Does MPHS have photographs: Yes
Address in MP: Milburn Ave
Birth Date: November 6, 1900
Death Date: November 27, 1975
Spouse: Victor F. Bittner
Children: Victor F. Bittner Jr.
Interesting information on life, career, accomplishments:
Meta Bittner grew up in Cairo, Illinois at the very southern tip of the state. Her grandparents, Whilemina and Jacob Walter had immigrated in 1852 and settled in this “small town with great expectations” in 1867. Her mother and father, Rose (Walter) Stoltz and John Stoltz remained in this town; however their child Meta was destined to head north. Meta moved to Mount Prospect in 1930 and began making waves as soon as she got here. She was very involved with the Mount Prospect Woman’s Club, serving as president for many years. She was also very involved with the Mount Prospect Public Library, which was originally founded by the Mount Prospect Woman’s Club. She was a member of the original board when the Library became a tax supported organization. She served on the library board for over twenty years, from 1943 to 1965. Meta Bittner was one of the founders of the Mount Prospect Historical Society and served as the first president of MPHS. She was also a charter member of the Executive Board of the Lutheran Woman Mission Endeavor of Northern Illinois.
VICTOR BITTNER SPEAKING ON META BITTNER
Text of Oral History:
HOWE: …and he is going to talk about his wife Meta. This is an interview on the life of Meta W. Bittner, a noted civic leader of Mount Prospect who died November 27, 1975. This interview was made by Dolores Howe and with Meta’s husband, Victor J. Bittner. Let us roll back the years to Meta’s birth and other related matters.
BITTNER: Meta was born in what is known as Little Egypt in Illinois, the southern part of Illinois, on November 6, 1900, in Cairo. This city was made famous during the Civil War when General Grant made his headquarters here. And it was also on the route of the underground which the Negroes used to move from the south to the north.
HOWE: Who were her parents?
BITTNER: Her mother was Rosa Walter, whose father was to become one of the leading merchants in Cairo. Now, he was a character. He was an unusual fellow. He was born in Germany, and he came to America and landed in New York in 1853. He barely got off the gang plank when three guys grabbed him and put him on a vessel. They shanghaied him. And for one whole year, he sailed the seven seas and never got off that ship until possibly a year and a half later. And somehow he got back to New York, learned the butcher’s business and then finally settled in St. Louis, Missouri.
HOWE: Yes, that’s an interesting part of his life. Why don’t you just continue a little more about his life right there in Cairo.
BITTNER: Well, I’m going to tell you about some of these things. For instance, he ran a meat market and sausage factory that he established not many years after he fought in the battle of Pea Ridge. Now, her family– and members of her family -didn’t know where Pea Ridge was and it was only within the last few years that we began to find out where Pea Ridge was. I was studying a little map that showed, in great detail, Pea Ridge. The battle of Pea Ridge. And it’s located right on the border of Arkansas and Missouri. He enlisted in the Union army in St. Louis, and he went down there with the Union Army and met the Confederates there and stopped the Confederates from invading Missouri, because they wanted to take Missouri over and make it a Confederate state.
HOWE: What about her grandfather?
BITTNER: This was her grandfather.
HOWE: Now, continue on from there. Let’s take it up from the time of the meat market then.
BITTNER: Now, that meat market was very unusual. They employed at least twelve people there, and they had an old smokehouse that’s still standing there today. It’s about half the size of this room. And all the river boats used to stop there in Cairo, and many of them replenished their meat supply there. Day or night, they would come to him to fill orders. And I remember being there in 1925 –I can still see the old speakers from the store door that led to his bedroom, which would whistle and wake him up and make him come down and open up his door to supply the river boats with meat.
HOWE: What kind of meat did he have?
BITTNER: Well, he had all kinds of meats. He would sell deer, he would sell bear, wild turkey, rabbits, buffalo meat –almost anything edible in the types of meat.
HOWE: And what about Meta’s mother?
