Steve Bigolin writes about . . .
The Nehrings of Ellwood-Nehring House
The attractive Tudor Revival Style house at 417 North First Street in DeKalb, adjacent to Ellwood House Museum, is now part of the so-called Museum Campus. Many old-timers over the years remembered it historically as either the Perry Ellwood House or the Will Ellwood House.
The residence was constructed between the spring of 1899 and the early months of 1900, for newlyweds Perry Ellwood and his wife Lulu May
Gurler Ellwood. Unsubstantiated oral tradition holds that it had cost $100,000. Charles E. Brush, architect of Altgeld Hall at NIU drew the plans for it. When Perry inherited Ellwood House with his parents deaths in the summer of 1910, he sold 417 North First – or Ellcourt as they called – it to his older brother Will for $22,000. Will died in December 1933, and the house remained in his estate until the summer of 1942.
Among other Ellwood family members who briefly called 417 home were Isaac Ellwood II and his wife Margery Rich Ellwood, Edward L. Mayo, Jr. and son Edward L. (Ted) Mayo III made their home for a period of time in the 1930’s also. Ted told me once that he and his father lived there 10 happy years. I have also been told there was a time when the venerable residence simply sat empty, with its doors wide open. So where does the Nehring name come into the picture?
Paul M. Nehring was the only son of industrialist, banker, philanthropist Paul A. (P.A.) Nehring. P.A. founded Nehring electrical works in 1912, owned the original First National Bank for over 40 years and served as a Trustee of the Jacob Haish Estate. Paul M. or Jr. as he was long known, was born in Sycamore on April 9, 1911. He was 31 years old in the summer of 1942 when he purchased the white elephant mansion and 1.2 acres of land for $11,000 supposedly. Over the years he preferred not to say what it cost, stating simply that he bought it “for the cost of the plumbing.” When war had been declared against Japan on December 8, 1941, P.A. used his influence with officials in Washington D. C. to keep Junior from being drafted, claiming he was vital to the success of the war effort on the home front.
From 1942-1958 Paul Jr. lived alone at 417 North 1st. In 1958 he invited a former South Carolina beauty queen he once met to move to DeKalb to live with him, which she did. Her name was Nell Davis and she was his common law wife for 26 years. Before she arrived, Paul decided to update the home’s kitchen. He had it gutted to the four walls, but never put a new one in. For 30 years the mansion contained no working kitchen. What little cooking Nell did was with hot plates, there being no such thing as microwaves back then. Until shortly after he married the former Shirley Hamilton (see them in photo above) in January of 1988, there continued to be no working kitchen.
Nell Davis died in February of 1984 from complications of diabetes, and is buried in the Nehring Family Plot at Sycamore’s Elmwood Cemetery. Until Paul died in February of 1999, Nell had no headstone at her grave, just the simple metal stake in the ground provided by Anderson Funeral Home. It is said Paul was too cheap to buy her one. Shirley Hamilton Nehring bought them both matching brown granite markers. Paul had a handwritten will which he drafted himself, long not trusting lawyers, and following Nell’s death he removed her from his will. I was a witness to its signing, as well as a pallbearer in her funeral at DeKalb First Methodist Church.
A little less than four years after Nell died, Paul married for the only time in his life, at just shy of 77 years of age. He wed the widow Shirley Hamilton Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, who he had known since 1969. Upon originally meeting her, Paul was instantly smitten by her. She had four grown children from her first marriage, her husband having died very young. One of her daughters was pregnant at the time Shirley and Paul married, so when she gave birth it made Paul an instant grandfather.
From a long time before Paul and Shirley married, few people were ever were allowed inside 417 North First. He and Nell were not the best housekeepers, and the mansion’s rooms were more than anything used to warehouse antiques, carpets, and art he bought over the years in various places. The exterior meanwhile had quite a rundown look to it. Enter Shirley Hamilton Nehring.
