant no evening meeting. We could stay home and watch Disneyland at our leisure, and be like the rest of the world for one hour.

(from a paper I wrote in 1995 for a creative nonfiction class at the University of Minnesota.)


Thursday, May 21, 2009

New "Magic" Format

Thanks to help from my daughter Carol, the blog now has a new formatting feature--expandable posts. This was a feature used on other blogs that I had dearly coveted, but of course had no idea how to acquire.
Because my posts tend to be rather long, I wanted readers to be able to scan the headlines and intros like in a table of contents, then read more if they wanted to. Carol worked her programming magic, sticking with me even when I gave her the wrong password at first--how was I to know capital letters count?

Now if you click on "Read More" the post is expanded in place. If you'd like to see the comments or add your own comment, click on the date or on the "Comments" link at the bottom of the post.

And now I'm ready to actively spread the word about the Old Aurora Branch blog. If you know any former members, please tell them about it. (It's hard to find on Google because there's lots of rivers and banks, etc., named Aurora Branch, but we'll manage.) And thanks again, Carol.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Odd Fellows Hall, Part 1

For almost twenty years, the Aurora Branch was practically synonymous with the Odd Fellows Hall. You couldn’t think of one without the other. The following excerpt about meeting in the Odd Fellows Hall is taken from a paper I wrote for a creative non-fiction class at the University of Minnesota in 1995:

“Our small congregation met in the same Odd Fellows Hall from the late 1930s through 1959, or almost the entire 28 years my grandfather served as branch president. For many of those early years when my mother was growing up, the Aurora Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had more words in its official name than members in the congregation, but when my memories begin we had about 40 regulars.
“The lodge hall occupied the second and third floors of a commercial building at 62 South LaSalle Street, one block east of Broadway in Aurora, Illinois. Wedged between the Schorr Glass Company and the Lindsay Water Softeners store, its double-door entrance was flanked by pretentious square pillars, whose indentations regularly enticed boys—but never girls—to climb up them when they should have known better than to rough house on Sundays. The second story meeting rooms were reached by a staircase that looked tall enough to lead all the way to heaven right then and there, but it lacked the glory of Jacob’s ladder. Poorly lit and dingy, the steep stairs proved to be a weekly trial for older folks who needed to rest on the landing halfway up and sometimes resorted to pulling themselves hand over hand along the railing before they reached the top.
“As people gathered at 10 a.m. for Sunday School and again at 6:30 p.m. for sacrament meeting, the high ceilings and bare wooden floors in the long, narrow room on the left of the stairs echoed with friendly greetings and the sound of children’s feet. Directly across from the door hung a large American flag, and next to it a banner for the I.O.O.F embroidered with a linked chain and other symbols, including appropriately enough, an enormous peering eye of God.
“Every Sunday morning Brother John Wendt, a counselor in the branch presidency who happened to be the janitor for the Odd Fellows, came early and cleaned away the remains of Saturday night’s lodge revelry and neatly arranged wooden chairs in careful rows facing the windows to the west. In the late afternoon meetings, the sun glared in our eyes. Summers, it roasted us. If we opened the windows for ventilation, the sounds of the street and the tavern across the street drifted into the meeting. And every Sunday, exactly on schedule, the California Zephyr, that famous passenger train from Chicago to Denver and parts west, roared by, rattling the windows and drowning out the speaker.”
More to come. (Photo courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society)


Saturday, May 16, 2009

The First Member in Aurora

Mable Stemple (left), the first member of the Church in Aurora is shown here in 1932 or 1933 with her daughter Evelyn Kiesel, Elder Walker, and Cora Hall with Louise Greer in front. (Does anyone know Elder Walker’s first name or whose house is shown?)

Now turn the clock back to 1913. Two Mormon missionaries were tracting a modest neighborhood on the outskirts of Aurora. They were a little discouraged because, as far as they knew, they were the only Latter-day Saints in the city, and even if they were to find a family to teach, they couldn’t invite them to church—there was no branch in Aurora.