BITTNER: Well, Meta’s mother, Rosa, was born over above that meat market. She married John Stoltz, who operated the livery stable in Cairo, Illinois, where salesmen rented horses –that is, before the general use of cars and where the wealthy –the doctors, the lawyers and so forth — boarded their horses. Now, John Stoltz was very proud of Meta and gave her a pony with a wicker type of a carriage which was the highlight of her life. And once, when she was in the carriage alone with the pony, she was riding along and the pony became frightened and ran away. A fast- thinking man dashed out into the street and halted the pony and possibly avoided an accident. Now, Meta’s father died shortly thereafter when she was only six-and-one-half years old.
HOWE: What kind of a youth did she have?
BITTNER: She was much like all the other children her age –but possibly, a little more fragile. She was everyone’s sweetheart –loveable, sprightly and gay. There was an early recognition of her ability as a musician. Her parents went all the way to Chicago to Lyon & Healy’s to purchase a Steinway piano for her. This was a very big moment in her life, and she began to study music in a serious manner. She played diligently all her life until arthritis in her wrist made it difficult to play.
HOWE: Did she study it intensely?
BITTNER: Yes, really. She had a very unusually good teacher in her youth. And when she was graduated from high school, she –an excellent Episcopalian school for girls in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin by the name of Grafton Hall, which had a strong music department. The music teachers came to Grafton from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They were some of the best musicians in Milwaukee. They commuted weekly to Fond du Lac to teach music only –harmony and so forth. And Meta became an accomplished pianist and an organist. She gave concerts in churches in Oshkosh and other places. She also studied voice and had a very fine alto voice.
HOWE: What was Grafton Hall like?
BITTNER: The building was a large granite stone structure, gray in color, located right on the cathedral grounds on Lake Wisconsin. The enrollment was only a hundred. The students came from many states, and it was a strictly supervised school. The students had to go to school on Saturdays, but got a day off on Monday. This was done to prevent, as much as possible, the mingling of the Grafton Hall students with the public school students at that time. The discipline was Spartan. Even at meal time, the building –which housed these students –was elegant, large sweeping marble staircases and formal dining room. And each girl had her own separate room. It was mandatory that each student attend chapel service in the cathedral at 7:00 p.m. And Meta tells me that many a time, a student would just wrap her fur coat around her –or at night, pajamas –and go to church that way. The priest didn’t notice, and others wouldn’t say anything. And so a lot of funny things happened in connection with that. It was a wonderful school where all the students enjoyed and concluded that they were lucky to be enrolled at Grafton Hall, which offered an astonishingly, an outstanding college curriculum. It did not survive the Depression in the thirties and was finally dismantled.
HOWE: And what happened to Meta after she graduated from Grafton Hall?
BITTNER: At the time, Cairo already began to decline in population and importance. Its peak population was close to 20,000, and her family agreed she should go somewhere where there was a greater opportunity to use her education. In the course of looking around for a job, she observed that Luther Institute, a private high school in Chicago, was looking for a teacher with her qualifications. She accepted the assignment and taught English, history, domestic arts, gym, basketball for girls and participated in all musical events at the school. They had a very strong music department there, and they had a professional musician come teach music –voice, piano and everything else, chorus and so on – so it was really an outstanding program for the student. Often she took the part of the leading man because her strong and beautiful voice. Students from the whole Chicago area attended the school. And would you believe that Wally Kershief was one of her students, as well as Ted Mailing and Al Bigel, Edna Glady, and there were others from this area –Arlington and Des Plaines and so forth –the names of which I can’t recall at this time. Now, these students, of course, did not room in Chicago. They commuted daily by train to go to school.
HOWE: Did she teach for some years there?
BITTNER: Well, I guess I had something to do with her career as a teacher. I realized from the moment that I met her that she was an unusually good person. I found she was gifted in so many ways that I wanted her to be my wife. After a considerable courtship, we got married July 21, 1926, in Cairo, Illinois. What a marriage. Her stepfather, D.F. McCarty, the prominent political figure, arranged for not only to have certain streets closed at the time of the church ceremony but also for a motorcycle-police escort to and from church.
HOWE: What happened after the wedding?
