Saturday, September 5, 2015

First Saturday Growing Up in America

Chippewa on the Lake

By Rolf Dumke

[Sequel to “Into America's interior,” July 28]

It felt as if a magic wand had whisked us to this beautiful place, a small white New England cottage with a porch on its right side, surrounded by a white picket fence, and with a curving walk through a lawn up to the front door. The house was located in a small resort town placed on the slopes of a woody hill, gently rising from the lake. A small road and a strip of grass with trees separated us from the lake and its few piers that jutted into the lake. It was very quiet. Often the only sound came from a breeze from across the lake whistling through the trees and from the murmuring water and splash of waves landing on our beach. (See Wikipedia: “Chippewa Lake, Ohio.”)
    Vacation was over, the summer’s bustle was gone, and town life slowed down to a leisurely pace in the autumn. Only a few families lived in the other lake-front cottages. Most permanent residents lived a block or more town-ward, up the hill, where only one grocery store remained open.

Chippewa Lake Park. To the right of our house, up on a forested hill, the Ferris wheel, carousel, and gargantuan wooden roller coasters stopped running in Chippewa Lake Park, as did the music and the sound from its skating pavilion. (See Wikipedia: “Chippewa Lake Park.”)
    Our family walked around the large, well-laid-out park, from the top of the hill down to the pier, where one could rent a canoe or take a boat trip around the lake, in its last week of operation at the end of summer 1952.
    We were amazed to see a permanent Oktoberfest installed in Chippewa Lake Park, whereas the Munich amusement park operated only a half-month and was then dismantled to be put up at other seasonal fests in other German towns. Later musings identified different relative prices of labor to capital as the cause of why in one place you had a permanent amusement park vs. a temporary one in another.
    Simply said, cheap labor made dismantling and reassembly affordable; as well, capital costs were higher in Germany, making it unreasonable to leave expensive equipment unused most of the year.
    Another contrast was that in Chippewa Lake Park there were no beer halls for dining, beer, and music. An imposing restaurant on top of the hill and a well-known ballroom, where top big bands played, were available for socializing at the park, but they did not serve drinks. We were faced with a puzzle: Why did America treat adults like children in Europe? Clearly, different historical and cultural traditions gave the answer.
    Chippewa on the Lake was a curious American historical project, first conceived as an amusement park by the entrepreneur Oscar Townsend together with the Cleveland, Lorraine, & Wheeling Railroad (CLWR), for employee families and friends in 1880. Soon the CLWR group developed and sold real estate to its employees in the new resort town. The railway also built a connection to the lake to transport ice blocks in the winter into nearby towns before the age of electrification. Now a bicycle and hiking path has been built on a few miles of this railway spur by Medina County Parks.
    In the railway age, which lasted into the early 20th century, Chippewa Lake Park attendance rose, drawing large crowds from northeast Ohio. But in the 1930s, with the decline of inter-urban train transportation, attendance declined. In the Depression years it almost failed and was bought by a new owner who re-established its attraction in the late 1930s with the rising national automobile use. In the 1950s the park continued to draw many families during the day and young people to the ballroom and big bands at night. But after the mid-1960s, families’ and young persons’ leisure preferences and expenditures changed, avoiding day trips to distant amusement parks in favor of local venues and home consumption in front of the TV. In 1978 Chippewa Lake Park was bankrupt. It was closed a hundred years after its foundation, after giving generations of American families many memorable, bonding and fun visits.
    Now the park has become an overgrown nightmare of twisted tracks and a decrepit Ferris wheel impaled by tall trees, a scene for a horror movie and a sad memory of good family times. (See Wikipedia: “Chippewa Lake Park.”)

Overgrown Ferris wheel in defunct Chippewa Lake Park, around 2010

Chippewa, Ojibwe, Anishinaabe. Conceived as an amusement park, Chippewa on the Lake became a town with the same Indian name, which is an attempt to Anglicize the name of the original Ojibwe Indian nation. (See Wikipedia: “Ojibwe.”) However, the main area of Ojibwe settlements was the area around Lake Superior. Probably no Chippewa ever lived in Chippewa on the Lake in the 19th century. It was just a swell name for the park project.
Symbol of the Anishinaabe people,
how the Ojibwe call themselves
    Ironically, this was the nearest that I ever got to “real” Indians in America, as opposed to my wife’s and my experience in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where, many years later, we saw drunk Indian men prowling at the entrance of a supermarket to take away the grocery money from their wives and children to buy more whiskey. This was a sad example of the loss of personal honor by North American Indians. Their nation’s land had been stolen, despite many treaties, their culture was largely extinguished, and their civil rights were denied. (See David McNab, "A Brief History of the Denial of Indigenous Rights in Canada," Ch. 6 in Janet Miron, ed., A History of Human Rights in Canada, 2009, readable online in google books.)
    In my youth, and still remaining today, I greatly admired the noble original Americans, who lived in harmony with nature, their style of life, the remnants of their high culture and their fearlessness in battle.
    American ethnologists have written moving testimonies of the Chippewa way of life and of their culture, especially of their customs and fine musical tradition. (See Edmund Jefferson Danziger, The Chippewas of Lake Superior, 1938, Vol. 148 in The Civilization of the American Indian Series, readable online in google books. Also see a fine excerpt from Frances Densmore, Chippewa Customs, 1929, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 86.)
Chippewa Flute, 1914.
Original photograph in the
Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives

A pictorial representation of the elegant and beautiful Ojibwe music board
    An optimistic note was written by my later friend and colleague at Wilfrid Laurier University, the historian David McNab, who became a specialist on the rights of Canadian Indian nations, properly interpreting their land treaties with Queen Victoria for territorial disputes in Canada’s Supreme Court today, where he was able to help re-establish the rights of several nations. (See his authoritative book, Canada's First Nations, Oxford University Press 2007, co-authored with Olive Dickason.) Nevertheless, in recent publications he states that it is questionable whether Canadian governments have felt sorry for their mistreatment of Indian nation rights and of past public disenfranchising of Indians and stealing their land.

Chicken pox and polio. Soon after arriving in Chippewa on the Lake, my brother and I came down with severe bouts of chicken pox. Its fever disoriented me severely over a long week, and I scratched myself so much that I still have scars. My mother saw chicken pox as a usual children’s illness. You simply had to endure it; a doctor was not called. In fact, she was actually relieved. We had gotten a relatively benign illness compared to the massive polio infections in the States in the summer of 1952, the largest outbreak in U.S. history. There were almost 58,000 cases, with over three thousand dead and over 21,000 persons “with mild to disabling paralysis”. (See Wikipedia: “Jonas Salk.”) Jonas Salk would discover his polio vaccine five years later. With no cure or medical prevention, families in Medina and all around the States feared infection and avoided public contact every summer until 1957.
    On a sweltering August day in 1952 I was surprised to be one of the few customers in a Medina barber shop with its curious revolving red striped, giant candy cane next to the door, called a barber’s pole. (See Wikipedia: “barber’s pole” for the gruesome medieval French and British origins.) My mother forbade me to touch the well-read magazines piled on the waiting room table, all possible infection hosts. Medina’s restaurants were empty for the same reason that summer. Initially, my parents thought that Americans were curiously unsocial, but soon understood that they faced a dramatic medical danger. Afraid that their children would get polio, people avoided public places where families with children usually congregated.

