A look at
Minonk's past

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Rabbits, railroads, and mushrooms

By Barth Weistart

My parents' first home was in the Sutton apartments located on the second floor of the building at the corner of Oak and Fifth streets. The complex burned down in the early 1940's. It was a time I don't remember, but my brother Jerry does. The apartment had a few amenities, but was HOT in the summer. Ventilation was a word known but not experienced. After a few short years (when money was obviously flowing like water), my parents purchased their first (and only) home for $925. The loan payments were less than $14 a month. The house located in the 700 block of Locust Street remained the Weistart home for 36 years until my father died in 1974.

The house was built in the early 1900's. It started out as a single major room with two side rooms. The first addition was another larger room with two side rooms. One of the side rooms was a cloak closet. The second addition was a single room which served as the kitchen and eating area. At this point, our parents bought the house. Did you catch mention of the bathroom--NA DA. In fact, there was no running water in the house. The kitchen had a dry sink which meant that all water for washing self and dishes had to be hand carried into and out of the house. You've seen old movies where someone would throw a pan full of water out the back door or out a window. Well--Mother wouldn't let us use a window, but the back porch was our launching pad. Baths were taken in the kitchen and in later years offered every Saturday night in a shed behind our house. There was a cook stove in the shed on which water was heated.The bath tub was a round metal washtub. Baths were taken by age. I was second unless my older brother missed Saturday night. Then I was FIRST. Looking back, I now have some empathy for my younger brothers David, James, and John. Mother got fresh water and wanted her own privacy. Still unanswered is the question of a toilet. Back then, it wasn't called a toilet. It was an outhouse or "privy" and we had a two holer. It consisted of a building approximately 4X6 ft sitting over a hole dug in the ground. Inside was a bench seat with two round holes cut into it.

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We did use Sears and Montgomery Ward Catalogues and not just for reading. After living in the house a year or two, Dad dug a new hole, using the dirt to fill in the hole of the old privy. A new outhouse had been built and was moved over the fresh and empty hole. The family stood in anticipation. There was a mad rush to be the first user. The changeover had taken time, and there are some things you can hold only so long.

There was a bucket called a "glory pail" or "slop bucket" under the kitchen stove. It was only for very young children, night, and liquid use. If you had other needs, you walked to the outhouse. I still remember at four and five bundling up for the walk in below zero weather in the middle of a snowstorm to the "privy" or outhouse.

It was not a place you wanted to linger. The outhouse seemed to retain cold and you sure didn't want to get frost bitten on any exposed areas.

We raised rabbits in the back yard. I thought we kept them for pets. It always confused me how a rabbit would escape just before we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner of chicken. Some chickens seemed to have more meat than others. Sometimes I would be offered a whole chicken leg and other times I would be told it was too much for me. Then my brother Jerry broke the news. It was like finding out about Santa. At first you're skeptical. When evidence mounts, as rabbit feet hanging from a nail on a shed, you begin to realize it's time for "the rest of the story". Under heavy questioning, Mother gives up the truth and you become a little closer connected to reality.

To maintain the rabbits, Jerry and I would visit the train cars on the side rail of the Illinois Central. We would look for cars that had obviously been used to transport grain. Jerry would climb in and pull me in after. We would sweep the car for the railroad. They would get a clean car, and we would get grain for the rabbits. My greatest fear was an engine hooking on to the grain car and taking us on down the line. My brother's fear was getting caught in the car by some railroad man. Once, Jerry was looking out the open car door and pulled himself in hollering "jump"! He threw out the broom and sack of grain we had swept up. He jumped out and again hollered for me to jump, which I did. I hit the ground hard and was just getting up when there was a loud clash of metal. The grain car seemed to jump as an engine hooked on. We scurried home with adventures to tell.

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We would walk to the Minonk Mill (now occupied by Hartzler Construction) to purchase hockey puck-size salt rings for the rabbits. The rings were made with a hole in the center which was used to fasten them to the side of the cage with a nail.

Another provision offered by the railroad cars was ice. Lettuce and other vegetables were carried in refrigerated cars. The end of the car was blocked off to make a small contained area in which ice was stored.The area was accessible only from the top of the car. If the car had obviously been unloaded, we would climb to the top and extract ice that was within reach. If the ice had melted, it would not be near enough to the top of the car for us to safely remove. Getting ice from the cars was a great coup.

It meant we wouldn't have to pull our wagons to the ice house west of the Santa Fe depot or to Janssen's on north Maple Street for ice. Then tragedy struck! A railroad official showed up at our front door and told us of the error in our ways. Someone had contacted the railroad and reported our activities. Yes, the railroad did mind if we took their ice and no, it didn't make any difference if the ice came from an empty refrigerator car. We were not welcome. An end was quickly put to our nicking ice from the railroad.

Miners were fairly well employed during the depression years. Employment depended on the demand for the product produced. Coal was the main heating source, and demand for it kept men employed. The miners' depression came during the war years. A wage freeze was imposed by the government, but not a price freeze.

Wages were held down as the cost of food, heating and other necessities increased. A number of the Ward 3 families would pick up coal along the tracks. Jerry and I did the same. The best time was after coal cars were pulled from the No 2 Mine. Coal would fall from cars which were overloaded or which shook coal loose from its superstructure as it was jostled down the track. Generally, coal was picked up one small piece at a time. A full coal bucket was several hours' work and a lot of walking, but it meant a warm fire that night.

Hunting for mushrooms was always an enjoyable time, and the rewards were memorable. My dad, brother, and I along with two miners from the old country, Rokus "Rocky" Waluntis and Bronislovas "Brownie" Shimkus, would head to a wooded pasture land where a farmer said we could seek our treasure.

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Rocky would show us what to look for. Button mushrooms, which we called stumpies, were plentiful. Occasionally we would find a large sponge mushroom that was edible and nearly filled the container we were carrying. Mushrooms which did not have a covering over the fin like parts under the cap were poison. After the hunt was over, we again relied on Rocky. Each time he pulled a mushroom from our pile and threw it away, we gave a deep sigh of relief. Mushroom hunting stopped when Rocky was no longer able to lead.

All remaining mushrooms were taken home and washed in a large metal washtub (the same one we used for the Saturday baths). Some were canned for later use, and some were fried for dinner. Fried mushrooms are one of the most uniquely scrumptious meals a person could ever have. The fresh mushrooms melt in one's mouth. The taste is akin to the most tender, most flavorful steak one could ever have, only better. Once I'd had such a meal, I never forgot the taste. These experiences may be emulated but not repeated. Privies are gone. Houses have bathrooms hooked to sewers and running water from city systems. Railroads are gone from Minonk. Coal isn't used to heat houses. Mushrooms are raised in controlled environments and sold in stores. And finally, no mortgage payments will ever again be less than $14 a month.