Growing Up in that Little House
Hardly a show piece – hardly the focus of Better Homes and Gardens – hardly worth any mention at all. But still, it was our home, a place filled with memories, love and some regrets.
My parents, Clyde and Helen Gove, bought the little house in Montgomery, Illinois in 1946 a few months after my birth. The little house was all I knew as home until I left for the military in 1966. It was small, so very small (approximately 700 square feet). A living room, a kitchen, one bedroom upstairs and a bathroom my father had added after the purchase. The basement was dark and scary. The walls were made of stacked stones and earth. The dirt floor and unusual walls made a trip to the basement seem like a cave exploration. The truth is, many of
the things that can be found in caves could be found in that old basement. Had we not needed to put coal in the furnace, I really doubt that any of us would have gone down there.
The east side of the house sat smack-dab on the edge of the sidewalk, which became a convenience to those needing stability while walking from the local taverns. Occasionally, we would have to convince one of the unstable travelers that they had not quite made it to their place and they needed to keep going, but it never took much convincing. The front yard was not much more than an easement to Clinton Street to the north. The backyard was small but had a wonderful tree that hosted many cops and robbers gunfights, cowboy and Indian massacres, as well as a well concealed place to sit and watch the world go by. (To this day I am still amazed that one can become all but invisible by climbing 10 feet in the air and sitting on a limb. People would walk by and never know I was there.) To the south, bordering the backyard was Mrs. Runkle's house. She had a big old bush that was on our property line. That bush overhung the sidewalk and had me overwhelmingly convinced that something I did not want to meet lived in that bush. That may sound silly to you, but to a young boy – that was an issue. When walking alone after dark, I would leave the sidewalk and venture into the road to avoid that bush. A passage to manhood occurred the night I faced that bush (and the thing that lived in it) without leaving the sidewalk. In 1960, my dad tore down the old rickety garage that sat on the southwest corner of the property and build a cement block 2 ½ car garage that would house "Clyde's Auto Repair".
That little house wasn't much, but somehow my parents, my two sisters, Dorothy and Betty, and I made that little house our home. How do five people share a single bathroom? I truly don't know now, but we did then (not necessarily without conflict – kids do tend to be territorial). The kitchen was so small that it could accommodate four people if they were all standing still. However, should any of the four wish to maneuver to a different location, we would have to employ dancing moves to get them there.
Cold winter mornings were a challenge. The first one up was responsible for the trip to the scary basement to start the fire with paper and wood and then to apply the first shovel of coal. This, of course, was preceded by the removal of ashes and clinkers from the previous day. (If you don't know what a clinker is then you aren't going to get this part at all.) The trick was to get all of this done and run back upstairs to be the first to stand over the floor register in the kitchen which produced the most and the quickest source of heat. Now you would think that fairness would always prevail, but not so. More than one good shoving, biting and kicking match took place over that register, regardless of the brave soul that made the fire.
My dad added a small enclosed back porch to the house, which really improved the spaciousness of the kitchen in the summertime. (Please keep in mind that "spaciousness" is relative.) It was on that back porch that I learned a valuable lesson. Like many Cub Scouts I set out to build a crystal radio. The illustration showed that an antenna should be erected of wire that could be stretched between two trees, or between the house and a tree. I looked out the back porch to find that someone had already built the antenna because there was the wire that stretched from the back porch to the garage. I climbed to the roof of the back porch and connected the wire that would go to the radio, then fed that wire through the window and prepared to connect it to the radio. As a Cub Scout (not, as you will find out, the brightest one in the troop) I knew that the insulation needed to be removed from the wire, and the best way to do that was with one's teeth. (I had already done it to prepare the other end of the wire on the roof.) I took the wire that I had connected to "the antenna" and placed it in my mouth to remove the insulation. Yes, you have the picture. "The antenna" was the electricity supply wire leading from the house to the garage. Yes, I was knocked on my butt, and yes, my tongue was a huge blister for days and days and days. I wasn't going to tell my dad what happened, but I think my inability to talk was a give away. By the way, the lesson I learned was – don't put electricity in your mouth – bad move. A lesson I have successfully retained for decades.
