I want to share…. a memory… I guess. It’s peculiar the way moments, or places, or sounds, or aromas stick in your memory and this is one of those — for me.
In 7th or 8th grade we were given an English assignment by a stiff-as-a-board English school marm named Elizabeth Huttenhow. “That’s ‘Hut’ as in a little house, ‘ten’ as in ten fingers, and ‘how’ as in ‘how are you’ — as she told us on our first day in class in September of our 7th grade.
The assignment was to go to a public place. The choice of which public place was entirely up to us — but she did give us some suggestions — and to evesdrop on whomever we came across while there — after which we were to write a report on what we heard.
Needless to say that assignment caught the imagination of most of the class. She was a tough teacher and this was perhaps the most inspired of all her assignments in the three years we all had her as our teacher. I know it sure beat memorizing the poem Evangeline, or any of the other memorization assignments we faced from time to time. I’m still haunted by the words, “this is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines, and the hemlock.” 🙂
I chose to go to the Chicago and Northwestern Railway station. It was located at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue, just inland from Lake Michigan. It was a grand old red brick building with turrets and copper trim and the most amazing echoes you can imagine. I spent more of that weekend down there than I needed to — having taken the city bus or trolley — I forget now which it had been. The idea that it was somehow “OK” to listen to other people’s conversation appealed to the youngster in my and I got a pretty decent grade on the final report — though to be honest I have no idea what that might have been. I was proud of the product but grades never moved me very much.
Fast forward a bunch of years. I finished school, got married, we lived in Chicago for two years, then we moved to Ohio for two years, then out to Batavia Illinois for two years and finally we ended up in Wisconsin once more. In 1971 Amtrak was formed. The old Chicago & NW station was razed for other projects along the lakefront; the trainstation was relocated to a consolidated station 3/4 of a mile to the West — right in the heart of downtown Milwaukee. I was so sad to see that grand old building torn down but why? I never took a train from that station. I never had a part time job there. I never even met someone else traveling by that line — the only real memories I have of that station was that single school assignment.
In 1963 the Milwaukee Art Museum had started something they called the Lakefront Festival of the Arts and when we moved back to Milwaukee in the early 70’s it was going strong on the third weekend in June — the Father’s Day weekend. We’d been married 6 or 7 years, we were over our hardest, most penny-pinching years and it was the second or third year that we attended the festival. We were looking for a piece of art to adorn our home and I found a wonderful Batik work of Noah’s Ark that we both loved. But alas, in 1968 the price of $2000.00 was a little steep for us. We found table with wonderful inlaid tiles that we really loved; and we found a pen & ink drawing — not a lithograph, but a real pen & ink drawing of the old railway station. I wanted to buy that piece in the worst way. It was $1200.00 in the mid 1970’s and it would have been crazy to spend that much money on something so frivolous and …. WONDERFUL! But we talked ourselves in the table with inlaid tiles. And we loved that table …
But alas, I have never forgotten that one stupid, awesome, beautiful pen & ink drawing.
I have very few regrets in my life and for some bizarre reason that is one of them. Why it should have so captured my attention that now — more than 40 years later — I can still see it in my mind’s eye — I don’t know. And now, it’s hard to find even photographs of the station. It’s of an age long gone. Of no value to anyone. Of interest, perhaps, to no one but me.