My father was gone all week and returned from work in Cleveland by bus each weekend and had to leave on Sunday to return to work. For the next eight months he commuted to Cleveland via a bus to Medina, another bus to Cleveland’s Public Square, and a final one to his room in the apartment of a Lithuanian immigrant, the mathematician, Dr. N. There, my father became acquainted with life in the numerous immigrant clubs in Cleveland. At the time, more than a half-dozen German-American clubs existed in Cleveland. There were an equivalent number of Polish-American clubs, as well as many clubs of immigrants from other European countries. Dr. N and wife were members of the premier Lithuanian-American club in Cleveland with chapters in other industrial cities.
    These clubs were important entry points into America, providing basic information about where to work, where to live, into which schools to send children, who were useful established German / Polish / Lithuanian doctors, lawyers, and people with other specialized occupations.
    We saw little of my father for the next eight months but tried to jam in as much family time with him in Chippewa on the Lake as possible on weekends. We took long walks along the lake’s shore, visited the amusement park, and joined other families at school events like basketball games of the superb senior high school team and concerts by the school choir and orchestra. The town was too small to have either a Lutheran or a Methodist church, so that possibility of companionship was gone. One needed a car to go to church in another town. For our family, social life was limited to making friends of a local family with a large number of children and joining activities at the big school complex a few miles behind the lake. Activities at the school were the central social occasions in town and county. All the friends’ children were active in either musical performances or sports, so they often drove them to school in the evenings and would take us along in their car.
    Taking long walks on the weekend, we ran into another American peculiarity, the sacredness of private property. We were suddenly stopped by an irate, older man while walking along Chippewa Lake’s shore one fall afternoon. He pointed a rifle at us and shouted, “Get off my land; this is private property!” Apparently, and contra our German experience, the public had no right to access the lakeshore. It was all private property, with just one small road leading to the lake where the public could let canoes and small boats into the lake. We could use the beach in front of our house and share it with neighbors. But we were not allowed to cross property further down the lakeshore. Even more surprising was the use of a dangerous weapon, which was forbidden in Germany.
    Nevertheless, although our longer walks now had to take place on small public roads, we still experienced a quiet, serene time on and around the lake.

1952 Superior School Bus on a Ford Chassis
Going to school. One early morning in September, my mother, young brother, and I joined a group of other families on the lakeshore drive waiting for the school bus. The sun barely shone through the line of trees on the shore and through the mist arising from the lake, spilling out over the shore. Small groups of mothers and children were strung out on the drive, isolated by the mist that was still rising from the lake and would later be burned off by the rising sun. It was a magical beginning of a charmed voyage. I was a willing Harry Potter who wondered where this voyage would go and what I would learn, as against the original Harry who was fleeing his abusive family.
    One other mother accompanied her first grader on the bus, joined by our mother on our first day of school, who was taking my brother to start first grade and me to start fourth grade again. In the past I had to walk to school; now, I was driven to school in a yellow school bus, an incredible luxury in comparison. The bus was full of excited children discussing summer experiences. A good-humored older driver curved through the mist around the lake and drove on, systematically covering a grid of country lanes before arriving at school three quarters of an hour later. He then made a second round to pick up more students in the county.
    “School” was a big school complex made up of different buildings for elementary school, junior high school, senior high school, a basketball court, and a joint school cafeteria for all school children in this thinly populated rural county. We were taken to the principal’s office of the elementary school, where, after a confusing initial broken English/German discussion between our mother and a school official, it became clear that I should restart fourth grade and my brother would start first grade. I was deposited in the fourth grade school room with the teacher, Miss Collette, and my mother and brother went on to the room for first grade.
   Miss Collette tried with little success to find out who I was and what my interests and competences were. She went to the school library and found a list of cards with basic words in English on one side and German on the back. This was a handy and excellent, basic translator for the next four to six months.

    Mother came back and informed me that she had enrolled me in the school orchestra to play second violin, starting that day with a violin loaned from school. She was happy because the violin was her favorite instrument and I could now learn to play it. Before lunch I was taken to the orchestra by a fellow student in my class, where the music teacher gave me a three-quarter size school violin and placed me into the second violin section, telling me to copy what my neighbor did. This was a primitive but successful Suzuki exercise from which I learned the basics.
    The music teacher also gave violin lessons to a small group of beginners. We learned how to read music scores, tune our instruments, hold them between neck and shoulder, and move the bow across strings so they did not screech. Many complicated new movements were required to simply produce one nice tone! In the next weeks I unfortunately pained both mother and brother by my squeaky attempts to play the instrument at home in the evening.

