Village Wisdom: Anchors: “Melville Neighbors,”by Erwin A. Thompson

In our family collection of books I found an old Bible, with the inscription: “Frank Riehl, Superintendent of the Melville Sunday School.”

One time my Uncle Ed Riehl and Aunt Amelia (Mim) Riehl were to play a violin duet for the church program. Aunt Mim was very shy, and not used to playing in public. Ed had gone to school in Valporaso Indiana. He studied music. When his father found out that he was studying music instead of horticulture E. A. told him to come on back home and learn it the hard way. But the music education stuck. Ed was good. Aunt Mim told me that she was just petrified. She said her bow hair never touched the strings. Ed played double notes throughout the piece. They received many compliments on their fine “duet”.

When Mathilda Riehl died in 1910, the Vollmers donated another strip of ground to expand the cemetery. They reserved the first (corner) lot, and the Riehls took the second lot. So far as I know, these were the only two lots that were ever used on this strip.

When I was four Aunt Em (Riehl) married George Gibbens from Pike County. He had studied for the ministry but refused to be ordained because he didn’t believe in the sectarian segregation of the Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and so on. He was always active in the “church,” using the larger definition as meaning the work of the Lord without regard to sectarian boundaries.

One of his early projects was to start a Sunday School in the Randolph School District #17 where the Police Youth Camp is now. This was predominately a Catholic community and they had a church about a mile from the school on the Beltrees road. This Sunday School filled a need that existed at that time, for transportation was hard come by and there were people there who felt the need of Sunday worship. We walked some times but often drove the seven or eight miles around the road to get two miles away from home.

I remember when the Rushville Thompson’s came down we’d all go over to Sunday School. Of course my parents were interested in the effort as former missionaries, as well as taking their family to Sunday Worship. Dad let me sit on his lap one Sunday and hold the steering wheel. I was really thrilled, and scared too as we drove by the edge of Piasa Creek by the old cement mill. I was sure we’d all end up in the creek, for there was only a narrow road and no such thing as a guard rail.

When I was seven the interest in the improvised church dwindled. Probably this was due in part to better roads and more reliable cars. People could go out of their own immediate community to church (and did). Another reason, I think there was an element of transient population. Locks and Runzies both kept at least one and often two steady hired men. Likely this was a factor in the need of a local Sunday School.

We went to Melville then. It was a chartered Congregational Church, but so far as I recall there was only one Congregational minister there in the thirty five years I went there. Usually they got the students from Shurtleff College (A Baptist theological school).

Uncle George took over as Superintendent and served for many years. I can’t recall what song books they were using then but shortly after we went there they changed to the “Tabernacle No. 2”. I still remember the ones we sang most – Life’s Railway to Heaven, Beaulah Land, Love Lifted me, Jesus is all the world to me, Wonderful Words of Life. Many more. They were singers. Maybe not technically, but we enjoyed it and the church was filled with our voices “making a joyous noise unto the Lord”.

Transportation was still a problem. Some days it was so muddy we couldn’t drive, we walked down the railroad track and up Clifton Road to keep out of the mud. On real bad Sundays we’d meet in Uncle George’s living room. The Bowmans and Shermans would always be there no matter how bad the weather. “Wherever two or more are gathered together in my name there will I be also”.

I do not know the background of Nelson Kiedel. He was a dedicated workman, and a true craftsman. He married Lillian Howard, the descendant of one of the first pioneers of the area. He was a blacksmith, horticulturist, and grave digger for the neighborhood. Digging graves is not a glamorous task, but surely a necessary one. Also not one that many would aspire to, even in the days when hand labor was not looked down upon as it seems to be today. He was a very quiet, unassuming person, but he did his part to help the community function.

His wife had a better than average musical education, and a dedication to see that her daughter got the best training in that field that was available in this locality. Lydia prospered under her mother’s teaching and the professional guidance that I am sure she had. Between the two of them they furnished the accompaniment for the singing in the Melville Congregational Church for many years.

Let us not forget the Kiedel pond. When the road was being paved, they got the water to mix the concrete from that pond. But more importantly to us youngsters, it was a fine place to ice skate in the winter time. Many a skating party on Kiedel’s pond!

