Not many people are named Kettlestrings.
You don’t have to live long in Oak Park to know that the first permanent, non-native family that settled here in 1833 carried this fetching moniker. The name didn’t come with the territory, but survived various misspellings back to 14th century Yorkshire, England.
And not many people are like Lee Brooke of present-day Oak Park and Marcy Kubat of River Forest. Friends and writing collaborators for 20 years, this alive and productive team is as interesting as the local and far-reaching subjects they pursue. Their 17th and latest book (11 were co-written), The Kettlestrings of Oak Park, Illinois, was published in May.
All roads led to Oak Ridge
Seeking their new world, Joseph and Betty (Willis) Kettlestrings spent 10 weeks crossing the Atlantic with the first two of their 11 children. Only six would survive them. Arriving in Baltimore, a third child was born as they pushed west, eventually coming to Chicago, population 350. Their ox-drawn, covered wagon had pulled them through marshy soil, rocky terrain and boggy wetlands till they came to “a ridge of dry land abounding with oak trees”-the future Oak Park (originally called Kettlestrings Grove, then Oak Ridge).
In straightforward, clear prose and with respect for well-researched facts, the authors describe how taxing the journey was. No roads or bridges, only trails-and few of those. Always the vexing presence of mosquitos and other bothersome insects. Then there were the absence of neighbors for long periods and the still-active threat of native American tribes, uprooted by the advancing white civilization. Facts of life.
After the erection of a temporary cabin, a sturdier one was built and the family was more properly sheltered. Still, there were problems every day: food to hunt and grow, clothing to be patched or stitched, stretches of unseemly weather and loneliness to contend with.
Calling on hard fact and specific detail, Brooke and Kubat reward the reader with nuggets of information, like the kingly sum the Kettlestrings paid the U.S. Government for their original 173 acres. Are you sitting? Would you believe $215.98. Do the math and it comes to $1.25 an acre.
Or this bijou: The tablet on the Kettlestrings monument outside the main library contains the words, “on this site.” Doug Deuchler’s preface to their book informs us that the cabin was most probably built at a point just south of Lake Street and east of Harlem Avenue, where Pier One Imports is. Later, they occupied an inn on that site.
Chapter One ends with the death of Joseph Kettlestrings in 1883, age 75. His wife, Betty, six years his senior, would pass within 14 months.
The main body of the book presents a long line of ancestors in vignettes and photos. Like your family, perhaps, these people were a mix of colorful, middling, drab, conventional, free-spirited, spiteful and saintly human beings.
When their third child, Hannah, married a Chicago printer in 1855, the family roots began to spread in earnest, down through seven generations until today. As the country grew, the family scattered. By this past spring there was only one Kettlestrings left in Oak Park-David, 93, who reduced that number by moving to his alternate home in Whitewater, Wis., though he still maintains his home here. In fact, Kettlestrings have lived here in an unbroken chain from 1833 to 2007.
Besides this family history narrative, the book contains what could serve as a model for anyone planning to do a genealogy search. The seven generations, six lines, names, dates and places of birth and death are all there-about 100 boxed listings.
Lee Brooke and Marcy Kubat pride themselves on fact-gathering, accuracy and clear writing. Brooke, by the way, in his introduction, states flatly that they are not historians. Why quibble? They can call themselves chroniclers, compilers, recorders, researchers-even tattletales or know-it-alls. The reader will do the determining. In the matter of this book, he or she will know that they have read a vital part of early Oak Park history.
This prolific pair has 20 finished or near-complete manuscripts on deck awaiting permissions, release dates or financial boosting.
They do call themselves self-publishers, however. Maybe that’s a polite term for masochists. Whence this taste for legitimate torture? Neither is sure, but both feel a well of satisfaction after the completion of each book. Both have traveled extensively, early on-for enjoyment and to broaden themselves-more recently to follow where their projects take them.
Brooke, 77, met and “paired off” with Kubat in 1995 with the publication of their first joint venture, “The Rotary Club Razz.” She is of an indeterminate age (woman’s privilege) and in spite of a first-glance quiet demeanor, she has apparently decided not to mature but to go on maturing. Kubat is also a gifted painter who hasn’t completely made a choice between art and literature-nor may feel the need to.
“For me,” she says, “painting absorbs the mind. It eclipses all but the subject matter, and it’s much the same with writing.” Concerning brushwork, she’s had successful one-woman shows at the Oak Park Public Library, the Frame Warehouse, and Morton Arboretum, where she sold the limit (three oils) in formidable competition. Regarding words on paper, she is an accomplished writer and editor whose travel books B.B. (Before Brooke) include Sketches From a Sojourner’s NotebookandSkimming the Surface. She also wrote and delivered a series of Phi Sigma lectures.
Brooke is a former teacher who retired as a medical librarian after 25 years. Though a septuagenarian, he seems light years younger than some in their 20s. After retirement from the University of Chicago Hospital, he volunteered to write a piece on historic Avenue Lake Plaza. He enjoyed all aspects of the assignment-research, writing and editing. When four things led to five, he found himself researching, writing and publishing books about Oak Park and River Forest people, places and events-often past, sometimes present. As subject matter kept growing, a talented lady from River Forest agreed to collaborate with him … well, you know about that.
There’s an unsung third person involved in the operation, especially with the Kettlestrings book. Without Sue Wilson’s research and organizational skills, it would never have reached final form. As Lee Brooke put it, “No worthwhile book makes it solely because of its author or authors. It needed a savior, and Sue was there.”
The authors mentioned that at first they knew little about their subject matter. By reading and researching, the unfamiliar became familiar. Their hope is that others (their readers) will share in the enrichment. There was a time when none of us knew that before there was an Oak Park there was a Kettlestrings Grove.
Self-publishing, you may recall, means getting out and hustling your wares. So this team is adept at promoting and presenting. A schedule of forthcoming presentation programs follows:
Sept. 18 Ascension Church, New Horizons Group
“Houses to Go!” (Structural moving of everything from houses to train depots in northern and central Illinois)
Oct. 16 Grace Lutheran Church Men’s Club, River Forest
“Clef Notes” (Local musician inter
views. Not all music. From Bouman to Moulder to Camilletti)
November (To be announced)
Feb. 7, ’08 First United Church, Evening Division
“Fifty Years in Love” (True account of WWII flyer and hearing-impaired, musician wife. Which is greater: his exploits or her fortitude?)
Mar. 27, ’08 Friends of the River Forest Public Library
“Houses to Go!”
Anyone interested in purchasing the books mentioned here may do so by calling Lee Brooke at 708/383-5556.