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Continue with me as our Journey Through the Land of Serendip comes to an end. You may recall from the first two installments, this past summer two separate storylines from this blog collided in a wonderful adventure. We wrap up that adventure with one last stop on our journey through the Land of Serendip in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Our journey began with a visit to Roseland and South Holland on the south side of Chicago. We then spent two days reminiscing and reuniting dad’s ashes with mom’s at Green Lake, Wisconsin. On that Monday, it was time to head home, but not by our familiar route. We had been invited to stop at the home of Duane and June DeYoung. Duane is my 3rd cousin, descended from Jan and Aagje Ton through their daughter, Pieternella, sister of my great grandfather, their son George. You may recall from the first leg of our journey, Duane had reached out to me after reading one of my posts here on Rivers of Thought.
Always game for an adventure, Carmen, Brad, and I decided to take the backroads from Green Lake to Lake Geneva and stay off the interstates. Wisconsin is a beautiful state and we enjoyed the rolling hills, the small towns, and the fields and pastures as we traveled the web of state roads, county roads, and well, even a gravel road or two. Our trip to Lake Geneva was without incident, well…except for that car I didn’t see coming on one of the little country roads, almost pulling out in front of it. No harm, no foul…just an increased heart rate for the three of us!
Duane had inherited a wonderful collection of photographs and keepsakes from his parents. His collection included many items of Ton family history. His prized possession was a painting he had commissioned based on a photograph of Jan and Aagje’s house in Roseland. Jan and Aagje spent most of their years on a farm on the banks of the Little Calumet River. When Jan retired from farming, he had a home built for their family “closer to town” in 1893. Their home stood at 416 W. 103rd Street until 1960 when it was torn down to make room for a parking lot.
His collection included photographs of Jan and Aagje, as well as, Lijntje (Steenbergen) Van Der Sijde, Aagje’s mother. There was also a Christmas Card sent by the Pullman Bank & Trust that featured Jan and Aagje’s house. It was this image that Duane used for the painting.
We spent hours pouring over his collection. Especially the album that contained the history of the Ton Family Reunions. There was a copy of almost every program dating back to the first reunion in 1896, the year Jan died. After his death, his son Cornelius organized a reunion to honor his father. The family (and the reunion) continued to grow. By 1911 the family decided to incorporate and elect officers. In 1945, the 50th-anniversary reunion, the family boasted 1,500 members. Life Magazine sent reporters and photographers and dedicated several pages in the September issue to the reunion. The Reunions would last another 10 years. In 1954, the members voted to make the 1955 reunion their last.
The programs included a wealth of information, including, births, deaths, marriages, and military service. There were even lyrics to the Ton Family song printed in most years. The reunions included speeches, games and activities, and a lot of storytelling!
A Journey Through the Land of Serendip has been all about collisions of storylines…the discovery of Jan and Aagje’s service on the underground railroad, colliding with the series of fairy tales I had written surrounding my father’s death, and lastly, the collision with the publication of the second edition of mom’s book. Lastly…or so I thought. There was another collision of storylines about to happen.
But first…we had a great visit with Duane and June. After sifting through his collection and dining on a lovely lunch prepared by June, we were on our way back to Indiana and home. Growing tired, we opted for interstate travel in lieu of the backroads!
This fall, in a desire to learn more about the Ton family history, I was doing some research between appointments. I stumbled across a letter. A letter that would be yet another collision of storylines.
In 2014, I wrote a series of blogs titled the Roosevelt River. They were reflections and insights uncovered in 2013 during sessions with my executive coach, Dr. Dan Miller. Dan’s coaching is based on history. He uses the metaphor of a river to talk about life’s journeys. 2013 was my first year working with Dan. That year we explored the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt has been an integral part of my leadership development ever since. (If you haven’t read Roosevelt River, I encourage you to do so. There are some incredible leadership lessons there, including from my dad, my brother, Marty McFly, and Frank Reagan.)
