Memories of Elburn past

By on March 26, 2014
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Long-term Elburnites share memories of village

The Elburn Herald’s three-part series detailing the evolution of Elburn begins this week with a look at the village’s past.

Imagine a Route 47 with so little traffic that young people could safely roller skate through the middle of Elburn all the way to Blackberry Inn (Bar & Grill) at Main Street Road. Then imagine nothing but farmland once you traveled north of the Elburn and Countryside Community Center and a town where you knew everyone and they knew you.

That’s the Elburn that existed when Hilma (Tillie) Henderson was born. Henderson was born in 1920 when Dr. Taylor came to her home in Elburn to deliver her. At 93 years old, Henderson is believed to be the oldest person alive who was born and raised in Elburn.

Several other long-time Elburnites recently shared their memories about what it was like to grow up in Elburn.

One thing they all agreed on: as a kid, you could never get away with anything.

“Everybody knew who you were, so if you were misbehaving, your folks knew about it before you got home,” long-time resident and Village President Dave Anderson said. “It was always in a positive manner.”

Anderson said he raised his three boys the same way. He recalled when his son Ryan got a speeding ticket and the officer who gave it to him put a call in to Dave. When Ryan got home, Dave asked his son about his lead foot.

“His eyes were as big as dinner plates,” Anderson said with a laugh.

Opportunities for entertainment for young people in Elburn included free movies in town. Helen (Gould) Johnson, who grew up outside of town near her family’s Gould Cider Mill, said that on Saturdays, the farmers would come to town to buy groceries, and the kids would watch the show.

Johnson said she and her sister would meet up with their friends from school. The movies were shown where the old post office used to be, at Shannon and Gates streets, as well as at the Stover Brothers office. The seats were planks placed across tiles.

She remembers the cowboy movies, and Anderson said he recalls seeing “Ma & Pa Kettle” and “Francis, the Talking Mule.”

Anderson said that when he was a boy, the Elburn Lions Club paid for two school buses to take a group of grade school students swimming at Pottawottamie Park in St. Charles on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer.

Ralph Conley, born in 1925, is the younger son of Burdette Hale Conley, who owned and operated the funeral home in town. Ralph said that he and his brother Chuck and sister Eloise grew up during the depression. Their family didn’t have a lot of money, but they made their own fun.

He and the other kids in the neighborhood would meet under the street light, and from there, go off and play games, such as Run, Sheep, Run, and others that they made up. He said that, although times were tough, he and his friends didn’t realize it.

“Everybody was in the same boat,” he said.

For a time, the Greyhound bus stopped in town, and there was a passenger train from Chicago that dropped people off at the depot in town, as well. The local teenage girls would take the train to DeKalb to attend the dances there on Saturday night.

At first, the funeral chapel was located in the south half of the old drug store on Main Street. Later, the Conley family moved the funeral home to its current location at the corner of Main and Pierce streets, the house where Ralph and his family had grown up.

Larry Martin was born in 1921 in Hinckley, but his family moved to Elburn a few months later. Martin’s dad Claude (Red) Martin was a barber. His shop on Main Street was the same barber shop that Dave Risman currently owns.

Martin said the population at that time was 500.

He graduated in 1939 from Elburn High School, in the building now known as the Elburn and Countryside Community Center. He was one of only 10 people in his class.

The grade school was at the south end of town, with the lower grades meeting in the basement and the first floor. The fifth, sixth and seventh grades met on the second floor, and according to Anderson, the students could only go up the stairs one at a time, because the building would shake.

Martin obtained several advanced degrees and taught in Wisconsin, as well as at a school for children of servicemen in France, but he always came back to Elburn.

According to Martin, Elburn at that time had a variety of businesses. Those in town included a grocery store, a meat market, a second barber, a dime store, a hardware store, two veterinarians, a small factory, a restaurant, hotel, a garage where Ford automobiles were sold, a plumber and a bank, among others.

“You could get everything you needed in town,” he said.

The railroad had a big impact on business in the area. There were quite a few cattle farmers in the area who received large shipments of cows from ranches in the west.

Cattle farmers brought their grain to the mill in town to be ground into feed for their cows. Once they fattened them up, they took them to the packing house. Martin said you could look out a window on Main Street, and see the cattle being led to the packing house.

When the packing house opened, it was the largest employer in town. Henderson said that people came to Elburn from out of town, such as Iowa, to work there, which increased the population a bit.

When Henderson was in high school, she and her friends would go down to the packing house and watch them slaughter the cows. She said she guesses it sounds awful, but she and her friends understood that they were going to be used for food. They would slaughter more than 100 cows at one time.

“It was an all-day operation,” she said.

The local dairy farmers would bring their milk to the Bowman Dairy, located near the railroad tracks in town. Bowman processed the milk and packed it in 5-gallon containers to take to Chicago on the train.

Beginning in 1946, currency was brought out to Elburn from Chicago on the train. Johnson was working at the bank in town at the time, and she and the other employees would receive bags of loose nickels, dimes and quarters to sort through and count.

Johnson was working at the bank when an infamous bank robbery took place there on Feb. 11, 1949.

She said two men came into the bank, and she saw everyone’s hands go up. They were all made to lie down on the floor, and she remembers smelling the horse manure on the floor, where customers had walked with their dirty boots.

The robbers locked them all in the vault, and walked out with $4,000 in cash. She and the other girls she worked with had to go into Chicago for a line-up. Each of the three girls had a different description of the men. They were never caught.

Mary Gustafson, who was born in 1947, said her dad, Almer Gliddon, bought the drug store in town in 1946. There was a housing shortage in the 1950s, so initially the family lived in an apartment in the back part of the store.

Mary remembers working in the store’s soda fountain after school when she was 12, which she thought was great, because she got to interact with kids of all ages.

She remembers the mail was brought out to Elburn on the train, where it was thrown off the train in a mail bag. The outgoing mail was hung on a hook on the train.

Phyllis Ream and her husband Bob moved to Elburn and opened Ream’s Meat Market in 1954. She said the first week they were open, they took in $112.89. At first, she sat down and cried, and then she went to work, helping to make the business successful.

She said Bob would cut the meat and she would package it, with their two sons, Randy and Jim, in a playpen in the back of the store. She set up the books, and even though she went back to college and got a job teaching in Batavia, she would come back to the store after school and work until late at night.

She and Bob still found time for community involvement. Bob was on the Village Board for 15 years, and Phyllis served on the Library Board for 12 years. She recalls making a trip to Villa Park, Ill., to retrieve some shelves from a library there that was moving.

“I took my screwdriver and took them down and brought them back,” she said proudly.

Although Randy was the son who first took an interest in the business, learning how to make award-winning sausage and other meats, everyone in the family eventually became involved.

Dave Anderson’s dad, Leonard, was a dairy farmer before he moved his family to town in 1953. After managing the Elburn Co-op for a decade, he bought the grocery store in town in 1964.

Leonard would deliver groceries, and check on the senior citizens in town on his rounds. He always made sure that people had food, and would often let them run a monthly tab.

Dave had a 15-year career with Jewel-Osco, where he was a butcher and manager, after which he took over running the store. He said he was able to make a good living at it, and raised three children before he closed the business a few years before Jewel came to town. He sold the building to Kevin Schmidt, who opened Schmidt’s Towne Tap in that spot.

By 1958, Elburn’s population had grown to 1,200. When the individual towns’ high schools were closed and consolidated into the Kaneland High School in 1958, Martin helped create the guidance department, where he worked for the next 20 years. He was also the first director of athletics.

Gustafson and her husband, Ken, took over the pharmacy in 1982, and took care of Elburn’s medical needs for 25 years. They had close relationships with their customers, and she would come out from behind the counter and give someone a hug when they needed it.

Although they loved their work there, they happily began working in the Jewel-Osco Pharmacy when it opened in 2007, where now they can take vacations together.

By the 2010 census, Elburn’s population had grown to more than 5,000.

Anderson said that growing up in Elburn was a wonderful experience, and he compares his childhood to a Norman Rockwell painting.

“I’m extremely grateful that I was brought up in Elburn,” he said.

Henderson, who went to school with Anderson’s dad, holds the same affection in her heart for the town where she was born.

“It was home,” she said.

PART TWO: Elburn grows up
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PART THREE: Elburn poised for steady growth
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