Memories of the Meyn family buildings in the Downtown Triangle
by Betty Hodges Wooten
While talking to my cousin Delores on the phone today, I got some news from home that has sent memories racing through my mind. She told me that the ‘triangle’ in Mt. Prospect is due to be razed and there are already roped off areas around the original store and the “new building” on Busse Avenue. She does not know if Grandpa’s house is included in this demolition but we suspect it is. Most of the old towns along Northwest Highway have torn down the ancient buildings in their downtown areas and have replaced them with tall multiple family condominiums with businesses on the lower floor. This triangle of land which was first owned by John Moehling and sold to our grandfather to build his Blacksmith shop and home in about 1885, is now a prime area for high rise development. There is a restaurant on the point where the old shop stood, the two story house he built there in 1897 or ’98, the original barn which that was turned sideways to front on Busse Avenue and remodeled into a small store with living quarters upstairs, the two story building Uncle Bill and Aunt Martha built when Delores was about 7 years old in 1939, and a strip of small shops developed in the 1940 or ’50s.
We have long dreaded the demise of these buildings because in our mind’s eye, we see them as they were when we were children and just seeing them again, even though drastically changed, triggers many rich memories. I would like to walk you around this triangle as I see it in my memory. First, the Homestead was built in 1897 or 98. Before that, a small bungalow stood on this spot, the first family dwelling (not a farmhouse or business) built in Mt. Prospect. This house was built about 1885 for a cost of $350 by Grandpa John Meyn and the home he brought my grandmother, Christine Henningmeier, to when they were married on the 26th of April, 1886. This is where their first five children were born; Laura, Herman, Bertha, Elsie and William. By the time this 5th child arrived, it was time to build a larger home for their growing family and they moved the bungalow a block away to the East side of Main Street. It was used for many years as a schoolhouse, home, and finally a business until it was demolished in to make way for a parking lot in 1957.
About 1897, after William’s birth and the removal of the house, Grandpa engaged William Wille, a local carpenter and his crew to build the stately two story “Homestead” on that spot. I have recovered a picture of this house under construction with Grandpa standing in the front entry and the carpenters working on the roof and facia of the house. There are several young boys in the picture too, and I often wonder who they were. To the left of the house (west) the blacksmith shop stood. I believe the original building had been moved from the comer of Rt. 83 and Nw Hgwy to the western point of the triangle and another wing was added to make it larger. Behind the house was a two story barn which was later turned on the lot and remodeled into Bill and Martha Meyn’s first grocery store. Upstairs was a small apartment where they lived with their one child, Delores. The apartment was very small with a kitchen to the rear, a dining and living room, and one bedroom and bath. The picture of Martha behind the counter of this store is a treasure and you can clearly see some of the prices on the merchandise, a real time warp from today’s fare. Behind the store was a small wooden shed where Uncle Bill stored onions, potatoes, gunny sacks of nuts in the shell, etc. This small store and living area were soon outgrown and “new building” was erected one door to the east. This building had a full basement, a large grocery store with eating area and bathroom to the rear, an enclosed garage, and a lovely apartment upstairs. The rooms were large and sunny with two bedrooms, bath, a large living and dining room, a beautiful cabinet kitchen, back porch and stairwell to the downstairs both front and back. Notice I said cabinet kitchen. This was specified in those days because not all kitchens had cabinets on the walls. Most had pantries or free standing storage space in the kitchen. This is where Delores grew up and later lived with her own family after she was married. We both have so many memories of fun times in this sheltered area with family on almost every comer between her house and mine. It was a secure and special place in which to grow.
Behind this building on Busse Avenue and stretching to the Highway, was a yard that was located to the east side of Grandpa’s house. Along one side were grapevines and there were fruit trees in that yard with two large mulberry trees toward the street. The branches hung draped almost to the ground and Delores and I could hide under that tree and pick and eat mulberries to our heart’s content. Grandpa made wine from the grapes and mulberries and would serve it to his guests in his old red thumbprint wine glasses.
There were steps going up to a small porch at the front entry door of the homestead and inside the front door you came into a hallway with an open staircase to the left, and a hallway to the right with a colored glass doorway leading into the living areas. There was a mirrored hall tree there at the entrance for hats and umbrellas. Actually, through the years as the family married and grew smaller, the house was used as a two apartment dwelling and since Grandpa lived in the upstairs quarters while I was growing up, I have few recollections of the downstairs. But as I remember it, through the glassed doorway you walked into a large dining room with a bay built on the east side. This has two windows on the wide part and one window at a 45 degree angle to either side so it is an actual walk-in bay window area. Opposite the bay, I believe I remember a built in china cabinet. To the right of the windows were oak pocket doors leading into what was a living room. Mother remembered these doors were kept closed during the week and opened only for special occasions or on Sunday. To the rear was a bedroom which was used by my grandparents, and I believe a bath was added later.