Summertime in that little house was special - special because from that little house a world of adventure awaited. The river was a stone's throw away, the railroad tracks (a parent's absolute "no-no") a mere two blocks away, the ball field at Montgomery school four blocks away, two blocks from Michaels Store (the undisputed mother lode for candy), and a gazillion other exciting possibilities well within pedaling distance. All one needed was a little imagination, a little mischievousness, a little bravery and a Monarch fat-tire bicycle. Adventure was no problem. The river provided fishing, or hunting for the reputed caves on the shoreline (none of which I ever found), entering the old deserted mill from the riverside, or looking for treasures behind the old bottling company that sat on the "crick" (not creek) leading to the river. I have a four inch scar on the bottom of my right foot received when jumping from a rock into the Fox River (another forbidden activity) and landing on a broken beer bottle. You would think that taught us to beware. Don't bet on it - we were persistent; Tommy Nichols did the very same thing at the very same spot the next summer - probably on the very same bottle.
The railroad tracks provided the treasure trove of adventure. This was the very place parents forbid us from going – what fun - taking food to the hobos was always good for a story or two (hobo stories were great), parked cabooses near the cattle yards provided a neat place to play cards, and where else was one going to learn to jump a moving train?
The ball field at Montgomery School provided hours and hours of sandlot games – not to mention the home field for the VFW sponsored little league team (coaches George Stathis, Tito Witkowski and George Wendt). All of this and more from that little house.
August was especially special because of two things: First, Clinton Street would get her make-over of fresh
tar and pea gravel in early August (maybe late July). There was nothing like the smell of hot tar and the sound of that pea gravel pinging against the wheel wells of cars as they drove on the newly covered street. Secondly, because the carnival came to the VFW each year with all of its glory and excitement. If ever I felt lucky to live in that little house it was upon the first sighting of the first carnival truck to arrive loaded with carnival rides and carnival tents and all that carnival stuff. And I lived right across the street! A few phone calls to those that weren't already waiting on the trucks and soon we were all there ready to . . . well I am not sure what we were ready for, but I knew it was going to be fun. It had to be disconcerting to my parents when I told them I wanted to be a "carny" (one who works the carnivals) when I grew up. Thankfully, that desire expired.
When my daughter, Corrie, was 6 years old (now 30 years old) I had the opportunity to take her with me on
a business trip to California. When business was done we headed for Universal Studios. During the tour of the various movie and TV sets the guide pointed out that we were approaching the Cleaver's house (Cleaver, as in "Leave it to Beaver"). While growing up in that little house in Montgomery, Beaver Cleaver was my – well, not my hero – but I wanted what he appeared to have. His life seemed so perfect. The streets lined with elm trees, the pretty house with a banister, the picket fence and the neighborhood made for friends. As the tour bus came to the front of the house it stopped and I told my daughter that this is where the Beaver lived. She asked "Who is the Beaver?", I just said "a friend from TV". As the tour bus continued it turned a corner to reveal that the Cleaver's house was nothing but a façade (the front of a house supported by two-by-fours on the backside). My daughter said "Daddy, that house isn't real." My spontaneous response was "No it's not, and I guess it never was." Though that little house in Montgomery was built smack-dab on the sidewalk and wasn't very big and certainly didn't have a banister, it was real. It was real because of the people that lived in it, loved in it and made it our home. I have come to know a number of people that had all the things in their childhood that I thought I had wanted, but I wouldn't trade any of them for I had in that little house.
I know that I have rambled on with much about Montgomery and some about that little house, but it is hard to separate the two. That little house was the center of my life, and, like it or not, in the very center of "old Montgomery." I know many regarded it as a blemish that needed to be removed. That is hard to argue against – it wasn't attractive. It could be described as an eye sore. As I grew into my mid-teens I began to resent that little house with a passion, I felt sorry for myself, I questioned why my parents couldn't afford a better house – one that wasn't so embarrassing. This is the regret I referred to earlier. I regret having those bad feelings about that little house. My entering the military helped me begin to discover the real truth about that little house. While serving overseas I longed for the people that lived there, the great times we all had there, the comfort, the simplicity, the protection that little house had always given me. Though I knew I would never live there again I wouldn't let go of the memories and used them to get me through.