BITTNER: Well, we spent our honeymoon in Delevan, at Lake Lawn. Lake Lawn then was owned by three utilities of this area, under Samuel Insull, and it was run for the benefit of the employees. And they gave us wonderful accommodations there for almost nothing. If I recall, in the new hotel we stayed there, we only paid twenty-one dollars apiece per week for meals and everything.
HOWE: Where were you working at the time?
BITTNER: I was working at the gas company –People’s Gas, Light and Coal Company, Chicago. We played golf there, we danced and had the most wonderful time of our life. The maid asked us, “Are you honeymooners?” We said, “Why should you ask a question like that? We spent our vacation here last year.” And that was a fact. I took my mother up there, she took her mother up there and the four of us spent a vacation there. Well, the maid said, “You folks look suspicious. In addition, I found a fair amount of rice on the floor.”
HOWE: Where was your first home?
BITTNER: At first, we lived at 320 North Lotus Avenue, that is just north of the Austin High School. We soon realized that we wanted our own home and moved to Mount Prospect in 1931. Six months after, our son, Victor Bittner, Jr., was born. We rented an apartment above the Gift Box on Main Street. We liked the small community of less than one thousand people and began the construction of our home in 1933 at 300 West Melbourne Avenue.
HOWE: What was it like in Mount Prospect at that time?
BITTNER: At that time, Mount Prospect was a German community. German was spoken in most business establishments, and this was a great disappointment to Meta because she could not speak German. But soon, the Besanders got us a ___with some of the natives. And when we began to build our home, we were certain we’d made a good choice to reside in Mount Prospect.
HOWE: What did you do in Mount Prospect then?
BITTNER: Well, population of a thousand, there is very little to do. There’s a St. Paul’s church where they had services every Sunday in German –except one English service on a Sunday evening, once per month. But we soon had many good friends with whom we could visit. Meta was interested in community service and found that the Women’s Club was the organization which provided an opportunity to do something. She became active almost immediately on the Women’s Club library committee. Meta taught English in a private high school, as I had told you before, and was an avid reader. And while she was serving on the Women’s Club library committee, Meta was appointed book chairman and, later, summer reading chairman. She knew the value of books in the life of people -in education as well as reading for pleasure. And to her, the library was a depository of a wealth of information valuable for education, pleasure, industry and commerce. With this in mind, when the community became large enough to support a library, she participated with others in a campaign for a tax- supported library. After several referendums to build a public library, she was elected library trustee and served twenty-two consecutive years in that position. And in addition to that, she also was the president for the last number of years. The trustees of the library in those days took an active part in the operation of the library. Her previously acquired duties as books and summer reading chairman remained as part of her duties as well as that of a trustee. Meta purchased all books for fifteen years, all magazines for ten years, and chaired the summer reading club for ten years. Now, the library, by this time, had moved into what is now the paint store –that’s on Main Street –and then it began its real expansion. And as I said before, she was chairman of the board of directors. There are two things which should be mentioned which she did in connection with her activities on the library board. She personally negotiated all by herself with William Busse, Jr., a very good friend of ours, for the rental of the vacant store for a library at the very low rental rate –about one half of the going rent at that time. By doing this, Mr. Busse gave the library greater financial assistance than any other citizen in Mount Prospect.~
HOWE: Is this William Busse?
BITTNER: This is William Busse II. And no one has ever brought that out. He was doing so much –Meta never talked much about the things she accomplished and the things she did. And here she said to him, “Bill, you and your family have done so well in Mount Prospect. Don’t you think you could do something for the up-and-coming library? Can’t you rent this store for us at a nominal price?” He said, “Well, Mrs. Bittner, you know, I might just do that. Yes. You can have it. I’ll give you that at about half the price.” And so that was a wonderful thing, and very few people around here ever knew that he denied himself a certain amount of income by giving the library a good start in that store. said, he was never given sufficient recognition for the valuable assistance that he gave to the library, which had no supporting help from the city in its first year of operation. They had no tax income, and the board members traveled the streets, and they solicited money. Meta just about knew every businessman because it connected with the church and she brought in the money. And so that’s what kept the library going, in addition to the help that the received from Bill Busse II.