Through another doorway from the dining area you walked into a large kitchen with a door to a porch in front and a door to a back hallway to the rear. A few steps down to the outside entrance and then a few more in the opposite direction to the basement. The kitchen has ample windows on two sides. Originally, there was a wood stove there in the center with a dining table to the front and work area to the rear of the kitchen. I never knew my grandmother but was told she kept her home in good order and had a ritual of housekeeping so tasks were followed on a daily schedule. I can imagine her in that kitchen, preparing food for her large family, happily doing whatever chores she was busied with and all the time hearing the ringing of the hammer and anvil from the blacksmith shop just a short distance from her kitchen windows. Mother used to say that when her Dad came in from the shop at suppertime he would wash up, her Mother would have dinner prepared, the girls had the table set, and they ate supper there in the kitchen. Silence at mealtimes was observed and when you were finished, you had to walk behind your father’s chair and say, “Sut”, which evidently meant you were done and wanted permission to be excused. He would either give permission, or you had to return to your place without question. After the meal was finished and the girls did the dishes, the school-age children would bring their lessons and all would again gather at the table to do homework. If it was already getting dark outside, the oil lamps were lit and Pa would sit there reading the paper while the children worked on their lessons. When he was finished reading, he would fold the paper and say, “Time for bed.” The books were cleared away and the children went to their rooms for the night. In the morning he would be in the shop starting his fire and getting ready for the new day before daylight and then come back in for breakfast. The rhythm of life in these old German households was a far cry from the life we lead now. Discipline was necessary to bring up well regulated and successful children and the father was the person upon whom the success or failure depended. The well being of the family was his and his wife’s responsibility and if you were not a successful provider, the family failed to thrive. My grandparents were successful providers. They were steadfast in their love to each other and their family.
Up the stairs there was an open walkway to the right leading to the door of a front bedroom. At the top of the stairs you found two bedrooms, one to the left front and one to the left rear. On the right, at the beginning of the open hallway, was a door leading to a center room. From there you could go to a kitchen and bath in the rear, or the front bedroom also reached from the open hallway.
When I was young Grandpa lived in that upstairs apartment so it is more familiar to me. The front bedroom was then used as his living room. In the center, or sitting room, he had a coxwell chair at right angles to the double windows overlooking Main street with a table radio next to it and a brass spittoon on the right side. His desk and bookcase was on the wall facing with a wind up clock on it and an iron horse. In the center of the room was a table and on this he had a multicolored candy dish which he kept stocked with hard candies. When we grandchildren would come to visit he would say with his heavy German dialect, “Open that dish and get yourself a piece of candy.” He also always the hardest oatmeal cookies you can imagine and without milk, it was impossible to chew them. Of course he would offer Carnation canned milk and water but my brother and I found this so distasteful, we would usually politely turn down the offer of cookies!
Delores and I have warm memories of a Christmas gift planned for Grandpa. He would regularly walk to Uncle Bill’s store to get his groceries and would be gone for while visiting with the family there. Christmas was coming soon and they sold trees at the store so Uncle Bill gave us a small tree and made a simple stand for it and Aunt Martha pulled out some boxes of ornaments and tinsel for us. We waited patiently for grandpa to leave for his usual walk over to the store. When he left, we quickly went up to his apartment, entered his living room, set up and decorated the tree. When he came back, he was surprised to see these two granddaughters in his apartment and we took his hands and led him in to see the lighted tree. He had tears in his eyes and thanked us for the gift. He had not had a tree for a long time and the tree remained up until well into February when his children said it must come down. He would sit there in the evenings and just look at it for hours even when it dried and he could not use the lights. That was a lesson to be learned. There is so much joy in doing something to make others happy!