That is why I almost fell out of my chair when I Googled Cornelius J. Ton and found this entry:
Hardly able to contain myself, I clicked the link and found this:
A letter from Theodore Roosevelt to my second great uncle! Oh, how I wish I could see the actual letter. Oh, how I wish I could see the letter Cornelius wrote to Roosevelt! The letter does not state the private event Cornelius was asking Roosevelt to attend. Given the reference to the Ton Family, I can only conjecture that he was inviting him to speak at the reunion in 1911 or 1912.
There you go. Another serendipitous collision. This series has been about collisions of storylines, written and unwritten. It began when the series “A Journey” collided with the fairy tale series, “The Land of Serendip”. That story then collided with the story of bringing my mom’s book back to life. Those stories then collided here with a series I wrote in 2014. Collisions, connections, coincidences, no matter what we call them, life is a web of stories…our stories. I don’t know where this journey will take us next, I don’t know where this journey will end. What I do know is that I look forward to the insights and lessons that lay around the next bend in the river!
Continue with me on our journey, A Journey Through the Land of Serendip. You may recall from the first installment (and if you don’t you can read it here), this past summer two separate storylines from this blog collided in a wonderful adventure. That adventure continues here…and collides with a third storyline…a storyline I have yet to write!
After spending a magical afternoon on Chicago’s south side in the communities of Roseland and South Holland, we continued our journey north toward the Green Lake area. Green Lake, more specifically, the Green Lake Conference Center has always held a special place in our hearts. In the post, Shadows of Days Gone By, you can read about our family’s ties to this slice of heaven-on-earth (and no, that is not the collision of the third storyline). In 2014, we added to the legacy when the family had gathered lakeside to scatter my mother’s ashes near one of the pergolas on Memory Lane. This was our first return since that day.
One of the things both my parents loved to do in their later years at Green Lake was to explore the Amish communities south of the lake. Carmen and I had explored these areas many times during our visits with them. Brad, now 37, had never had the experience. I was excited when he decided to join us on the trek. We would honor my parents by visiting the Amish Pleasant View Bakery and indulging in fresh, warm cinnamon rolls as big as your head; shopping at Mishler’s Country Store; and, stocking up on enough cheese for a year at the Kingston Creamery. Gene and Mary Ellen would have been proud!
Later in the morning, we arrived at the Conference Center. Even after being away for seven years, I got the same ol’ feelings driving through the gates and down the main road. Memories of dozens of visits. Warm, pleasant memories. Family. Friends. Adventures galore. Brad had plans to honor his grandfather the best he knew how…by playing a round of golf at Lawsonia, the world-class course located right on the grounds of the conference center. It was his “Popper”, my dad, that first introduced him to golf.
Throughout the years whenever my kids and I or my sister and her kids visited, Popper would take them golf ball hunting. You see, Lawsonia is a tough course. I always felt like I had a good round if I only lost a handful of golf balls during a round. The grandsons loved their time hunting with Popper. Later as they got older, he would take them for a round. Brad loves golf. I think he always felt closest to my dad when they were playing! “Good one, Brad!”, “You really walloped that one, Brad”, “Keep an eye on where it goes into the woods, Brad” (hey, not every shot can be a good one!).
“Still no collision of the third storyline”, you say? I know, I know, I’ll get there, I promise!
We dropped Brad off at the course and Carmen and I headed into town to check-in to our hotel and visit the annual art festival that happens every summer (another favorite of Mary Ellen…not sure about Gene). After a couple of hours of shopping, we picked up Brad and headed out to dinner at another Gene-and-Mary-Ellen-later-in-life-favorite, Norton’s Restaurant. At dinner, we shared stories. Stories of our times at Green Lake…of our times with mom and dad…times with dad, Popper, Gene, the Reverend Doctor Ton.
Sunday morning, we picked up Brad from the BNB where he was staying and headed, once again, to the grounds of the Conference Center. A worshipful silence fell on us as we got out of the car and walked to Memory Lane. We wandered along the walkway through the plaques and memorials to Baptist leaders of the last half-century or more. Pergolas offer shade and benches for reflection. They too are covered with plaques. Without speaking we each in turn separated ourselves from the others to be alone with our thoughts. We discovered and re-discovered a plaque to mom, a plaque to both mom and dad, a plaque to dad, finally stopping at the last pergola.