Walter Collins married Lydia Kiedel. He was handy with any kind of tool or construction project. Back in the twenties he had built houses and gotten caught in “The Great Depression.” The houses were not worth the money that he had invested in materials, let alone anything for his labor. Bankruptcy was the only answer. This was a cruel cross to bear, and no blame to him. “Caught in the wicked web of circumstance.” He had an ice route, back in the days before many of the local people did not have electricity. He hauled logs when the Dressler Woods were logged off. In this occupation he suffered a broken leg. I learned a lot of things from Walter. He was very generous with sharing his knowledge and his skills. He had them.

The Bowens started out on Piasa Hill, on the east side of the creek, north side of the road. Frank farmed the Marsh Bottoms for years. I never remember Frank coming to church but his wife was a member of the Ladies’ Aid” and his daughters went. Later they moved to what we called the “Old Calame Place.” Their son, Sherman, became a close friend of mine.

Jay Cline built a little filling station and grocery store on the east side of Piasa Creek on the hill, just above the Bowen residence. So far as I recall he did not attend the church. He started giving neighborhood dances in his garage. This was certainly good for me, as the only form of entertainment were the public dance halls such as the “Idle Hour,” “The Chatterbox”, and “Tourville” which did not suit my taste. He was a good neighbor. When the residents of Riehl Lane bought a rock crusher in Saint Louis he took his truck down and hauled it up here for us. Ran a bill for those who needed it.

Ben Hill took over in the late thirties. He continued the dances, and “running a bill” for the neighbors. They did not attend the church regularly, but I recall one Christmas they furnished the candy for the Christmas treats for the children. Probably more than once.

The Vollmers were “old timers,” furnishing the ground for the addition to the cemetery and most likely for the church and the original cemetery. I do not have the details, but the “square out” of the land would indicate it. I am going to ask Harriet to write out what she can of their history. Clara married Lawrence Hoffman. I remember one late spring, Harriet’s parents cleaned out the barn loft and hosted a real barn dance! Music furnished by the neighborhood youngsters: Chris Veltjes, Laverne and Clarence Bregenzer, Bill Hickerson, Eddie Lock, Sherman Bowen Bee and Bill Lewis and myself. It is still remembered and held up as a fine example of neighborhood cooperation.

Eric Brinkman started a little garage on the south side of the road, some time in the late twenties. He courted and married Lucille Ebbler, who taught the Clifton Hill School in its new location. Eric was a good mechanic and a firm friend, often doing things that were really outside of his normal work schedule like helping me with my Fordson tractor when I could not get it to run. He was also into the development of the home radio, and furnished the first really practical one that we owned. The garage became the meeting place of many of the neighborhood young men. After the repeal of the 18th amendment he served beer. They became known locally as “The Melville Gang.”

George Stiritz owned the property adjoining the church on the west. They were Catholic. Their son, Anthony, was in the Jersey County 4-H club with me. He married Lillian Gerson, and so far as I know their contact was from the 4-H activities. The Gersons lived on up the road several miles, and were not really a part of the Melville residents. I do not believe that they would have ever met except for the 4-H.

At the settling of his estate the Stiritz heirs offered to sell the church enough of the adjoining land to build the new church. It was a fine offer, and the price was more than just “a fair deal.” It was a one time opportunity. I never knew the rest of the family, but Anthony was always a good friend. He and Lillian rented the “upper cottage” while I was in the service. George was a good neighbor, owning the eighty that had been the “Finkes place” on Riehl Lane in addition to his “home place” farm next to the church. I traded work with him in later years.

Celle Corzine worked for the telephone company. In fact he almost was the telephone company during World War Two. (Legend said that his unusual first name was the name of the town in Germany that his parents lived in when he was born) All of the available material needed to repair telephone lines had been requisitioned by the Federal Government to pursue the military objective of keeping this country from needing to learn Japanese.

He kept our telephone service going with such ingenious ideas of hanging the wires on trees when the poles rotted out and fell over. I never knew Ben that well, but Mary-Lou “hung out” with the two younger Bowen girls. I had started dancing with Lucille when I was sixteen and she was ten at the Cline dances. I wrote the song: “The Girl In The Little Blue Hat” for her. Then in later years after I got to be friends with Sherman, I furnished transportation for the girls including Mary-Lou Corzine. At that time there was a song named “Mary -Lou” and we would tease her by singing it to her.

