Written and contributed to the Oconto County
WIGenWeb Project by:
Sun City, Arizona
April 20, 2000
Some of my happiest childhood memories took place when my mother would invite her brother and her sisters to come over to play cards. Aunt Grace, Uncle Art and their two kids would come from Manitowoc, and Uncle Aaron, Aunts Gert and Bea would come from the west side of Green Bay to our home on the cast side. We would drag the mattresses from our bedroom out to the dining room floor because we knew they would be still playing cards when we woke in the morning. Before the games began Mom would pop a big batch of corn and we would all spend a little quality time on the front porch. Then the stories would begin. One of the cousins would say, "Aunt Myrtle, tell us about when you were a little girl living in Oconto." The first stories were always the same. Mother would tell how her Dad, Nelson, married Vitaline Craite and brought her to Oconto. Their first child was born in 1883 and died less than six months later. The second child, Aunt Gert, was born in 1885, and six months later, her mother died. I don't know the cause of death, but the symptoms sounded a lot like typhoid fever. Her parents, Eusebe and Zoe Ruelle Craite, from Mishicot, told one of their younger daughters that she must now marry her dead sister's husband, and 'raise the motherless child, which she did. I thought that was so romantic. The second story was always about the first child born to that union. Her name was Irene Beatrice, and, at four years, she died of what was called "black diphtheria" My mother was not yet born but she would tell the story like she was there. Diphtheria was very virulent, very contagious and there was no known treatment or cure. A black crepe was hung on the nail by the front door to tell the neighbors there had been a death in the family, the little coffin was moved into the parlor in front of the window, and friends would stand on the porch and view the little toddler in her casket. Afterwards, the child's clothing and bedding had to be burned, and any dishes or cutlery the child used was boiled to sterilize them.
Today, my grandfather Nelson Fortier, his first wife, Vitaline, his second wife, my grandmother, Elizabeth., the little girl, and my Aunt Bea and Uncle Aaron are all buried in the same plot, next to the road, across from the Chapel at St. Joseph and St. Peter Cemetery. The gravestone is weather scarred and covered with scattered moss, the ornament on top is long gone, and the monument itself has shifted over to the edge of the base. I am not sure where the six month old baby boy is buried, but when I study photographs of the stone I think I can almost make out the name, Elmer.
Grandpa Nelson Fortier was born in Mishicot, Wisconsin in 1859. Why he migrated to Oconto I cannot say. To my knowledge he was never a lumberman, or a fisherman or a fanner. Probably, it was the economics of the times'. or perhaps he followed family members. The mother of both of his wives was a Ruelle, there were Dionnes on that side of the family, and, at one time, there were Dionnes and Ruelle in Lena. At any rate, he bought a house for his first wife on, I think, Congress Street. It was a narrow, two story house with a porch and an attic, and next door, on the corner, was a church, which was razed in recent years. And, that house is where the family lived for 32 years, until my grandfather died in 1914. Grandma Fortier then moved to Green Bay, where she lived until her death in 1948. Most of the stories I ever heard were about activities in and around that house. Grandpa was a butcher, somewhere down on MaiNStreet. He did not own the meat market, but the owner would allow him to buy meats at a good price, and now and then he would bring home a lug of green bananas. Grandma would hang the stalk of bananas in the attic, with the admonition that she would tell the children when they were ready to eat. They were good kids, but they could be full of the dickens, and if one didn't think to sneak up in the attic and sw' a banana,- another one would. One day Uncle Aaron was lpe in the attic swiping bananas, Grandma had company and would never catch him. But, what he did not know was that Grandma and her guest had moved onto the roofless porch, where they were catching the banana peels Aaron was tossing out of the window above. Mother remembered very clearly the first time she saw and heard an airplane in the sky. Today, we don't even look up, but she was mesmerized and fascinated with the knowledge that men could fly. Why couldn't she fly also, she wondered.. So, she took her dad's Sunday umbrella, climbed to the very top of the wood pile that had been cut for the winter to come, unfurled it, and leaped. I don't need to tell you what happened. As she lay there, crying, and thinking every bone in her body was broken, her mother came into the back yard, immediately assessed the situation, picked up the umbrella with it's broken ribs, and beat her daughter to within an 'inch of her life ... so my mother claims. One time Aunt Mae and mother became alert to the fact that a certain order of Catholic nuns 'in the community would occasionally make the rounds, asking for money for whatever charitable needs they were caring for. Why couldn't Mae and mother do the same thing, they wondered. Together the two of them scoured through Grandma's closet, finding anything black that could be turned into nuns' habits. In no time they were on the streets, begging for handouts, and just as fast a well meaning neighbor trotted over to Grandma's to tell her "those Fortier girls are at it again". This must have been before Grandpa's umbrella was demolished. Mother often said she was her dad's favorite. What child doesn't think she is the pet, now and again. But, she does remember one snowy very early morning her dad came to the room where she slept with one or two sisters, and whispered, "be quiet, get up and dress warm". When she got downstairs she found that her dad had hitched their horse up to the cutter. She had no recollection of where they were going, but he tucked her in under a fur blanket, gave the horse a crack on his rump with the whip, and off they went. She remember it was a clear early morning with stars still in the sky, and the sound of the horse trotting on the crisp snow. Everytime she told that story she would look in the distance, make a little smile, and say, "it was Re heaven".
my very favorite stories was about the time the circus came to town, and
a lion got loose. I think it was a lion, not a tiger. At any rate, he roamed
through the town, with people hollering and screaming and bursting into
strangers' houses. At one point, he poked his head into the window of a
little old widow lady, and she fainted. So the story goes. When we were
kids, sometimes,we would drive up to Oconto in my dad's old Nash, to spend
the day with friends of my grandma's. And we would stay all day, and come
home in the dark. As kids we had cousins to play with, while the grown
up sat and gossiped, and some of the best darned home made food I can remember
eating. The names of people in Oconto are vanishing from my memory, and
I scour the Oconto website in the hopes of seeing a familiar name, but
I don't. I wonder if anyone remembers the McCourts, I believe that was
the last name of a young married couple named Dutch and Agnes. There were
the Nelsons, the mother might have been Bertha Nelson, and the daughter
named Ruth eventually moved to Milwaukee, and remained a lifelong friend
of my Aunt Bea. I remember the name Martineau very well, they might have
been neighbors of my mother's family. In high school my mother was sweet
on a young man named Romeo Pecor, and that name has been in Oconto forever.
As I write this my husband comes to the computor, and I read him snatches
of my writing, and he says, "you're going to make copies of these for the
kids, aren't you"? What a fine idea. I know they will treasure these memories
as much as I do.