New enlarged edition of ‘Stark County Poems’ released


Consisting of over fifty poems, from short lyrics in a variety of forms to lengthy blank verse and free verse narratives, “Stark County Poems” portrays the history of a small rural county in central Illinois, along the upper Spoon River valley.

Chronologically arranged, and incorporating letters, newspaper articles, obituaries, family stories, early county histories and diaries, the poems cover a century of the county’s history, from the 1830s through the 1930s.

Map, illustrations. 59 poems. 225 pages.

BJ Omanson was raised in the Spoon River valley of Stark County, Illinois, where both sides of his family have lived and farmed since the mid-19th century.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


In the autumn of 1893,
      Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer
and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,
      Illinois, after having traveled
from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County
      by way of Leoti, Kansas.

They arrived in a covered wagon drawn
      by a pair of worn-out mules conveying
a girl and two boys, implements, blankets,
      a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,
tinware pots, some kerosene lamps
      and a Mason jar of seeds interred

in early May and exhumed in August,
      still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.
They almost starved on their journey back.
      In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm
and asked at the house if they might pick a few
      ears of corn to boil for supper.

Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.
      No one else even bothers to ask.
It was hog cholera that had wiped them out
      and sent them westward to make a new start,
and it was drought and the ’93 Panic
      that wiped them out for the second time

and sent them back east to begin again.
      They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—
dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed.
      Their youngest son was born on a night
in January that covered the state
      in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged

to twenty below. He was kept from freezing
      by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove
that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn.
      At three cents a bushel it made more sense
to burn it than sell it and, anyhow,
      the buffalo chips were long since gone.

In later years, when anyone asked,
      old Alpheus never had much to tell
about losing two farms in two different states.
      In an unguarded moment he said aloud,
You can pray to God. You can vote for Bryan.
      In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.

A Young Girl’s Diary during the Great Depression: Life on an Illinois Farm

AYoungGirlintheGreatDepression_coverExcerpted from the Preface of A Young Girl in the Great Depression:

“What is especially notable about this diary, written by one so young, is how outwardly directed and objective it is.  While her own activities are recorded, they receive little more attention than those of her siblings and parents, with nearly equal additional attention given to the activities of a host of relatives and neighbors. The result is an account of an extended family, and its surrounding community, which is unusually comprehensive.

On the one hand, because she is constrained by the small amount of space is allotted for each day, her entries never exceed more than a modest paragraph. She has to pack in the information, and avoid digressions of any sort. She has to stay focused on particular facts and events and, because the life around her is so rich in the number of small events which she is determined to record, she has no space to spare for description. What matters above all is what people do.

            To an historian, this is pure gold. A major obstacle in understanding rural life in earlier periods, is the lack of sources which portray what people actually did, and how they interacted, on a day-to-day basis: all the little ordinary activities and events which no one thought important enough to record. But it is exactly such details as these which historians require if they are to reconstruct rural life accurately.

Farmers and their families are not natural diarists.  They are simply too busy, and too tired at the end of the day, to keep a faithful record of everything that happens and of what everyone does. Adolescents, on the other hand, have more time, and are probably more inclined to keep diaries, but they almost invariably write about themselves to the exclusion of everything else. Such diaries rarely possess any historical value.

Adolescents are naturally self-centered, and I do not mean this as criticism. Both their outward and inward lives are changing so rapidly that they can barely keep track of the daily stresses, traumas and transformations. The diary of a typical thirteen-year-old is almost entirely subjective. Everything that happens is taken personally. It is simply in the nature of being an adolescent. Their world is changing by the day, and it is a full-time job just to keep track of one’s inner turmoil. There is no time left over to follow everyone else’s activities.

Yet in Betty’s diary the degree of self-centeredness is almost nil. She is more interested in what happen to others than in what happens to herself. She possesses a natural empathy which keeps her outwardly focused. She is pleased when others do well, and sympathetic when they suffer. She writes about those around her in a plain, straightforward manner with no hint of fault-finding. She gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. And as hard as her life obviously is at times, it never occurs to her to complain.

As history, the most valuable documents of rural life are often business records kept by the farmers themselves. Regarding Al Appenheimer’s farm, we are fortunate to possess highly detailed records of the farm’s operation which cover every year from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. But for all their historical significance, such records tell us very little of what individual family members actually did on a day-to-day basis.

Another primary source for understanding the daily life of rural families are letters, but letter writers almost always concentrate on important events such as weddings, births, illnesses and deaths.  What they omit, not surprisingly, are the small occurrences and activities which comprise an ordinary working day. Letters are relatively infrequent, so that events tend to be summarized, and condensed.  They convey little of the daily rhythm of rural life.

