Friday, June 26, 2009

Beginnings of the Branch, Part 3: Finding Missing Members Update

Here’s some insight on that first encounter between Myrtle Greer and Mable Stemple. Although the Greers arrived in Aurora in June 1929, it was early winter before they found Sister Stemple, as attested in this note written by her daughter Evelyn Kiesel in Myrtle Greer’s autograph book in 1933.“We are indeed grateful to you for coming to our home on a snowy afternoon to find another ‘Mormon’ family,” she said.

It’s no wonder that it took Myrtle a few months to find them—for all the obvious reasons, of course, but also because of a major financial reversal that the Greers suffered that summer. Remember, they had experienced three crop failures in a row, and they were already destitute. This is the house and barn that they owned near Cypress, Illinois. This photo was taken about 1910 and we see James T. Greer’s parents and siblings here. Jim is the boy standing on the far right. Jim and Myrtle bought the house and 40 acres from his father, Albert Jackson Greer, for $1,000 in about 1925. They had been so full of hopes and dreams. “We felt sure we were going to get rich there,” Myrtle recalled. As we’ve already seen, it didn’t work out that way.

But Jim had managed to get a job at Lyon Metal in Aurora and had rented a small house on Howard Avenue, and Myrtle had joined him there. It was when she went back to the home place get their furniture that they realized disaster had struck. This is how she told the story:

“Jim decided we’d have to go home and get the furniture. We got another payday, and I went down there, taking the kids too. I went down to the house and opened the door, and everything was gone. Not one solitary thing was there. Jim’s harness, his saddle, all of our bedding, all of our books, and everything we had was gone. (We had some nice furniture, we really did.) I never cried so hard in my whole life. That about killed me. And there it was—nothing!

“I didn’t know what I was going to do. What could I do, with two children and these people that used to be such good friends to us that wouldn’t even look at us now? I decided to ask a few people if they knew where our furniture was. Jim Boss didn’t know a thing about it. Nobody knew nothing about it, so I said, ‘Take me to the train.’ We got to the train and come back to Chicago. Jim met us and took us home. I tell you, we were grieved. Not a thing in the world. We lost everything completely. I said to Jim, ‘What are you going to do?’ He says, ‘Well, I don’t know, but we’ll have to do something.’

“We thought about it and prayed about it and decided to stay in Aurora and buy some furniture. We expected we could easily. We picked out the biggest bank in Aurora and we went to the head man, the president of it. We told him we needed $300, and we’d pay him back $10 a month. He thought that was the funniest thing he had ever heard. He says, ‘What have you got for security?’ Oh, we didn’t have anything for security, but Jim had a job. ‘Well, that isn’t enough,’ he said. No, that couldn’t do at all.

“‘But,’ he said, ‘there’s a man upstairs that might listen to you. Go up and see him.’ He told us who he was, Mr. Elder. So we went up and told him the same story. He says, ‘You know, I’ve got a warehouse down there that’s full of furniture that belonged to people who have moved from Aurora. They left and haven’t even paid the rent on it. I don’t want it,’ he says. ‘I’ll get a truck and I’ll move it out to your house, and you keep what you want and what you don’t want, you sell it and use the money.’ But, he says, ‘You pay me $10 a month till you pay me $300.’ So he give us the furniture and loaned us $300 on it. I have some of that furniture yet [1970s], and we sold quite a bit of it. Then we really could have cottage meetings.”
This rocking chair, given to Ginger Hamer by her grandparents in 1972, is believed to be the only piece left in the family from the furniture that was so miraculously obtained in 1929. It has been tentatively identified as a “Northwind” style, a kind of furniture made in the late 19th century and distinguished by carvings of mythological faces. A carved curlicue on the upper left side of the back was broken off, perhaps even before the Greers received the rocking chair. In 1976 Ginger hired a furniture restorer in Mendham, New Jersey, to carve and install a replacement part. He also reglued the rocker to strengthen it and prevent further damage.A close-up of the unusual carving

In her life story, Louise Greer Erekson recalled living on Howard Avenue. “I can remember eating hominy out of glasses. We would just reach in and pick up a piece. Apparently we didn’t have any bowls and very little silverware, because they had all been stolen. (I have always loved hominy.)”

