Betty “Sunny” McAtic Bernardine: Back to the Land, 1930-42 in Illinois
In the 1970s, a wave of people moved to Floyd County, Virginia, in search of a simpler, natural, and often communal life. They followed the wagon-tracks of the original European settlers, who came for for land, however hilly and remote. Since acreage was cheaper than in the Christiansburg area, these immigrants rolled and clopped southward, somehow crossing the New River. This back-to-the land movement was anticipated during the Great Depression by one of Floyd County’s retirees, Betty McAtic Bernardine, born in 1926.
In 1930 she and her family moved from Chicago to a hamlet west of the city for an economic reason: to grow their own food. Almost seventy years later she settled atop a ridge on Cannady School Rd. where she privately and passionately maintained a dog shelter for the Floyd County Humane Society.
It is ironic that Sunny’s childhood venture from city to country began with her mother’s escape from rural Giles County in far southwestern Virginia. Huldah Salome Medley was born in Kire, “Up Stony Creek.” Sunny’s grandfather ran a lumber camp and made a little moonshine. Her mother used to cook for the camp at about seventeen. Her older sister was nineteen or twenty and married; when the couple was about to move to Kansas, Huldah decided she’d go with them, unbeknownst to her parents. So she ran away from home. She went down to the train station, where somebody saw her. “Oh, I’m just seeing off my sister”–she made an excuse. In Kansas, Huldah got a job in a hotel but it was too much like housework. Then she saw an ad for telephone operator in Chicago and traveled there in 1917. Although that was the job for young women, the employers were very strict with their girls, who had to be in by a certain time, pronounce everything just so. “The minute she saw those wide streets….” Soon afterward, about 1922, she married William Reynold McAtic, who was trying to escape from the coal mines in northeastern Ohio. Sunny’s memoir:
In April, 1930, the country was deep in a depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929. This event was so sudden and so total that no one escaped being affected by it. Fortunes were wiped out, banks and businesses closed, and jobs by the score were lost. Many people chose as a possible solution a reverse migration back to the rural areas. That is the route my mother and father opted to take. They planned to raise a garden and keep chickens and possibly other livestock. Also, my father, was a painter and decorator, so they hoped this would provide some income.
They settled on a subdivision built by Taylor and Power Real Estate of Chicago. They chose a 3 ½- acre lot at the end of a gravel road called Orchard Avenue. A small woods adjoined it and a nice spring-fed creek ran right through it. There was a small frame house and the entire front of the property was bordered by a farmer’s wheat field. The house was hooked up to electricity but had no running water. There was a hand pump just in back of the house. A coal stove was used for heat and we cooked on a kerosene stove with a tank on the side of it.
Most of the other lots were smaller than ours and I don’t think there were more than ten or fifteen houses built at that time. The total population of Warrenville was said to be 300. It was mostly a farming community. Some of the farms belonged to the Mack, Patterman, and Kuhn families. Our property in the subdivision was fronted by part of the Kuhn farm
So at last it was finally time for the big move. We had a 1920-something pickup truck which was piled high with all of our worldly belongings. My brother Jack and sister Jean rode back there, too. Jack would have been eleven years old and Jean nine. Of course my father drove, and my mother, my sister Rosemary, and I in the cab of the truck completed the band of Gypsies. Everything went well on most of the trip—no mechanical incidents or flat tires, which in those days was unusual. But Mother Nature was there to see that we didn’t get off too easily. April showers were waiting to greet us and make us welcome. With about one mile to go the Heavens opened up. Somehow we were able to make the last mile and finally turned off Butterfield Road onto Orchard Avenue and arrived in our new home, where we somehow got settled in.
We hired a farmer with a team of horses to plow several plots for a vegetable garden. My mother, was more or less in charge of overseeing this project with the help of the two older kids. My father was in charge of the landscaping. My little sister and I were in charge of keeping out of the way.
My dad started digging and widening the creek to make a pond and dug a channel around it to make a small island. He would load the truck with fill that he would move to a lower part around the house. It was very pretty when he finally finished the job, which took almost all summer. While my dad was busy digging and moving the fill from one area to another, my little sister and I would make small mud balls which we would put in the tire tracks already made in the hopes that they would leave us with a nice flattened circle with tire tread marks on it. We tried to make sure that this would happen by guiding my dad’s path—“Over here Daddy, over here!” Then the successful result was what we called “Chinese money.”
