Regional Events in November for History Folk

Twentieth Century Farm Life

pieSunday, November 20th at 1pm, Susan Odom of Hillside Homestead, nationally known expert on early twentieth century cooking, kitchens and small-scale farming, will address the Traverse Area Historical Society and all attendees on the art of running an early twentieth century farms. Come pick up some tips for holiday cooking! Event will be held at the Traverse Area District Library, 610 Woodmere Ave. in the McGuire Room.

Shoes! Glorious Shoes!

pair_of_womans_oxford_shoes_wedding_lacma_m-83-156-1a-bThursday, November 10th at 4:00pm.  Join the Benzie Area Historical Society to “walk a mile” in the shoes of our ancestors with Nancy Bordine.  We’ll explore what they wore on their feet, and why they wore them. We’ll ponder the world’s most extreme shoes in terms of age, price, comfort and significance.  This entertaining experience may change the way you think about footwear.

Vintage aficionado Nancy Bordine has been playing “dress up” with historical clothing for five decades.  At last count, she owned more than 550 pairs of vintage shoes. Combine Nancy’s collection with her wide knowledge and contagious enthusiasm, and have yourself a most entertaining history lesson. Held at the Benzie Area Historical Museum, Benzonia.

Genealogists Meet to Share





Cecil H. Dill, Hand Musician and Celebrity of Traverse City

Meet Cecil H. Dill (27 October 1900-3 November 1989), “The Farmer Who Makes Music with His Hands.” Dill was an aspiring radio performer, who had an interesting talent… the ability to squeeze his hands together and play melodies, mostly of popular tunes of the day.

His parents, Jennie McEwan (d. 22 January 1960) and William H. Dill (d. 22 July 1966), were married in Grand Traverse County in 1899, and spent most of their married life alongside their children Cecil, Dorothy (d. 22 December 1972) and Joan, in Traverse City. According to census records, William briefly operated a farm in Blair Township, probably about 1930 to 1938 or so.

In 1939, William purchased Novotny’s Saloon on Union Street in Old Town, Traverse City, and renamed the establishment “Dill’s Olde Towne Saloon,” which became a favorite watering hole for locals and visitors alike. William had a long career in bartending, with only his brief farming career as the exception.

Like his father, Cecil usually made his living with his hands. During the holidays, he often sold balsam and cedar wreaths, and began taking orders in the end of October, showing the popularity of his work. Over the years, he offered junk removal and other light draying services to the community as well, sometimes partnering with Goldie Wagner (d. 16 April 1986).

But, before his father opened Dill’s Saloon, Cecil was still working the family farm when he discovered his unique musical abilities (I’ll let Cecil tell you in his own words in the embedded video exactly how he developed his talent). Cecil was able to sell his talent to various performers, most notably Ted Weems, the bandleader who would provide Perry Como his first national exposure. Cecil played with the Ted Weems Orchestra in Chicago, and was thoroughly applauded by all those present. According to a Chicago Tribune article of the event, Cecil stole the show.

The years of 1933-1934 saw the height of Cecil’s popularity. He played with Ted Weems, as well as bandleader Hal Kemp. He made appearances at other venues in Chicago and in Hollywood nightclubs. His performances were written up in Chicago and Detroit newspapers, as well as Vanity. He palmed his fame all the way to the National Farm and Home radio hour, and a Universal Pictures newsreel (below), both of which provided Cecil with national exposure.

Although his fame was short-lived, Cecil would continue to play throughout his life, showing up various variety events in Traverse City. Cecil’s Universal Pictures newsreel is the earliest known recording of Manualism, that is, the art of playing music by squeezing air through the hands. By all accounts, that makes Cecil the first “Manualist,” although I suspect this musical style has a long and varied history, as least as old as clapping.

The last of Cecil’s life was plagued with health problems. The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported of his ill-health several times. On Tuesday, October 10, 1961,  Cecil, living at 229 Wellington, was admitted to Munson. He had been dining at Bill Thomas’ Restaurant at 130 Park Street, when he fell ill. A “resuscitator unit” from the fire department was called to his aid, and the newspaper report stated he “suffered from an apparent heart attack.” He suffered additional bouts of illness that required hospitalization in 1970 and 1973, but ultimately lived to the ripe age of 89.

