Making Bricks in Stickney
From the time I was old enough to understand there was a world in which I was a part, Dad had worked at the local brickyard, Brisch Brick Company, located at Lombard Avenue's end to the south. Whether this was considered to be in Stickney or [on land owned by] the Sanitary District of Chicago, or maybe even Forest View, I'm not certain. But I recall how early Dad got up every work day to prepare for another hard day on the job. I admired his tenacity and giving of himself in keeping at his difficult job to provide for his family all those years. I wish now I'd shown these feelings to him then. (Mentioned brick yard location before, another redundancy.)
As kids we knew from personal experience exactly how bricks were made, process by process. We spent many hours through the years watching Dad and his "buddies" working their trade. (This subject was "touched upon" earlier.)
Clay was taken from predetermined land areas, places where good, workable clay was thought to be located under the earth's surface. Later on as digging continued, these places became deep, deep holes in the earth. Gasoline-powered pumps chugged away constantly as the digging took place, pumps used to remove water which sprang forth freely as depths increased. Sooner or later the time would come when good, usable clay was no longer to be found, and digging in that spot ceased.
Equipment was removed (not an easy task), and the waters came forth! In time what was once a hole in the ground became a "quarry." Shades of green water appeared near to the edges of the quarry in the shallower areas, but toward the center areas and those farther from the shoreline, a deep blue tone accented those depths. For us kids it presented an almost breathtaking sight.
Cranes placed the clay on conveyors which lifted it from the depths of the hole to the surface where small rail cars took it for processing. This found the raw clay being formed into brick-like shapes. At this point I must admit that years of dust-collection have covered the brain tissue which stored the exact processing which found the raw clay being formed into bricks. Sorry about that!
From that point, the brick-shaped clay was transported to the kiln area, the place where the clay was to be stacked for baking (I think they called it "burning" the bricks, not sure). A string of men spaced several feet apart began tossing the unprocessed clay bricks down the line to the men who were forming the kiln. Stacking was an art, for bricks had to be placed in such a way that the hot air being forced through the kiln would bake every brick (clay).
Before I progress further, I want to assure you that "brick-making" was not only a hard job, but it required one to have a disciplined and trained mind and body to cope with the difficulty and technique.
For example, those rail cars and the tracks on which they moved about were not moved about by some mechanical gadget. Manual labor was employed. Almost everything about the job was done by hand.
Kilns were formed over prearranged gas lines with systematic and exacting dimensions. When the proper heights were reached by stacking, and the kiln was ready for burning, the gas was lighted. A roar could soon be heard, and flames almost red hot could be seen penetrating upward into those stacks of clay bricks. This "burning" lasted for days.
Soon beautiful pinkish-reddish bricks filled the kilns which once were nothing more than raw clay. And there was now an altogether new and more refreshing scent given off by these bricks, a pleasant change from the smell of raw clay!
There was a cooling off period required before the bricks could by handled for loading into specially built boxes. Usually two of these boxes were carried side by side on the trucks. One side was removable for easy loading by the loaders. This also was a sight to behold.
Cranes lifted the boxes to the top of the kiln where loaders began loading. They used a gadget called "tongs" which looked like two claws with a handle at either end. The handle could be raised to open the claws to encompass six or seven bricks. Lowering the handle tightened the claws over the bricks. The loader then began filling the boxes with bricks, again in a very systematic and orderly fashion. For sometimes these trucks carried the boxes for miles to their destination, and careful loading helped keep the bricks intact. I marveled as I watched Dad and his buddies loading those boxes, especially at how carefully, yet speedily, they accomplished their task. And since this part of the job was called "piece work," it meant the more one loaded, the more he earned.
Vacations in Streator, IL
Earlier in the book I spoke of Dzedo and Baba, Mom's folks, our grandparents on her side. I forgot to mention that Grandpa was a coal miner on a small scale. He and Uncle Tom, as did many others of that day, played Russian Roulette by going down into mines. Water seepage and the danger of falling trusses (the support system to hold the earth above from collapsing)not to mention gases which form in such restricted areascombined to form the Russian Roulette conclusion. As a youngster I was privileged to visit one of these mines and was awed at its ominous setting.
Grandma and Grandpa Vagasky (Mom's folks) lived in Streator, Illinois, as did Dad's folks. But Dad's father had been alone for a number of years after Grandma Sedory passed away [in 1925], the result of a tragic accident. This was covered back in the first chapter, but I'm re-emphasizing why we kids didn't spend our summer vacations at Grandpa Sedory's place as we did at the Vagasky's.