He also built a nice little wooden bridge to cross over to the island. Then he lined the front of the pond with big rocks found in the area. We discovered that in late summer the creek would run dry and, since the pond was now the deepest spot, the fish would all wind up there. We would make seines out of gunny sacks and drag the pond. This was very successful and we netted a lot of fish. Of course they were mostly carp and bullheads (bottom feeders), but my folks knew how to soak them and in the end they were quite tasty. Then the creeks would fill back up and we had a nice ice skating rink in the winter.
The garden was very fruitful because the earth was so rich here. We had nice fresh produce all summer long and my mother canned many, many jars. My dad would make a big barrel of sauerkraut from the cabbage. There was a huge black walnut tree growing at the edge of our property. There were wild raspberry bushes growing in the woods. And while we did not live entirely off the land, we had a good start.
Now it was time to think about raising chickens. My dad started building coops. One was large, about 20’ x 20’, and another about 8’ x 8’. That was done in late fall and winter so that they would be able to start that project in the spring.
The Round House was on the street, had nothing to do with the station. Maybe at one time it had been a turnaround for trains. Mrs. Gilbert ran a little concession near there. She had the first ice cream—chocolate or vanilla, one little ball from a scoop. Ice cream came in a cardboard container. I used to make a hole in the bottom of the cone because it would drip down and last longer. I was devastated when it was gone. Yes, now I always have ice cream in my refrigerator.
The bank building was in the shape of an L that bent around to form the last business in the structure. So the tavern was on one end, then came another space which was occupied at different times by several businesses—one that I remember being a drug store. Then the next space was where my mother and father later opened up a paint and hardware store. Betty McAtic with sister Rosemary (b. 1928) on fender.] Then another space with different tenants at times.
I remember the beauty parlor because that’s where I got my first permanent wave. My younger sister had thick lovely curly hair, while mine was thin and fine and straight. I was so happy and envisioned myself with shiny beautiful curls that would bounce when I ran, à la Shirley Temple. This was not to be. At that time the process was done on an electric machine that would heat up and clamp onto the hair which was chemically treated and on rollers. When it got too hot the operator would blow on the hot spot until the allotted time was up. What price beauty! At last it was time to unclamp and unroll to reveal my gorgeous coiffure. This will forever be the most disappointing event in my short life. It was all frizz and stuck out at goofy angles. I took one look at it and ran out and hid and cried for a week. That was the summer that I wore my Easter bonnet all the time. Even at play.
The bank building was a two-story structure with an apartment over each of the four stores. At the end next to the bank was Player’s garage. Miss Lockman (who drove a Buick and kept her car in that garage) had an apartment over the bank. The Player family also owned and operated the dairy. It was all home delivery. The milk, which was not homogenized so the cream rose to the top, came in quart bottles with a cardboard cap. They would deliver your order and leave it on the outside steps. In the winter if left out too long it would freeze; the milk would expand and push the cap open and about two inches of the cream would be exposed. This was not a problem because when it thawed it returned to the bottle. Of course if the cat found it first it would treat itself to all its tongue could reach.
The barber shop was at the other end of town as was the blacksmith and furrier, Herb Kleinwachter, who kept very busy since all the farming was still done at this time with horses. If he would be shoeing horses that would kick, he would yell at them in German. The new car dealership was also in this part of town. It was owned and operated by the D’Orio brothers. Their kids were the only ones in town who rode to school in a shiny new car. I don’t remember the brand they dealt in. Very few people owned automobiles at that time.
Lois Wilson had a paper route. Dressed like a boy, she pedaled down those roads summer or winter, weekly.
The Chicago, Aurora & Elgin railroad, which operated between 1901 and 1957, carried passengers and a little freight between Chicago and cities along the Fox River (Wikipedia). The line split west of Wheaton, angling either northwest toward Elgin or southwest toward Aurora, which lay about eight miles past Warrenville. For other memories of this trolley-like train, see “Railroads,” a chapter in Randall’s Along the Waccamaw: A Yankee Discovers a Home by the River (Algonquin 1990).