Becky had a picture of Fern and Vern Hayes. I do not know the details of the family, but the girls were about my age, nice looking youngsters. They lived in a little house on the Dressler property. It burned in the early thirties. Friends of Mary Bowman. Her older brother, James, courted Fern but it never materialized into anything but a courtship. I remember one time after church the twins came over and visited Mary Bowman for the day. They changed clothes several times during the day for fun, three ways. They were not identical twins, but pretty close. It was a challenge.

Sandy and Lucy Freeman were slaves in Missouri, near the Missouri River. They made their plans and escaped by boat.

They followed the Missouri to the Mississippi. Then up the Mississippi. They went to “Rocky Fork” which was known as a place where escaped slaves could hide. Even though Illinois was supposed to be a free state, this was no “safe haven.” Remember that Lovejoy was killed in Alton just a few years before this for printing anti-slavery material!

He took the name “Freeman” because he was a free man!

Here they got married. Charley describes the wedding:

“They got married by ‘stepping over a broom.’ The broom is held by a person on each side. These are the witnesses. The couple steps over the broom together, and they are married!”

If the year was 1863 as we theorize, Lucy would have been nineteen years old. Sandy would have been in his early twenties.

Riehl daybook entry March 17, 1864: “Had Sandy and Johnson’s ox team in P.M.” This would seem to indicate that Sandy was working for Johnson (who owned the farm next to the Riehl Farm going out Riehl Lane) at that time.

July 5, 1869: “Alex stole Sandy’s gun last night, also Fred’s dog and our skiff.” This would seem to indicate that Sandy was living on this (the Riehl) place at that time.

On August sixteenth, 1869 Sandy bought a four acre tract of land from Solomon and Elizabeth Johnson. The land lay on the north side of Riehl Lane, extending from the East line of Jersey County a distance of seven chains and sixty links, and six chains and thirty links north and south. The deed does not mention the road, just the legal description of: “North-east corner of the east half of the south-east quarter of Section 24.” The price was one hundred dollars.

Both Randolph and Clifton Hill Schools were integrated at that time without the disturbance which was created in later years in other parts of our supposedly “free” country. So far as I know there was never a question raised as to their acceptance in those schools. Nor was it ever questioned in the trading of work in the community. Lincoln Freeman ate with the rest of the crew at threshing time and other work trading times.

Many years ago the Camps and the Dresslers were part of the church. I never heard the details, but there was some sort of disagreement among the members and I do not recall seeing either family in the church during my time there.

And don’t forget the Shermans. They lived in a little house on property that adjoined the Madison County line on Riehl Lane.

The father, Bill, had worked for my Uncle Ed Riehl years ago. He helped me some times and I helped him with things that he needed like transportation to town and hauling wood out of Dressler’s woods for him to keep warm with. He was a good man with an axe. Next to my Uncle George Gibbens, and that is a high compliment. We both almost got killed one day by a tree falling in a different direction than we had planned. The thing that we overlooked was that it was a dead chestnut. We had wedged it to fall down hill, where it had looked like the most weight of the branches was. History proved that we had both mis-judged this. But because the wood was dead it “broke back over” our wedges, breaking the little strip of wood between our “notch” and our saw cut that we were wedging from. We heard it break and started to run. Fortunately we both realized that we were running in exactly the wrong direction! No time to communicate, we turned and ran out from under the falling tree.

The older daughter, Elsie, was secretary of the Sunday School for many years. She never married. She often helped the Riehl’s with harvesting the peony and chestnut crops.

Curt was maybe a year younger than I was. We often had some pretty fair tussles on the way home from school. I don’t believe we were ever really mad at each other. Later years, Eugene Huchstuhl was Sunday School Superintendent. He went to Florida one winter and left me as assistant to keep the place going. Lydia Collins was the piano player, but she had a very aggravating habit of coming late. The practice developed that Sunday School just did not start until she arrived. The congregation got so they did not arrive, either. This meant either cutting the Sunday School time or dragging it on into time that should have been church time. If they took the usual time it made everything late. I was young and impatient. I decided to change the schedule. Louis Veltjes played piano. Nothing like Lydia, but one could recognize the tunes. Curt Sherman built the fire, and had the room warm at the appointed time. The first day on my project of starting on time there were three people there: Curt. Louis, and myself. But it worked! By the time that Eugene got back from Florida, Sunday School started at nine thirty.

