These posts are presented as a serialization that is best appreciated by starting with the first post HERE. You can then proceed in order by clicking on the HERE links shown in red at the bottom of every post.

If you enjoy these stories, please consider subscribing by email, or joining as a follower, both available in the right hand column below. You can also help spread the word by sharing a link with others.

Click HERE to see what the Wisconsin Historical Society has to say about “An American Downton Abbey.” You can also read about our inclusion in the society's 2010 publication, "Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes," by clicking on the book's cover on the right below.

Jen Zettel's story for Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers generated a huge increase in page views! See what she wrote and follow the links to view clips of the interview HERE.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Had We Ever Been Allowed

   Dad, a poised four-year-old with the first glimmerings of rebellion in 1920.   

Chapter I, Part 3

On our first full day as visitors in Neenah Dad took us out to see the carriage house, what the family called the barn - perhaps because its sole purpose had been to house horses and cows (and at one point a substantial flock of chickens), the carriages and sleighs having been kept elsewhere when not in use. Dad showed us the stables and tack room, where the oats were stored and the hay was kept, and the little fenced area behind the barn which was always referred to as the cow yard. In the process he inadvertently offered up a glimpse of some of the happiest, sun-filled memories of his boyhood. He never spoke about himself at home, but here in Wisconsin he showed us where he had nailed lath inside the abandoned hay chute to make a secret ladder up to the loft, and he talked about how in his teens he had surreptitiously scaled the tower of the house by rope, just to prove to himself that he could do it.

Dad also recalled a terrific electrical storm during one of his many extended visits. He was about twelve-years-old at the time and was up in the house with his mother in the boys' room, one of the bedrooms in back where his Uncle Harry and Uncle George had slept as children and which Dad was sharing then with his mother. The storm had come up as she was in the process of explaining the facts of life to him, and with a sudden clap of thunder a simultaneous bolt of lightening knocked the chimney off the barn. The electricity then powered down the barn's wiring to an inside faucet where the hired man was taking a drink. The electricity threw this poor fellow and his metal drinking cup across the stables, leaving him disoriented but unhurt, after which the electricity then jumped over to the horse stall where the window and porch screens were being stored, punching holes through all 117 of them.

"You don't forget a day like that" Dad said. This one comment was the closest he ever got to having the sex talk with any of his boys, a task he left to our mother. Had I known at the time I would have paid more attention.

Later that same morning we were scheduled to go down the street to visit Dad's Aunt Fan, the much beloved widow of his Uncle Harry. Not having had any children, Aunt Fan and Uncle Harry all but adopted several of their nieces and nephews, or at least so it seemed to the adoptees. In Dad's case Uncle Harry was his namesake and as such he stepped into his nephew's life as Dad's father traveled the country seeking diagnosis and treatment for the early onset of Alzheimer's disease, a nearly unknown disorder at the time that was swallowing him up whole. When Dad's father died in 1929 Uncle Harry's role in Dad's life grew even more significant, but then only briefly. A little more than a year later Harry died as well, unexpectedly, of a massive heart attack. After that there was no one else in Dad's life to take his place.

   The home of Harry and Fanny Babcock, as seen from the gardens, circa 1930.   

In our departure to see Aunt Fan (who had continued living in the sprawling house she and Harry had purchased in 1912) there was a good deal of murmuring and worried looks from Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty. In the car Dad explained that Aunt Fan was 82 and had not been well, and that the aunts thought she was unwise in attempting to entertain us. The facts were sufficiently gruesome to require an explanation and renewed warnings about our best behavior, accompanied by an admonition not to stare. Aunt Fan was not only confined to a wheelchair, but was required to wear a body brace, having bones so brittle that she had broken her back from simply trying to open a window, or so Dad said. She also had one leg that was grotesquely swollen, an edema that Dad diagnosed with astonishingly inaccurate medical authority.

“Elephantiasis,” he said. “She got it down south in Charleston.”

Given this introduction, it was hard not to stare when Aunt Fan finally came rolling into the front hall of her house - particularly since she made her entrance out of what at first appeared to be a closet but was in fact no less than a personal elevator. With all eyes on Aunt Fan, the body brace was clearly visible under her dress, and one leg was obviously more than twice the size of the other and very much like an elephant's. Seeing the look of horror on our faces, she tapped on the steel hidden by her dress and winked at my brother Steve. “Go on. Give me your best punch,” she said. “I’m tougher than Superman.” Mom alone was shocked by this, fearing I suppose that Steve might take Aunt Fan up on the challenge, but the joke put everyone else at ease. As old and as rich Aunt Fan as may have been, she had a keen understanding of people and human nature, which made it easy to see why she was so beloved.

For her share of our visit, Aunt Fan planned on taking us out to
North Shore Golf Club. Uncle Harry had been involved in the creation of North Shore just before his death, and it was one of several Aunt Fan still belonged to in spite of her physical condition. She had booked a private room there for our lunch and - we discovered - instead of set meal had arranged for us to order anything we wanted from a menu that very thoughtfully included hamburgers and hot dogs. Before that, however, she insisted on showing Mom what she had done with the house, having recently redecorated to the latest Architectural Digest standards in spite of her age and infirmity, simply because she could. The tour of impeccably furnished rooms drew very little interest from my brothers, but on the second floor, moving from bedroom to bedroom, none of which appeared to have ever been occupied, I saw Aunt Fan turn to Mom and gesture to the unused accommodations.

