Friday, December 23, 2016

A Marxist Frenchman Visits Cooksville to Find America

French journalist and avowed Marxist-Socialist, Jean George, visited the Village of Cooksville in late 1984, to try to discover America.  He came to write an article for l’Humanité, the French Communist Party newspaper, about French-American economic relationships, about the recent American elections, and about American attitudes.

And so he wrote a full-page story about the “hamlet” of Cooksville published in France in 1985.
Hank and Maurice in the Longbourne House, c.1980s
Jean George had met Cooksville resident, Maurice Gras, in early 1984 in Maurice’s hometown in Provence in the south of France.  Maurice invited Jean to visit Cooksville whenever he came to America

Jean George did just that, visiting Cooksville later in 1984. Maurice, a Professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his partner, Hank Bova, a Professor of French at Beloit College, were living in the historic Longbourne House in Cooksville, where Jean was their guest for a few days. Others in the village also met Jean, a bright, ebullient and delightful man. Several friends attended a Cooksville dinner party in Jean’s honor at the home of Jim Danky and Christine Schelshorn, where Communism, Marxism and America were the prime topics—as, no doubt, was French cooking.
The Vie International headline for the Cooksville story, 1985
Jean wrote about his American journey in an article published in the Vie Internationale section of the French newspaper l’Humanité on or about March 2, 1985.  The following is a translation of the full-page French article with its opening sub-heading, which also used four photographs of the American Midwest:

The Van Buren House and Church notecard, by Mike Saternus, mentioned in the article.
Logbook in the American heartland
by our special U.S. Envoy Jean George

Who knows Cooksville,
in the State of Wisconsin, USA?
Sixty inhabitants, the Mid-West heartland of America.
Far from the clichés of Chicago’s tall buildings, though they aren’t far away.
Wisconsin has more cows
than inhabitants.
Cooksville is a hamlet
in an agricultural area.
There you can hear the echo, muffled
by provincial life,

of the problems that trouble
an anxious America.

Coming from Detroit, I land three hours later, on a Saturday, at Chicago’s O'Hare Airport, the largest in the world, but one with no moving walkways or signs. The friendly employee at the New York travel agency, who had sold me the ticket two weeks previously, commiserated in advance with the poor foreigner, forced to carry his bag along endless corridors, looking for the Republic Airlines counter in order to retrieve his wheeled suitcase.  Concrete, concrete, concrete.

I then have to find the bus to Madison, via Beloit and Janesville.  I leave for the remote province of the State of Wisconsin, which has more cows than inhabitants.

Three hours’ drive, first by the Highway to the Northwest. The last shreds of the Chicago suburbs roll past the smoked-glass windows. We leave Illinois. Pasture and plowed fields appear.

First stop, Beloit, a small industrial town whose middle class has created a reputable college that attracts high-paying students from far beyond the borders of the state. One of the friends who are waiting for me teaches there.  From him I shall hear about this city for the first time. I notice only the bus station, drugstore, restaurant and hotel, all along the highway access road, flanked by a garage and a battery of gas pumps, the buildings you see in all the American movies that take you out of the big cities.

In Janesville, on the Rock River, 51,070 inhabitants, I get off in front of a bus station similar in every way to the previous one. Parker pens are manufactured here, but factory and houses lie beyond the dim light of the street lamps, which are blown about by an icy wind. I have read that from August to September, there are collections of old threshing machines and other agricultural machinery, which have been carefully restored as “antiques,” in nineteenth-century buildings. I have entered the land of traditions.

The person who greets me is a Franco-American who has lived here for thirty years. I met him last summer in his native Provence. He has retained the touch of an accent when he speaks his mother tongue, but thinks in English for all practical purposes.

After a few kilometers on a minor road, I find myself in the midst of a group of intellectuals who have come to celebrate my brief visit. People from different backgrounds, five currents of emigration, at least, around the table, telling me only their patronymics, all profoundly American in their relaxed manner, their kindness, their freedom of spirit.

I tell them that they remind me of some of their compatriots whom I used to meet in Moscow, especially since they hardly talk to me about the United States but question me passionately about the USSR. The same desire to know, the same sharp, often justified criticism, the same wish for peace and understanding, the same rejection of the anticommunism and anti-Sovietism that have done so much harm to American intelligence. They share Norman Mailer’s position: “We are a great nation. Make the effort to think that we will be greater still if we live in mutual comprehension of the horror of the world that now faces us.”

