We heard the confirmation that this gathering would occur.
A gracious plan had been devised from which we’d not demur.
The party, we were told, was comprised of relatives galore
With treasured friends thrown in the group would fast approach a score.
My Uncle Bob has lived for years with his partner Hal on a 3-1/2 acre property in the middle of Galena, Illinois. At our family reunion last year, we decided we would celebrate the birthday of the Burton twins, Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary, in Galena. It was a central point for the family to gather. There was quite a bit of trepidation over the winter that Aunt Mary, her husband Uncle Charlie, and my Uncle Jack – the oldest Burton brother, might not be well enough to attend. But as it turns out, everyone rallied and made the journey. 🙂
Galena is a charming river town, which at one point in Illinois history was larger than the settlement of Chicago. Galena grew to prominence during the early years of steam travel on the Upper Mississippi, and after the first formal survey was done in 1836, construction began to boom. After several major fires, the city passed an 1850 ordinance requiring that new buildings be built of brick. The result was a unified wall of Main Street commercial buildings and shops in the downtown district.
Galena’s boom extended through the Civil War, most notably due to the area’s lead mines which supplied the Union Army. Galena also proudly celebrates the fact that she sent nine Union Generals into service, including Ulysses S. Grant. This number is more Generals per capita than any town either north or south.
Galena is remembered as a “lead rush” town, filled with opportunity. The boom didn’t last, however, and by the later years of the 19th century, shipping and transportation routes across the country were transformed by railroad networks. Galena’s importance as a shipping center waned through the turn of the century. Since property owners couldn’t afford to raze their buildings, most of Galena’s downtown remained as it was. In 1969, about 85% of the community, including all of Main and Bench Streets, was granted status by the National Register of Historic Places.
The 19th century architectural diversity in Galena is most remarkable, ranging from original hewn and chinked log to Greek Revival, Federal, Italianate, Vernacular, Romanesque Revival, post and sill, Georgian, and Queen Anne structures. Flood gates and a large levee along the Galena River protect the commercial and lower districts. Residences and churches are scatter shot and perched on the bluffs overlooking the town. The village streets are fearfully steep, with a few designated for pedestrian traffic only. Two sets of near vertical pedestrian stairways on Washington and Green Streets rise up from Main to Prospect Street, at the end of which my Uncle Bob lives.
“A Burton is,” as I was told, “as stubborn as a mule,”
Which led to the stern mention of a hard and steadfast rule:
“No Gifts!”was the admonishment. “We do not need more stuff.
“The house is full of crap! You’ll see! We’ve got far more than enough!
“We’ll all enjoy each other; we’ll number near a score
“With all of us together. Who could ask for more?”
Hal purchased the property where he and Bob operate Linmar Gardens in the 1970’s from a couple who had owned it for more than 20 years.
Perched on the edge of one of the village bluffs, the property is so high that the view from the home’s back terrace is directly across to the steeple’s spire of the Westminster Presbyterian Church on Bench Street below.
The previous owners renovated the house, which dates from 1857, from a state of interior collapse. Today, the property’s main residence is a charming, meandering villa comprised of the original brick structure, which has mostly Greek Revival elements – including notable glass sidelights around the front door – and several additions that march up the parcel’s incline.
Inside, the house is a visual feast; the aesthetic is pronounced and eclectic. Cloisonne pieces Hal created with his father depict religious and historical themes. There are bowls, objects and statuary from all corners of the globe. Imposing 19th century portraits of the original master and mistress of the house give benign blessing to the living area warmed by a cozy fireplace and Oriental carpets.
The library boasts etchings and portraits of General Grant, along with other memorabilia clustered around a captain’s desk he might have admired. The sunny end of the library is home to a pianoforte that came up the Mississippi to be installed in the house. This is where Hal practices his church choir music. The easterly wing of the house contains a private sitting area and master suite flanked by two terraces, one with fountain. It is all quietly and comfortably exquisite.
Bob’s right about the family trait we’ve seen for all these years.
It’s such that his instructions fell upon the deafest ears.
I’m stubborn too, and wouldn’t dream of coming all this way
Without poetic mention of the things I want to say.
Bob and Mary Burton, the twins who have no peer.
A fateful year, your 80th, for which we gather here.
Tradition holds a gift of rhyme should celebrate the day.
With myriad memories flooding back, there’s plenty one could say.
My mother, her older brother Jack, and the twins Bob and Mary are pictured here about 1930-31 in Flint, Michigan. They later moved north to Alpena on the shore of Lake Huron, which was where my grandparents and great-grandparents had lived, and where their youngest brother, Richard, was born.
It was a tough comedown during the Great Depression for my grandmother, who moved her young family back in with her father due to financial hardship. She worked as a waitress while my grandfather sought work out of town.
Grandpa Emerson, by most accounts, was a tough old curmudgeon who didn’t particularly like sharing his house with the four young Burtons. They interpreted this as him not liking them very much at all. Some might say with respect to my grandmother that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. 🙂
The Burton kids all graduated from Alpena Central High School. My mother and my Uncle Jack, who had deferred his college years with service in the Army Air Forces during World War II, graduated from Michigan State after the war. Aunt Mary, who had declared she wouldn’t be caught dead in the likes of the poor student’s wardrobe my mother had worn to college, went to work for the phone company.
We’ll start with our Aunt Mary – a legend in her time.
The phone company was mere distraction from a social life sublime.
To lure the boys at happy hour, her wardrobe changes functioned
As disguise from those who were without sufficient gumption.