This was the place. On the pergola was a plaque honoring my grandmother and grandfather, my mother’s parents. This was where we had gathered seven years ago. My dad, siblings, my aunt, and some friends. This was where we each said our goodbyes to mom as we scattered her to the wind and the water. Of all the life moments I have documented in this blog, I don’t think I have ever written about that day. As I think of that day now, that will be a story I need to write. What is important for our story today is what dad used that day.
As we approached the pergola in 2014, dad had a large brown bowl filled to the brim with, well, with mom. I immediately recognized the bowl as one we had used often growing up…mostly to serve mashed potatoes. Beside the bowl was a yellow measuring cup. This was the measuring cup mom had used to fill her iron with water. THAT is what dad had selected to use for this somber, bittersweet time. (uh, one of the early signs of the dementia that would later take him over). Rather fitting for a family that relied on humor and sarcasm to share its feelings!
During one of the downsizings dad would endure in the ensuing years, Carmen saved those two precious items. It was into that brown bowl I now poured dad’s ashes. We would use the same yellow measuring cup to scoop him up and scatter him to the wind and water. To these, we added a chalice to share in communion. For years, our family would pass the cup to mark significant moments in our lives…a marriage…a birth. Forty years ago, we passed the cup surrounding mom’s hospital bed as she lay near death from a devastating fire.
Brad, Carmen, and I stood in the pergola. I read the eulogy I had shared at dad’s funeral (honestly, it was easier to read at the funeral than it was in those moments…” Niagra Falls, Frankie”). In turn, we each remembered dad/Popper in our own words, sipped from the cup, took a scoop, and scattered him into the breeze with the sun sparkling off the surface of the lake. We then took a scoop in honor of each of the family members who could not be with us that day and scattered them. Dad was now with mom.
As I gazed down the bank, I noticed some of his ashes had filtered through the shrubbery on the bank and landed in the water. As the waves were rolling into the bank, the ashes were dispersing on the surface. It looked like wisps of smoke as the tendrils of ash spread. I snapped a picture with my phone.
Once we completed our goodbyes, we quietly walked back to the car. (I cannot confirm nor deny that we saved a scoop to scatter at the 8th hole tee box on the Links course at Lawsonia). The three of us then spent time exploring the grounds, sharing stories, climbing Judson Tower, sharing stories, walking the lakeshore, and, yes, sharing stories. We left the grounds not knowing when or if any of us would return.
“Uh, but what about the collision?”
The next morning as we were preparing to leave and head home, I was sitting on the balcony sipping my coffee while Carmen got ready. I took those moments to check my email. On the drive up, I had received an email from my graphics designer extraordinaire.
For the past several months I had been working on a new book project. A labor of love. I am releasing the 2nd edition of a book my mom wrote forty years ago. In 1980, mom was almost killed in a fire. She survived. Not only did she survive, but she also wrote a book. The Flames Shall Not Consume You is a book about her journey through the fire, its aftermath, and her wrestling match with God. My own journey to publishing this book has been an incredible journey of love, friendships old and new, and serendipitous moments (remember we are traveling through the Land of Serendip).
My designer’s email contained some sample cover designs. I opened the first one. The collision took my breath away. Her cover design was that of a flower on fire. As the flower burned, wisps of smoke extended from the flames. Wisps of smoke spreading into the air…smoke… smoke spreading across the water. I pulled out the photo I had snapped yesterday of dad’s ashes on the surface of Green Lake. The tendrils of smoke were a perfect overlay for the cover image. Chills ran down my spine. Tears ran down my cheeks.
