Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Poet as a Young Man

Grandpa Green in his 20's or so. Posted by Hello

This is my grandfather, traveling thread salesman and sometime poet, walking in our hometown. He looks young here, younger than I ever remember him. The styles of clothing on the people in the background suggests it may have been taken anywhere from the 40's to early 50's.

My grandfather was born to middle-class parents in an industrial town in Northern Illinois. His mother's side of the family had a long history in Elgin. I think his father either left him and his mother or died young*. I don't remember anyone talking about him much. His mother's name was Jesse Tyler and I used to wonder what she was like because I somehow ended up with a copy of The Secret Garden that had her name inscribed on the title page in old-fashioned spidery script. His stepfather was killed while crossing a train track.

As a very young man my grandfather sold thread for a company I thought was called Collier or Colliers, but I cannot find any information on a company by that name.** He traveled to nearby states to sell his wares and on one trip met my grandmother in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

Most of what I know about my grandfather's past, my grandmother told me. She also told me about their courtship and how they used to go to speakeasys and how her family was sad to see her move to a different state when she was married. By the time I came along, my grandfather was assistant postmaster in the Elgin post office. I remember visiting him at his office, in both the old building and the new one.

One branch of my grandfather's family had emigrated to the United States from Scotland. This family helped build a church outside of Elgin. The church stopped having services many years ago, but it remained standing and my grandfather had a key to it. He took me there once and I decided then and there I was going to be married in that church (which I was, but that is a different story).

My grandfather retired around 1970 and my grandparents moved to their cabin in Chetek, Wisconsin. I visited them for long periods of time during my summer breaks. I remember one summer he wanted to teach me how to golf. I ended up just walking with him and his friends, working on a tan and struggling to carry his golf bag. I might have liked golfing, but my mother wanted me to stay with my grandmother instead of going golfing with my grandfather which I suppose was reason I was staying so long with my grandparents. I remember his look of disappointment when I told him I was not going to go golfing with him the next week. He had given me a bag of old golf balls and golf tees from his golf bag and I think he hoped I would like to golf or maybe he just wanted to hang out with his oldest granddaughter. When I later told my mother about that, she told me that I could golf with him the following summer.

My grandfather didn't talk much, preferring to read, sip beer, do crossword puzzles or play solitaire. I also remember he didn't eat many vegetables, especially salad. He said that it made his nose twitch like a rabbit when he ate salads. He also wore a piece of napkin under his wristwatch, "To keep the ticks off my arm", he said.

That fall he had some pain in his foot and visited a chiropractor which was what was in vogue at the time. To be fair, I think my grandfather thought he must have pulled a muscle when moving something heavy, thus the pain. The chiropractor did whatever chiropractors do but his pain only got worse. Eventually he went to a doctor. The doctor immediately sent him to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for tests and treatment for a blood clot in his leg. Treatment consisted of amputating his leg just below the knee. We visited my grandparents in Wisconsin, probably the following spring or summer. I remember seeing his leg, being horrified at the ugliness of the stump, but then getting used to it. When we were out and about the town (technically that means bar-hopping, it was Wisconsin after all) I would be furious at the strangers that stared at him. I remember mentioning to my mother that he wanted me to go golfing with him and she said that she was sure he could golf again once he was fitted for an artificial leg.

Later that summer he developed another blood clot and returned to the Mayo Clinic. I was 16 going on 17 that year and trying desperately to not turn 17 without being kissed by a boy. My mind was not exactly on the suffering my grandfather was going through, but on my own teen-aged angst. However I remember my mom being gone a good deal of the summer of my 17th birthday, staying with my grandparents on the campus of the Mayo Clinic.

My mother was there when her father died. He warned everyone that he would not survive another amputation. But the doctors were concerned that his knee would become gangrenous and poison his system. He told everyone that even though he was under anesthetics during the surgery he remembers the sound of the saw cutting through his bone during the first amputation. He had a heart attack during the second amputation and lapsed into a coma that lasted a few days. My mother swears he whispered something in her ear while in the coma, but the health care professionals said it was impossible.