Dad and I did take a trip to Streator one summer to help Grandpa Sedory paint his house. I'll cover that later. So having said this, let's continue the story, Family, Relatives and Vacation Stories.
When I was about seven or eight years of age, Uncle Tom (Mom's kid brother) was probably fourteen to fifteen and already in high school. A third grader really looked up to one so advanced up the educational ladder. But Uncle Tom wasn't the ordinary run of the mill high-schooler. He was into all kinds of things which could get the attention of any younger kid. His quartz crystal radio, for example, captured hours of our summer vacation time. Spinning the dial, one could hear the crackling sounds of static followed by a voice "actually speaking or singing" through this "box". Amazing! And Uncle Tom made this thing himself!
Grandpa and Grandma Vagasky had a small house toward the back of the lot on which they lived, and it was here Uncle Tom carried on his amazing (to us) activities. Though this little house bordered the area where the pig pen was located and adjoined the alley, I don't think either of those factors mattered much to us kids.
In later years Uncle Tom bought a Model T Ford (or two), the kind one had to work levers on the steering wheel along with pedals to make the car move. We were given the opportunity to sit in the driver's seat and actually take control of these vehicles on occasion. A thrill beyond description!
When I occasionally see old movies in which these older model autos are shown, I'm always reminded of those Model T excursions with Uncle Tom. Reminiscing leads to nostalgia, and I enjoy every moment of it.
As long as I touched on the pig barn next to the little house in the back of the lot, maybe I should say something about the "pigs" or "hogs." It seems there were always from four to eight of these amazing creatures on hand whenever we'd visit there or spend our vacations with Dzedo and Baba (and Uncle Tom). And watching the slopping (or feeding) taking place was a sight to behold! I guess it's where we get the phrase "He eats like a hog!" Snouts pushing snouts to get at the feed first, coupled with squealing sounds, echoed throughout the battle zone until the feed was consumed. Of course, pig pens don't give off the greatest of scents, and city folk such as we were couldn't hang around that area for lengthy periods of time.
Cows, usually two, were almost always to be found at Dzedo's and Baba's property. There was a barn, a rather large one as I recall, alongside the little house in the back where Uncle Tom had his "experimental lab." The cows spent the night there, but daily they were led down the streets through that section of town to a lot owned by our grandparents. It was a rather large piece of ground on which the cows spent the entire day grazing. It was sort of ritualistic to make the trips from and to the house and lot, but it was a "chore" to which we looked forward while on those summer vacations.
I can picture in my mind, even now, the stalls in the barn, the hay loft, the pitchforks, and that certain "aroma" which is not foreign to farmers, but to us kids it was less than pleasant. You "city slickers" know what I mean!
Probably the most fun part of having the cows around was the milking process or procedure. It's a knack which takes quite a bit of practice. Even though we were given ample opportunity to practice, I never conquered it. And the cows had their own way of showing when they didn't approve of the handling they were getting at any given timeespecially when I was doing the milking. Their tails swished almost angrily at me as if to say "Get out of here you dodo!" Likewise, their legs moved from side to side to show discomfort or discontent. It didn't lead to lengthy milking sessions for me.
Across the alley and a couple lots over from our grandparent's property lived a black family. No, they weren't relatives, and I've forgotten their family name. But I do remember Ralphy from that family, as he was a friend of Uncle Tom's and my grandparents. For some reason Ralph was called Ralphy even at an older age. He was a big, tall guy, or so it seemed to me at the time of this incident.
Learning Slovak (and Czech)
One of the main features of a summer vacation with Dzedo and Baba was attendance at Slovak School at the Lutheran Church. It was not one of my favorites. I think it may have been a half day thing, but because it was Greek to me, it seemed more like eight hour days. We were to learn by reading and sounding out the words, as I recall. How we were to associate those words with our English language, I don't know (maybe I just forgot). It could have been that I was short of gray matter, frightened, tense, or just too young to pick it up after having practically grown up on the English language.
I can't say I was a total flop, though. To this day I can remember most of the food words, anatomical parts, and a sprinkling of miscellaneous wordsplus a few I shouldn't know.
It should be told that our text book was the greatest available then, and is still the best available today. It was the Holy Bible! I guessed a word or two here and there, but those diacritical marks above the letters threw me off. [Some of them] were called "hacheck" (háček) marks.