My teacher, Miss Collette, was a charming young woman with curly brown hair hanging down almost to her shoulders. From chestnut to almost flaming red, the color of her hair shone with luxurious hues when lit-up by the sun shining through the windows. We boys all loved our teacher, who was also an experienced hand, capable of dealing with a large class of students from disparate backgrounds.
    In the morning everyone had to line up and show their hands to see if there was dirt under fingernails and if teeth had been brushed and faces and ears had been washed. Next to your name, which was listed alphabetically on a sheet of paper pinned next to the chalkboard, you got two green stickers for “I was clean today” or, if not, two red stickers. At the beginning of the school year about a dozen farm boys got double-barrelled red stickers, but in a week or two almost all had switched to green. Miss Collette praised them individually, shaking hands for shaping up, and their faces grinned and shone, squeaky clean. All the girls were squeaky clean from the start of the semester.
    In our beginning classes our teacher called everyone up individually to find out our English and mathematics competence. Soon she created numerous competence teams of three or four students. I was good in math and worst in English. In my English group of slow learners one student was good and helped out the rest of us, as was the case in other groups that did English or math exercises of the day. The shifting from frontal teaching, where Miss Collette addressed everybody, to group exercises was amazingly efficient, teaching skills to everyone. The better students became more competent by having to explain correct answers. The slower students got better by facing a two-pronged learning exposure, first from the teacher, then from another student in his or her words. You could not turn off responding to queries in the small teams and you learned when others had their different mistakes clarified.

My first test in class concerned simple arithmetic calculations. Answers were written on a sheet of paper. In Bavaria I had learned that paper was scarce; therefore, school there was almost paperless. The teacher wrote his lessons with chalk on the board and pupils wrote answers on their small slate tablets with a graphite pen. (Ironically, I now write my story of growing up in America on my Nexus tablet which is the same size as my slate tablet in first grade.) There was a special bound notebook called “Schoenschriftheft” (beautiful script booklet) where special, short essays were carefully handwritten in ink with one’s best writing. The beginning letter of the first word was written large and encased in a picture of a flower, nicely colored, just like a medieval monk’s manuscript. I had written only two or three such essays in my beautiful script booklet in three years. They were really a special occasion.
    So, in school now, I attempted to organize the answers to my arithmetic test nicely, with good script and a big, colorful initial letter on this sheet of paper that needed to be handled carefully. My answers were all correct. Miss Collette held my paper up high for all to see and said this paper not only gets an A, it is also beautiful.
    To obtain a notion of what ideas motivated schooling in mathematics in the United States, see David Klein, “A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century,” 2003.
    My test paper was hung up in a glass case next to the door to our class, among important official information. I felt uneasy because I did not know the American school grading system. German grades start with 1 for the best to 5 for failure. I asked Miss Collette, “What is A?” and she replied, “Excellent.” This word has an unfriendly hissing sound and I winced in reply. Miss Collette looked through the English/German word cards, found the word excellent, and turned it over to “sehr gut,” very good. The card for beautiful was found and turned over. It said “sehr schoen.”
    I was really happy that day – the same teacher whom I found to be both “sehr schoen” and “sehr gut” had given me a similar official grade.

Tutors and fairy tales. However, Miss Collette realized that card-based translation was too limited to provide quick results learning English. She announced to class that everyone could participate in a new game to help me learn my new language during recess and cafeteria by pointing out things and naming them in English. Immediately, I was surrounded by groups of enthusiastic tutors, pointing to and naming different things at the same time. Making fun of the game, some of the more sarcastic boys made up strange or wrong words as I progressed through the day.
    The game was a well-meant idea that robbed me of all peace of mind. But it did introduce me to my shy first girlfriend, Susan, who first pointed at and named “tree” to me, under whose shade we sat during recess. However, I was not long delayed to play marbles, the hottest game in town. Soon I was named shark because I had captured almost all of the most beautiful marbles in the school yard. I had to learn to lose, not to lose all my friends.
Boys playing marbles, 1947
    Unfortunately, our class was slated to take the second group of school buses home. While we waited forty-five minutes, stretched out on the floor on blankets, Miss Collette read succeeding chapters of popular books to her fascinated pupils and I collapsed with headaches from trying to learn English, but not understanding. The chapter reading at the end of an exhausting day was usually the last nail in my head. I suffered headaches for almost a half-year when, all of a sudden one day, I understood most of the story Miss Collette was reading. My headaches were gone!