There was a short time Aunt Laura and uncle Fred lived there with Grandpa, probably after Fred retired from the Post Office in Chicago and they were building their home on Island Lake. Through the years Martha and Bill lived there while Delores was a baby. Mom and Dad lived there in their early marriage and Elsie and Edwin too for a while. Cousin Vanetta and her husband Pete Winkelmann lived downstairs for several years so actually, Grandpa was not entirely alone most of the time. In 1942 he was living alone but was getting more infirm with age. One night, he had no water pressure in the kitchen sink, walked away and left the tap on, and when the pressure returned the kitchen flooded. He worked a long time drying it all up without letting anyone know he needed help. After this he had a heart attack. He laid in the second bedroom for weeks in very critical condition. There was little they could do for heart trouble in those days so the family came in and took turns caring for him and expected this was the end. Slowly, slowly, he recovered but it was evident his old strength was gone. Aunt Elsie and Uncle Edwin were living in their big house on Emerson Street alone then since Edward and Wallace were fighting in WWII. They rented their house and moved in with Grandpa. Following the war in 1945-’46, when the boys all returned home, they moved back to Emerson Street and took Grandpa to live in their big house with them. My family celebrated Thanksgiving Day of 1947 at their home. Grandpa sat in the living room most of the day not feeling well. He had a cold and went up to bed early. From then on he never came back downstairs but stayed in his room. I stopped a few days later and Aunt Elsie said, “You had better go up and say Hi to Grandpa. It will cheer him up.” He was pale and only smiled and held and squeezed my hand. Shortly after, they took him to the hospital with pneumonia. They have always called pneumonia the “old man’s friend” and it was that for Grandpa. He said he had been with out “Ma” for over 20 years and he was ready to go home. He died on December 2, 1947 and is buried next to Grandma and Adele (Della) at St. John Ev. Lutheran Cemetery in Elk Grove. He came a long way from his youth in Germany. He immigrated to a the new country, worked hard to refine his trade, built his own successful business, married the woman he loved, fathered 8 children and but for one, raised them all to adulthood, and praised and served God all of his life.
Memories in that Homestead? John Jr., Christine and Adele (Della) were born there and four year old Adele died there in 1914 at age four of diphtheria. Grandma Christine fell out of the cherry tree and broke her ankle. While being doctored for this, it was discovered she had incurable cancer and she died in the downstairs bedroom in 1925 with her family all around her. I was told she said just before her death, “I have seen where I am going, and it is beautiful!” My brother, Lawrence Jr. was born there in 1926 and even though I was born in Palatine Hospital, that is where we lived for the first months of my life. It occurs to me now that 59 years have passed since Grandpa last lived in that home, and many different people have lived there and used it since so there are many further stories to recount, but for us grandchildren, it will always be Grandpa’s House.
I have memories and a camcorder tape of my Mother telling stories of Christmas and holidays in the homestead. She described how her father would hitch Polly, their horse, to the sleigh and the experience of a trip to St. John’s Church in the moonlight on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve. How each family had their own stall at the church and how Polly knew exactly where to go. She recounted how beautiful the church was with the kerosene lamps lit all around the balcony and how the women and small children sat on one side, and the men on the other. After the service it was a thrill to receive the fruit and nut treats given to all the children. When they arrived home there were presents of warm hand knit socks, mittens, and scarves. Most presents had been hand made by their mother. Dad and she remembered the special present he slipped on her finger there in the front hall on Christmas Eve in 1924, after she hurried to meet him at the door.
She told stories of Grandma cooking several geese or ducks for Holidays and how good it smelled. Mother had clear memories of Aunt Bertha and Uncle August’s wedding celebration at the homestead. She was had just turned 8 years old but described in detail the music and dancing in the shop, the whipped cream cakes laid out on the basement table, and the two day celebration. With such a large family in attendance, Grandma was one of 10 girls, you can imagine it was a real Hochzeit!
As far as I can find out, Grandpa put in a gasoline pump in the 1920’s to service the new automobiles in town. I don’t know if it was the first. There is a story that Grandpa was catching a train to Chicago, had forgotten his pocket watch, and the conductor held the train while he hurried back home for it. I still can see him in my mind’s eye on a Sunday afternoon, sitting on his hand made bench on the front lawn, smoking his pipe and watching the cars and trains go by. Or, sitting in his chair in his upstairs sitting room watching activity on Main Street. I am sure he was fascinated by all the changes going on around him since he first chose this spot to build his life and family.
This “Homestead”, this triangle of land, is a place where a family was born, lived, and died. It is hallowed ground to those of us who knew and remember those pioneers who came and were part of the building of a community. They left us rich memories of a God fearing, hard working people, who settled there so long ago and carved out a new life on this prairie. Who were the John and Christine Meyn Family? They lived on a little triangle of land there in Mt. Prospect Illinois, bounded by Northwest Highway, Main Street and Busse Avenue. You know where that is! It is the place they are tearing down those buildings on Busse Avenue and perhaps that 104 year old “Homestead” to make room for a condominium.