Each year, as I grew older, the thought of Slovak School made me less anxious about going on summer vacation to Streator. Mainly, the reason was the punishment for not performing properlysolid smacks on the back of the hands, issued by the Pastor, teacher. A stern man, I thought. But perhaps I contributed to my own demise by some reaction. I wouldn't put it past me to have made the Pastor's job something less than wonderful. A long wooden ruler was used as the torture tool.
Slovak Cooking and Baking
Grandma and Grandpa owned a rather large parcel of landthat upon which the house stood, the little house in the back, the barn, the pig pen, the lot next door on which was the little house in which I had once lived as a youngster, the lot across the alley, and the lot about a mile or so away where the cows grazed. So it was not unusual that they'd have many trees on their property.
The main trees I remember were the cherry trees, a lot of them. There also were apple trees, grape vines all over, poppy seed plants, and many garden variety plants. For those of you who aren't familiar with poppy seed plants, seeds form inside a flower and are ready for harvesting when dried out. Many pastries are made using poppy seed fillingmy favorite to this day! It is also used to cover breads and rolls.
To be at the grand folk's place at the season for cherry and grape picking was a real treat. Reaching up and eating cherries at will, or plucking a bunch of grapes off the vine and eating until there just wasn't any more room, this often led to stomach aches and other discomforts. But the pies and jellies and preserves lasted well into the following year and made up for temporary discomfort of overeating at timesthings preserved, the pies being made from these things.
Mom must have learned how to cook and bake from Grandma, for in my subjective opinion they were equally as terrific at it. Everything they made was really something special. With today's concern for cholesterol and fats, etc., I'm afraid I'd be a walking barrel if they were still living and able to cook and bake as they once did! And I'd have even more blocked arteries than I already have.
Some of the favorites at Baba's must be listed. But before I try explaining what these dishes were, I must warn you I'm not even half sure how the names of the dishes would be properly spelled. Maybe some of the Slavic people would recognize what they are, even though they'll be badly misspelled.
Lokše (Lokša, singular; or Loksha) was a dough-type preparation, but I can't recall if it was made from just flour or if potatoes were used to make the dough. Anyway, it was rolled to a thin layer, circular in shape, grease was applied, and it was placed in a hot oven, staying there until a light brown tone was reached. Delicious!
Next, one of my real favorites was kapusta [and thick noodle soup(?)]. It basically is made of cabbage chopped up and fried and mixed with thick strips of dough (wider than noodles) which were boiled in water. Whether or not chopped onions were added now escapes my memory. But that combination was a tasty, indescribable morsel, especially when salted to taste.
Here's a dish Mom couldn't make exactly as Grandma did, mainly because she didn't have the big crocks Grandma did. Milk (remember, Grandma had cows) was placed in those huge crocks, covered, and allowed to sit for days in a dark, damp basement. In time the milk formed into a thick substance like custard, a creamy product which was delicious just that way. But when added to mashed potatoes which had fine pieces of fried onions mixed in, it became the star of all the other dishes put together! I never could get too much of that stuff, though Grandma wisely knew when "enough" had been reached. My main chagrin? I've forgotten the name of that dish!
Outside of an occasional poppy seed coffee cake prepared by my wife (when she can find it in grocery stores), I've not tasted any of those dishes for years and years. It could be that my sister Marie still has the know-how to prepare these specialties, but Phoenix (actually, Glendale, AZ) is a bit of a ride from here. I do know Marie still makes a lot of Koláče. They are small, round sweetened dough things baked with all sorts of toppings on[/in] them, such as poppy seed, prunes, apricot, etc. Powdered sugar is sprinkled over them when baked. Very good; maybe too good!
There were other specialties, too, that I'm unable to bring to the fore; so we'll have to settle for what's shown, sorry to say.
Summer Fun and a deadly Event
While we're still on Streator and the vacations spent there, I want to tell you of the carnivals (or was it circuses?) held every year just west of Iowa Street and not too distant from our grandparent's home. Aunt Anne (Mom's sister, and Tom's, too) lived on Iowa, one street south of Dzedo and Baba's, so she always got a good view of the "goings-on."
One summer brother Phil and I located ourselves on top of the bridge which bordered the vacant land where the excitement was taking place that year. There was to be an out-of-the-ordinary treat this year, a couple of people jumping from an airplane and parachuting onto the site. From there we figured we'd get a good look at everything taking place.
One jumper exited the plane, the chute opening right on schedule. The other person seemed to be falling rather far, and we wondered (as did everyone who watched, I'm sure) when the chute was going to open. It didn't! That person plummeted downward until reaching the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. What horror!