Now, the other significant action which she performed was to negotiate, and this is all by herself, with the Holsty estate and come to an agreement for the purchase of the original part, a plot of ground on which the first library was built. The purchase price was very favorable to the library. The leasing the store was indicative of her ability to influence people favorably towards the establishment of the library. Meta and Mrs. Custer, who was also on that committee, was a great twosome in getting things without having to pay for them. They personally visited Mr. Carl Rhoden, the deceased chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library, and asked for help. Mr. Rhoden made tables and chairs available to the Mount Prospect library, as well as the checkout desk, with the privilege of also selecting a thousand books for use at a very low annual rental.
HOWE: Did you know that some of those tables and chairs are at the museum now?
BITTNER: No, I did not know that. But I know that Meta and Mrs. Custer went there. They were so dirty. They were in stores. They scrubbed them with scrubbing brushes and cleaned them up, and that is the way that the members of that library board worked at that time. They actually worked.
HOWE: Sounds like the beginning of a museum, too.
BITTNER: That’s right. You know, in the beginning things are tough, and people don’t realize that. Once things are rolling and are established, it’s a lot easier to go along. In addition to ably serving the community with her work, she performed for the library. Meta rented numerous other services of the community.
HOWE: What other services?
BITTNER: Well, she was a member of the Mount Prospect Women’s Club for over thirty-five years. She served as president and was on the advisory board and various committees. She was made an honorary member of the Women’s Club in 1975. And the very last letter she wrote before her fatal illness was addressed to this group, thanking them for bestowing this honor upon her. During World War II, she actively sold war bonds and often canvassed sections of the city for charitable and other worthy causes. She was the founding president of the historical society and later served as its historian. Meta was a founding member of the Mount Prospect _______ Club.
HOWE: Called the Scrimshaws.
BITTNER: Oh, that’s right. This group was interested in the preservation of historical landmarks as well as to quest for old things. As a member of this group, she frequently lectured at various Quester meetings on various subjects pertaining to antiques, and especially on glass.
HOWE: Yes, and also she did a fantastic research paper on dolls that I remember particularly that we used. In fact, when I was with the newspaper, I took pictures and did a great big feature using all the information that she had gleaned. And it took a long time to get all that information together, too.
BITTNER: I remember going up to the library with her. She said, “You must come with me because I won’t be able to carry over the books.” And she would get as many as eight books on the subject matter that she would research. Now, she has written many papers. For instance, pertaining to Christmas, as I recall, there was one –the Christmas ornaments, the Christmas tree and all those things. And I happened to remember one thing in connection with it, which I might mention right now, the very first Christmas tree that was ever used in a church in America was used in a Lutheran church in Cleveland, Ohio. That is one of the things she brought out. And then, of course, she had. ..
HOWE: Where are her notes and things on all this research?
BITTNER: Every once in a while, I find something. She did not put things away systematically. She just did something, then pushed it away.
HOWE: But if you ever find those, they are very valuable.
BITTNER: Yes. And my granddaughter’s after them also.
HOWE: Good. As long as she wants to preserve them, that’s fine.
BITTNER: My granddaughter belongs to a Questers group, and she thought she could use some of these papers.
HOWE: I only wish we had taped those. They were awfully good programs.
BITTNER: Well, maybe they can be taped if someone would want to take the time and do it. Now, she was president also of the archives committee of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and a member of a number of its organizations. She sang in the choir nearly all her life because of her beautiful, strong alto voice. She could read the music without having a piano giving her the melody or the notes. She’d look at a piece of strange music and just by sounding a couple notes, she knew just where to start and she could work out the melody from there.
HOWE: Wonderful talent.
BITTNER: Few are the people who have resided in Mount Prospect who have served the community in as significant a manner as she has. All her work was done unselfishly—digligently, astutely and conscientiously for about thirty-five years, without any ______. Hers was a service of love for this community.
BITTNER: Well, our family was a well-organized one and loved _______ brilliant.