Enjoy Cecil’s rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the story of his talent, made available by the Internet Archive. This video is in the Public Domain, meaning there are no copyright restrictions, so please share out.





Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

History of the Wilhelm Family with Special Attention to the Bohemian Settlement in Traverse City, Michigan

By Robert D. Wilhelm

Edited by Julie Schopieray and Richard Fidler

[Editors note: This is a transcription of a manuscript Bob Wilhelm wrote over a long period of time, with updates ending in 1986. Some spelling and punctuation has been changed, and transcriber’s notes for clarity are in brackets]

A Note by historian Al Barnes

Doing the Impossible

I would have said it couldn’t be done. When Bob Wilhelm told me that he was going to do the history of the Wilhelm family of Traverse City I gave encouragement. However, tracing the family from their roots in Bohemia, before the turn of the century, to the “new world” and thence onward in time to the present day, was a task for a research group and not for one person.

From time to time he contacted me and we discussed many problems. Months turned into years and he persisted. He discovered the power of determination born in the pioneer family. He reflected this determination as page after page of the story unfolded.

Completed, the manuscript is fascinating and inspiring. I am positive that no stone was left unturned and no name left out of the story if that name left an echo at any point in the story of the Wilhelm family. I would not have had the patience.

CHAPTER 1: Conflagration in Bohemia

Painting of Count Metternich by Thomas Lawrence, now part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Collection. The original work was first exhibited in 1815, but probably revised in 1818/9. Image courtesy of the Museum, and available at the Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of Count Metternich by Thomas Lawrence, now part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Collection. The original work was first exhibited in 1815, but probably revised in 1818/9. Image courtesy of the Museum, and available at the Wikimedia Commons.

Central Europe in the mid-1800s was in turmoil. Count Clemens von Metternich, alter ego of the emperor of Austria and the Hapsburg dynasty, was not willing to let the demands for reforms sweeping through Europe spread into the Austrian Empire.

There were several reasons leading to the wave of dissatisfaction. Because of the Industrial Revolution, massive numbers of country people flocked to the cities hoping to improve their living conditions. Disillusionment soon swept through the masses. Unemployment, unequal distribution of wealth, slums, and unhappiness with an absolute monarch led to widespread disorders.

The government moved with brutal efficiency to quell the rising unrest. The military and the secret police were used to stamp out opposition. To keep the military ranks full, all young men were required to serve seven years at virtually no pay. The future held little more than becoming “cannon fodder.”

The Hapsburgs in their many wars with other European monarchs, needed young men. Country peasant stock was in the front lines. The attitude was “Why waste your best trained soldiers?”

Alphonse Mucha, The Oath of Omladina under the Slavic Linden Tree: The Slavic Revival, 1926. Tempera with oil details on canvas.
Alphonse Mucha, The Oath of Omladina under the Slavic Linden Tree: The Slavic Revival, 1926. Tempera with oil details on canvas. Mucha was an artist focused on pan-Slavic Unity for much of his career. This is just one of his many works on the subject.

In Bohemia, during the 1848-1850 period, the pan Slavic desire for Slavic unity and independence was proclaimed by Bohemian leadership. Meetings for unity and independence were held in Prague, but the speeches by the leaders resulted in confusion due to different languages.

Riots broke out in Prague and the Princess Windisch Gratz, wife of the governor, was killed by a stray bullet.

The Austrian cannons destroyed the patriotic hopes by the bombarding of Prague. The Bohemians were not able to withstand the armies of the Hapsburg monarchy. The bombardment was the beginning of the end for the independence movement. The Austrian army remained faithful, and a new period of desperation  descended. It was so harsh that it made many yearn for the unhappy days under Metternich.

CHAPTER 2:  Ondrejov to “Cincinnati”

It was during the summer of 1853 that a pamphlet describing the wonders of Cincinnati, Ohio, was circulated by a land agent in the village of Ondrejov, Bohemia.

