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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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Museum sparks memories of local industries

By Barry Schrader Senior Columnist...................December 13, 2011

Take the time to visit the Sycamore History Museum on the old Engh Farm on Route 23 just north of town if you or your family has had any connection with local industries during the past 100 years.

Kay and I took advantage of the free holiday open house recently, and did it ever bring back memories for me.

After my grandfather Will Schrader died in his early 60s, my grandmother Ethel had to find a job as they had lost their farm during the Great Depression and had no savings, just a small Social Security check.
She found work at Turner Brass when she was in her mid-60s and stayed there on the assembly line for 10 years, until her arthritis and age took too much of a toll on her.

I told this story to friends before leaving California five years ago and a group of them chipped in to buy me a sentimental going away present – a genuine Turner blow torch made in Sycamore, all polished up – just like the one my grandma used to assemble.

It now holds a prominent place in our living room bookcase.

As we were touring the exhibit I noticed women admiring the big 1984 Olympic torch, also made by Turner Brass. I was pleased to learn of their personal connection to that torch project. The daughter of one of the makers of this particular torch, Jeannie Ledesma, and her daughter, Ashley Greenlee, were visiting from California and stopped at the museum. They got permission to remove it from the case, using white gloves, and hold it high for my camera.

They also put me in touch with their father, Jim Cruise, in La Verne, Calif., who told me the story of the making of those torches while he was the plant engineer in Sycamore.

Doesn’t this cigar box lid with the “Belle
of Sycamore” portrait resemble a young
Marlyn Burkart? (Photo provided)

Jwannie Ledesma, at right, and
daughter Ashley Greenlee of LaVerne,
Calif. came to see the Turner Olympic
Torch that Jeannie’s father worked on
while at Turner Brass in Sycamore
in 1983-84.

He added that he still owns four of the most famous model, including the Olympic one, another from the Special Olympics, and prototypes that were tested with different fuels to assure that the flame would never blow out while being escorted across the country.

He explained that Jeannie carried one of the torches around the high school track at her graduation in La Verne, which must have been a thrill. She started school in Sycamore but moved out west in third grade because Turner transferred her father out there.

Here’s another coincidence: Cruise’s sister was the late Phyllis Davis, editor of the Sycamore News and onetime colleague of mine on the Sycamore papers. What a small world, I must say again.

Now here’s one to tickle your funny bone.

In another room is a case containing mementos from past local manufacturers, including a box from the E.C. Chandler Co., maker of fine hand-rolled Cuban cigars right here in Sycamore.

The beauty on the box lid was their trademark and known as the “Belle of Sycamore.”

A visitor standing nearby commented that the full-color portrait looked like Marlyn Burkart when she was about 20 years old.

We peered closely, and yes there was a striking resemblance – but since that advertisement on the cigar box dates back to 1899, Marlyn would have to be a fantastic 132-year-old. Yet recently I heard her exclaim she didn’t feel a day over 39.

If she does have a birth certificate dated 1879, she even tops Hazel Swanberg, DeKalb County’s acclaimed oldest lady, who turns 109 next March.

And four doors down the hall from her at Oak Crest resides Charlie Bradt, who just had a party to celebrate reaching 108.

Must be something in the water around here – or maybe just good genes ...
P.S. Call 815-895-5762 to find out the hours the museum is open.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115