Then, to their surprise, a young mother with two small children invited them in. “I’m a member,” she told them as she hurried into the kitchen to bring back a jar of coins and small bills. “It’s my tithing,” she said and placed the jar in their hands.

Delighted to find a member of the Church, the elders began to get acquainted. All too quickly, they realized her error—she belonged to the Reorganized Church, not the “Salt Lake Mormons.” Undaunted, they told her she would need to be baptized again, and eventually she agreed. Mable Clair Kiesel [Stemple] was baptized in the Fox River on June 13, 1915, the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Aurora.

But the Church did not go continue in Aurora at that time. Fourteen years later, Mable Kiesel Stemple was found again, this time by Jim and Myrtle Greer. But that’s another story.

This picture of Sister Stemple (right) with her niece, Gladys Lancaster, is the way I remember her. Very tiny, white hair in a knot on top of her head, and a big smile.

After the branch was organized, Mable Stemple was a stalwart member. For much of her life she lived in a small house next door to her daughter, Evelyn Kettley, on Morton Avenue, a couple of blocks from the Greers who took her back and forth to church. As they dropped her off, she would always say, “Thanks for the buggy ride.”

Mable was born and grew up in Loupe City, Nebraska. After a brief unhappy marriage that ended in divorce, she and her parents moved to Aurora near where her mother’s family had lived for at least three generations. She was still only 18 when in 1906 she met and happily married William John (Wilhelm Johan) Kiesel, age 29. A year later their first daughter was born and died on the same day. Two more children, a boy and a girl, came into the family, but in all Mable and Mr. Kiesel enjoyed only 8 years together before he passed away. Mable’s third husband, Charles Carl Stemple, was gone before 1930 (as per the 1930 US Census). Nevertheless she was a happy person. It’s been said about her, “She wanted to have fun.”

Maybe Sister Stemple’s family can fill in some more details.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Calling All Former Members of the Aurora Branch

What do you remember about those days? Climbing the stairs to the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall where the branch met for about 20 years? Attending meetings in the Seventh Day Adventist church on Plum Street? Holding missionary farewells at Lincoln Elementary School or Allen School?

Maybe something you read here will spark a memory. If so, please share it. Maybe you know of former members who haven’t discovered the blog yet. If so, please send them a link.

I’m hoping we can examine the Aurora Branch experience from many angles, both fun and serious. On one level we can remember the remarkable people and all they did to hold the branch together. On another level we can see what the Church was like in the 1950s, for example, when we were trying to change the world’s perceptions of Mormonism as a backwater religion. Of course, in those days the tiny branch in Aurora, Illinois, was second-class even among other Mormons, especially those who came out from Chicago to speak and those who moved there briefly from Utah. After all, Aurora was the mission field and not the heart of Zion.

But the Aurora Branch was never second-class in the character and caliber of its members, nor in the eyes of the Lord who looks, we’re told, with special favor on small things, foreseeing their promised greatness.

Let’s pool our memories. For a start, here’s a photo from the early 1930s. The irrepressible branch president, James T. Greer–-soon to be one of the central characters of this blog–-steals the scene by reaching behind the missionary next to him and tugging on his ear. So much for a formal portrait of the early branch.

The members are (back row) Arch McCraney, Elder Gittins, James T. Greer; (middle row) Cora Hall, Mable Stemple, Myrtle Greer, Myrtle McCraney, Catherine Minnehan; (front) two neighborhood children Myrtle Greer brought to church—possibly surnamed Merideth, Louise Greer, Helen Marie McCraney, Jimmy Greer. They’re standing on the front porch of a big old house on Main Street, one of several places where the branch met before settling into the Odd Fellows Hall. This is probably 1932 or 1933.

Not quite ten years later Brother Greer, who loved people, was still mixing things up, probably teasing Nancy McCarty about a boyfriend. This snapshot was taken after church in front of the Odd Fellows Hall (door on left). Left to right: Ardis McCarty, Louise Greer, James T. Greer, Nancy McCarty, Jimmy Greer (hidden), Kent McCarty holding baby.

So who are all these people and what are their stories? Stay tuned.