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Examining early Fairbury life

(A book which describes what life was like growing up in Fairbury in the 1800s)

By Dale C. Maley

Until recently, the only known historical source that explains what life was like in Fairbury in the 1870 to 1900 period was the Stuffed Club & Antimacassars book by Alma Lewis James (1899-1979).

Alma's most likely source for describing early life in Fairbury was her mother, Ella Beach Lewis (1862-1939).


Alma devoted several chapters in her book to describing the daily life of a family living in early Fairbury. She decided only to cover the 1857 to 1900 period in Fairbury because she thought the introduction of automobiles around 1905 changed life too dramatically.


Another book by a Fairbury native was recently discovered. Blanche Conner was born in Fairbury in 1872. She grew up in Fairbury from her birth in 1872 until about 1885, when her family moved to Kearney, Nebraska, for a few years. Her family then moved to Canton, Illinois. Blanche and two of her sisters moved to Chicago and found work there. Blanche became a bookkeeper in Chicago. Her employer asked her to move to their London, England, branch for at least one year to straighten out their books. Blanche took the job and enjoyed London for a little over one year. She moved back to Chicago and married Lucien Gray, an attorney she had met in Canton.


Lucien and Blanche Gray had two girls and one boy. They moved to the Los Angeles, California, area and lived the rest of their lives there. In the early 1950s, Blanche's grandchildren loved hearing about life in Fairbury and Los Angeles. In 1953, Blanche Gray wrote a book titled Ruffled Petticoat Days. This book focused on her life experiences when they moved to Los Angeles. Blanche was 81 years old when she published her first book.


This first book was so popular that she wrote a second book in 1957 titled On The Tips of Her Toes. The first one-third of this book focuses on what her life was like growing up in Fairbury in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Unfortunately, Blanche died in Los Angeles in 1858 at age 85.


Blanche's father was Milo M. Conner (1845-1937). He served as a Private from Indiana for the Union in the Civil War. In Fairbury, Milo worked as a laborer and carpenter. According to the Blade, Milo Conner was one of the original members of the Fairbury Neptune Fire Company in 1873.


Blanche's mother was Lualtha A. Oakes (1850-1890). Milo and Lualtha Conner had five daughters. Lualtha was a homemaker, and their family lived on Walnut Street.


In her second book, Blanche recounted that as a young girl in Fairbury, she had to pump and carry all the water they needed into their house. She also brought in wood and coal for the stoves. Blanche had to fill their lamps with kerosene and periodically clean the chimneys. Blanche wrote in her 1957 book, "Now we turn on a faucet for water both upstairs and downstairs, push a button for heat from our gas furnaces and another button for our electric lights all over the house."


Blanche also remembered that she and her four sisters used to sew carpet rags to make big balls and, eventually, carpets. She remembered that one evening, while they were sewing the long strips, their dog was lying under a table in the same room. The dog got up and knocked over the table with the burning kerosene lamp on top of the table. Blanche thought the whole house would burn down, but her mother managed to extinguish the fire.


Another memory Blanche had of living in Fairbury was that she really liked eating the big brown lumps of sugar. On one occasion, she moved a chair over by the cabinet with the brown sugar container. Blanche stood "on the tips of her toes" on the chair to try to reach the brown sugar container. She fell off the chair, and before she knew it, she was on the floor with sugar all over her. She used this experience as the title of her second book.


Blanche remembered one day, she was walking home from school, and a boy started to chase her. Blanche ran as fast as she could and tried to climb over a fence. The boy caught her and kissed her. Blanche thought she was ruined for life and began to cry. The boy first called her a crybaby, but he got a lovely, clean handkerchief and wiped her tears away. The boy told Blanche that he had kissed his sisters and she was just like one of them. The boy acted in a manlike fashion and straightened it all out. Blanche and the boy walked to her house, and they got to playing and forgot all about the kissing.


One of the year's most significant events in Fairbury was when the circus came to town. Blanche and her sisters would save their pennies for admission to see the circus. Blanche's father would take his daughters to see the circus, and he had as much fun as the girls did.


Blanche reported that all the houses in Fairbury had big yards. Each family had horses and at least one cow for milk. Most families also had chickens. Blanche loved to hold the little fluffy baby chicks in her hands. Blanche and her sisters learned to care for and feed all the animals.


Most houses also had some fruit trees. During the fruit harvesting season, Blanche helped with canning, preserving, and making jelly. The winters in Fairbury were cold and long. Vegetables and fruits were stored in a cellar and eaten during the long winters.


Blanche had fond memories of living in Fairbury. In her book, she said, "In those days we lived very simply, but it seemed to me a most gracious life, learning to do all those necessary things which one could never forget, living close to all our friends, visiting back and forth; and I think of the good  homemade bread and cinnamon rolls and how we did eat them with our homemade butter and good fresh milk—a really wonderful childhood to look back upon and to have had the privilege of enjoying at that time."


Although Alma Lewis James did a great job explaining what early life was like in Fairbury in her Stuffed Clubs & Antimacassars book, Blanche Gray gives us a slightly different perspective about her experience of growing up in Fairbury.


(Dale Maley's local history article on Fairbury News is sponsored each week by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury along with Dr. Charlene Aaron)


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Dale Maley
Dale Maley
Mar 02

A reader contacted me and said I made a mistake in the article, and the reader was correct :) I had the author dying in 1858, and she actually died in 1958. That darn spell check I used did not find that mistake 🙂

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