Harriet Duncan In Her Own Words – Part 1

our baby book coverAlthough my almost infallible Mother wrote in my baby book that I was born in 1915, the truth is it was December second, 1914 that she gave birth to me at DeKalb Township Hospital where my paternal Grandmother [Nettie Patchen Duncan] was Superintendent.



our baby p1



My next stay at that address was several years later to have my tonsils out.  Grandma was tall and stately in her starched white long dress uniform with a black ribbon round her neck — I think scissors hung from it but I don’t know why.

Dad, Mother, Helen and I, and later Barbara, lived at Fifth and Franklin [DeKalb, Illinois] in a yellow house with a railed front porch.  In the back yard we later had a huge wood box (we called it a piano box).  Our neighbor kids joined us to play in it.  I especially remember Frances Duffey who would later become my lifetime best-buddy, her sister Bertha who was Helen’s age, and Willis Pooler who to our disgust peed out of a knothole in our playhouse.

Back l-r: Helen Duncan, Bertha Duffey.  Front l-r: Harriet Duncan, Willis Pooler, Frances Duffey. 1919

Back l-r: Helen Duncan, Bertha Duffey. Front l-r: Harriet Duncan, Willis Pooler, Frances Duffey. 1919

619 DeKalb Avenue

619 DeKalb Avenue

There were three schools:  Ellwood, Glidden, and Haish.  We walked to Haish near Seventh Street.  I adored Kindergarten and was reluctant to leave when were to move to 619 De Kalb Avenue.  We were making family books in school and I had to rush to finish mine.  We chose magazine pictures of our family and all their elegant dream possessions.  My lovely teacher helped me so I could take it with me.

Helen Duncan below X on wall.

Helen Duncan below X on wall.

I started First Grade under Miss Neptune.  Clara Gunn next door was just starting kindergarten.  Sometime I walked with Annetta Schreck or Edith Olson.  Later we rollerskated to school.  My first invitation from a boy was when I was in the fourth grade;  Roland Ritzman asked me to go rollerskating with him.  We crossed arms and joined hands like iceskaters do and skated down College Avenue.  We were in Normal School then, the teacher training school for Northern Illinois State Teachers College.  Mrs. Nelson taught second grade and was nice, but we dreaded being promoted to third where “Miss Ross is cross” was the chant.  My favorite teacher was in fourth grade, Miss Ethel Shattuck.  She lived with her sister in Sycamore later and the sister was Frank’s step-grandmother, Grandma Ve.

American Steel Picnic.

American Steel Picnic.

Our family had lots of fun times.  Many, many picnics because in the summer American Steel where Dad worked went on daylight savings time and he worked 7 to 4.  We’d get ready to go at 4:05.  Sometimes we’d go nutting and fill bags with walnuts, hickory nuts, and my favorite, butternuts.  We usually went with Marshalls from Sycamore for nuts; they had two girls older than Helen and me:  Lois and Middy.  Their mother, Grace, died before our mother.  There were plenty of kids to play with — The Gunns, the Olsons, the Taylors, Ruth, Wesley and Winfield.  In winter we played king of the mountain at Olsons, Fox and Geese in our back yard.  Clara and made sloppy doll clothes, neither one of us was talented.  My favorite thing was dressing paperdolls with Annetta Schreck who was not only beautiful but very artistic and she helped me make exotic clothes for my family of dolls.  We kept them in magazine — one family to a book.  Summer evenings we gathered on the curb of the street and played some kind of forfeit game and Run Sheep Run and Red Light, Green Light.  We popped corn and made taffy and spent hours making May baskets and gathering wildflowers in the woods to put in the baskets.  We went to Sunday School and Church.  Mother sang in the choir.  One night Dad had the Men’s Club from the church come to our house.  They brought folding chairs and they all sang while Mother played.  I’ve always loved men’s voices and I remember the sound of their deep voices “There’s a church in the valley in the wildwood” actually it’s The Little Brown Church in the Vale.  Church suppers were held often and we made ourselves quite at home in the church, roaming and playing in all the rooms.  It was “our church” something I have never felt since then.

When I was nine or ten the Gunn’s next door spent the summer in Boise, Idaho as usual but this time they rented their house to the Andreas family with two year old Perry.  I learned later that Mr. Andreas was part of a ring of Chicago car thieves and was sent to prison.  One night my parents went to an Eastern Star meeting in St. Charles with Eunice and Wes Snyder.  Mother warned us to stay at home – not to leave the house.  Well, I was next door at Andreas’ when someone came and got me.  We came in the back door and up the steps to the kitchen.  There Mother sat on a kitchen chair and Doctor Rankin was sewing up cuts in her arm.  They had had a car accident.  Wes was driving and it was rainy.  They came over a hill and in front of them was an old touring car inching along and another car coming in the other direction.  The touring car was loaded with kids and rather than hit them, Wes steered into the ditch.  The car turned over and Mother was on the bottom with Dad on top and her arm through the window.  She had internal injuries and was never really well after that although she lived until I was 12 1/2.  My guilt was heavy — if I had been good and stayed home this would never have happened.  Dr. Rankin kept treating her and masseuse name Fannie Norris came regularly to try and massage away the pain.  Dad took her to Wesleyan Hospital in Chicago for several days and later to Mayo Brothers.  For my grade school graduation my Mother made me a dress by hand while she was in bed.  It was orchid and had a gold ribbon sash and ecru lace around the collar and cuffs and it hung soft and pretty.

While Mother was in bed we had some good talks.  She told me about menstruation and I was appalled to consider that atrocious scabs would follow — I always had scabs on my knees from skating or roughhousing.  Mother assured me there wouldn’t be any problem with that, but I wondered how else it would heal.

I do not remember my Grandpa Duncan; he may have died before I was born. [James Cation Duncan died in 1901.]  I loved my Grandpa Oakland.  He and Grandma lived on Somonauk Street in Sycamore. He died at a church supper;  they said a blood vessel burst in his head.  Grandma had to sell their home.  She rented an apartment on Linden Avenue in DeKalb later.  While Mother was sick she lived with us.  Then she moved out and went to Uncle Milo’s.  Grandma Duncan came to care for us.  She stayed until Dad and Florence Huckins were married.

Harriet, Grandma Nettie Duncan, Barbara, Helen, Roy Duncan.  After Albie's death.

Harriet, Grandma Nettie Duncan, Barbara, Helen, Roy Duncan. After Albie’s death.

In eighth grade eight of us girls formed a Bunco club — two table to play the dice game.  We always had fun, fancy-wrapped prizes.  In high school we changed it to auction bridge and enlarged it to 12 girls.  These girls plus four new friends remained close all through school.  My closest new friend was Frances Duffey and several years later Fran said her Mother claimed we were best friends when we both lived on Franklin Avenue.  Brought back some faded memories.

Fran and Harriet - best friends.

Fran and Harriet – best friends.

We were unusually close in high school and later — even dressed alike and were dubbed twins by some.  We were together most of the time — she vacationed with my family and I with hers.  They always went to Crystal Lake and camped in tents.  We swam and rowed and fished.  When  we were juniors and seniors we rented cottages at Lake Geneva with about ten other girls.  We were cheerleaders together and were on most of the girls’ athletic teams.

Young swimmers at Crystal Lake.

Young swimmers at Crystal Lake.

Mother’s early death was hardest on Barbara who was always Mama’s girl and quite shy.  [Albie Oakland Duncan died 20 June 1927, age 38.]  Helen and I wonder why we were not more helpful to her but we were wrapped up in our own selfish lives I guess.  After high school Helen went to Chicago for nurses training.  The next year I had to decide.  Fran knew what she wanted — to go to beauty school in Chicago.  I didn’t want to be a beautician.  Finally I took the course of least resistance and went to teachers college.  I was not equipped to be a teacher and luckily I got my diploma but no job.  A blessing to the children I might have blundered along with.  I applied at an insurance company and at Central Illinois Light and Power Company.  I got a job at the latter for something like

Frank Claycomb

Frank Claycomb

$61.00 a month.  Two weeks later they hired a new meter reader, Frank Claycomb.  Destiny on course.  I didn’t like him because all the other workers told me he wanted a date and was afraid to ask.  Meanwhile they were telling him I liked him and wished he would ask me out.  They were match-making because were the only young employees, but it backfired until he took me home from the company Christmas party.

I was going steady at the time with Cliff (Red) Cooper but began splitting my time.  Frank lived in Sycamore and had to hitchhike home after dates.  Sometimes he’d get a ride with a fellow who worked at the Power Company.  Then he had an opportunity to be a trainee at Anaconda Wire andCable in Hasting-on-Hudson, NY, so he moved East.

My room at home was cluttered with things dear to me.  Banners, posters, snapshot and ribbons on the wall.  Kewpie dolls and ceramic animals on my dresser.  I had a big drawer in the hall with all my 9×12 glossies of movie stars with their signatures — I was movie struck and we seldom missed a new show.  Magazines had coupons to send for free samples and I had a great collection of cosmetics which I treasured but seldom bothered using.  My mother was fairly full-bosomed and I didn’t wan them so tried to sleep with books on my nubile nubbins — pitifully naive and fruitless.  When I was 13 I had a boybob which as a new fashion.  Short skirts were in and flapper styles.  I had a cloche hat of white felt.  About third year high school, butterfly skirts were the big thing.  Fran and I had red and blue plaid matching ones.  Butterfly skirts were small at the belt but pleated to full circle at the bottom.  Eleanor and Helen Kientz had twin ones with red flannel blouses to go with them.  Darling!

Harriet, Barb, Helen, and Albie Duncan.

Harriet, Barb, Helen, and Albie Duncan.

Twice I lied to my father.  The first time was an evening when our family went to a concert at the college, a symphony orchestra.  The lady ahead of me had shiny fingernails.  It was the first time I had ever seen nail polish and I didn’t know what it was.  So I found that by licking each fast and repeating I could keep mine fairly shiny.  So much for the concert.  At home Mother asked how I like the music.  Dad who had sat next to me said, “All she did was lick her fingernails.”  “I did not!”  I stupidly replied and he gave me a swat on the behind as I went up the steps to bed.  Only time I remember being punished.

The other time I lied was when I was breaking up with a boyfriend at school.  We stayed after school and talked by the window on the landing between first and second floor.  We talked and argued and cried and I was late from school.  At dinner Dad said “I thought you were going to get a haircut after school.”  Trying to think fast I said, “I waited and waited by there was a line of people before me.”  He reminded me that this was Tuesday and barbershops were all closed on Tuesdays.  That was the end of that but I never forgot.

sinnissippi park[This is the only photo I have found of Albie Duncan laughing – obviously clowning at one of the many picnics.  That might be Grandpa Duncan with her – can’t quite identify him.]

Part 2 is here.

4 thoughts on “Harriet Duncan In Her Own Words – Part 1

  1. Delightful reading ! I wish my family had been prone to keeping journals / diaries. Really helps put you in the time of their lives.


  2. Pingback: Harriet Duncan In Her Own Words – Part 2 | This I Leave


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