There were two train stations servicing the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad. The main one, called Warrenville, was a building with a good-sized waiting room. There were no ticket-sellers or agents in attendance at any time. In order to notify the train that there were people waiting to get on, a wooden signal flag could be raised, and when the train stopped the signal was lowered. Otherwise the train went right through. The other was the Williams Road Station. The only waiting area was gravel with a signal device on it. My first memories of riding the C. A. & E. were of going to the movies in Wheaton. They had a matinee every Saturday and also a serial. My favorite was the Lone Ranger. You could hardly wait for next week to see if he and Tonto survived some terrible fate that the “bad guys” had planned for them.
My mother would give us each a quarter. If we got on the train at the Williams Road stop, the fare was 7 cents each way, and the movie was 10 cents, so the total was 24 cents, leaving us a penny to spend on candy. If we got on at the Warrenville station, the fare was 5 cents each way, leaving a nickel for candy. The distance to the Warrenville stop meant about another mile walk, whereas if we ran from Williams Road to Warrenville on the tracks, it was about a quarter of a mile. We were forbidden to do this because the train ran on electricity and had a very dangerous third rail. There were no fences or protective barriers. I remember seeing an occasional dead cow that had gotten loose and strayed on to the tracks. But after all, the nickel for candy would buy an all-day caramel sucker so we went via the tracks.
Bad boys would wax the rails in front of the station at night. The train would try to stop but slide on through. There were no gates or flashing lights to warn of the oncoming train and at one point Highway 59 crossed over the tracks. Once or twice a day the non-stop Cannonball, the express train, came through. One day it smashed into a car, which it pushed along the tracks for some distance, strewing pieces everywhere. A boy was killed, Chuck James, still a teenager. Johnny Mack had a broken leg. I do not remember the name of the third boy, but he also survived.
Although most of our clothing came from Sears & Roebuck (how I loved that catalog!), we did ride the train to Wheaton to buy our shoes. One time my mother gave me the money to go and buy my own, which cost $1.98 and were the standard brown Oxford. I didn’t have a purse, but carried the money tied in a handkerchief. I got on the train and when I got off at Wheaton, I had lost the handkerchief, no doubt on the train. I was devastated. I knew that was a lot of money at that time. Nothing to do now but go home and face the music. My mother was very understanding as usual and knew how bad I felt. My only punishment was that I had to wait a while for shoes.
We didn’t have a high school in Warrenville, so when we finished eighth grade we rode the train every day to Wheaton and home again. When I got off the train after a football game in Wheaton, it was dark; if I saw a car coming, I’d duck in the ditch.
My mother had worked as a cook in Child’s Restaurant in Chicago, where she had to put her hands in water a lot. Through her I was able to get a job there one summer. I got up at 4:30 a.m. and walked down to the Williams Road Station. Coming home from Chicago, I walked home very tired.
When the school year started in 1932, I was five years old. There was no kindergarten at that time. My older sister Jean had taught me some letters and numbers and I could read a little bit. Of course I wanted very much to start school, so my mother took me to see the first grade teacher, Mrs. Butler (whose husband was an engineer on the C. A. & E.) to ask her if I could start school. She said we would try and if I could keep up with the others, I could do so.
Some woman later asked me indignantly, “How come your mother let you go to school when you were only five years old?!” “My mother,” I replied, “forgot how old I was.” My older brother and sister had been enrolled since we moved to town. It was about a three-mile walk and we took a shortcut which was partly through the woods
Mrs. Butler also taught second grade. It was an advantage to be in the same classroom with the second graders so we could possibly learn some of their lessons. She had one punishment for a naughty kid. She would make him—no girl was ever punished—sit under the desk at her feet and since it was a kneehole desk we could see him at all times. (It had a gap for the knees with drawers down each side.) One particular boy was a frequent visitor there. His name was “Pauly” Kleinwachter, the blacksmith’s son. Of course he used to cut up and entertain us while he was there. He was really a good boy, though, and never got into any serious trouble.