She also remembers how quickly the friendship developed between Sister Stemple and her parents: “The first Christmas in Aurora must have been very bleak. But with help, it was all right. Sister Mable Stemple and her daughter, Evelyn Kiesel, brought us a little artificial tree with ornaments on it. I can remember that spindly tree, probably 3 or 4 feet tall, with just a few ornaments. We had those ornaments for several years. I’d like to have some of them now.”

The Greers later sold their farm in southern Illinois by placing an ad in the Aurora Beacon News. By coincidence, a neighbor, Mr. Fuller, who lived two doors north of them on Harrison answered the ad and bought the farm. “That let us out of the contract, and we took what money we got and put it on our house [710 North Harrison], and that was during the Depression,” Myrtle said.

I believe that with her comment—“Then we really could have cottage meetings”—she acknowledges the hand of the Lord in their lives and affirms their determination to serve the best they knew how.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Building Fund, Part 1: Building Houses

For years the terms “Aurora Branch” and “building fund” were synonymous. The members of the branch devised every possible scheme to add to the fund that would someday enable them to build a chapel. Meanwhile, they met in rented halls and schools for 30 years.

One of the more successful money-raising projects was building and selling houses on speculation. Bob Erekson was a carpenter and building contractor, so he was able to lay out the foundation and direct the work. Most of the men in the branch were handy with tools.
Here some members of the branch building crew pose in front of the house they were building in 1958: Jimmy Greer, Bob Erekson, Louise Erekson holding Jay, Kenneth Ottinger with Marion and John Ottinger in front, Tillie Ottinger, James T. Greer, Myrtle Greer, Barry Woolcott, James Ottinger, Fred Woolcott, Ronald Deans, Mike Woolcott.

This house is located on the northwest corner of the intersection of New Haven Avenue and Elmwood Drive. Here’s what it looks like now (2009).
A tree has been growing in the front yard for many years, but the stonework and dark-stained wood around the windows and door are the same.

Bob Erekson recalls that the branch built at least three houses: this one, one on Prairie Avenue, and one on Solfisburg Avenue. When we wondered how he had time to run his own construction business and be the general contractor on the church project houses, he replied, “Well, if you read that book, Louise says we were broke all the time.”

In a brief hand-written history Myrtle Greer notes that the house was started on October 18, 1957. It sold for $15,800 with a profit of $4,250. She also notes that shortly thereafter the branch built a garage for Dr. Hanson [the Greers’ family doctor] with a profit of $425. While today these may seem like small amounts, they’re impressive when put in perspective. A successful pie supper in 1951 raised $22 and a bake sale in 1962 raised $42.50 (as reported in extant copies of Aurora Branch bulletins).

Men, women, and children worked on the houses, evenings and Saturdays. While the men and teenage boys did most of the heavy work, there was always some sweeping up or painting that women could handle. Meanwhile, the women were responsible for other fund-raising projects, as you can see in this clipping from the Aurora Branch Bulletin, October 6, 1963:

Indeed, it does take "a lot of nail driving to build a house……a lot of brick laying too,” but Jimmy Greer remembers this as “a wonderful project.”


Monday, June 15, 2009

Paper Treasures: Records of the Past

This week I have spent quite a bit of time delving through a treasure trove of Aurora Branch memorabilia—a provocative and random assortment of handwritten minutes, old Church record forms, and branch newsletters. (My mother sent me the papers several years ago, and I believe she obtained them in 1982 when the family cleaned my grandparents’ house after my grandmother died.) Now that the documents are organized, I plan to mine them for insights into the workings of the branch and share the findings with all of you.

The assortment includes six receipts for rental of the Odd Fellows Hall in 1937 (April, May, July, October, November, and December), all carefully held together with a straight pin.