With them, I can relive all the struggles, all the hopes of 1960s America. They have buried themselves in this tiny village, less out of discouragement than from a reservation about democracy. During my three-week journey I met so many of these democrats-in-waiting, these potential activists/militants, free of illusions but by no means without hope.

Cooksville, a hamlet of sixty inhabitants near the town of Evansville, on Route 59 is forty kilometers from Madison, the state capital and seat of the University of Wisconsin. Very pretty wooden houses, lovingly maintained, that people take tourists to see. They surround, from a great distance, a huge common. The hamlet’s founders arrived from New England in about 1840, attracted by the prospect that a railroad to the West was to be built. The railroad was built elsewhere, and Cooksville fell asleep, like a museum that had arrived from somewhere else.

On Sunday morning, I take a slow walk round the hamlet, in a total silence in which my steps on the night frost make the only sound. At eleven o’clock the tiny white Church will welcome a female Pastor from the neighboring town. All around, in the grass and under the trees, are tombstones. Lots of names of Norwegian origin, and of soldiers who died during the Civil War, which we call the War of Secession. A high proportion of victims of both world wars, whose graves display a small Stars and Stripes. In the United States, too, the peasants have been beloved by the generals.

A few farms, with their red-painted barns and huge silos, are highly mechanized, if I can judge from the machinery I see in the farmyards. These farms are as big as ours, but here they are only of average size, and receive very little help from the State, which favors the largest ones.

The village grocer proudly displays the date her store was built: 1846. She tells me that deer- hunting is authorized in November, but only with bow-and-arrow. She was like someone from the America of our imaginations, a dream many Americans share. I buy note-cards of the village from her, drawn by an architect who is restoring an old house from the last century and has saved a local deconsecrated church.

I left the grocery store with a copy of the local weekly, The Hub, which serves two communities. It lists deaths, marriages, births, admissions to the hospital, sporting and academic achievements, birthday greetings from friends, hunting trophies. The editor and photographer provide the photographs. Circulation is 4,000 copies.

The newspaper also analyses local politics, draws intelligent lessons from the different elections of November 6. Its article was written “hot” and owes nothing to the major newspapers of the East coast. It carries an echo of an anxious America: unemployment, poverty, and above all, international tension. An echo muffled by provincial life, but strong enough that it can be expressed without fear.

One journalist colleague learned I had come and wanted to meet me. A visit by a “French Marxist” to this area is, apparently, an event. He questions me for nearly an hour: “Are you a Communist first or a journalist first?”  “French first or a Communist first?”  Politely provocative questions. My answers interest him because, he tells me, “We have a great need to know what is happening elsewhere.” The interview he has published is a model of honesty in its information.

America’s far away, but it's beautiful... when we find it...

#   #   #

[Jean George’s article is in the Cooksville Archives. As of this past June, Jean George was listed as L'Humanite's permanent correspondent in Moscow, according to an article from L'Humanite in June 20, 2016. He is probably retired by now. Jean’s hosts in the village, Maurice Gras (1928-2003) and Hank Bova (1936-2013), had lived in Cooksville since 1968, and were very active, generous, democratic Cooksvillians—and excellent hosts on many other occasions. Jean was interviewed for an article published in the Stoughton Courier-Hub on November 23, 1984, written by Steve Ehle, which is also in the Cooksville Archives.

Thanks to Jim Danky and Christine Schelshorn for their help preparing this Cooksville story, and many thanks to the translator, Jim’s friend, Imogen Forster. Also, thanks to the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library for its assistance. Larry Reed]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Memories of Cooksville: Lillian Graves Smith (1875-1977)

Lillian Graves, 1892
 Lillian Graves Smith’s memories of growing up in Cooksville were recorded by her son Marlowe G. Smith in an interview in 1973 and titled “Cooksville Vignettes.” He wrote that these were his mother’s “random reminiscences…that relate the simple day to day experiences as seen through the eyes of childhood.” The copy is in the Cooksville Archives and covers about 25 years of Lillian’s early life in the village. And she lived a very long life, dying close to age 102.