A collision of epic proportions. Three storylines come together on a balcony in Green Lake, Wisconsin. The Land of Serendip, a series of fairy tales telling the story of my dad’s battle with dementia; A Journey, a series about the discovery of my great-great-grandparents’ involvement with the Underground Railroad; and the, yet to be written series, The Flame Burns Brightly, relaying the journey of bringing mom’s books back to life.
Welcome to the collision of two storylines. I don’t know how often this happens to other authors, but I believe this is a first for me in over a decade of blogging. A few years ago I wrote a series of posts in the form of fairy tales. The fairy tales took place in a magical kingdom called Serendip and were a way to convey the story of my father’s declining health. The final installment was written just a few days after his death in December of 2019. Last year I started another series titled “A Journey” after I made a surprising discovery about my great-great-grandparents. I learned they operated a stop on the underground railroad for a number of years. I promised to continue to provide updates as we discovered more of the story. Those two stories came together this past summer.
Even though the title of the third installment of the fairy tale series was “The Land of Serendip – The Final Chapter”, it was not the final chapter. My father’s wish was to have his ashes scattered in Green Lake, Wisconsin where we had scattered mom’s ashes in 2014. Our plans to make that trek in the summer of 2020 were derailed by, yep, the global pandemic. We put our plans on the shelf, well, actually, we put dad on the shelf…literally.
Early in the summer, we made the discovery about my great-great-grandparents. That prompted me to write the “A Journey” series. Fast forward to the summer of 2021. We began to make plans to take dad to be with mom. Our plans included a stop in South Holland, Illinois, to visit the site of the Jan and Aagje (pronounced ahk-e-ya) Ton Memorial Gardens. Jan and Aagje are my great-great-grandparents. In June, almost a year to the day since I posted the first installment of that series, Duane DeYoung left a comment on the post. He, too, is a descendant of Jan and Aagje.
A few weeks later, I received a letter, yes, an actual letter. The return address was the South Holland Historical Society. Curious, I tore open the envelope. Inside was a letter from Robin Schedberg, she, too, found my post. She was writing to let me know about a rededication ceremony to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the memorial garden. The ceremony was scheduled for October 16th. The same date as my…well, I’m not saying which one, suffice it to say I am old…high school reunion five hours away in the opposite direction. Over the summer we texted and emailed several times. Robin sent some wonderful photographs of some historical pieces they have in the Society library.
We toyed with the idea of delaying our trip to scatter dad’s ashes until October but given the conflict with the reunion and the fact that October is the off-season for the Green Lake area, we decided to move ahead with our plans for an August trip. Our itinerary included a stop in South Holland to meet local historian, Larry McClellan, view the memorial, and tour the area. We would continue to Green Lake, spend a couple of days, scatter dad’s ashes and then return home. At the invitation of Duane DeYoung, we planned to stop by his home in Wisconsin on our return trip.
Days before we were to embark on our adventure, Duane wrote saying he had been in contact with Robin and she could meet us on Monday afternoon in South Holland. It had not occurred to me to share our full itinerary with him. I picked up the phone and called him. Imagine that a letter and a phone call in the same story! I explained Larry’s availability was limited to Friday and we were planning to meet him at the memorial site. A day or so later, Duane let me know that he and his wife June would meet us at the site on Friday, and we were still more than welcome to stop by their home the following Monday.
With that preamble, welcome to “A Journey Through the Land of Serendip”. Friday morning, August 13th, my wife, Carmen, my son, Brad and I loaded the car and headed north. Oh yeah, dad was with us too, but he didn’t help load the car. I can’t tell you how many times one of us asked, “so, do we have dad?”. No one wanted to drive all day without the guest of honor!
Trying to coordinate a meetup on the South Side of Chicago, when one group was coming from Indianapolis (three hours away), another group was coming from Lake Geneva (a couple of hours away), and the tour guide, although local, on a tight schedule was a little tricky, especially when Chicago traffic can change in an instant. What did we do before text messaging, GPS, and traffic apps? We arrived at the memorial a few minutes before the appointed time. The memorial sits on the grounds of the First Reformed Church of South Holland, somewhat apropos considering my father was a minister. We learned that Jan had been one of the founders of the church and served as a Deacon for a number of years. That was one of the reasons for selecting the site, and one of the reasons Jan and Aagje were selected to be honored and remembered.