It is this aspect of Betty Appenheimer’s diary—the faithful recording of all the little things that she and her family and neighbors do, day in and day out, through three years of changing seasons—which makes her diary such an historical treasure trove.”

BJ Omanson

Some excerpts from Betty Appenheimer’s Depression-era Diary



Jan 30, 1934, Tue
Everyone was at school today except Kathryn Warren. They think her appendix will have to be taken out. This is President Roosevelt’s birthday. It is so cold that a jar of jam broke in John’s cellar and he had to build a fire. It was 10 below zero. Dean got some new high-tops. He makes plenty of noise when he walks.

Jan 31, 1934, Wed
Mother came home about twelve this morning. Grandpa is getting along fine. She has my party dress made. It is real pretty. Daddy got ten different kinds of breakfast food. Eight cards to paint came with some. We are going to make Valentines out of them. Kathryn went over to Noras. Florine had a temperature a hundred and two. Glenna and Yvonne have colds too. Thursday and Friday is teachers institute so we don’t have to go to school.


February 1, 1934, Thur
Mother took some baked beans and doughnuts up to Robinson’s. (Robson’s) We went in and saw her. She looks natural. We are going to have a recital tomorrow so Dorothy and Betty went up to reherse. We have Maytime, two piano pease, and I have the morning prayer. Mother washed. We got an order. Dorothy got a brazear and Kathryn got her shoes. They fit this time.

February 2, 1934, Fri
It was such a splendid [thing] that everyone was able to come to the recital. Neither Dorothy nor I made a mistake. I went over to Nora’s. Florine is better but she isn’t up yet and Nora’s neck is stiff. Glenna has a cold and had to go to bed. Juanita knocked the clock off the table and broke the glass, but we got it fixed before Daddy saw it. The groundhogs were able to see their shadow today.


February 3, 1934, Sat
Mrs. Robinson (Robson) had some relatives in California so they didn’t have the funeral until today. All the seats in the balcony was filled. Juanita’s class was going to have a party but it was postponed on account of the funeral. I went with Mother to the Leader’s meeting but we didn’t get to stay to the social hour. Yvonne and Dorothy are both sick. Being as Dorothy was sick I got to go to McRells in her turn. We all had a good time and decided to go to Streeds next Saturday night.

February 4, 1934, Sun
Glenna Mae got up this morning. Mother took us to Sunday School. Dorothy wasn’t able to go over to Ednas so Juanita and I were the only ones. Anna Mae and John were there too. We had ice-cream and chicken for our dinner. We played andy over, hide-go-seek, poison, and farmer and the cows. Anna Mae and John gave Edna a pin, Bob a handkerchief and Mother is making a dress for her. Betty June stayed all night with us.


February 5, 1934, Mon
Daddy went on a business trip with Seidrick so Edie (Ericson) and her baby are visiting us for the day. Nora let Floyd come over to see the baby and he wouldn’t go home when he was supposed to so Nora had to come after him. In the contest of washing out teeth last week the boys had eight points against them and the girls had none. The punishment is that they half to sweep the floor every noon and bring in the water pail and cobs. Edna is going to stay all night.

February 6, 1934, Tue
When Bobbie went home he was feeling sick. In our exercises we learned how to play the snake dance. Dean brought a big hat box to school to put our valentines in. Juanita and Kathryn Warren are decorating it. They covered it with yellow crepe paper. Then they pasted blue birds with red hearts in their bills on it. It is very pretty.

February 7, 1934, Wed
Daddy went to town this morning and didn’t get back until night. We had our supper over and the dishes done by six o’clock. Betty June and Bobbie were both absent with a cold. We had a lot of fun playing ball today because there was just one fielder. Glenna has been working on her letters and especially “f ”.

February 8, 1934, Thur
Daddy went to Chicago with a load of sheep. He went in a truck; unless he comes home tonight he will have to buy his ticket home. Kathryn is sick with a cold and had to go to bed. Mother and Nora washed. Juanita’s class are hunting bird’s nests to take to school. Juanita has found robin, barn swallow, brown thrush and sparrow nests. Daddy found a ground sparrows nest.

February 9, 1934, Fri
Mother got her ironing done. She finished a blue blouse for Juanita. We had blackberry pudding for supper. Clay is popping some popcorn. We had a card from Auntie Kae. She is sending us some valentines to take to school. It is 10 below zero. We got two and a half pages done on our note books.