Lillian Graves was the daughter of Anna Brown Graves (1855-1920) and William Gardiner Graves (1825-1903), a prominent blacksmith in Cooksville with a large and apparently happy family.  Here are some excerpts from her childhood reminiscences:

            “The fine old sugar maple trees that were planted by my father are still flourishing, and I recall as a native Vermonter, he always tapped the trees for their maple syrup. There were the usual childhood activities such as wading and swimming the Badfish. Of course, we owned no bathing suits in those days and an old dress had to suffice.”

            “On one of our jaunts into Porter’s Woods, Avis Savage and I found a nest of turkey eggs… so we gathered them up in our aprons and took them home. My mother was very quick to realize that the eggs should not have been molested, and insisted that I return mine to the nest at once…. When Avis brought her eggs home, her mother decided to set them under one of her hens, probably with Thanksgiving in mind.”
Graves Blacksmith Shop, 1886
             “My father was the Village Blacksmith and soon earned a considerable reputation as an expert in horse shoeing…. During the heat of the summer, the flies would swarm around the shop…Father would experience considerable difficulty when flies began biting the horse, and I remember standing near the horses and shooing the flies away with a large stick to which cloth streamers had been attached. I did not especially enjoy this duty, but it never occurred to me to refuse his request for help…”

            “While I cannot recall ever being taken to a real circus during my childhood, the circus did come to us…Circuses would perform in Stoughton and then travel overland to Evansville by way of Cooksville. My Father would get us up at 4 a.m. on circus day, and we would line the main street to see the animals and circus wagons as they went by. The calliope would play in parade and horses, elephants and camels were led on foot with the cages displaying the more ferocious beasts. It never occurred to us that we might attend a circus performance, and this brief glimpse of circus life was quite sufficient. We would talk about it for days.”

Unidentified Cooksville Children in a Garden
            “John Robertson came to Cooksville from Scotland and operated one of its two general stores…. In Roberson’s Store, you could purchase almost anything from rubber boots to pickles and molasses, and when John Robertson’s back was turned, village boys would take special delight in knocking a pair of rubber boots off into the molasses. However, he never complained about it.”

            “What I do remember most was that time when Mrs. Fisher passed away, and there being no family, Avis Savage, Ernest (Doc) Miller, Chet Gilley and I were asked to go down there and sit up all night with the deceased who was laid out in the adjoining downstairs bedroom. We were in our early teens, and the situation did not exactly call for enthusiasm, but no one ever refused such a request. My Mother insisted that poor old Mrs. Fisher must not be left there alone over night. In those days, mortuary techniques had not been too far advanced, and it was required that a damp cloth be laid on the face of the deceased once every hour. Neither Chet Gilley nor I could bring ourselves to perform this necessary function, and it was left for Doc and Avis to do the honors.”

            “The Van Vleck Family lived in the house now owned and modernized by George and Eunice Mattakat….. John Van Vleck, the father, had a shop nearby where he patented a potato planter. Regretfully, the patent was infringed upon by the McCormick Co. in Chicago, and John never realized his just return on this useful bit of machinery.”

Pony Cart on the Public Square, with Unidentified Children
             “The only real conflagration that I can recall was the time that the Lutheran Church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground [in 1896 Ed.]. We had full benefit of the fire as our lot practically backed up to the Church. My Father quickly led the family cow from the barn at the back of the lot. Obviously, with no water under pressure, it was impossible for the bucket brigade to put out the flames .In fact, I often wonder that more buildings in Cooksville were not destroyed, especially when heating and lighting arrangements were on the primitive side. I recall that there was considerable discussion about rebuilding the church on the original site for fear it might happen again.”

            “One amusing incident comes to mind when for some reason, I opened my mouth too wide and could not close it. Apparently, I had succeeded in unhinging my jaw. Dr. Colony was called and had to administer chloroform in order to manipulate the jaw sufficiently to close it. This was really embarrassing in as much as Dr. Colony was my current boyfriend at the time. My good neighbor Belle Stebbins was on hand to be of some help, and she often reminded me that the only person who could shut my mouth was Dr. Colony.”

[A copy of the entire 24-page “Cooksville Vignettes” is available in the Cooksville Archives. Also in the Archives is 22-page“Rice-Graves Genealogy” written and edited by Marlowe G. Smith in 1973.]