Hoping to have some private time at the memorial, we were a little disappointed to see a woman tending the flowers in the garden surrounding the monument. Our disappointment was short-lived as once again the magic of serendipity struck. The woman tending the flowers was Nadine Harris-Clark, the aunt of LeRone Branch, the Eagle Scout who was the force behind the memorial. We soon learned, Larry had given her a heads up we would be there. Not only did she want to meet us, but she also brought a photo album of the building of the memorial. She was beaming with pride as she talked about the project, the care that had been taken to select plants native to the area to surround the monument, and her nephew LeRone.
The memorial itself is a 9,000-pound piece of granite. We had seen pictures of the gardens and the stone the previous year when we discovered this amazing story. What was hard to see in the pictures were the railroad tracks that ran under the stone as a symbol of the underground railroad. The scene was breathtaking. The tracks seemed to emerge from the native flowers, disappear underground, and reemerge on the other side of the stone, only to disappear again in the flowers. We were all near tears as we took it all in.
Larry soon arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Duane and June. Let the reunion commence! Larry has been researching the history of the area, the Tons, and the Underground Railroad for years. He has written numerous articles and books on the subject. We stood near the monument while he shared the history with us. He believes between four and five hundred Freedom Seekers passed through this area on their way to Canada. “They had to leave the land of the free, to become free”, he stated.
Freedom Seekers would travel north from Missouri, western Kentucky, and parts south, along the Mississippi and the Illinois Rivers and then overland to Chicago. Arriving in Chicago, they would rest before heading south around Lake Michigan and on to Detroit where they would cross into Canada. It was on the southern trek around the lake they likely encountered my great-great-grandparents. Jan and Aagje owned a farm on the northern shore of the Little Calumet River. They would hide them, feed them, provide them a place to rest, and then help them on their way to Indiana. They had purchased the farm from George Dolton, who operated first a ferry then a toll bridge over the river. It is likely Dolton who directed many of the Freedom Seekers to the Ton Farm.
After the history lesson, Larry, Duane, and Brad crammed into the backseat of our SUV and we drove to the location of the Ton Farm. Larry continued our history lesson as we drove, identifying this road and that road as old Indian trails and routes Jan would have taken to get to Indiana with his precious cargo. We crossed the river at the Indiana Avenue bridge. This would have been where Dolton’s toll bridge once spanned the water.
Chicago’s Finest Marina now sits on the site of the Ton Farm. The owner of the marina, retired Chicago Police Officer, Ronald Gaines, was unable to meet us and the gates were locked. We took turns peering through the iron gate at what would have been the location of the Ton home. The farm was originally 40 acres, so we walked a gravel road that ran along the river. It was an incredible feeling to walk where my ancestors would have walked 170 years ago and to peer out on the river they peered upon.
Larry shared the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project was a group of volunteers who are researching the area and identifying historical places of interest. They are creating a water trail down on the river and will be placing markers, one of which will be at the Ton site. Being avid canoeists in our younger days, we are looking forward to paddling the trail! We piled back into the car and headed back to the Church, not before stopping on the Indiana Avenue bridge so Carmen could take a picture looking from the bridge to the farm a short distance downstream.
Once back to the church, we bid adieu to Larry and Nadine (who was still there tending to the flowers). Duane and June left to meet Robin at the library. We needed to continue our Journey Through the Land of Serendip.
Without having to give a spoiler alert for the continuing series, one of the things I need to share is the uncomfortable feeling I get every time we thank someone associated with the memorial project for creating this monument to Jan and Aagje. Why uncomfortable? Because when we thank them, they thank us for what Jan and Aagje (and others) did 170 years ago. We are honored they chose to remember Jan and Aagje. We are honored to be descended from Jan and Aagje.
Insights is the weekly, thought-provoking newsletter from Jeffrey S. Ton.
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