My mother ordered two new dresses from the Sears Roebuck catalogue for me to wear. One was red print and the other green. They were called bloomer dresses because they each had bloomers to match—underpants that had elastic at the waist and ended with elastic mid-thigh. I was in Heaven! My first day at school I wore the red one. At that time all girls had to wear dresses; the boys were forbidden to wear jeans or overalls.
The school building was red brick and had four classrooms. Each room had one teacher and two grades: first and second; second through-fourth; and fifth through eighth. The principal was also the seventh and eighth grade teacher. Each room had its own cloak room. I think there was space for thirty children in each classroom. It had a full basement divided into three rooms: the boys’ basement, the furnace room, and the girls’ basement. We all brought our lunch and this is where we ate. The janitor was a very nice man named Jake Schorr. He took care of all maintenance, cleaning and keeping the coal furnace going.
The school day started at 9 a.m. and let out at 3:30 p.m. We had two fifteen-minute recesses and an hour for lunch. This gave us time to use the school playground. The school was situated on roughly two acres of land that held a metal slide, a maypole, a merry-go-round, a set of rings with a trapeze, two teeter boards, a boy’s baseball field, and a girl’s baseball field. The lawn and grounds were well kept and the entire front of the property had a sidewalk where we used to roller skate in the spring. Jump rope was also very popular.
We had a little trick to make the slide more exciting. Most of us brought our lunch wrapped in wax paper which, if you sat on it, made the slide very slick, and after several turns you would just fly down. The trick was to stay on your feet at the bottom.
The back of the school grounds was on a gentle slope, just right for sledding when it snowed. Most of us had sleds. Mine was a Flexible Flyer, a brand still made today that looks very much the same. The hardware store here in Floyd, Virginia, sells them in the winter and never fails to bring back memories.
A boy in school was an excellent jazz drummer, à la Gene Krupa. His name was Billy Fairbanks. Miss Zander, who taught fifth grade, arranged for him to bring his drums and set them up in our classroom. She played the piano and accompanied him while he put on a show. Later he formed a band and played professionally in and around Chicago. I saw his name in the Chicago papers in the entertainment section.
Another schoolmate who was a professional performer was Mary Donna Murphy. Using the stage name of Mary Donna, she worked in nightclubs occasionally in Aurora at a young age, seven or eight. Her mother would accompany her, of course. Her act consisted of tap dancing and acrobatics. I lost track of her and don’t know if she had a career later.
On a field trip Miss Zander’s class walked to a house on the far side of town to see Miss Warren on her hundredth birthday. I was in awe! After a younger woman introduced us, Miss Warren spoke to us about her father, who founded the village of Warrenville and had it named after him.
Another field trip that I remember was to the Field Museum in Chicago. I remember the Neanderthal exhibit. When I returned as an adult, it was just the same as I had remembered it. Perhaps I’ll visit again and check to see if it’s still there.
At the end of each school year we had an outing in the local forest preserve. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated a project called the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps). Its purpose was to give jobs to the many young men who were out of work due to the depression. They lived in camps and were given meals and lodging and a small salary. Their job was to make improvements and build bridges, roads and structures in national parks and forests. It was a huge success. You will find their work on almost all national parks and land. I don’t know if the forest preserve still exists in Warrenville.
Once a week we had music appreciation class. This consisted of listening to Walter Damrosch introduce us to classical music for half an hour. [From 1928 to 1942 Damrosch hosted Music Appreciation Hour on NBC, a program broadcast during school hours—Wikipedia.] I enjoyed it very much and became totally transported by the music. Another of my best learning experiences was when a new teacher came and taught seventh and eighth grade. Harlan A. Hagman, who was also the school principal and the boys’ coach for sports, introduced us to poetry and literature on a limited scale. He encouraged us to memorize poetry, and to this day I can recite some Edgar Allen Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Longfellow, Frost and a few others.
Life in Warrenville for the first four or five years was pretty much pleasant routine. We did worry about money some. “Can I have a nickel?” “I don’t have a nickel.”
I lived close to a good pal, Genevieve Callahan, who was sharp and inventive. We found a long length of cable and decided that we were going to make a slide. So we tied one end in a tree and attached the other end to the ground. Then we went to the dump, where we found an old parrot- cage with a handle on top. We decided that my sister would go first; although she was up there ready for a ride, there was a kink in the cable, so the cage didn’t go anyplace.