I will say that Lydia took it like a lady. She came at her usual fifteen minute late time and sat with the audience. But I had no wish to replace her or hurt her feelings. I just wanted to start Sunday School at nine thirty! So I talked to her and after that the two musicians very quietly changed places when she arrived.

Probably the most colorful was William Gradolph. Like the old ballad, “Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” he courted all of the fair damsels of the neighborhood and married none of them.

I do not ever recall his attending the Melville Congregational Church, but he left his estate to the church. They purchased an electric organ with the money. This was a great boon for the musical development of the

ACHENBACK’S The first neighborhood store that I remember is Achenback’s store at Melville. Being born in the year 1915 I would say that this would be early nineteen twenties. This was a two story brick building with living quarters as a part of it. Located at what is the present site of the Oak Grove Trailer Court, about four miles from Alton going toward Jerseyville on the “old road.” They sold most of the things that would be called necessities keeping house so far as food went. There was flour in nearly any quantity that one would want to buy it in. Also sugar. They stocked a limited supply of “store canned” foods. Bread was a big item in their business. People had almost stopped making bread at home for practical every day eating. Home baked bread was unusual, and mostly was a treat.

At our house we usually had rolls for Saturday night supper. Of course Aunt Em prepared the dough, formed them, and put them in the oven. If he was not too busy otherwise Uncle George was drafted to keep the wood fire going in the kitchen range and see that the rolls were properly baked. He accomplished this quite nicely. While on the subject of bread I must say that Mrs. John (Lena) Stanka made home made yeast. I recall that our neighbor, Mrs. Jim Bowman, always used Mrs. Stanka’s yeast. We children usually got the task of going after it. There was a good sized paper sack of the little round cakes of yeast. This cost ten cents.

Achenback’s also provided the neighborhood with a place to buy gasoline. This was the only local source except doing as we did and having the Farm Bureau deliver it to our own barrels at home.

I recall buying an axe handle there for thirty cents in the early nineteen thirties. Tobacco was a big item, as most of the men either smoked, chewed, or both. “Tailor made” cigarettes were a luxury that many could not afford. Some smoked pipes, while others chose to “roll their own”. Gloves were an important part of their merchandise. Kerosene was sold by the gallon from a barrel out in back.

I can’t recall that this was ever a “gathering place” in my lifetime. Back in the preceding years there was a dance hall back of the store which served as recreation for those of the community who did not believe that dancing was sinful. I learned a part of the history of the building only recently from Virginia Achenback, wife or Clarence Achenback Junior. She gave me an old picture of the building with a sign showing that it sold “dry goods and groceries”, and also was the “Melville Post Office”. She said that her grandmother, Mrs. Schmidt was the postmistress. This seems to me to have been a bit unusual for that time period.

Achenbacks did things that were favors to the community. Like helping with registered mail. Prior to 1925 all of the roads between our house and the Godfrey Post Office were dirt in dry weather and mud in wet weather with the exception of a limited quantity of crushed rock that had been put in some of the worst mudholes by a group of the people who used the road, and a short stretch of brick on the Godfrey road at North Alton. A trip to the post office was a chore at any time, and would also mean a day’s delay in most cases by the time we got a notice in the mailbox and had time to go to the post office before they closed. Achenbacks would sign for the letter, call us, and we could pick it up when we got the mail by going only one extra mile.

Many of the customers “ran a bill”, and paid it on Saturday night as nearly as of the men who worked for wages worked a six day week. Achenbacks always gave the children a sack of candy when the bill was settled.

Bert Richey: I do not remember Bert being active in the church, but he was a firm part of the neighborhood. I never knew his wife well, but his daughters were just a bit younger than I was and were involved in many of the same Church and Sunday School activities. He built a small filling station and grocery at the corner of Clifton Road and the “Grafton Road”. He loved to ride, and had a beautiful horse. I believe the horse’s name was “King.” One thing that he did that stands out in my memory: when my wife, Ruth, was the sponsor of the Girl Scout Troop there we had square dances in the basement of the school. Bert had a good record player and always furnished the music. I remember ten sets of youngsters there sometimes. One bitterly cold night he brought his things in and we began to hear strange noises. The abrupt change of temperature was causing the records to break. No telling how many fine records he lost that evening, but he stood the loss like the gentleman that he was. An asset to the community.

Fred Lawless was a carpenter. He worked all around the area, doing the carpenter work that needed to be done to keep the homes and outbuildings working. So far as I know he never married or had any romantic alliances. His skills ranged from putting on new roofs to repairing and plastering cisterns. I helped him some as I grew up, but he despaired of my impatience and inept attempts to do the meticulous work. He put up with me, though, and I learned.

Ray Beaverdell was also a general handy man. The two of them worked together sometimes, but more often separately. The two of them put the basement under the Congregational Church in about 1925. Quite a project!

“The Hollard Girls”. In other days, a family of young women never seemed to age. My aunts were nearly always referred to as: “The Riehl Girls,” although they were old enough to have had grandchildren had that been their destiny. So it was with the Hollard Girls. They moved from the Melville locality many years ago, and bought a home on Highland Avenue in Alton. I got acquainted with them quite by accident. As I worked for Union Electric in the gas department, we worked off of a small tool trailer. At that time I had a long going project on Highland Avenue. One big disadvantage to the job was that we had no shelter from the weather. If it rained or snowed we just had to find some place better than standing out in it. In the process of our work I got acquainted with the Hollard Girls. When they found out that I was the sort of foster son of the Riehl Girls we had a home. We camped out in their basement for the time we were on that street. We shoveled the snow off of their sidewalk and repaired whatever needed to be done around the house.

Not an old timer, but I keep thinking about Lorraine Rintoul. The Rintoul’s lived on up the road several miles. I knew her through the 4H clubs and so on. She was a fine looking youngster. She considered me sort of like a big brother. I remember her telling me one time how she was particularly fond of a certain boy and he was not seeing her like she wanted him to see her. She married Bernard Stiritz, and I do not know exactly how they got acquainted. It was a good marriage, and lasted until her untimely death.

Clay and Francis East were workers. Not only for their own profit in their trucking business but in the church and neighborhood. A personal favor or helping hand was normal procedure. Both of them were active in the church and Sunday School. They taught classes and expended untold effort to “make things work.”

Pearl and Harry Holliday were also workers. Pearl in the religious department, Harry more in the practical.

Harry told a joke one day that still sticks in my memory, and I would like to share it here:

“Mama, I’m confused,” the five year old boy told his mother.

Of course she was sympathetic, and asked what was troubling him.

“Well, this morning, I went to Sunday School, and they said: ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus,’ and this afternoon I went to the ball game and they hollered: ‘For Chirst’s sake, sit down!'”

I do not recall their involvement in the church activities, but the Kettlewells lived on the corner of Stanka Lane and the Grafton Road. “Little Ben” had reputation for being one of the finest teamsters in the area. He earned and sustained that reputation during the logging of the “Dressler Woods.”

Leona was the one that I knew best. She was a few years older than I was. Enough older that when she came to help with the peony harvest she was given the additional responsibility of keeping me out of mischief. I must have been about three. She solved the problem by tying me to the leg of the work bench that she was working on. She thought she had. But somehow I escaped. I was missed. And you know, I had disappeared! All hands on deck!

To process the peonies for shipping, the stems were cut a certain length in the field. In the packing shed, the bottom three leaves were stripped, and the flowers were bunched, thirteen to a bunch. (Baker’s dozen,” they called the practice) When the leaves got too thick under foot they were carried out and put in a big pile down over the bank. This, eventually, made mulch in years of de-composing. In the meantime, it was a wonderful place for me to play! I was eventually discovered, re-captured, and tied more securely.

This was a good basis for the friendship that endured until her death.

“Little Joe” Stiritz and his family. His children went to school with my children. His wife, Eunice, used to help us with the peony and chestnut harvests. Joe wa a worker. His wife was a worker. And it should come as no surprise that his children were workers! I have had some good discussions with two of them about “the old days.” They were a part of the group of youngsters that were in the square dance bunch when we had them in the basement of Clifton Hill School.