I don't know how proud Montgomery was of my Mom and Dad, but I can tell you emphatically that they were very proud of Montgomery. Mom wrote the weekly Montgomery column for the Beacon News for many years. If Dad was ever introduced as being from Aurora, Illinois he would correct them by saying "I'm from Montgomery, Illinois".
I bought that little house from Mom and Dad in 1974 so they would have the income from it rather than a paid off mortgage. Dad died in 1977, but Mom continued to live there until 1989 when she moved in with my sister and brother-in-law (Betty and Jim Touvell). As I reviewed the ancient deed papers, it was soon revealed that the house had been owned by Daniel Gray the founder of Graysville (now Montgomery). That little house had real history with Montgomery - history dating back before the civil war. It had stood there as a sentinel through the civil war, the Spanish-American war, WW I, WW II, the Korean war, the Vietnam War and continues to stand today. Like many old sentinels, it isn't a lot to look at, its lines seem strange, its proportions seem weird, its exterior is weathered and beaten, but it stands. I am proud of that little house and proud of those in Montgomery that wish to preserve history. Unpreserved history is forgotten history. History is who we are. The history of that little house has nothing to do with the foundation it provided for families like mine or the Mosley's or others, but rather the history of the little Fox River Valley village of Montgomery, Illinois and its beginnings.
Thank you Montgomery for all you gave to me and my family. Thank you for preserving history.
Richard C. "Dick" Gove
8 Foothill Ash
Littleton, Colorado 80127
Things I still miss about Montgomery
- The Montgomery Methodist Church and the Sampson sisters.
- The different smells emitted by Lyon Metal dependent upon the production line that day, and how the color of the water in "the crick" would change with it.
- Teddy Mall and his pipe.
- Bob Woodard's annual carp fishing contest.
- Marlene's Bakery
- Racing to respond to every fire call and following the fire trucks on our bicycles.
- The old abandon concrete utility building that sat where the Post Office is now.
- How Tommy Schrader and I would terrorize the trees with our Boy Scout hatchets behind Grandma Aigner's house on Jefferson.
- The traffic jams on River Street every day at 3:30 when Western Electric let out.
- Building huts on the west side of the railroad tracks across from Western Electric and watching for the dreaded railroad detective, Mr. Piggot.
- Soaping windows and performing other forms of carnage on Cabbage night.
- Being chased by Bobby Linden every time he saw us for reasons not yet revealed.
- Walking the streets and alleys with friends with no real agenda.
- Riding along with patrolman John Dively as he cruised through Montgomery at night.
- Envying those that lived in the "new addition" (James Street). Do they still call it the "new addition"?
- Clyde Porter's one-man baseball games.
- The thrilling fire drills at Montgomery School when we all got to slide down the spiral fire escape.
- Catching gophers in the cemetery.
- Being thankful that the junkyard dogs at Staffords had huge chains around their necks.
- Hunting for empty pop bottles to be redeemed for two pennies each. (To be spent on candy.)
- Miss Merrill's six grade class. (Stated with a little leftover trepidation.)
- The Montgomery Cemetery and the condemned Mausoleum (especially on Halloween).
- Barlett's Grocery Store.
- The ice skating rink in the park north of the playground, where my sister Betty first dated Jim Touvell (they didn't know I was hiding in the bushes).
- Augie Baloto's restaurant and Laundromat.
- Walking the girders across the Fox River when they were building Bypass 30.
- The old five-sided cage bolted to the floor of the police station referred to as the jail. (I painted every one of those bars with a one inch brush – for payment for sins not to be mentioned.)
- And most of all, all the friends I have lost touch with. To each that may read this I send my best