Village of Ondrejov, in relation to Prague, Checz Republic.
Village of Ondrejov outlined in red, in relation to Prague, Czech Republic. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Eva Wilhelm could not resist glowing reports of the mysterious land across the ocean. She started talking and tried to persuade her husband Joseph, a prosperous shopkeeper, to make the journey. Her pleading was rejected, but her brother-in-law and his wife, John and Mary Wilhelm, who lived in the nearby village of Cerna Buda, decided to go to America.

John Wilhelm was a tailor, but at the time he was dyeing and printing cotton fabrics. He was making a comfortable living for his family, but the future of his occupation was bleak. The talk of the area was Cincinnati, Ohio and its opportunities.  While others could not make up their minds, John sold his interests and the family left on October 23, 1853. They reached New York in December.

Mary and two of their four sons were ill when they landed. They were admitted to the Marine Hospital in New York where one of them, Frank, died the next day. The second ailing son, Anton, died about a year later. The other children, Emanuel (age 13) and John (7 1/2) were temporarily placed in a children’s home until their father could get a job, their mother would be released from the hospital, and a boarding place could be found.

Braiding on garments was fashionable at the time. Being skilled in the art and able to speak German in addition to Bohemian, John was hired by a German tailor. When his wife recovered from her illness, the tailor offered her a job. John was curious about how the tailor knew she was a seamstress. The tailor explained he had noticed the neat patches on his shirt.

Emanuel, son of John and Mary, began working in a map making business during the day and attended school at night learning English.

CHAPTER 3: Mass exodus: Ondrejov to New York

Despite word of tragedy and hardships in New York, Eva Wilhelm was constantly urging her family and friends to leave Ondrejov. By the fall of 1854 her persuasiveness overcame the apprehensions. The exodus began.

Joseph Wilhelm and his wife Eva; his brother Anton, Joseph Kyselka, Wencil Bartak, Albert Novotny, Frank Kratochvil, Frank Lada, Joseph Knizek and Frank Pohoral, all with their wives and children, the mother of Joseph  and Anton Wilhelm, and Pohoral’s unmarried sister were part of a group that finally settled in the Grand Traverse region.

Not all of the larger group settled in Michigan. Some migrated to Wisconsin. A cousin of Frank Kratochvil began the settlement of New Bohemia on Long Island, New York.

Even though Cincinnati was originally on the minds of the hundred migrants, not one settled there.

Unlike so many of the central Europeans who were totally destitute, this group, though lacking wealth, was nowhere close to being paupers. All of these families had the necessities of life even under the adverse conditions affecting Bohemia.  They all had common school education. Anton Wilhelm’s wife Jennie was a teacher. She insisted that her family speak English, the language of their adopted land. Even though her children could speak Bohemian in later life, they were one of the few who could speak English without an accent. The men had all learned a trade while the women were all skilled in some form of needlework.

It was a three day journey from Ondrejov to the German seaport city of Bremen. A week’s search to find a sailing vessel resulted in the group boarding the Herzogen Von Alderberg.

There were steam vessels available for the journey, but a letter from John Wilhelm warned about the dangers of the steamers because one had blown up in the New York area. The boat carried 120 passengers, mostly Czechs (Bohemians), including a Czech band whose music helped break the tedium of the long journey There were also eighteen unmarried Germans and an English family named Williams on the consist. Each of the families was expected to furnish his own bedding, and their ticks (a cloth case for a mattress or pillow was rather coarse flax grown on the farms, spun by the women and woven by the town weaver).

One of the Czechs had a feather bed, part of a bride’s dowry, made of goose feathers. This was stolen and resulted in great discomfort in the winter weather. In addition to the warmth provided, these feather beds could be used as collateral for a loan.

The first meal served aboard was smoked, salty fish. Because the supply of water was limited, the passengers suffered greatly. Seasickness was another frequent misery. Some of the passengers brought dried fruits, mainly pears and prunes. Ondrejov had a community drying house where they could bring their crops for a small fee.