Our Girl Scouts leader was Hazel Bulthouse; I wish I could thank her and maybe apologize for being such a handful. Scout volunteers would take us to swim in the Naperville quarry. On the way back we would always stop to get a One-in-a-Million [a milk shake], which was This Big. I always liked the pistachio. Come home, I’d sit around the store exhausted. Dad would pick us up after he worked all day, then take us home. Mother made supper but I went to bed tired.
Winter consisted mostly of going to school and finding our own amusement on weekends and after school. I loved school and made a very good friend early on in the years. One day we both arrived early and waited in the vestibule for the doors to be opened. She told me her name was Nettie Jean Mack, so I thought that fit in very well with my name, Betty Jane McAtic. We were inseparable all through grade school, and whenever I would get a penny for candy I would buy something like jaw breakers or suckers that were two for a penny so we could share. I also spent a lot of time at her house on weekends and summer vacations. She lived on a farm and had three older brothers and no sisters. So I was very welcome there as a playmate and would sleep over often. I loved to go there. We would gather eggs and jump in the hay in the loft. They treated me like one of the family and I was included in some of their outings.
One time we went into Chicago to see a radio show live. I don’t know if it was the Grand Ole Opry, but it was similar. We used to listen to it on the radio every Saturday evening. Another time we went into Chicago to Chinatown. We took the sightseeing bus and ate dinner—for me, chop suey. I found it very exciting, like being in a foreign country.
Young people had our favorite radio programs that we listened to regularly. There were the after-school serials for kids like The Lone Ranger and the regular weekly offerings such as The Shadow and Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons [1937-1955]. We never missed the Jack Benny Show, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber Magee and Molly, Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and Your Hit Parade, which aired the most-played songs every week starting with number ten and working their way to number one. The singers were regulars. I remember Dorothy Collins was the female vocalist for a long time and the male was Snooky Lanson. It was a contest to see which of us girls could learn the words. Then we would bring them to school the next day and write them down for the others. I was very good at memorizing and did most of the writing for the rest.
The only sports programs were the Cubs and White Sox baseball games in the summer and the championship heavyweight boxing matches. Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber” was the champion at that time and a great favorite.
Child stars were the rage. Shirley Temple headed the list but there were many others: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Jane Withers, Virginia Weidler [born the same year as Betty], Margaret O’Brien, Jackie Cooper, Freddie Bartholomew, and Bobby Breen to name a few. My younger sister and I were stage-struck and spent hours pretending we were “Those Girls” who were big stars and were always rehearsing our act for the “Big Night.” The “Big Night” never came. My favorites were the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies. They usually had a lot of singing and dancing because for some reason or another they had to raise money by putting on a show. I can still hear Mickey saying, “I know! Let’s put on a show!” Of course, it was a big success and took care of the problem. After we got home, my sister and I would practice the songs and dances that we remembered. We were very good at dancing because my Dad loved to dance and would teach us some steps. At one time, a local woman would teach tap dancing for a quarter a lesson, so we were able to learn a lot from her. She would hold class in the school vestibule once a week.
On Sunday my family had the Chicago Tribune delivered. My mother made a big breakfast of pancakes with bacon and eggs and plenty of butter and syrup—all you can eat. Coffee was our breakfast beverage. The paper would have been delivered by then and we got right to the funnies. There were the Katzenjammer Kids, Blondie and Dagwood, Annie Rooney, Gasoline Alley, Apple Mary, and Orphan Annie to name a few. [Apple Mary was “strictly a Depression-era comic strip” with its major theme economic hardship: www.Toonopedia.com.] We didn’t have lunch on Sundays but my mother always cooked special early Sunday dinner. Since we were still raising chickens at this time we had a lot of chicken dinners. My mother was a great cook and we never got tired of it. Dessert was not something we had after meals. When we wanted something sweet, mother would give us a handful of raisins and sometimes as a treat we would have a slice of white bread with lots of butter and a couple of spoonfuls of sugar sprinkled over it.
Mostly we were left to our own devices as far as entertaining ourselves. A lot of our leisure time was spent just exploring our environment and enjoying nature. We spent hours in the woods and had our special climbing trees and favorite spots. There was so much to see and learn. There were the birds to watch building their nests and raising their young, there were fish and frogs and butterflies. Rabbits galore, skunks and snakes and turtles and even mink. There was no big game such as bears and deer or elk. I’m sure they were there at one time but by then had been displaced by human population. My most prized treasure was the Indian arrowhead that I found while walking in a just-plowed field.
At lunchtime during school I would go to our store, run upstairs, eat, and run back so as to play baseball. We never had enough players to make a team but we had a version called “piggy move- up.” You’d start out as an outfielder and when the batter made an out the outfielder moved to third base and the batter became an outfielder. The catcher became the batter and the pitcher became the catcher. Then when the next batter was out you’d move to the next slot. Also if weather conditions were right and there was snow, we would bring our sleds and race down the hill behind the school. We would take a running start and then belly flop for the ride down the slope. When the weather was bad, then this time was spent in the basement jumping rope or playing jacks. After school, most of the kids would go right home.
Paul Kleinwachter got to be the marble champion. He’d “lag”—you’re up against the wall and you’d shoot, and whoever gets closest gets everybody’s marbles. He’d get every one of my marbles. About forty years later I had a chance meeting with him and his wife at the Miami Airport when I was working for Eastern Airlines. He had a successful business in siding.
My mother bought me a pair of ice skates. Sonja Henie was a star at this time and I saw all of her movies. I had wanted figure skates but instead they were hockey skates. I remember the first time I used them. The pond my dad had dug out that first summer was frozen, so I put my skates on in the house and my big brother carried me out and set me on the ice, where I glided out like I had been doing it forever. I can’t say the same about anything with wheels though. It took me forever to learn how to roller skate or ride a bicycle. Of course Sonja Henie was in no danger of being surpassed by me. But I was happy and enjoyed it.
Another favorite winter pastime was looking at the Sears & Roebuck catalog. As soon as we got the new one every year the old one was recycled in the outhouse. Most of our wearing apparel was ordered from the catalog, even shoes. To make sure we got the right size we would trace the outline of our foot on a piece of paper and send it along with the order. I could hardly wait to get to my favorite section, which was anything that had to do with horses. Bridles, saddles, harnesses, boots, jodhpurs, combs, brushes. Oh, how I dreamed of having my own horse! I spent hours selecting all that I would need.
We had not been in Warrenville long—I don’t know the year when my little sister was recuperating from scarlet fever. At that time when the health department heard of anyone who had a communicable disease, an agent was sent to post a quarantine notice on the door. On this particular day my mother thought that it would be O.K. to bundle Rosemary up and let us four kids go out and play in the shed that had once been a chicken coop. We cooked and baked on a kerosene stove that had the fuel tank attached to the side. Once or twice before, the tank had caught on fire and my mother had to get it off the stove and throw it out of the back door until it burned itself out. She was heating the oven in preparation for baking bread when she decided to come out and check to see if everything was all right
She hadn’t been there long when my brother looked out of the shed window and hollered “The house is on fire!” It was a very blustery, windy March day and the flames and smoke were already pouring out of the back of the house. My mother ran around to the front of the house and tried to drag out a metal daybed but it was too hot and she blistered both palms of her hands before she had to give up. So we were not able to save anything. It was a smoldering mass of ashes and metal. I had gotten a child’s desk for Christmas that year and I was heartbroken when I realized it was gone.
The immediate problem was a place to stay. A very kind family named James had a small guest house that they let us use. Of course we couldn’t stay there very long and next we were offered the use of a lovely brick house that was vacant in another subdivision. People donated clothing, cooking utensils, blankets and other necessities and we somehow managed. At that time there was no Red Cross or any agency that could help.
We stayed in this house until late in the summer and then had to move again. We still had our property and two sheds on it that had been chicken coops. Having no money to rebuild we decided that we could make do for a while and live in the sheds. That “while” turned out to be three or four years. The largest shed was about as about 20’ x 20′ and that’s where my dad, mother and three girls would live. There was a double bed where my two sisters and I slept crosswise, and a double bed for dad and mother which was hidden behind a curtain. We had a coal stove for heat and a kerosene stove for cooking. We ate off a large round solid oak table. My brother got his own room—the small shed—which had space for a daybed and a stove. Everyone accepted this arrangement without complaint. The plan was to rebuild; we started a structure that was to be the garage, but the project took so long that it was changed to the house. In the meantime the chicken coops were home.