Mary and her fellow phone company operators were social media mavens in their day. Flirtatiously, they ascertained who was going to be where after work, and made dates with prospective swains by voice over the phone. Their fail-safe methodology was to have a change of clothing on hand.
The girls would sashay into the beer joint and have a look-see to identify their prospective dates. If the boys passed muster, they’d change into the outfits they had previously indicated they’d be wearing, then re-arrive to enjoy their evening with the young men who were scanning each female with a specific description in mind. If the prospects looked like duds, they remained incognito and looked for other fun.
I’m pretty certain it was in this way that Mary met Charlie, my dad’s best friend, who must’ve passed the handsome test because she married him.
Here they all are on my parents’ wedding day in November, 1953. Back row, l to r: Charlie, my dad – John, brothers Bob and Jack. Front row, l to r: sisters Mary and my mom – Jeanne, Sis (Bob’s wife) and Nina (Jack’s wife):
Back in the day, Aunt Mary, like Esther Williams, would emerge
To swim the length of Middle Lake with barely a submerge.
Kids weren’t allowed into the deep, so her escape was solitary
From the cacophony of all the brats, yelling “Mommy” or “Aunt Mary!”
The lazy days spent at the lake were an idyllic childhood dream.
“Come on, you birds!” The spell would break with Mary’s piercing scream.
We cousins numbered 7 most summer days at the lake with various neighborhood hangers-on making a real crowd. While we were waiting the mandatory hour after eating lunch, Aunt Mary had the lake to herself. We were never allowed out as far as she. I can remember watching from shore as she faded from view. No doubt she needed the brief “alone time” her solitary swims afforded. She taught me the sidestroke back then and still enjoys pool time.
Casually cynical, Mary’s humor ruled the day,
Even when called “Mrs. Meadowlark” by a member of the PTA.
My mother, being a schoolteacher, wanted nothing to do with the PTA at our school. She never really elaborated on her reasons, but they had to be the maddening bureaucracy and posturing that still exists nowadays. Suburban life in the 50’s and 60’s must have been such that a little nip or two throughout a housewife’s day made the world less dreary. Mary remembers the next door neighbor who was never without a coffee cup full of booze. The story of Mary’s ride home from a meeting where an overly friendly sort repeatedly slurred her married name into a hysterical misnomer has lived on for nearly 50 years.
Bob was the exotic twin, whose work took him afar.
Texas and Hawaii seemed like domiciles bizarre.
One fateful Christmas a large gift box arrived from Honolulu
Filled with Chinese porcelain dolls and statues from Oahu.
We combed their hair, and admired their kimonos closed with obi.
To us, he may as well have been stationed in Timbuktu or Nairobi.
We didn’t see as much of Bob and his family when we were growing up. He had studied nursing and had chosen the Army as his career.
After he completed an anesthesiology course, they were transferred to Honolulu, which was fast becoming the staging area for the Southeast Asian military theater in the 60’s.
We were awed by the gifts Bob sent. Not only the dolls and Japanese fans, but fragile, live Hawaiian orchid leis arrived by express shipment. My mother wore hers to church and received much acclaim. My grandmother, clueless, cut her expensive orchids apart and pinned them to her dress as a makeshift corsage. Michigan’s cold weather did all in within what seemed like a few minutes. Such extravagance!
San Antonio seemed more normal with the Alamo and all,
And then before we knew it for Germany he got the call.
A full career of service for which we all are grateful,
And then a partnership with Hal that turned out to be most fateful.
Uncle Bob described for us the pinnacle of his military career as occurring in 1968, during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. His team of surgical nurses performed at the top of their game under harrowing conditions in Long Binh. The surgeons were operating in flak vests with sidearms at the ready, and the hospital was nearly overrun by Viet Cong. Still, the wounded came in wave after wave, and were treated. “We were doing what we had been trained to do.” Typical understatement from someone who doesn’t talk about those things very much.
A peaceful life with those we love is all that we require
And such is an example for all of us to aspire.
Bob and Hal have found peace and fulfillment in Galena, where Hal creates his art.
The Linmar Gardens are Hal’s transformation of a former trash dump spilling from the bluff above into a netherworld of meandering woodland paths, waterfalls and ponds, shady vistas, and architectural elements punctuating the design.
“I am not a gardener,” says Hal by way of explanation. Instead, he is a visionary, using the medium of earth and the botanical method to create structure, depth, and coloration in a breathtaking, sensual experience.
Bob accompanies visitors on a walking tour, providing snippets of history woven into an entertaining narrative resplendent with Latin plant names and anecdotes.
Experiences in the world usually serve to keep things in perspective.
It’s tempting since the years have gone to pause and get reflective.
There’s plenty to learn and plenty to say, but not all needs to be said.
We’re happiest that we could be here today and that we can look ahead.
Over the years, time and physical distance have separated the Burtons and their progeny. My mother passed in 1992, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I saw Aunt Mary and Uncle Charlie again at my nephew’s graduation. Last year’s family reunion was the first time I had seen Uncle Bob in nearly 40 years. We cousins have scattered, married, divorced, raised our own children, and come back together now. This, we all agree, is wonderful and good.
Tradition holds with those we know that once you reach age certain
You’re allowed to do whate’er you like, so Bob and Mary Burton,
Enjoy this milestone – not easily reached – with our congratulations!
We’re honored you would celebrate with all of us relations!
Aerial Photo – Galena CVB
Downtown Galena and Linmar Gardens Photos – Peter Wuebker
Vintage Photos – Collection of the late Jeanne Burton Meisenbach
Poem “On Bob and Mary’s 80th Birthday” – Betsy Wuebker
Alpena Central High School – Alpena Public Schools