Nussdorf am Inn, with Heuberg/td>
It is hard to compare my German elementary school experience with that of the States. I was initially enrolled in first grade in the town of Nussdorf (walnut town) and walked to it for four and a half kilometers on a dirt road until soon after the first snow on October 10, 1947, the beginning of a long and hard winter that froze all waterways and inundated Bavaria for months under yards of snow. During that time students of a few villages and farms near the Austrian border – where I lived – were schooled in an ill-smelling tavern in the morning, where beer was drunk at night in the same location. In the spring of 1948, the school authorities decided to send us to a more reputable – and sober, parents joked – elementary school in the next town across the Inn River, via a primitive ferry. The boat almost capsized on one rough morning crossing, and possible legal consequences stopped our further crossing.
    By the fall of 1948 a new one-room wooden schoolhouse had been constructed halfway to Nussdorf. It was said that it was financed by the Americans. If so, we were early recipients of the famous Marshall Plan aid. Initially, all grades one to eight were taught simultaneously by a gently ironic old teacher from northern Germany. The Bavarian school authorities had made work a real burden for this almost retired teacher, but he bore the daily tribulations with mildly humorous panache. It was interesting to hear what the upper classes were learning after I finished the short assignments for my class.
    The teacher was not liked by the school children’s parents, but he soon got their respect by his discipline combined with respect. Every morning he stood in the entry of the schoolhouse. We entered with the traditional Bavarian greeting, “Gruess Gott, Herr Lehrer” (greet ye God, Mr. Teacher), and shook his hand while bowing deeply. After we were seated, a long round of reciting traditional, often religious, sayings and proverbs took place. Each pupil had to stand up when his turn came and clearly state a proverb different from those that previous pupils had already recited. We were fifty pupils, so everyone needed to memorize at least fifty such sayings or proverbs in order to be sure to be able to perform every school day. The teacher started the round with a different pupil each day. If you were called up first, no sweat, but if you were number forty or higher, it became difficult to remember an unsaid saying.
    Students feverishly quizzed parents and family for good, short, traditional and religious sayings, like “Alles Gute kommt von oben” (All good comes from on high), or “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund” (Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise). They rehearsed them at home before their parents to prevent a public failure and embarrassment in school. Most parents were Catholic Bavarian farmers; they strongly appreciated that their children were required to learn so many good and religious sayings. The new teacher from northern Germany gained their respect, regardless of what else he did in school. (see Wikipedia: “German proverbs” for a huge list of German proverbs.)
    I had started fourth grade in Nussdorf with a strict teacher, who was a stickler for order, swinging his ruler in the vicinity of even faintly unruly boys, as he walked up and down the rows of male pupils firmly smacking unruly hands. The boys had been separated from the girls, starting with this grade. His teaching was an insufferably boring routine which he expected to be repeated exactly. I knew that I would not fare well in his class. Only an unlikely high grade from him would qualify me for attending a university preparatory higher school, a Gymnasium, in the regional center, Rosenheim.
    By our emigration, I escaped dismal schooling and avoided a probably stunted career in Bavaria, and I flew into the arms of Miss Collette, who found me “sehr gut,” raising my confidence and my aims for a future good life in America.

Copyright © 2015 by Rolf Dumke


  1. Rolf, I join Susan in that. Your description of schooling is one of the most moving, poignant passages I have read anywhere (not just in your writings). The sentence about Miss Collette's having graded you as you had graded her is transcendent.
        In all of the articles in newspapers about schools in America, I find nothing as useful as your description of Miss Collette's methods. In my humble opinion, your description of her way of teaching could be a case study in contemporary education for school teachers.
        And that photograph of boys playing marbles could have included me. I played a lot of marbles as a boy.
        Carolyn reminded me that the architect whom you spoke of when we visited you (a year ago this month) was your brother. It was a nice connection for me to your references to him in today's (and other) installments of your growing up in America.

  2. Rolf, reading of your school experiences in Bavaria and in Chippewa on the Lake, made me remember, once again, some teachers who made a great difference in my life. "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Adams from The Education of Henry Adams.

  3. Very well done! Thanks so much. I had ONE such teacher too. And bravo and congratulations for your anniversary mile stone.

  4. Sehr schoen, Rolf. Thank you very much.

  5. This is an incredibly colorful and moving piece. Thank-you so much for sharing this!

  6. Like others commenting here, I was also reminded of the far-reaching influence grea teachers have on young minds and lives.

  7. This is fascinating and beautiful, Rolf. Thank you so much for all the wonderful details.