Shirley not only breathed new life into the residence, she also dragged Paul out from under his rock so to speak, and proved during their 11years of marriage that he had a good, domestic side to him. Flowers, greenery, and music never had a place in the house before Shirley moved in. Now they did. Underutilized furniture, collectibles, carpets, and art finally found their places in the house. Interior and exterior improvements were made, and it became fashionable to be invited to a musical, fundraiser, or other functions at 417 North First. Paul’s coming out party took place at the mansion in April 1991 for his 80th birthday. Some 100 people were invited, with 120 present, several persons taking the liberty to bring a guest along, myself included. I was the “official photographer” for the event.
Paul died at 87 in February of 1999 in his home of over 56 years. He had long told me that he had the distribution of his estate well provided for, unlike his wealthy father’s. As it turned out, even before they married, Paul had named Shirley Administrator of the estate. He made some $181,000 in bequests, but above and beyond these, Shirley had the power to dispose of anything and everything as she saw fit. The Will did not state what the total assets of the estate were, however. Paul had often said “If a man knows how much he’s worth, he’s not worth much.” He was always fond of talking thousands and millions of dollars like most people talk $10 or $20. Because the document was handwritten and lacked certain legalese, I had to go before Presiding Judge John Countryman at the DeKalb County Courthouse with Shirley to testify that Paul had been of sound mind when he drafted it.
Shirley continued to call 417 North First home for another 14 years. Concerned about the long-term preservation of the historic mansion, she offered it to the DeKalb Park District. They had their hands full enough with Ellwood House though, and said thanks, but no thanks. In a conversation Shirley had with Ellwood House Executive Director Brian Reis, he suggested she donate the property to the Ellwood House Association, a 501c(3) non-profit organization. The Board agreed to accept the gift, but didn’t want to operate two house museums. They looked at using 417 for indoor musicals, weddings, receptions, art shows, fundraisers, and other functions never held in Ellwood House itself. As a result, the contents needed to be disposed of. In early May 2013 a two-day estate sale was held, and Paul’s possessions were scattered to the four winds in large measure. It was estimated that 2,000 people attended, many locals being simply curiosity seekers. Shirley now left DeKalb after 25 years, returning to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and the house where she raised her children.
At the time of Paul’s death, Shirley hired real estate appraiser Bob Carlson to set a value on the residence for estate purposes. The figure he came up with was $435,000.
(Editor’s Note: Shirley has recently suffered a serious stroke and is still recovering. Cards can be sent to her home address at 1450 North Dousman Road, Oconomowoc, WI. 53066)
Steve Bigolin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Shown here: the late Steve Bock (left) at a Waterman Lions Club meeting with Barry Schrader and Terry Martin (center and right), members of the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society, who were promoting a book that updated the history of DeKalb County.
By Craig Rice (email@example.com)
My granddaughter’s first grade teacher sent her and each of her 19 classmates a letter with jitter-glitter. The teacher instructed them to put jitter-glitter by their pillows the night before the first day of school. It would help calm their worries about the next day–getting on the bus, finding their rooms, meeting new kids and learning the ropes.
I need some of that jitter-glitter, too. Everything is changing and it is stressful. One of our best friends, Steve Bock, passed away from complications following lung transplant surgery. How will that affect us going forward?
He was in our card club. The pretext is Euchre, but mostly we spend the evenings grazing the snacks and talking. When we did play cards, Steve would often adjust the score in his favor, but always brazen enough that he would be caught.
He was part of our lives for a long time. Shortly after my wife and I moved back to Waterman years ago, Steve and his wife Kathy invited us to go with them to an Oak Ridge Boys concert in Rockford. For several years, Steve drove one of my tractors in the spring helping with soil preparation for planting my crops. He didn’t need instruction because he had worked on farms since his teenage years.
