Saturday, October 28, 2017

Back to that House by the Side of the Road

A surprise comment drifted in a few days ago - relating to a post originally published in 2011. It's not the first time a surprise comment has arrived on that post - others came in during 2013 & 2014. Such comments always warm my heart, make me feel something along the lines of "my blogging has not been in vain". I'm re-airing that old post this weekend, along with all the comments received, 2011 to 2017.


On our way down to Austin, Texas to visit my husband's younger daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson we stopped in a small Texas town, Coleman, to look around an antique store. I wandered through the store while husband perused a box filled with old photographs. I re-traced my steps several times to look again at a framed group of two illustrations + two photographs hanging in a mocked-up bedroom section in a chilly and deserted area of the store. I was curious about the piece - it seemed kind of sad, as though nobody loved it any longer, but once it had held someone's precious memories. I took it down to inspect it more closely and saw that two pieces appeared to be original pen and Indian ink drawings. I assumed the photographs were of a family member or friend of the former owner. It was priced $20. I got a feeling akin to someone looking at kittens or puppies in a pet store's window, as they peer back longingly at a prospective new owner. I bought it.

Enlargements of the individual pieces follow later in the post. My husband assisted by photographing the piece in its frame, making individual enlargements, without disturbing the frame and its backing.

I asked the store's owner about the framed group. He drew my attention to some fading handwriting on the back, which I hadn't noticed. He told me the piece had been part of the estate of a member of the Stevens family, who had been the main merchant family of the town for many years.

The handwritten note on the back reads:
Frances Presler - 1st cousin of W.J. Stevens.
She is the cousin from whom we inherited the many Chinese things we have today.
She lived with a good friend - the fireplace picture is of her at her friend's home.
Her name was Alta B. Gahan (We called her Ann B.) A very fine
person - an art teacher in Winettka, Illinois schools -
She lived in a town name Hubbard Woods - rode
the train to her school - only a short distance - ten or fifteen minute ride.

I was able to do a bit of light research and access this copy of a census return for 1930 via my husband's subscription to ~~

Frances Presler and Alta B. Gahan appear in the US Federal Census return for 1930
Miss Presler is listed as aged 55, born in Iowa (in 1875, then), her parents were both from Scotland, she is listed as a teacher, and "roomer", along with one other female, in a house in Winnekta, Illinois, of which Alta B. Gahan is listed as "Head". Alta B. Gahan and both her parents were born in Pennsylvania, she was 51 in 1930, so born in 1879; also listed as "teacher".

In the handwritten note on the back of the framed group, Frances Presler is mentioned first, as the owner's relative, so I'm assuming that the photograph, top right in the frame, is of her:

I guess that the drawings were done by Alta B. Gahan - though that is not stated. They could equally be the work of Frances Presler.

Some further research online brought forth the following on Frances Presler, but on Alta B. Gahan I could find only her name, in a 1914 Patterson's American Educational Directory, noted there as a "teacher of drawing" at Highland Park School (one of three schools in Winnetka Illinois. Crow Island School, another of the three schools, has connection to Frances Presler. See the clips below).

From Chicago Tribune:
The school (Crow Island School) is considered one of the most famous small buildings in America. In 1956, an Architectural Record poll placed it as the 12th most significant building in the previous 100 years of American architecture, and the first among schools.

In the basement of the school is one of its greatest innovations, the Pioneer Room. It was the idea of Frances Presler, a 3rd-grade teacher who was an advocate of "hands-on learning" and who helped Washburne plan the concept for Crow Island.

And from
For all third graders in The Winnetka Public Schools - those at Hubbard Woods School, Greeley School, and Crow Island School - this day becomes a reality in the Pioneer Room at Crow Island School. The establishment of this room was the achievement of Winnetka's faculty, parents, and School Board. The late Miss Frances Presler, director of Creative Activities, carefully studied and enthusiastically guided the plan which took over two years to complete..... Crow Island School was completed in 1940. Today, over sixty years later, the Pioneer Room continues to be a living museum for children, the only one of its type in a public school.

The very opening of the door is exciting as the children leave their classroom routine and cross a new threshold into a real pioneer home - an exact replica of the interior of an 1840 Illinois home. The massive wood-burning fireplace, the Dutch oven, the butter churn - are all authentic. The soft feather bed with the crossed ropes for a mattress, the little cradle, and trundle bed are only a few of the properties. One also finds a bench which becomes a table, a yoke to carry water, and paper maché wild animals to be hunted by brave frontiersmen. It is in this authentic environment that Winnetka's third grade children come to live and play the lives of their great-great-grandparents for one very special day.

......The children never forget the day they spend here. There is a magical quality not only in the room itself but in the spirit which the children and their teacher bring to this day. It was the dream of Miss Presler that through this experience the children would derive a deeper understanding of the lives of our forefathers and a greater appreciation of our American heritage.

The drawings were what first attracted me to look more closely at the framed group. Lines at center of one of the illustrations (enlarged below) come from a poem by Sam Walter Foss:

The House by the Side of the Road:
THERE are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran-
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner's seat
Nor hurl the cynic's ban-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish - so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner's seat,
Or hurl the cynic's ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
(FROM here)

(Hmmmm in the square, top right, I spy my name! Maybe that's what drew me (wink) - yet I didn't notice that before enlargement of the drawing.

So, then, below we see Frances Presler and Alta B.Gahan, by a fireside. I'd guess that both this drawing and the one above were produced for use as....surprise, surprise - Christmas greetings! I've had this framed group hanging by my computer desk since March without realising any possible Christmas connection. Then, when I took the frame down a few days ago, so's to put up some more seasonal decor in its place, I took the opportunity to ask husband to photograph it, with a view to, maybe, using it in a blog post at some future date. It was after studying the drawings again that I realised a Christmas connection within them.

Sometimes I get a very weird feeling about stuff like this - maybe the ladies are wishing us all "Happy Christmas!"

No indication of this lady's identity, but it could be Alta B. Gahan.

How to wind up this post? A quote:

"Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know we were looking for."
Glauco Ortolano

UPDATE 10 August 2014

On 9 August 2014, in a comment removed to here, Brian Lake said...
You needn't post this but I want to thank you so much for retrieving and befriending this item....
"Auntie Bee", Alta B Gahan, is a legend in my life and I inherited her gorgeous and substantial antique Swiss music box through my mother (who is now 85) who spent a lot of time at the cottage pictured and mentioned in the comments when my mother was young...

My mom and her brother were made to work there every weekend by her father which included holding down chickens being slaughtered which was not fun for little ones.

I have a beautiful painting of the cottage done by Agnes Lilley in '41 with the hill where they kept sheep in the near distance....

There is some story about the cottage being built by the farmer who owned the property for a studio for his wife and Alta to do weaving...

But this trail gets garbled in translation from my mom and possibly is not quite the correct or whole story. I will keep trying to get at the gist of this when my mom is lucid.

No men, such as my father and I, were ever allowed in the cottage part and had to sleep in the studio.
I also have a watercolor painting of a scene in Colorado done for Alta Gahan for her to give my mother as a wedding painting.

I have many stories about Auntie Bee... how she disciplined spitball throwers in class.... she had everyone throw them for a time and the culprits cleaned up.... spanking bunnies that invaded her beautiful gardens.... putting paint on the cars of hunters who were trespassing...

When I visited her as a youth she gave me advice on a partly finished painting I had with me...regarding proportion and composition..she was wonderful and magical.... never married ... vital and gifted person...
She made pathways around the cottage by imbedding beautiful broken pieces of China or tiles in concrete....

I would love to converse with the person living there now and maybe even get her in touch with my mom who is ailing and traveling back to these times a lot these days!

My email is ....(edited out)
Anyway, thanks so much for being open to leadings or intimations or whatever it is that connects and weaves us into a greater whole...

You have found something with many bright threads to many of us...

My reply remains in comments.

There is more detail available from Mr Lane, should any passing reader be interested, please leave a note in comments.

ANOTHER UPDATE, October 2017

See comments from Tip Walker (October 2017, below)- here are two of the photographs of tiles around a fireplace in a classroom at Skokie School in Winnetka. tip Walker's research leads to the belief that it was Miss Alta Gahan's classroom, and the tiles were made by her students in 1921. I agree - the style is very similar to the fireplace in the framed sketch! Many thanks to Tip Walker for these.

COMMENTS 2011 - 2017

anyjazz said...

An excellent find. And some really fine research. These people deserve recognition in the digital age.
December 17, 2011
Twilight said...Thank you. And yes, I think they do too!

Tammy said...Wow! I'm glad you bought that and shared it. :) Twilight: Tammy ~~ Hi! I'm glad too.
December 17, 2011

Wisewebwoman said...Oh the story that could be written about this fine couple! And you've made a wonderful start T. I am totally drawn to it also. I can see why you bought it.
XO. December 17, 2011
Twilight said...Yes, an inspired writer such as yourself, WWW, could have a field-day writing a novel about these ladies. :-) Glad you like this find too!