February 10, 1934, Sat
Mother, Dorothy, and Nora went to Kewanee to get Daddy. Every one was surprised to see that Grandma came with him. Edna and Bobbie came to stay all nite. Mother mixed some waffles all but putting the egg whites in so all I had to do for dinner was to bake them. We didn’t take our music. A bunch of us surprised Streeds by dropping in for the evening. It was two when they got home.

February 11, 1934, Sun
Dorothy and I were planning on walking to church but we rode up with McRells. Daddy, mother and Nora went to Peoria to bring Grandpa home. He is doing fine. Edna and Bobbie went home about three o’clock. Yesterday Mother took Dorothy and my shoes to Kewanee because she could get them fixed free. She forgot to bring them home.

February 12, 1934, Mon
Dorothy got a letter from Auntie Clae. She said for us to write and tell her what to get for our graduation present just so it didn’t cost over fifty dollars. Florine has a big knot behind her ear. The doctor said if she wasn’t careful it might develop into massetoide. Grandma brought our slips that Auntie Mae had made for Dorothy and me. They were all right except they were two long.

February 13, 1934, Tues
Edna brought over a green jumper that she had outgrown. I tried it on and it fits me. We got the valentines from Auntie Kae. They sure are cute. I took about six pictures. Nora bought two dresses for Florine and she insisted that Nora buy Yvonne one. So she bought her a little green dress. Bobbie came over the stay all night. Grandma cut his hair. Mother was on the Legion comittee so she had to go to town tonite.

February 14, 1934, Wed
We called school early and just had one recess so we could have a little party in the afternoon. Glenna, Jimmy, Yvonne and grandma came about two o’clock. The little boys squat on the floor in a line. I got at one end and started to tell a story then I gave them a push and they all fell flat on the floor. We had a peanut scrabble and passed the valentines out at four. Mrs. Fritz gave us all a candy bar. Zella sent Dorothy and I a valentine.


February 15, 1934, Thur
Clay is seven years old today. He got two handkerchiefs. Mother is going to have a dinner for him Saturday. Mother, Daddy and Nora went to a sale. Mother bought seven cake pans, six salt and pepper shakers, a nice glass dish and some other junk. Grandma stayed with the kids. She is mending everything she can find. I had a boil on my leg; it broke last night. Nora gave me a pretty bow to wear on a dress or blouse. Glenna stayed at school all day.

FarmRecordBook1934Feb 16, 1934, Fri
When we woke up there was snow two inches deep. It kept snowing until noon. Dorothy nor I could find our hats so we had to wear a scarf around our heads. We had a lot of fun playing fox and geese. Mother dressed two chickens. She bought some gum drops and fixed them like mice, using rubber bands for tails and whiskers. A man came to check daddys farm account books.

February 17, 1934, Satlayinghen
Nora’s dog has three puppies. They are all marked just like there mother. The snow is melting very fast but the kids are yet riding on their sleds. Clay and Glenna cleaned out the chicken house. Daddy took Dorothy and I up to take our music lesson. Carl Dean, Charles, Betty June, Bob and Edna came over for dinner. They were throwing snowballs when Charles and Bob got angry. It ended that they all went home.

February 18, 1934, Sun
The snow was almost melted yesterday, but this morning it was snowing and blowing. About eleven thirty Dorothy and I got bundled up and threw snow balls at each other. We couldn’t go to Sunday School so Dorothy and I got to read all day. We had a good rest. Grandma went home with Nora. I made some butterscotch. I put it on a good platter. When Clay was getting some he broke the platter.

February 19, 1934, Mon
Auntie Mae said she would do all the sewing Mother would send her so Mother sent her eight aprons and two blouses. Granma is going to take them when she goes back. The mailman left the mail at school because he couldn’t get to our mailbox in the car. Grandma came over to school about three thirty. Daddy patched Glenna’s rubber ball with some ( ? ) rubber.

February 20, 1934, Tues
Tonight Daddy went to dig in the legion cellar. Mother and Grandma went to see Mrs. Streed. Dorothy, Juanita and Kathryn slid on the ice on the creek after they got their chores done. Mother, Daddy and Nora went to another sale. Nora bought another bed, dresser and some bedclothes. Mother bought a big box for a quarter that had some old clothes in it. Mother hung them on the line for three or four days to get rid of any germs.


February 21, 1934, Wed
Daddy went to a sale and bought another old sled for a quarter. It goes faster than the others but one of the guides is broken. We fastened two sleds together. Sometimes it would go over the bank. We are trying to teach Silver to pull the sled up the hill. I took Yvonne Jane and Glenna out for a ride. We are taking two rows of spelling a week now so we will have time to review the eighth grade spelling. Juanita and I took a bath.