Eugene and Rosie Huckstuhl Eugene was a very handy man. He was a worker in and for the church in both the spiritual and practical sense. Rosie taught the little children. She had that special touch that is needed with the very young. Known to many as: “Aunt Rosie,” although no blood relationship existed.

Somewhere along in the mid 1930’s the church roof was leaking. Eugene undertook the task of taking the old wood shingles off and putting new ones on. Wood shingles are a challenge. The shingles are twelve inches long, with a four inch exposure to the weather. The shingles need to be placed so that the joints between them will come over a shingle already laid on the preceding course. This was a truly courageous project, for he was doing it with all volunteer labor, after the regular work day. We would tear off about as much as we hoped to get put back, and proceed. When we got the old shingles off we had to be sure that the old nails were out so that they would not punch holes in the new shingles as they were installed. This is where I learned how to install wood shingles.

To keep us from sliding off of the roof, we had 2 x 4 toe holds, secured by strips of tin up under the new shingles. When we moved the toe holds we simply cut the tin at the bottom edge of the new shingle. This worked fine except for one time. One could say: “The Lord was with us.” One of the toe holds gave way. Possibly because the sheeting boards were more than sixty years old and the nail pulled out. But Kenneth Williams slid all the way down the roof, and was caught by the one we had left at the very bottom of the newly installed shingles.

Reverend David Toomey. Although the church was dedicated as the “Melville Congregational Church,” there was never a Congregational pastor in it until the mid 1950’s. At the time of my childhood, Shurtleff College was a Baptist college, empowered to give a degree and to fulfill the requirements for the graduate to become an ordained Baptist minister. The aspiring students often filled the Melville pulpit on Sunday mornings. It was good experience for them and it gave Melville a temporary minister. The church did not have any money. The minister got whatever the collection produced, and sometimes it was rather slim.

I am not completely clear on the exact date or the reason, but it seemed that the Shurtleff students were either no longer available or no longer interested. Reverend Toomey came and preached. He also did the other things that are traditional for dedicated ministers to do. As I talked to the youngest daughter of “Little Joe” I asked her what her memories of the church were. With no hesitation whatever she replied: “Reverend Toomey.” I got exactly the same response from my daughter, Janet.

It would be impossible to do justice to his dedication and his devotion. When he prayed, he was talking to God, and the conversations did get somewhat lengthy. Walter Collins timed one, once, and clocked it at twenty three minutes. But if one listened it all made sense. If one was stressed out as I often was, if I took a nap I could wake up and feel like I was still “In the loop.”

One funny story.

Francis East was complaining one day that Reverend Toomey needed to “Preach more Hell fire and damnation!”

So Lydia Collins asked her exactly what she felt was needed?

“Well, he needs to preach against sin!”

So, the discussion went on to detail what Francis was wanting on the list.

Drinking, slot machines, infidelity all made the list with no challenge.

“How about card playing?” Lydia asked.

“Well,” Francis replied almost indignantly, “I play cards!”

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One Comment

  1. What a memory that stretches back across the years and brings the people who shaped you to life for us to know as well. I’ve never understood why there had the be different names for Christian religious groups when at the root of Christian Faith the beliefs are the same even if the hymns and style of music and preaching and praying and worship vary. I love the music in our Baptist church. We have good praying and preaching too but it’s the music that has always drawn me. I sing out on the hymns even though I wonder if I should apologize in advance to the people in the pew in front of us for singing off key. I’ve been known to nod off during long prayers too (though not recently). Loved the joke about Sunday school and the baseball game and also your conclusion. Both make me smile. Interesting your notes about being young and impatient. I never realized how impatient I was until recently. Working on overcoming it. Hard to do. Harder to know how to do the work and do it well but have to take the time to guide and teach someone new even though it means it takes longer (by double) than just doing it yourself. My hope is that the time invested now will pay dividends down the road. Best way to learn the skill is by doing it even if there are revisions needed along the way. I hadn’t heard about Ed’s music education and E.A.’s response. Did he finish college? If so, with what degree? Much love to you.

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