Wednesday, September 16, 2009

We could have Googled Morris...

by Michael Dymmoch

Morris, IL. But what fun is that? When My sister asked me to go with her to the central Illinois town to check out antiques stores and look up a woman she’d heard about at an estate sale, I was game. I’m always game to go on some expedition that will let me put off writing for another day. I did look the town up on MapQuest. And Dorothy brought her Garmin. And a scrap of paper with all the information she had on the woman we were looking for.

What Dorothy’d found out from Mr. Wood, the man from whom she’d bought an old fashioned paper cutter originally from Madge's Shoppe, was that his aunt Madge had owned the Morris, IL, store, and that she’d died some time ago. And Madge’s husband’s name was Ernest Fessler. That should be enough to find somebody in this day and age. Right?

We started off by ignoring the Garmin and taking I-90/94 S to The Stevenson (I-55) because any fool could see a diagonal is shorter than two sides of a rectangle. (Turns out I was lucky with that guess.) If you take I-55 S to I-80 W, then go south on IL-47, you can’t miss Morris. IL-47 runs right through the east side.

When we got into town, our first stop was the public library. Actually, our first stop was at the intersection of Liberty and Jackson Streets where The Glass Castle antique shop and The White Elephant resale shop drew my sister in. I checked those out quickly, then went across the intersection to Buy the Book, where I found a 1940 edition of John J. O’ Connell’s Modern Criminal Investigation. Meanwhile, Dorothy examined the Glass Castle thoroughly.

We then proceeded to the library. With help from an anonymous lady researcher—who stopped her own work to help us use the library’s old telephone directories—we found the address for Madge’s Shoppe—108 E Jefferson Street. (It's now an insurance agency.) The phone numbers were so old they only had four digits! Our research guide suggested we next consult Deborah Steffes, coauthor of Morris: A Nostalgic Portrait, who works at the Grundy County Historical Museum. Sounded like a plan.

On our way to the museum, we stopped for lunch at Weits Café, 213 Liberty Street. It was hard to find; the big sign over the front sidewalk was completely hidden by a large tree and the windows were obscured by blinds. We passed it twice before we gave up searching for a restaurant and looked for a street number.

Weits had been recommended by the White Elephant’s owner as being an old time diner with great food. It was. Oil cloth tablecloths and little vases of flowers on the tables, photos and murals of historic buildings on the walls. None of the patrons looked to be under 70. Janice the waitress, a friendly, mature woman, served us coffee in mugs that touted “John W. Callahan, Grundy County Coroner,” with a phone number on the back for the “Medication & Sharps” Take Back Program. (When I asked if I could buy one, Janice gave one to me.) We asked Janice if she’d known Madge Fessler—she hadn’t, but she then asked her other patrons if anyone had known Madge, and a very sweet older woman volunteered that her mother had bought baby clothes at Madge’s Shoppe. She also informed us the shop was originally located on Main Street.

When this lovely stranger left the Cafe, she told us we'd convinced her to visit the Historical Museum. Which she did, because she called the restaurant from there to ask Janice to tell us the museum was closing shortly and we'd better hurry if we wanted to get in.

We made it with 15 minutes to spare. I took pictures while Dorothy looked up Deborah Steffes. Ms. Steffes started to give us instructions for using the library's catalogs to find the Fesslers, then she told us it would be easier if we met her at the library so she could show us.

Twenty minutes later, she was digging up microfiche rolls of old newspaper articles for us—Madge's obituary; a paragraph stating that in 1929, "Ernest Fessler bought four lots west of McCormick's Garage" for the purpose of erecting "refreshment and lunch houses"; and a marriage announcement stating that "Miss Madge Wood and Ernest Fessler went to Chicago" to be married. And "They went alone." We also found from Madge's obituary that she died in 1981 and that her parents were Stephen and Maria Wood.

Ms. Steffes showed us a catalog of the graves in Mt. Carmel Cemetery and located the plot numbers of the Wood Family. (Since the Wood Family are all buried in the Catholic Cemetery and the Fesslers aren’t, it's a fair guess that she was a Catholic and he wasn't. And her family didn't approve.)

Having discovered all she could from the library's materials, Ms. Steffes took her leave, and Dorothy and I asked a librarian if we could use the computer to find the address of Mt. Carmel Cemetery. As she was looking it up, one of her colleagues offered to lead us there in her car; it was very near the subdivision where she lives.

Which is how we found the Cemetery, and the gravesites of the Wood family including Madge's parents.

One of the many wonderful people who'd helped us to this point, suggested that if we couldn't find Madge and Ernest in Mt. Carmel, we might find them in the Evergreen Cemetery. We were on the way to the police station to ask directions, and we'd parked across the street from it, in front of the Fruland Funeral Home, when it occurred to us that the funeral home staff would be more familiar with cemeteries than the cops would. We went inside and met Funeral Director Ken Gauthier, a man as helpful as all the other people we'd met so far. Ken hadn't heard of the Fesslers, but he called Sue, at the Evergreen Cemetery, and asked about them. To our amazement, she not only found them in her directory, but gave Ken detailed directions on how to locate the graves. And Ken not only relayed those directions, but drew us maps!

Which is how we found Madge Wood Fessler and her husband Ernest.

And had a wonderful adventure in Morris. Which would make a terrible mystery as there were no setbacks and almost no drama. And why I recommend Morris as an incredibly friendly town.


Sara Paretsky said...

Michael, Lovely story, told grippingly--I read it from beginning to end!

Barbara D'Amato said...

Heartwarming, Michael. And just what I've found from smaller town libraries and bookstores. They are very welcoming.

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