The voyage lasted longer than scheduled, seven-and-a-half weeks. Food and water supplies ran low. A.J Wilhelm in later years recalled that the basic diet at the end of the journey was black bread.

Because of the suffering of the children, Frank Lada lowered a  small container attached to a cord into the diminishing water supply to relieve the distress. If a crew member should have observed such a happening, Lada would have been punished for breaking the ship’s rules.

When the boat finally arrived in New York, a number of children had to be admitted to an immigrants hospital for treatment. Many were emaciated from the lack of proper food and other discomforts suffered on the voyage. Many children died soon after arrival at the hospital and many other sick children lived a little longer. The large hospital ward was filled with rows of cots occupied by sick children.

Mothers were not allowed to be with their children in the hospital. Elizabeth Bartak’s mother pleaded with the nurses, but her requests were denied. She offered to scrub floors, a nurse tiring of the pleading pointed to a large dog and threatened her with attack. One day she arrived with patterns of lace. Going through the motions of knitting, the nurse understood she would make her some if she was allowed to stay. The offer was accepted.

A constant terror faced by the unsuspecting and trusting immigrants was the confidence men who preyed on all the newly arrived at the dock.  As the Herzogen Von Alderberg tied up at the New York dock these people were only too helpful. Speaking their native language, a stranger offered to take them to a clean, moderately priced hotel, They trustingly and gratefully accepted. When the immigrants were presented with the bill, they realized they had been fleeced. A fist fight erupted. The hotelkeeper and his accomplices locked all the doors and the men were not to be released until they had given up all their worldly belongings. Fortunately, through the efforts of John Wilhelm and some of his friends he had made during his year in the United States, the situation was brought to the attention of the authorities and a refund of the overcharge was ordered. The court also ordered that these dishonest practices should cease. This satisfactory ending was rare. Most of the immigrants who were fleeced lost everything.  Warning letters from the newly arrived to their family and friends back in Bohemia spread through the communities.

The carrying of money was especially dangerous. Unscrupulous passengers and crew members on the boats robbed the helpless. People waiting at the dock wanting to “help” the newly arrived disappeared as soon as they gained their worldly possessions.

Anna (Dufek) Brown was determined to make the journey to Leelanau County, Michigan.  Her father, fearing the worst, wouldn’t allow his daughter to carry any money. All of her possessions were placed in a homemade trunk. Most of the space was for her featherbed. She wore a paisley shawl around her shoulders for warmth. She was presented with an amethyst or garnet necklace which was to be traded in for money when she reached New York. Arriving in New York, the immigrant agent ripped the necklace from her neck and put it in his pocket. His only comment was that people didn’t wear such necklaces in America.

The shopkeepers in New York used small coins to make change. Many could not get used to the American money and were easily confused. Another tactic of the unscrupulous was to give a handful of small change. The floors would be covered with sawdust so it would be difficult to recover your money. (This spreading of sawdust was done in the Grand Traverse region during the lumber era by some of the bar owners. Presumably drinkers would have a hard time finding change that had dropped to the floor).

Despite the problems of “strength makes right” hundreds of Bohemians from the area around Prague made the journey. Disease brought tragedy to many. Loss of all worldly goods by many slowed down the new life opportunities temporarily.

The exodus to the Great Lakes area was in full flight.

Look forward to the continuation of the History of the Wilhelm Family by Robert D. Wilhelm in upcoming issues of Grand Traverse Journal.

Reader Solves Mystery of Central Grade School

The architectural style of this school has sometimes been called “Collegiate Gothic” for its pointed arches and interesting ornaments.  One school in the Traverse area illustrates this style better than all others: what is it?

Thanks to Cornelia for successfully answering October’s “Mystery Photo!” Indeed, the school depicted is Central Grade School, located on Seventh Street in the Central Neighborhood.

The Latin inscription above the door on photograph below reads “Magnum Est Veritas et Prevalebit.” It may be translated “Great is the truth, and it shall prevail.”

The school reflects the times and the values of the community in the year of its construction, 1936. Its exterior ornamentations carry meanings about what schools are for and what kinds of knowledge are important. Certainly, a classical education was valued at the time of the construction of the building.