The collection includes several copies of newsletters and branch bulletins. This “Aurora News” might be the first issue because it asks readers to suggest a name. No suggestions were forthcoming, however, even with the promise of a prize. It remained the “Aurora News” through at least 1952. In 1957 it became the “Aurora Branch News” and was printed on blue paper. All this time Louise Erekson was the editor, reporter, and typist. She duplicated the newsletters on a mimeograph machine my parents owned.

Aurora enjoyed its share of awards as this Official Citation attests.
If you have branch directories or other historical documents relating to the Aurora Branch, please let me know. I would like to obtain photocopies or scans. I would use them to flesh out the history of the branch, and with your permission, I would like to share them online. I’m especially interested in obtaining a copy of Yours and Mine, the Aurora Branch Cookbook published in 1952. You can contact me by email at

By the way, I officially subscribe to my grandmother’s motto: Don’t throw anything away!


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Beginnings of the Branch, Part 2: Finding Missing Members

By June1929 James T. Greer had moved to Aurora and found a job at Lyon Metal. He started in the shipping department making wooden crates for the lockers and metal office furniture the factory produced. Later he worked as a paint mixer.

We pick up our story with this excerpt from The Story of Jim and Myrtle Greer: Family and Church, an oral history edited by Doug Erekson in 1982. Myrtle is speaking:"Jim wrote me a letter. (You didn’t call in those days like you do now.) He wrote and told me he got this job and found a house. He told me to pack up what I could, have the Johnsons take me to the railroad station, and come to Chicago. He would meet me there.

"I had a big long box or chest, and I put all the clothes I could in there and a few other things. I even took some strawberries. (I had so many strawberries that year. I hated to leave them.) I locked the door, and [Oscar] Johnson picked us up in his wagon and taken Jimmy and me and Louise to the depot. We got on the train at Cypress and got off in Chicago. Jim was there to meet me, and we got on that little third-rail and came out to Aurora. On the way out, we’s all sitting on the seat and, of course, I was telling Jim all about the things that happened, and all of a sudden Jimmy [age 2] reached up and put his arms around Jim’s neck and says, “My daddy!” He was telling us he recognized him, you know. It was so funny. “That’s my dad!” and he laughed."
(Chicago Aurora and Elgin interurban cars in operation at the Illinois Railway Museum in 2003. Photo by Frank Hicks)

Myrtle continues: "Jim had rented this house on Howard Avenue [northwestern outskirts of Aurora] for $15 a month. It had a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and two porches. Jim had a bed and a mattress on the floor, a kerosene stove, and one chair in the house. That’s all we had because I couldn’t bring the furniture up with me.

"That night the missionaries came. The two of them had all this area to take care of, and they told Jim that he was to be in charge of cottage meetings in his home. [Cottage meetings were gospel discussions held on week nights in homes of members during 1930s and 40s and probably earlier. By the mid-to-late-1950s the term “cottage meetings” fell out of use.] President Pond [the mission president] didn’t come out and confirm him, but the missionaries turned it over to him. We didn’t have but one chair in the house and a mattress, but we started having cottage meetings that very week and have had them ever since."

The names of the missionaries who were stationed in Aurora that summer have not survived in oral or written history, but we do have this photo of Elder M. Eugene Williams given to Jim and Myrtle Greer in December 1929. If not one of the missionaries who welcomed the Greers to Aurora, he was certainly one of the first who worked with them. Little did he know what would come of it. Elder Williams lists his home address as 1460 Roosevelt Avenue, Salt Lake City, Utah. (We have this photo because it was customary at that time--and up through the 1950s--for missionaries to give postcard-sized photos to members and write a brief note of appreciation and encouragement on the back.)

"As far as the missionaries knew, we were the only ones in the whole town that was members. The missionaries gave us little cards we’d take around. It would tell that there was a Mormon Church in Aurora, and asked if you were a member, or do you know any members, and did you ever hear about the Mormon Church? We took those cards around from house to house—now Jim taken them, I taken them, and the missionaries taken them—and we hunted people to see if anybody was a member of the Church or to see if we could get people interested.