February 22, 1934, Thu
I was carrying Dorothy and my banana in my pocket and forgot about them and played on the sled. I sqished them clear out of the pealings. It was Grandpa McRells birthday. They had a party for him. Nora, Florine and Floyd stayed here all night. The older people played cards most of the time; the rest of us play the square dance. It was two when we got to bed. Yvonne burned three of her fingers.

BellasHess1934February 23, 1934, Fri
We wrote a business and a friendly letter for grammar. We are going to have exams the first of next week. Clay played with Silver for a long time. We got the National Bellas Hess Catalogue. I picked out the shoes I’m going to get. Yvonne was over at Florine’s all day. Grandma was trying to kiss Edna but Edna’s head hit Grandma’s glasses and broke a bow. It gave her a black eye. Daddy fixed them with some cement.

February 24, 1934, Sat
Grandma went up to have Dr. Brown fix her teeth. Mother, Daddy and Nora went to Mrs. Robinson’s (Robson) sale and Dorothy and I to take our music, so Juanita stayed with the kids. We took a chicken up to Nolan’s. Nora took two to Dr. Packer. After our music Dot and I went down to the sale. Mother bought some dishes. Nora bought an oil stove, a cabinet and a cafe. It was five when we got home. Edna came over for the night. McRells came over; we played the square dance. We had pie for refreshment.

RecordCold_28Jan34February 25, 1934, Sun
It was snowing hard. McRells was going to take us to Sunday School in the bob-sled but decided it was too cold for the horses. Nora and her family stayed all night last night. They didn’t go home until about four o’clock. Edna didn’t have to go home. I made some brown sugar candy. Yvonne Jane has been entertaining us by singing little birdie with a yellow bill and some other songs. We fixed some ice cream.

February 26, 1934, Mon
Juanita and Kathryn made some cookies. We had ice cream again. Grandma found an old gunny sack; she made her a crochet hook and is going to made a rug. Mrs. Fritz pronounced our words to us this noon. We are going to have exams tomorrow. It was better sliding today than it had been but was so cold that the little ones didn’t play long. Mother was making a dress for me but it was too short so Juanita gets it.

February 27, 1934, Tues
It was twenty-two below zero this morning. We took our reading, arithmetic, civics, spelling and grammar. I got one hundred in spelling and arithmetic. Juanita is learning how to count in her music. We have a new black and white calf to feed. It is so fat that we are going to call it Chunky. Daddy had to teach it to drink. Kathryn and I cleaned our room. Daddy got stuck in a snow bank. John pulled him out.


Some of the “Main Characters” who appear in the Diary


The Parents

Alpheus Ray Appenheimer (1891-1974)

America Swango Appenheimer (1897-1957)

     The Children

Dorothy Louise Appenheimer (5 Jun 1920-___)

Betty Marie Appenheimer (24 Oct 1921-24 Dec 2011)

Juanita Ara Appenheimer (23 Mar 1924-___)

Kathryn Pearl Appenheimer (25 Jun 1925-___)

Alpheus Clay Appenheimer (15 Feb 1927-29 Aug 2008)

Glenna Mae Appenheimer (6 Jul 1928-___)

Yvonne Jane Appenheimer (28 May 1931-27 Dec 2007)


Betty Marie Appenheimer was the second of seven children, six girls and one boy, born to Alpheus Ray “Al” and America Swango Appenheimer. Sister Dorothy was sixteen months older.  Her sisters Juanita, Kathryn “Katy,” Glenna and Yvonne Jane were younger by about 2, 4, 7, and 10 years.  Her only brother, Clay, was 6 years younger. America Appenheimer enjoyed telling new acquaintances that she had six daughters and each one of them had a brother.

The McRells, a farm family of seven boys and one girl, lived a quarter mile to the west.  Ernie McRell, the father, and Al Appenheimer were good friends.  Ethel McRell was the mother.  The McRell children were, in birth order, Robert, Floyd, George, William, Anna Mae, John, Charles and Carl Dean.  The McRell grandparents, George and Anna McRell, lived in a second farmhouse on the farmstead, along with Ernie McRell’s brother Frank.

The Appenheimer children and McRell children attended Maxfield School, a one-room rural school located between the two families.  Betty Appenheimer was younger than the oldest McRells but older than John, Charles and Carl Dean.

            John and Nora Cockerham were neighbors and family friends.  John worked as Al Appenheimer’s hired man.  Nora helped with the domestic work, as well as filling and labeling one-gallon sorghum cans during sorghum season.  Florine was their daughter and Floyd, their son.



Jan 30.  John Cockerham.