The house turned out to be very roomy and comfortable. By this time my brother had joined the Coast Guard. (After the war the town put up a remembrance plaque on a huge boulder in front of the school with names of the boys from Warrenville who had fought in it. The last time I was in
Warrenville, 1967, the plaque was still there.) The place had three bedrooms upstairs, and downstairs a bedroom, eat-in kitchen, living room and bath.
At some point before we moved in, my folks decided to open a paint-and-hardware store in keeping with my dad’s working as a painter and decorator. I loved it because it was close to the school and early in the morning we would all ride to the store in the new truck. My sister and I would have our lunch there and go there after school until it was time to go home. Then my dad would come there after work, and we all would go home for supper. My mother had a big basket she would take with her to pack food for our lunch and make lunch at the store and take back with her in the evening. In the summertime we would stay home and were pretty much on our own until mom and dad came home. On Saturdays we would usually get on the train and go to Wheaton to the movies. A double feature. cartoons, newsreels, and fifteen minutes of an action-serial took up the whole afternoon.
I don’t know how it came about that we soon closed the store; I’m sure it didn’t make any money. By this time the war had started and my Dad decided he would go back to Chicago. My mother wasn’t quite ready yet even though she worked there and came home every night. One day she came home and said, “Pack your clothes, kids we’re leaving here and going to live in Chicago.” When we left to walk to the train station my mother started to cry—one of the few times I had seen her do that, for she was always so cheerful and optimistic. I’m sure she had memories and regrets about leaving. Apparently we didn’t have enough equity even after twelve years. to worry about it. Later we returned and got the rest of our belongings. So that was the end of our time in Warrenville. Gypsies on a reverse migration.
For Floydiana in 2013, Sunny explained how she came to Floyd County—a venture that initially led her to close a circle with her mother:
When I first came to Virginia, I came back to Kire, where my my mother and her family were born and raised. I had been left ten acres. I was living in Florida at the time and spent my summers in Virginia. After doing this for many years, I decided two homes was too costly to maintain. So I chose to make Virginia my home. When I settled in Kire, however, I decided it was too remote, and since I had friends in Floyd I decided I might want to live here. In 1998 I fell in love with the place. Since it had all the requirements already for my needs–to join the Humane Society and take in dogs to find homes for–I was able to move right in. This is where I hope to live my life out. I have found the people here to be so friendly.
Sunny died in October, 2013. Her many human friends, including Randall, attended a memorial ceremony at her house. From her obituary (Floyd Press, October 17): “Sunny will be remembered for her feisty Chicago personality, her great sense of humor, and most of all, her compassion for all animals.”
How did this document originate? Randall, who had done oral historiography in South Carolina, was watching recorded interviews on the subject of World War II. One woman, who had been a welder in Chicago and then joined the USO to tour the South Pacific as an entertainer, said she was from tiny Warrenville, Illinois. By a very unlikely coincidence, Randall and Marjory had lived there for a year. So Wells obtained an interview with Sunny about her childhood in the rural village. This session inspired her to begin writing her own memoir. In an ongoing collaboration with Wells, she sent material to him as email attachments. Inspired himself by her ability to salvage details from seventy and even eighty years earlier, he would edit the pieces, invite clarification, encourage more details, and even request a topic (the railroad). Eventually he helped to combine and arrange the material into a whole that readers of the Warrenville (IL) Village Chronicles as a serial in 2011. This memoir is an unexpected fruit of the oral history archive created by the Floyd Story Center, which is a partnership of the Old Church Gallery, Ltd. (Floyd), Radford University’s Center for Social and Cultural Research, and Floyd County High School. Special credit goes to Kathleen Ingoldsby.
For the biography of another Came-Here who was raised in the Chicago area and who, like Sunny, then traveled on behalf of the military, see “‘I never wanted to do anything but be a nurse’–WWII veteran,” by Wanda Combs. Floyd Press, January 16, 2014. p. A3.