In recent years, I worked for Steve at Honey Hill Orchard, driving a tractor and wagon to transport customers from the buildings out to the apple trees and pumpkin patches. He was a good manager of resources and people. Most people who worked for Steve at the orchard didn’t need the work. People worked at the orchard as if it was a mission, a project where everyone pulled together to make the experience successful. Out of sight from the public, he kept track of everything and everyone from the apple sorting room.
He was an important part of the lives of many people: the others in our card club, members of the congregations of the two churches he attended over time, employees of Honey Hill Orchard, associates of the State Horticulture Society where he was a director and the members of the FFA alumni association. In addition to his family, I am sure many others who knew him all his life in Waterman and in other groups miss Steve, too.
Steve was born with a genetic degenerative lung disease. He was on oxygen and felt weaker day by day. He was full of hope as he got ready for surgery; however, his soul was collected by Heaven and everything changed for those left behind.
I don’t like the direction of this change. No, I do not. Nor, do I like other changes I notice. The right words come harder and harder. Forgetfulness blankets important thoughts conjured just minutes ago. Names of people I’ve known for years vaporize into ether.
Find me some jitter-glitter! I wonder if my granddaughter has some left.
The late Steve Bock (second from left) is shown here with two of his friends: Bob Bend (center) and Dave Stryker (right), both of Waterman. Steve’s family is donating memorial money to the Alpha 1 Foundation in Steve’s name for research and testing for Alpha 1 Antitrypsin Deficiency.
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Doing something nice for law enforcement
By Jessi Haish LaRue (JHaish09@gmail.com)
My sister (see photo above), with the help of the community, has been working to feed our local law enforcement officers.
The project started out simple enough: Lillian Haish is a member of Sycamore’s police explorer program, and is studying criminal justice at Kishwaukee College. She wanted to show respect for the Sycamore officers, especially in a time when law enforcement officers are being targeted and under-appreciated, Lilly said.
Because she’s a college student and couldn’t readily pay for something out of pocket, she started a GoFundMe fundraising account to collect money for a dinner for the officers. She was asking for $300, enough to cater a meal from Tom & Jerry’s to 40 of Sycamore’s finest.
That goal was met in less than 24 hours.
However, the donations didn’t stop rolling in. As hundreds of dollars continued to be donated, Lilly needed to come up with a plan. The next goal? To feed the DeKalb Police Department.
As she neared $1,000 in donations, she aspired to feed the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, as well. By the end of her week-long campaign, the community had raised $1,499, and had raised more than enough money to provide a meal for more than 100 officers between the Sycamore, DeKalb city and county departments.
The lunch for county was held Aug. 12. Lilly said she received lots of hugs and handshakes from deputies, telecommunicators, transcribers, and more.
“I was very happy,” Lilly said. “Everyone was so grateful. They told me I was part of the family, gave me a tour, and they made me feel included.”
She’s currently in the works scheduling dates with Sycamore and DeKalb police departments to host their catered dinners. Updates will be posted on her GoFund Me page. (Link: https://www.gofundme.com/2f8cujo)
Lilly said she would like to thank those who donated and shared her fundraiser via social media, and Tom & Jerry’s for helping with the event, and future dinners.
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A son’s eulogy upon his mother’s passing
(Editor’s Note: After reading this touching tribute to his mother Jean Marie Adams, delivered at her recent funeral services, we asked Brian Adams if we could reprint it here for other people to read. It is a heartfelt eulogy and could serve as an example for others when the time comes to compose one of their own.)
It’s common to describe a proper English lady as having “silk hiding steel.” A gentle, calm motherly appearance, combined with inner strength and resolution; someone who will be kind and helpful to all…but when challenged, will show their determination, and their willingness to stand by the ones they love.
For Jean Adams, that inner strength concealed by outer charm was a hallmark of her life; growing up in England, she learned both sides of being a proper lady – indeed, having one without the other would have been a mark of poor breeding. And throughout her life, she showed that balance of politeness, elegance and care…mixing it with the willingness to risk it all, for someone she loved.
Growing up in the north of Wales during the Second World War, she knew about struggle; her family, like all others in that time, had to deal with shortages and rationing and worries about loved ones in the middle of the fighting. And that was mixed with the sight of almost-nightly bombing runs over nearby Liverpool…and the knowledge that one stray bomb or downed aircraft could strike home at any time.
Coming of age in that atmosphere, she became like any other typical English girl – living and laughing, learning and making friends, wondering what her future would hold. And with the advent of the war, American G.I.’s added something new to the mix with their better pay and their brash ways.
Then along came one, who would change her life.
Set up on a blind date with a friend, she met a young American soldier named Robert Adams who was stationed near Chirk. Before the war, it’s unlikely either could have picked out the other’s home town on a map; but fate brought them together one day, and as time went on they realized their future was with each other.
But as often happens in the Army, he was sent elsewhere as he was moved around England and into France following V-E Day. All throughout, he became more resolved to have her join him in America, and wrote to her as often as he could – especially after being sent back to the States from France, to be mustered out.
For a young girl barely 20, it was both an opportunity and a gamble. She had seen how difficult life could be in her hometown, and it became clear that the end of the war wouldn’t bring an end to the struggles of living in Britain. But she was being asked to give up everyone she loved and everything familiar, and move across the globe to a town where she knew exactly one person – the one she was being asked to sacrifice everything for.
In the end, she decided she had to take that chance, because she loved a man who was worth taking that chance for.
It was by no means easy; minutes before leaving home, her mother begged her not to go, and she nearly went along with it. But she went anyway, because of the promise she had made. Leaving home, getting on a ship and sailing to an unfamiliar land was undoubtedly the hardest thing she ever had to do in her young life, but leave she did.
The journey itself was eventful. In 1947, travel wasn’t as easy as it is now; it took days to cross the Atlantic, and her ship made port in Boston on the Fourth of July…which meant the customs office was closed, so she had to stay on board another day before disembarking. Then came a train trip cross-country to northern Illinois, and the accompanying culture shock of learning what America was really like.
Fortunately, the Adamses welcomed her with open arms; they helped her with the wedding preparations, and made sure there was someone to walk her down the aisle – in this very church, nearly 70 years ago, on a blistering hot day, in a building which at that time had no air conditioning.
That walk marked the end of one long journey, and the beginning of another. She stood by Bob’s side as he made his way in the world, becoming a druggist and then opening his own store in Elgin…then moving with him to New Orleans, where she saw the Crescent City’s bright nightlife, and the dark side of Jim Crow…and then back to Illinois, finally settling in McHenry.
Along the way, they had and raised three children – Cindy, Jill and Brian – and did their best to give them the values they had each been raised with. Like any couple, they tried to balance off each other’s strengths and weaknesses; she impressed on them the need to behave in a proper manner in public, to work hard in school and eventually in their jobs, to treat all people with respect and to expect it in return.
And like any family, they had their ups and downs – success and failure in the classroom; popularity and hostility from schoolmates; arguments which led to the silent treatment, and moments of joy which they all shared equally.
She was born in a time when it wasn’t common for women to work outside the home; but the war began to change that, and her life changed along with it. She worked for Monsanto during and shortly after the war; then went to Illinois Bell, at a time when the company actually required women to get permission from their husbands to even hold a job.
Eventually, she fell into the role of homemaker at a time when that was still in style; as with all things in her life, she sought to do it impeccably – the house was always neat beyond reproach, the lawn well trimmed, the meals made on time, the home always filled with love. Even as her children began to grow and move into their own lives, that home remained their touchstone…a place of refuge, and of comfort, whenever it was needed.
But times changed again, and she went back into the workforce; her time at the McHenry West Campus library could be seen as one of the happiest times of her life, because she was doing something useful to many. On her first day, she was up for hours beforehand, dressing up impeccably and singing as she prepared for her new career; and while dealing with teenagers who weren’t as well-behaved as they were where she came from was difficult, she spent the ensuing twelve years giving the task everything she had.
Throughout it all, she put others first; she had been taught that the man was the head of the family, and acted accordingly. If he or her children needed something, she was the one who would sacrifice; if there was a chore to be done, she would do it. And she often didn’t get the recognition she deserved…which is why it was so special to her, when she received her retirement plaque after 12 years at the high school – it was a sign of appreciation for a job well done, something needed and deserved.
Like anyone who has led a long life, the people and the memories they leave behind are the strongest legacy. She saw her children have children of their own, eventually becoming the matriarch of a family which had great-great-grandchildren for her to boast of. And because of their varying ages, those milestones kept coming at different points of her life, bringing her joy when needed even in her twilight years.
For these past few years, she and her family struggled with her failing health and memory. She was asked during this time if she was afraid of death; she said no – because it meant she would be together again with Bob. Now it becomes true, as she is reunited with him – in body, at the cemetery south of town, and in spirit, in the place which waits for all of us.
And as her loved ones think of her from now on, and wait for the day when they will all be together again, they will remember not the pain of the past few years, but the life and laughter and strength she showed them day in and day out. Our great legacy is the children we leave behind, and the things we teach them; and because of her shining example, they will also go through their lives with a touch of silk…hiding steel.
—Brian Adams’ tribute to his mother
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Memories from a fast fading summer
By Barry Schrader, editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
How unexpected events can change your outlook and feelings about the ending of summer.
I was jarred out of my summertime serenity with the deaths of good friends in the past week.
First was the loss of longtime friend Bob Skinner whom we had known since high school in Genoa along with his sister Ellen (Skiinner) Piper. He has lived in San Francisco since retirement but had made several trips back to assist Ellen and her family with the deteriorating health (Alzheimers) of her husband Jerry in recent years. Then after Jerry’s death a year ago Ellen discovered she had cancer and Bob was there for her to the end. Hardly a week after her death as Bob was helping prepare the house for sale and dealing with other estate matters, he died one morning of a heart attack. So we have attended three funerals for that one family over the past year—all three people precious to us. Jerry had been my first boss out of college—hiring me to be editor of three of his weeklies in Ogle County, which was a steep learning curve for a young graduate, but he mentored me, becoming my friend for the rest of our lives.
Then the unthinkable happened later in the week. Two people in rural Sycamore were murdered in their home—Patty (Bowker) Wilson and her son Bob.
Patty and her Bowker sisters Nancy and Judy are childhood playmates from our rural Hinckley days even before I began school, since our parents were close friends way back then. The three Bowker girls “adopted” me as their little brother since they didn’t have a real one and I was an only child. We grew up together, my getting to visit their place during the summer months and then keeping in touch as each of us married. Once our parents both died we saw each other less often as Kay and I were out in California, but trips back here usually included a visit with them. Once we retired and returned to our roots in 2006 we have been getting together once or twice a year to share memories of growing up and our close knit families.
Just a week before their deaths we saw Patty and Bob at their usual brunch spot at the Sycamore Cafe where they often came after church, as did we.
Now Kay and I share the family’s grief and attended the funeral services today (August 22) with heavy hearts, still in shock over their senseless murders. The Lutheran Church north of Sycamore was overflowing with friends and family. We can only hope that the horrid person or persons who committed this heinous crime will soon be found and prosecuted. Unfortunately, even apprehending whomever is responsible won’t bring back two fine people, but fond memories over a lifetime will keep them in our hearts and memories for the rest of our lives.
So that is how a serene summer can be shattered and one’s recollections altered drastically. But there were many good things that happened during this season as well and we will try to move ahead into fall with hopes for a brighter tomorrow. A trip to the Sandwich Fair always lifts my spirits and is not far off.
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Doug Oleson’s column “From the Doug-out” will return in the next blog on Monday, September 12.