"This is where you would have stayed," she said, "had you ever been allowed."

CHAPTER I continues HERE


  1. Your father has a much more mischievous look in his eyes than the one of my mother taken at the same time. I know that I was impressed on our first visit when Mother talked about the cow in the barn. A barn by a house in a town. What an oddity in my mind. And then the garden down the street rather than in the backyard.

  2. At one time many of the neighbors here owned property used as pastureland or gardens along the street that runs behind Wisconsin Avenue. Photographs even show a little house behind ours, which city directories indicate was occupied by the Babcock's hostler or stable master. I have seen nothing to indicated that anyone in the family owned that property, and Edward Sherry in his memoirs writes that our cows were grazed on the land behind their house in return for milk. I don't know how extensive the Sherry holdings were, but I do know that the garden plot that Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty owned further down the street was purchased from them at some point in time. It was behind the house were Alfred Lang, the yardman and driver, and his wife Alma the cook lived. As part of his duties Alfred tended this garden and supplied the house with fresh fruits, vegetables and cutting flowers until Aunt Betty died in 1972. It has since been subdivided and there are now two houses where the garden had been.

  3. We built on part of that farm land in the early 1940's, when who ever owned the property sold it to be divided up into 60x120 residential lots, just one block long,, named Stevens Street. My grandfather Severson was in the coal and lumber business and he bought 2 lots and built a ranch for his eldest son Don on the east side, and a dutch colonial on the west side which he thought he would occupy. However after renting a small house on Doty Avenue after I was born, and my brother expected by Christmas of 1942, he offered to rent the house to my parents for $50 a month and all the coal needed to heat it.
    Two lots between Uncle Don's and J.C. Young were unsold and used by all the neighbors as a big Victory garden. We had lots of fresh food and a great place to play army and hide and seek in the corn rows. My Mom's parents bought the lot next to their house which was the corner of Stevens and Congress Place so they would have more space rather than another house beside them.
    I loved the story you told about Aunt Fan. Her house was the one I loved the most from the exterior. When I stepped inside I remember thinking her big hallway would hold our entire house, it was so spacious. Although there was no family connection, she always asked us to call her Aunt Fan. Carolyn and Hugh Strange, who lived next to the Babcock sisters, also had us call them Aunt and Uncle. My dad and their son John were best friends growing up and sailed with mom's brother Gordon and Frank Shattuck. In those days we knew NOT to call any older people by their first names unless they asked us to.
    I think back at all the friends made by the children of the "paper barons" and neighbors along WIsconsin Avenue and Lake Road. Even though many went away for boarding school, they spent summers in Neenah and many married and remained in Neenah as their husbands worked in the companies founded by their fathers and grandfathers.
    North Shore Golf Course was a place where men could talk business and golf at the same time, the wives lunched and played cards ( some golfed also) and the children had activities to keep them busy as well.
    When we all came back to visit my parents Mom always reserved the "tea room" so we could have lunch or dinner there and on special occasions there would be a dozen or so of their longtime friends with us.
    I think we were very lucky to be a part of Neenah at that time and still feel after moving away thirty five years ago, that it will always feel like "Home" to us.

    1. The room Aunt Fan reserved for us was the long one on the north or driveway side of the clubhouse. I remember being very impressed as an 8-year-old because I had never been to a country club, and the room we were in was right off the bar, which seemed very racy as Mom and Dad tended to be more old school Presbyterians. Since then I hadn't been out to North Shore in probably 30 years, but when I was recently there for a reception, at one point Patti and I escaped the crowd and went into a side room which after a moment I realized was the room where we had lunch with Aunt Fan, all of it coming back as though it were yesterday.

    2. That is what Mom called the "tea room". Almost every family Christmas card photo from the 80's to 2008 was taken in that room, as we came for Thanksgiving( and Memorial Day.)...You could either walk through the bar or double doors to the big dining room, which they kept closed if a private party was using that room.

  4. Peter- Great presentation about Theda Clark last night at the library. Like this blog, the humor really does make the history more fun, and interesting. Thanks.

    Don Nussbaum

    1. Thanks, Don. And thank you for all your work getting the society's pictures out on Flickr. Anyone who hasn't been out there should check it out!

  5. It would really be great if these presentations were taped and could be accessed as a video on the Historical Society's Face Book page. We would have loved to hear many of them but weather and distance kept us's over 220 miles round trip for us plus being a night time activity.

    1. Do you mean the Theda Clark story? I know it's been discussed as an objective, and I've forwarded the suggestion to the society's executive director to see if it can be taken up again. I'll keep you posted.

    2. The one you just did and I think one Wally gave about the Bergstrom especially...I have sent your blog address to others who were born in Neenah and were sent off in their twenties by Kimberly Clark, (husband's job positions) but still are interested in local history as well.

    3. Thank you gain for forwarding a link out to friends! I certainly hope they'll enjoy this as much as you have.


  6. Really neat to see all these old photos of houses that I grew up right next to.

    1. I hope you also checked out the photo albums. There are more in there. Be sure to check periodically as well as I'll be adding more as I find time.