"Somebody told me that Sister Stemple was a member, and I went over there and knocked on the door, and I said to her, “Are you a member of the Mormon Church?” She said, “Yes, come in.” She said there wasn’t nobody else here that was members and I said, “Well, we’re here and we’re going to start a branch, and we want you to come.” She said all right, she’d be glad to. So she started coming.

"Then we found Sister Minnehan. She thought she’d lost the Church, it’d been so long you know. Then we found the Wendts. Nobody knew they was members and they didn’t tell nobody. They had kept it a secret about being members. Brother Ottinger and his wife and two children, they was from Batavia, and we found them."

This is a story I have known all my life, but I remain dumbfounded at the matter-of-fact faith in the words: “Well, we’re here and we’re going to start a branch.” That's exactly what they did. And the invitation "And we want you to come" encapsulates the work of the rest of their lives.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Beginnings of the Branch, Part 1: The Greers Move to Aurora

Although Mable Stemple was the first member in Aurora, no branch of the Church was organized until Jim and Myrtle Greer moved to town in May or June 1929.

In this early picture of the family in Aurora, Myrtle and Jim Greer appear to be ready for church. Judging by the ages of Jimmy and Louise, this photo was probably taken in the early spring of 1930 (maybe Easter Sunday?).

They joined the Church June 20, 1926, in southern Illinois. (Read about their conversion as told by my son John Hamer in a commentary on the blog By Common Consent. After their baptism, the neighbors turned against them, and eventually they decided it would be impossible to raise their children in the Church in southern Illinois. In addition, their small farm was caught in the backwaters of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that actually started in 1926. Their corn crop was wiped out three years in a row.

Myrtle said that they read something in a mission publication about Mormons in Aurora, and they thought it meant there was a branch of the church there. Because of this mistake—she later realized it simply referred missionaries being stationed there—they chose Aurora. They also knew some people from “down home” who had moved there and with whom Jim and his friend Jim Boss could stay until they found work.

Here’s the way Jim told of his arrival:
“Jim Boss and myself started out from home one morning in my car, and we was about two days on the road. Every time we’d pass a gas station or a garage, we had to stop and get the old [1924] Chevrolet worked on. It was raining and cold and Jim Boss would cuss and cry and say he was going back home. One night we was stopped along the highway and a big truck come by and asked if we was in trouble. We told him yes, and he hooked onto us. That little Chevrolet swung back and forth sometimes too. He took us to a garage about ten miles away and called the garage man out. He got in under the car and looked at the gas line. It was almost disconnected, and the old vacuum tank was sucking air instead of gasoline. He fixed it, tightened it up, and we come on into Aurora.”

Myrtle takes up the story:
“They got to Aurora on a Friday, and he went to see Ora Whelan. Ora’a wife, Iva, was sick and she told Jim if he’d do the cooking and help her with the housework, she would board him free so that he could get a job. They read in the paper that Lyon Metal needed help, and to apply Monday morning. Jim went down to Lyon Metal, and he said there was a group of men there waiting, you know, all standing out there. This one man come up and pointed to him to come in, so Jim went up to him and said, ‘Did you want me?’ The man said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Where’re you from?’ Jim says, ‘I’m from Cypress.’ He says, ‘What kind of work can you do?’ ‘I’m from the farm. I’ve learned about farming.’ ‘Well,’ the man says, ‘is that what you want to do?’ ‘I’ll take the first thing I can get.’ He said, ‘Well, we can use you.’ Jim says, ‘Well, there’s a man come with me, and I told him I’d stay with him, so I can’t take the job unless you hire him too.’ So then Mr. Larry Rice says, ‘Well, show me who he is.’ So Jim told him, and he called him in too. Jim Boss come in, and both went to work. Jim worked there for 32 years, but Boss worked there about six weeks and then he went back home.”

The job taken care of, Jim’s next order of business was to look up the missionaries. He recalled: “I went three times, Jim Boss and myself, to see the missionaries and we never caught them home. The next time we went, the elder come to the door and he says, ‘Come on in, Brother Greer.’ He says, ‘I’ve been looking for you.’ Myrtle had wrote and told him that we was in town.”

To be continued