The Last Plants to Bloom

Goldenrod, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.
Goldenrod, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.

Which native plant is the last to bloom before the onset of winter?  Everyone knows Chrysanthemums, but they aren’t native to Northern Michigan.   Certainly, goldenrod blooms late, as do asters.  Mostly goldenrod has finished by the time our most elegant aster, the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) begins to bloom.

newenglandasterIt can be found growing in moist places in the sun, its hairy leaves clasping the stem giving away its identity even before the flowers appear.  When they do open, they present a glorious purple, sometimes almost a deep red.  They do bloom late, sometimes as late as mid-October, but they are not the last to flower.

Jerusalem Artichokes, flowering, CC0.
Jerusalem Artichokes, flowering, CC0.

Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), a native sunflower, show their bright yellow flowers at about the same time as New England Asters.  Standing as tall as seven feet, they prefer open fields, forming dense thickets of flowers as they spread from underground rhizomes—which make a fine food if the preparer has enough time and energy to clean and cook them.  Jerusalem artichokes grow tall, but will not be confused with the more common sunflower used for seeds enjoyed by humans and birds alike.   Jerusalem artichokes, (sometimes called ‘sunchokes,’ brighten our lives at a time the days grow shorter and shorter, but they aren’t the last to bloom.

Witchhazel, image courtesy of the author, October 2016.
Witchhazel, image courtesy of the author, October 2016.

The last to bloom is witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), a small tree that grows at the edge of the forest or as an understory tree.  Its leaves are distinctive with wavy margins, never toothed as most leaves are.  Its flowers become most apparent just after its leaves have turned yellow and fallen off.  Four thin yellow petals can be seen hanging from twigs sometimes as late as November.  They aren’t as spectacular as the New England aster or the Jerusalem artichoke, but they give us joy that a plant has the fortitude—or foolishness?–to brave days of 45 degrees at a time when pollinators are all dead or sleeping.

Witchhazel Blossom, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.
Witchhazel Blossom, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.

Witchhazel not only cheers us up at the end days of autumn, but it presents itself as a useful and interesting plant–useful, because its extract gives us an important astringent used in folk medicine, a treatment useful wherever swelling is a problem—and interesting because it can explosively shoot out its seeds from their capsules.  Earlier in autumn they do just that.  At such times it might be a good idea to wear safety glasses when walking in a grove of witchhazel because seed missiles can fly 30 feet in the air, certainly with enough force to put out an eye!  (I hope readers know me well enough to suspect foolery).

Let us take joy in the last flowers of autumn.  It will be many months before the crocuses send up their bold stalks in March.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

A Sweet Treat from Old Mission, 1884

wilhelmfamily074Care to make a classic Edwardian dessert for your holiday festivities this year? Mrs. H.G. Reynolds of Old Mission has just the recipe for you! Reynolds’ version of a Charlotte Russe was found in a local cook book compiled by “Grand Traverse Housekeepers” and from the Household Department of the Grand Traverse Herald, one of few newspapers published in the Grand Traverse Region around the turn of the previous century.

All subscribers to the Herald were presented with a copy of The Herald Cook Book, copyright 1884. The endeavor must have been popular, as two more cook books were published by the Herald before 1900. All three are available for your perusal at the Traverse Area District Library.

You can imagine a Russe was a popular dessert because of its versatility. You could flavor the dessert with whatever fruit was in season that moment. You could use up any cookies, sponge cake, or biscuit that had gone stale. And, you didn’t have to monitor the dessert in the oven! What a perfect dish for Thanksgiving, when that space is already occupied by whatever main dish you’re serving. Enjoy!

“Charlotte Russe

Line a pan with lady fingers, or light cake. Take a quart of cream, sweetened to taste and flavored with vanilla, then whip it. Pour half a cup of hot water on half an ounce of gelatine which has been soaking in a little cold water. After it is dissolved stir very hard into the whipped cream and then pour it into the mold being careful not to upset the cake. Set in a cold place to harden.  -Mrs H.G. Reynolds, Old Mission.”