Feb 3.  The Streeds, Ferdinand and Ethel and Lester and Adelheid, were farm neighbors to the west.  Mrs. Leonard B. Hankins and Olive were Al Appenheimer’s sister Pearl and his niece Olive–thus, Betty’s aunt and cousin.  Seidrick (i.e., Cedric) Ericson was the husband of Al’s niece Edie Appenheimer Ericson.

Feb 5.  Name error in newspaper article.  Mrs. Cedric Ericson, not Mrs. Frederick EricsonFloyd Cockerham.

Feb 6.  Dean and Kathryn Warren.

Feb 9.  Auntie Kae was the wife of America’s brother, Alfred Swango.

Feb 14.  Jimmy Warren.  The Warren children moved away and did not finish Toulon High school.

Feb 24.  Dr. Fred Brown, D.D.S., Toulon dentist, graduate of Northwestern University Dental School.  Nolans, spelled Nowlans.  Likely James Nowlan family; he was editor of The Stark County News and a representative in Illinois legislature.  I would guess the family bought the chicken.  Dr. Elmer B. Packer, beloved family doctor.  He was a captain in the Medical Corps in World War I.

Life and Death in Spoon River Country


Last Stand

When he woke in a cloud of pain to find
that he’d been installed in a narrow bed
in a strange room, a part of his mind
returned to the morning he lay half-dead
in the Argonne Forest, awaiting help,
expecting deliverance, counting upon
a fellow Marine— but no such hope
supported him now. He was on his own.
He ripped that abomination, that tube
and needle, ripped it out of his vein
and, laying hold of the lamp like a club,
he raised a thunderous shout till a rain
of running feet on linoleum poured
indignantly down the hall to his door.

Like Bowie near death at the Alamo,
propped against pillow with pistol cocked,
the old man waited for faces to show
in the open door and launched his attack,
hurling bedpan, lamp and telephone
at the scrambling nurses. They had him packed
and escorted home within the hour.
That evening, dug in like a cornerstone
on his own farm, resolutely locked
against all reason, lord of his tower,
he defied his family’s threats and pleas
till they crow-barred the door and found him dead,
draped in a coat, sitting upright in bed,
a Winchester rifle across his knees.
~ ~ ~ ~

Nowhere to Nowhere

When they sold off the farm she took the child
and caught a bus out of town— as for him,
with everyone gone and everything grim,
he opened a pint of bourbon, piled

pictures, letters and clothes in the yard,
doused them in kerosene, struck a match
and watched as they burnt to ashes, watched
and worked on his whiskey, working hard.

The next morning he caught an outbound freight
heading god-knows-where and he didn’t care—
he was down to nothing, a gypsy’s fare—
down to a rusty tin cup and a plate,

dice and a bible, a bedroll and fate,
down to a bone-jarring ride on a train
through country dying and desperate for rain,
running nowhere to nowhere and running late.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Proprietress of the Party Line

It wasn’t so much that she listened in
on our every call, it was that she took
not the slightest trouble to mask the din
and clatter of pots and pans as she cooked,
or bothered to set the receiver down
as she bellowed out the door to her boys
or cursed a pig off the porch. All the town
had to talk above or around the noise
of Lucinda’s chaotic life, and yet,
we’d not have embarrassed her on a bet
by letting her know we knew she was there—
the dullness and drill of her daily fare
had left her, like most of us, deadly bored;
whenever she blew off steam, we just paused
and held our tongues till the turmoil passed:
we wouldn’t want her to miss a word.

* * * * *

The Prodigal

In the end the thing that disturbed him most,
the thing he remembered most through the years,
was when he returned to the family place,
to the hard unforgiving acres where
his father still farmed, and recalled again
the inherent knowledge he once possessed
simply by being his father’s son—
a knowledge foregone, consigned to the past,
till he saw it rise up in his father’s face
as a look of reproach: that nothing gained
by talking has worth, that cattle and land
are the only wealth befitting a man;
that a landless man is like Adam cast
from the Garden, shamed, and forever lost.

* * * * *

There Are Stories

There are stories you know without knowing quite
how it is you know them, stories without
any point to speak of, except the point

of their own peculiar strangeness, stories
as empty of purpose as any abandoned
barn in these barren fields, enduring

against all likelihood or good reason.
One such story took place around here
a lifetime ago. An old couple died—

whether, as may be, by Providence
or simply by luck— they died, either way,
on the very same day. He died before lunch.

The daughters decided to tell her nothing.
She appeared to take no notice of sharing
her bed with a corpse, except to complain

of his icy feet. She was dead before dark.
And that’s all there is to that story.
No one recalls anymore who they were.

%d bloggers like this: