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MORE MANSION, MILLIONAIRE AND GOOD LIFE PHOTOS TO BE ADDED SHORTLY.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Journey Begins



The Havilah Babcock House circa 1908, Neenah, Wisconsin.


CHAPTER I, Part 1


In 1962 when I was eight years old, my family set out on a cross country road trip from our home north of San Francisco to the East Coast and back. Mom, Dad, me, three older brothers and a yellow Pontiac station wagon. Bill, a sophomore in college, sat up in front and took turns driving with Dad, while Dave and Steve, both in their teens, divvied up the window seats in back with Mom. As the smallest and least significant, I rode behind everyone else with the luggage, where the only unobstructed view was out the rear hatch. From this position in the family hierarchy I seldom had any idea where we were going but always had plenty of time to think about where we had been and what we were leaving behind.

Dad’s original idea in taking this trip was for us to see the country, only once we were out on the road making good time became more important than having one. “We can always see that kind of thing on the way back,” he said about Yellowstone and the Badlands, both of which had been vaguely promised but were no where near the route we were on. Driving each day until the dead of night, we stopped only at greasy caf├ęs and dusty gas stations until finally, pushed to the brink of exhaustion, Dad would turn in at some dimly lit roadside motel where the neon vacancy sign flickered ominously. As he walked over to the office to register, Mom would call out, “Make sure it’s clean.” Minutes later, following what could only have been a cursory inspection of the premises, Dad would return to make his report.

“Well,” he’d say, “it’s not flossy."

While the best of these places smelled of moth balls and disinfectant, and had white chenille bedspreads and sanitary paper tapes across the toilet seats, the majority were part of what must have been a vast Bates Motel franchise, complete with worn-out linoleum rugs, rusty bathroom fixtures and bare exposed light bulbs dangling from the ceilings. No TV, no pool, no air conditioning, no nothing. Except once there was an oil derrick that groaned all night outside the only window that opened. That was the motel where there weren't enough rollaways for all of us and Dave volunteered to sleep in the bath tub because Dad didn't want to pay for two rooms.

Years later I learned that a road trip like ours had been one of the few happy memories Dad had growing up. His was in 1931 when he was fifteen years old, two years after his father had died of Alzheimer’s disease, the same year his mother had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. His mother had promised that when his older sister Mary graduated from high school the three of them would go to Europe, only when the time came it was the middle of the Depression, and his mother felt such an extravagance would be in very poor taste. So instead she bought a touring car, hired a driver and took them all on a three-month circumnavigation of the continental United States, revisiting all the places that had been important in her life.
 




The bird bath in Aunt Nell's formal gardens, being fished by Dad's Louisville cousins George, Harry and Blandina Babcock, circa 1935.


Like us they started out from California, only the first part was by train, arranging for the driver to follow along in the car and meet them in Chicago after they had spent a week or so with Dad’s aunts in Wisconsin. For Dad this first stop was the high point of the entire three months. His aunts had no children and the three of them were devoted to their nieces and nephews, making Wisconsin the only place Dad ever thought of as home - not his mother's house in the foothills of Berkeley, nor any place he ever lived with us for that matter. Even as an adult Dad visited these aunts every chance he got, taking side trips to Wisconsin whenever he passed through Chicago. Our own trip was no exception.

I don’t remember driving up into Wisconsin out of Illinois or continuing north from Milwaukee to Neenah, but what does come back clearly begins on the edge of town, where Dad pulled into a drive-in on Main Street, bought us all milkshakes and announced that for the next three days we were to be on our best behavior. No discussion, no debate, and no threatened consequences because there was no alternative to full compliance with whatever Dad expected of us. His fury, when unleashed, could be volcanic. Only Dave, with whom Dad never uttered a harsh word and therefore enjoyed certain liberties the rest did not, ventured to voice his opinion.

“Looks like we're spending the weekend in church.”

From the drive-in we continued on into town over railroad tracks, past old mills, and through a handful of commercial blocks that made up a rather ordinary Midwestern downtown, emerging finally at the other end on a wide, elm-shaded avenue of houses that quite suddenly became spectacularly grand and impressive. The street then came up along side a little marina of boats formed out of a bend in a river, and there, without fanfare or warning, Dad turned in at one of the largest and most impressive of the houses - a brick Victorian mansion that looked something like a Tudor castle, complete with an imposing tower, sprawling stone verandah, formal gardens and a carriage house that was bigger than our home in California.

This, it was safe to say, was flossy.


CHAPTER I continues HERE


26 comments:

  1. That must have been an eye popping experience seeing the house for the first time!

    When was the photo taken?

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    1. The photo was taken sometime between 1908 and 1910. The baby on the far right is George Kimberly Babcock who was born in 1907. The other clue is the two central windows of the second floor were partially closed when the adjacent dressing room was converted to a bathroom in 1911. With that exception the house hasn't changed outside in more than 100 years.

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  2. Interesting story. Looking forward to the next post.

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    1. Thanks! Be sure and ask any questions you'd like about what you're reading. If there's anything I need to explain more fully I'd like to know.

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  3. I'm so glad you're writing it all down! I have not yet mastered the rhythm or voice that is so unique to you and Grandma. I absolutely love these stories.

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    1. If there's anything you think I'm glossing over or left out, I want to hear about it!

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  4. This will be fun to read. The first time I saw the house was when I visited Patti when we were in college and we walked around town gazing at many of the big houses. Who knew she would end up living there.

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    1. I'm glad you're enjoying them. By the time I'm done my hope is to have the stories told about most of the houses in the neighborhood, to show how all these people were connected to each other, and in a strange way to all of us.

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  5. Pete:
    Thank God, your ancestors escaped from Decatur County, otherwise, they would still be living in a log cabin or a barn. Your article was fun to read.

    WOS

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    1. Don't worry, I'll be getting to the Decatur County connections soon enough. It's not every family that can claim a connection to the best documented link in the underground railroad!

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  6. Peter---did I send you the documentation on our ancestor's military involvement in Morgan's Raid in Indiana?
    Donna

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    1. The Company C records? I got those in August, thanks!

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  7. Peter, looking forward to reading the entire story, loved hearing about the aunts and the house from your Mom

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    1. Mom was a latter-day Scheherazade when it came to story-telling. I hope I can keep you and everyone else coming back for more. By the way, love the artwork for your post!

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    2. P.S. And thank you for becoming my first follower!

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  9. Peter, I'm not sure how I stumbled upon your blog. I'm sure glad I did as your stories bring to life the pictures you have included. I'm looking forward to more from you - any thoughts about publishing this as a book?

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    1. Bob, thanks for the feedback! Be sure and leave comments, questions or whatever thoughts come to in reading these posts. It's how I keep on the straight and narrow - and get a better idea of how I'm doing with making the content clear and interesting. As for a book, a large share of what you're reading began as a manuscript for a book, but in the process I became bogged down with uncertainty about whether it was interesting or not. At my brother Bob's suggestion I've been translating that and other material into these posts, which are a much more manageable length, more what I'm familiar with from my years as journalist. Ultimately I hope to stitch them all back together into a book - hopefully with interest from a publisher generated from the popularity of this post. So please - share a link on Facebook or Twitter or email -with anyone you think would be interested!

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  10. Hi Peter, I too am looking forward to reading the story of your ancestors. Neenah Menasha history is very interesting and entertaining to me. Thanks for sharing. Curtis

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    1. Curtis,

      Glad to you're enjoying this. Be sure and post any questions about local history that come to mind as you go along. And if there are any suggestions, ideas - or anything I haven't explained well enough, be sure and let me know. I make corrections and clarifications as we go along, and I've added features that people have suggested to me. Right now I'm trying to come up with a map graphic that would show that relate to the pictures.

      Peter

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    2. Peter, This is such a fascinating blog and family story. I have been pursuing my Babcock roots for 25 years. I have sent to the English Archives for documents and family history. I am sending my website - it is not nearly as well done as yours and needs some additions and revising, but I hope you enjoy it. http://www.angelfire.com/hero/laurienbabcock/houseofbabcock/

      Sincerely, Laurien Babcock


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    3. Laurien, Thank you for taking the time to write and share your work with me. I'm always intrigued to learn about other branches of the family. Most of what I know about the Babcocks comes from the Stephen Babcock genealogy, and even there I'm primarily focused on our branch. What branch is yours?

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  11. Hi Peter, Your writing is captivating, telling us the story behind the story. My Neenah roots go deep, my great-grandparents having come to Neenah from Wales, and subsequently my grandfather and mother living all their lives in Neenah, and me most of my life as well. I look forward to reading your accounts of the people and places so familiar to me. Thank you for making this history available to all. You are absolutely right--many of us have a shared connection that continues to influence us even today. Julie H.

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    1. Thanks for the glowing comments. The newest posts relate to my immediate family and how we came back to Neenah, in part so that you'll have a sense of who we are in relation to the discovery of our Neenah roots and that way a sense of the really rich interplay of forces and stories behind the stories of my delving into Neenah history. So please trust me, I'm not telling you anything you don't need to know. It all adds up in the end. Peter

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  12. Wow, this is amazing. Being born, raised, and still livin in the Fox Valley, I have spent most of my years in Neenah. I love the downtown area with all of its beautiful architecture. I have always been curious about those "big castles" seen from the backseat of the family car when I was a child going to relatives houses during the holidays. Thanks for compiling all of this into a fun and interesting blog! Love, love, love it!!

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