James Higham said...That was most interesting and I too have that feeling when gazing at old photos from someone's album. Where are they now, what were their hopes and aspirations, would they have ever given a second thought to the photo frame ending up with Twilight? Were they blunt people, soft, did they have quirks?
December 19, 2011
Twilight said...Well, both ladies are now in that Great Creative Classroom in the Sky, looking down on us - with some amusement, and maybe, I hope, a wee bit of pride - to realise that their doings are being admired and remembered. If I had their birth dates I could make a stab at their personalities, but if I were to disappear into on that kind of mission I might never emerge again. It's addictive! said...Hello,It's January 2013 and I came across your Beautiful Blog yesterday, when I Googled Alta B. Gahan She was your topic of Dec 2011. Please email me, as I've got Serendipity happening all around me. Thank you,From The House By The Side of the Road. -Wendy. - January 13, 2013
Twilight said...Hi Wendy! your comment came in with the spam. I'm not certain why you'd want me to e-mail you - would you clarify first please.
Wendy said...I'm so pleased that Alta B. Gahan has a living digital legacy, thanks to you.
I inherited photos and personal effects as well as her cottage (as seen in the photo.
Miss. Gahan and her art students created clay tiles and a wooden mantel which surrounds my fireplace. If you have time, and if you'd like- I have photos to share. Thank you again for your Blogs- I'm now a follower- and glad to read your words.....Wendy. January 30, 2013
Twilight said...Wendy ~~~ Hi again - and thank you for getting back to me via the comment section. I'll contact you by e-mail soon, and would be interested in seeing your photographs. If you'd like me to, I'd happily do another post featuring Ms Gahan and her work. :-)

Brian Lake said...(see update to post)
Twilight said...Brian ~ Oh my! Thank you so much for getting in touch, commenting. I hope you don't mind - I have published your comment as you can see - if you'd prefer it to be taken down I'll do so - I'll send you an e-mail. I had to publish the comment in order to read the second half of it (silly Blogger!) Yours is such a lovely story that I think I'll re-post my old 2011 post, sometime next week, with your story added if you have no objection.August 09, 2014.

Tip Walker said...I work at Skokie School in Winnetka in a classroom that has a fireplace with tiles. Through my research, I believe that it was Miss Gahan's classroom and the tiles were made by her students in 1921. I would love to find out more. October 20, 2017
Twilight said...Hey there! Thanks so much for reading this post and commenting. If you do discover more, do please let us know - perhaps others who have commented, or read this with interest in the past might still be interested - I'd re-post it and add any of your findings. :-)

Tip Walker
said...I don't know how to post the pictures, but here's a link to them:
October 21, 2017
Twilight said...Many thanks for these - it's late now, but tomorrow I'll see if I can add a few of the photographs as an update to the post. :)

Twilight said...Tip Walker ~ I intend to give this post, and all the comments and updates, a re-airing soon - perhaps at the weekend. I love it when surprise comments such as yours arrive!
Thank you again.


Wisewebwoman said...

As I read it remembered it from before and then saw I had commented way back. Absolutely incredible. AND the story is you. Truly.


Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~ Thanks, WWW. Well...the story could be me and serendipity, and the occasional magic of the internet, perhaps. :-)

Twilight said...

Received by e-mail from JD in the UK

Annie...Remember when you didn't know whether to continue or give up, when your commenters had disappeared to facebook or tweetypie or whatever and I told you to just carry on because your posts would be read sometime by somebody?
I must have missed that one first time round. I'm glad you revisited it because it was fascinating and I liked the poem.

Blogs live on even if the writer expires. This one is still displayed - but Iain Carstairs died in april or may last year. I still refer to it now and then because it has some wonderful and informative writing.

You never know how your posts will affect other people so, as you say, it is worth doing. Here are two beautiful posts from the last years of Iain's life -
He ends that second one with these words - We might well try to be like everyone else, to pass unnoticed and uncriticised in the crowd. But the truth is that each and every one of us is completely and permanently irreplaceable; what joys and what wonders we’ve all been deprived of through a single person’s death, we will never know.

Keep on blogging; what joys and wonders you might give people you will never know.


Twilight said...

JD ~ Thank you kindly - yes I remember well intending to "retire" from blogworld. :-)
They'll probably have to drag the keyboard out of my cold dead hands (as Charlton Heston said - but about his darned gun!)

Thanks for the links - I enjoyed reading the words of the late Mr Carstairs.

On we go.....