By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
Picture: A July 4, 1876 celebration in Hauntown. William “Will” Struve, (Helen Cotton’s grandfather), is on the right -- as they are about to plant an Elm known as the “Centennial Tree,” in honor of the American Revolution
You’ve heard this line before, but reports of Carrie Helfert Oake’s demise really have been greatly exaggerated -- by me! Sorry for the error, but Carrie (96) is alive and well. When I visited her in Silvis last Sunday, she trilled “Yes, I’m still here!” One senses her Modoc spirit right away.
We talked about family life in days of yore -- all very vivid in her mind -- and I suggested that she sounded spunky in her youth. She appeared to disagree, drawling, “No-o-o… I wasn’t spunky,”.… then laughed, “I was REAL SPUNKY!!”
Readers’ responses to the Hauntown and Modoc Hills articles are “coming out of the woodwork”-- or out of the hills, as the case may be. It seems these people’s lives are quite as colorful and compelling as those of their ancestors, who were this area’s pioneers. And listening to Carrie Helfert Oake, who wrote Footprints in the Modoc Hills, is particularly enjoyable.
I found folks from the hills quite fussy about distinct differences that just a few miles can make. Townspeople of Clinton tend to lump them all together, but for true “hill-dwellers,” you are from Hauntown and the “Hauntown Woods”, Almont, Sabula, Sybil, Midland Junction, Andover, Teeds Grove, or the Modoc Hills area east of Highway 67. Most knew of the Gomer area and remember skating there too.
Apparently, the Modocs were named after an Indian tribe not native to this area, although there are Indian mounds near the Fanger farm. Perhaps, as Mervin Helfert relates, it was also because they had to “mow (down) the docs” in the fields. - Docs were weeds which had to be eliminated.
None of these people were “high-falutin’,” but women recall that they never “went to town” in faded clothing. Apparel was fastidiously washed in Fels Naphtha and smelled fresh when they attended dances at Hauntown’s 6-sided dance hall or the one in Almont. That was an important part of their entertainment/ courting traditions. Picnics were also popular social events.
Steve Tietjens called and mentioned that “Almont’s Main Street ran north and south… with a dance hall, post office, and store. The store was later moved over to a nearby east/west road, and when the secondary road got paved as far as Andover and Teeds Grove, it needed to be raised up… to get it up to grade.
Helen Struve Cotton still lives in Hauntown, as does Dan Smith and his wife. And Marlys and Ed Baasch are just north. Helen acquired many skills, she tells me while feeding her hummingbirds, because she was raised to be her dad (Leslie’s) “right-hand-man.” She speaks of Ernest Heinrich Struve, one of the earliest settlers, as if she knew him personally. There’ve been only four generations, in all that time, -- those two on each end, and William and his son Leslie between them. Helen treasures the many family artifacts adorning her home’s walls. Her house is over 150 years old and was moved from the Mill’s south side to make way for a Victorian home, which still stands there too.
Leslie Struve knew everything about mills, having skills which were passed down through the ages from Europe. He was the last miller, although Helen herself knows quite a lot. She speaks of cleaning out the mill race, the pond upstream, the tail race and of Elk River flooding. Talk of mill stones and grinding flour is common, and visitors from places like Fulton drop by occasionally to chat and research.
Odd things are remembered….like a man who was buried in salt after a cholera epidemic; and the cemetery being “ploughed under” (during the 1930’s) -- much to the chagrin of locals. A town favorite, Will Scheutz, always had gum for the kids; he was buried there after dying in his 80’s, with no known living relatives.
Another story often mentioned: a gang of robbers arrived on horseback with silver they’d stolen in Dubuque. The legend gets murky as to where the bandits buried the loot, somewhere in the hills, perhaps in Hauntown, maybe in the Modocs. Folks became suspicious every time a person spent more than warranted.… perhaps they ‘d found the treasure! Years later, men with metal detectors wanted to search the Helfert farm and, with much reluctance, got permission. However, nothing came of it.
The hills are full of names and stories. Some names are pronounced peculiarly: the Papkes are the “Pepkes” and the Mommsens are the “Mummsons.” We hear of the Behans, Griswolds, Greens, and Hammonds; of the Nielsens, and of the Bear boys… who had a band. Mr. Craddock might’ve been the first Sheriff in Clinton County. A seemingly unflattering phrase, “There they go… single file… the Modoc style,” was coined by the Almont Postmaster. What the heck did he mean?
Carrie Helfert Oake still has a melodious laugh. She remarks about getting her clothes ripped by barb wire as she ran through fields to school in 1916… the year the Hauntown dancehall burned down. She went to Elk River #1 (the Modoc School); Hauntown had its own one-room school-house. Later on, in Sabula, Carrie remembers walking the frozen Mississippi to get to school.
Probably these groups scarcely knew one another-- or of each other’s dance halls burning down. They were only a few miles apart, but it may as well have been a million. One wonders if Helen Cotton, Carrie Helfert, and Elsie Eggers ever meet, as each continues to live out their long lives.
Sources: Helen Cotton, Dan Smith, Marlys Smith, Steve Tietjens, George McClintock, Richard Herrity, George Struve, Mervin Helfert, Lucille Hendricksen, Wilbert Behrens, Charles Burke. Memories of the Hauntown Area, by Elsie Eggers; Hauntown Memories, the Clinton Herald, by Sam Elrod; Footprints in the Modoc Hills by Carrie Helfert Oake. (Both the Eggers and Oake memoirs are available at the Clinton County Historical Museum.)