I was in my attic bedroom when the phone rang. I must have known it was about my grandfather. I picked up the bag of golf balls and tees he had given me and walked down to the bottom of the stairs. I could hear my father's muffled voice through the door that led to the attic and understood that my grandpa was gone. I cried then. I cried for myself. I cried at myself for being so selfish. I cried for my grandfather with whom I would never again get a chance to walk on a golf course on a summer evening.

---addendum ----

*Since writing this post I have learned a little more about my grandfather's father. His name was Albert Green who was the son of Swedish immigrants, Emil and Amanda (Johnson) Green. He was born in Chicago but moved to Elgin with his mother, sister (Hildur), and brother (Harold) after his father died of typhoid fever. Albert and Jessie married on May 5th 1909 and my grandfather was born the following January. Shotgun wedding? Maybe...

Albert ended up leaving Jessie and my grandfather when my grandfather was still an infant and eventually they divorced. It was Albert Green and not Frank Harris who died by being struck by a train in South Elgin. Frank allegedly hanged himself.

**The name of the company for which my grandfather sold thread was Collingbourne Mills, According to Old Elgin: A Pictorial History, by E. C. Alft:
"The Western Thread Co. of Chicago completed a plant on Bluff City Boulevard in 1910. Albert B. Collingbourne acquired a controlling interest two years later. The firm, later called Collingbourne Mills, produced millions of silk, cotton and rayon spools as well as stamped embroidery patterns. It went into the hands of the receivers in 1938."
Mr. Alft tells what happened to the Collingbourne Mills goods when the factory closed in The History of Elgin, Illinois:
"Organized in 1946 to market what was left of Collingbourne sewing materials as well as war surplus nylon thread, LeeWards grew with the acquisition of hobbycraft merchandise. The search for a firm name ended with a map showing the Leeward Islands. At first only a mail order house, a retail store was opened in the former Flexonics plant in 1962. The plant once occupied by McGraw-Edison and Motorola on Illinois 25 was purchased for administrative offices and a mail order building in 1970. Today, LeeWards Creative Crafts has more than forty stores located throughout the country. Until the mail order business was discontinued in 1983, the firm mailed out more than thirteen million catalogs annually."
Lee Wards was one of my favorite places to go when I was younger. It was a huge craft store that closed down in the 80's or so. My cousin worked there for a brief time as a security guard in the 1970's.


PrairieStateBoy said...

Good story. I found a Collier Equipment Company in Alabama that makes sewing equipment, I wonder if they might have been the same business your grandfather worked for. Another possibility is to check old phone directories next time you go to Elgin, the library may have some; or else the Elgin Historical Society.

Your story shows how the world has changed. I used to have relatives who were salesmen too and had to travel; who does that anymore?

I miss my grandparents--the ones I knew, anyhow--like you do. When they were alive I took them for granted, and they were sometimes a bother; now I see them as a link to another world and wish I had done more with them. Have you been able to track any of your relatives in Scotland?

Cedar Waxwing said...

I found the name of the mill where my grandfather worked. Collingbourne Mills. I will add an addendum to my story.

PrairieStateBoy said...

So was the LeeWard store located in the old Collingbourne mill?

Cedar Waxwing said...

No, Lee Wards was located in a different part of town. I don't know if the old Collingboure Mill's building still stands, I doubt it though.

Anonymous said...

Hi-Good stories-I came upon this while searching "Collingbourne" and found your story. My aunt and uncle were friends of the Collingnournes and vacatiomed in Chetek-I remember hearing about the Greens as a small child-I thought they were referring to color. I grew up in Elgin and am researching family history...there are quite the stories re: Elgin. Thanks-

Cedar Waxwing said...

Hi Annon -

Thanks for your comment. I was unaware that the Collingbournes vacationed in Chetek and didn't know that my grandparents knew them beyond my grandfather's employment with them.

Anonymous said...

My Great Grandfather is A.B. Collingbourne, the owner of the old Collingbourne Mills. I am currently researching his mill for a paper I am writing. Did your grandfather ever tell you any stories about working for the mill? I have been trying to find someone to interview who actually was employed by Collingbourne for my paper. If you have any stories you could share with me I'd really appreciate it! Thanks alot!


I am not sure how all this works, but if you could email me that would be great (geshales@wisc.edu).