Phil and I ran up the bridge to the west so we could get to the railroad tracks where the victim had impacted. Why anyone in his right mind would want to witness such a sight, I don't know, but that's what we did. Perhaps it was innocent ignorance. Or maybe it was for the fulfillment of the desire to be one of the first on the scene.
Here I become a little fuzzy about that incident. Was it just Phil who went to the tracks, or did both of us go there? It seems I remember something about the person bouncing from one track to another from the terrific impact, but that might be wrong, too. Maybe Phil saw the bloody remains, but I know I didn't. It was bad enough to have this in my memory at all, let alone having to think of a bloodied, battered body every time I thought of this happening.
Later it was said there was a male and a female jumper and that some sort of broken relationship existed. Or maybe it was two males, one of whom had this thing on his mind, intending to "end it all" by not pulling his rip cord. I'm sure the one who perished that day was a male, though. What a way to "put your troubles behind you!"
Surely, over the years there were dozens upon dozens of things which took place on those summer vacations which I've left out, but they'll have to be untold (at least by me) because of my inability to recall them. If Marie and Phil had collaborated with me in this writing, surely there'd be pages upon pages more.
1[Return to Text] Coal mining in Streator peaked around 1910, so by the time the author knew about them (late 1920s or 1930s), many of the old mines were closed and those still in use sometimes sat idle or had very low production. However, there were still some active mines into the 1940s; but many had their 'coal pillars' removed and had to be closed, or were 'strip mines'.
2[Return to Text] Which Bible did the Slovak Lutheran Church in Streator use for this school? Although we found that a translation of the Bible into Slovak was made by a Lutheran, Jozef Roháček in 1936 (our author would have already been 13 then), it's highly likely they were still using the third edition (1613) of a Czech translation of the Bible called "Kralice" (named after the town it had first been printed in). On page 65, Slovakia in History (Cambridge University Press, 2011) states: "The Czech Bible was soon being used among Slovak Protestants, and its language, called Biblical Czech or Slovakised Czech, was used in the Protestant liturgy until the 1980s. It also influenced the formation of the Slovak language..." During parts of a church service, Slovak pastors often used "bibličtina" ("biblical language"), a version of the Czech language (as in the Kralice Bible), interpersed with Slovakisms.
3[Return to Text] For some reason, our author believed hacheck had an r-sound in it, having written: "You have to be able to curl your tongue while making an "rrrr" sound to get the pronunciation of harcheck. This is true of a lot of the words in Slovak." Most likely that was simply the way he remembered it. Note: the word, háček, itself is Czech (this mark actually being called a mäkčeň in Slovak). We beleive there were probably quite a few Czech words, like this one, which our author came across by way of the Bible, liturgy and words used by the Slovaks in Streator at that time, perhaps even words that were 'mixtures' of both Czech and Slovak.
4[Return to Text] As the author later guessed, these are made from a potato dough (grated potatoes and flour) that's formed into 'thin pancakes' and usually baked (without any or just a slight bit of oil) in a frying pan (though we suppose an oven could be used). They're kind of like a Slovak tortilla, but traditionally stuffed with sauerkraut (kyslá kapusta)! Personally, I'd prefer them like a pastry with a fruit or poppy-seed-filling and powdered sugar on top.
5[Return to Text] Originally, the author had "Halushy-Kapustu" here, for which he probably meant: halušky (pronounced halushky) - kapusta (or: halušky s kapustou). But that's actually a combination of both potato dumplings (halušky) and sauerkraut (kyslá kapusta) also known as strapačky; not raw cabbage (kapusta) boiled with thick noodle dough! So it seems he forgot what it was really called. (kapustové fliačky is close, being cabbage and pasta noodles, but they're small bits, not thick dough.)
Text] Since 'Baba and Dzedo' lived at 816 North Jackson Street, which parallels Iowa Ave., so the author meant his Aunt Anne lived somewhere around Iowa Ave. and Elliott St. or possibly as far south as the intersection of Iowa Ave. and E. Broadway St. There is a bridge across the railroad tracks at Broadway, so that's where the author was watching from, looking north at the open area between the railroad tracks and Iowa Ave. where the crowds had gathered.
Text] The following seems to indicate our author's memory of many details of this incident was fuzzy to begin with. After searching the Net, we found a 1934 obituary for a Pat Blansett (or Marvin "Pat" Blansett) which states in part: