In 1928, on a June morning much like today, 12-year-old Doris Mitchell was roused from sleep in her Randall Park home by shafts of sunlight warming her face. The young girl sprang up, anxious to experience the dawning of another perfect summer day in Eau Claire. Though, in fact, the day had already begun without her.
On the corner of Broadway and Fourth, the Mitchell family home was an epicenter of activity: a bustling thoroughfare consisting of Doris’s father, mother, grandmother, siblings, and an endless stream of neighborhood friends, each of whom announced their presence by the slam of the screen door.
Meanwhile, outside, a parade of people began their daily duties. First came the iceman, who clucked his horse-drawn wagon to a halt before chipping off a 50-pound chunk sawed free from Half Moon Lake the previous winter.
Next came the milkman, who made his jangling jaunt from one house to another, retrieving the empty bottles from the porches and replacing them with the freshest milk this side of heaven.
Some days an electrician was called, or a plumber, though neither was half so exciting as the neighborhood rag-and-junkman, who creaked his busted wagon along the sun-dappled streets hollering “Rags, paper, iron! — living proof of the dictum of making one man’s trash another’s treasure.
Shortly after breakfast, Doris and a dozen or so children hustled from their homes, but how would they pass the time? Ball and jacks? Jump rope? Roller skates? Storytelling on the curb? Or perhaps a game of cards beneath the trees?
If they’d begged enough pins out of their mothers, Doris and her friends might cross the pins into an X formation, then place them on the trolley tracks and wait for the crushing wheels sure to transform them into a pair of miniature scissors. Though they never had to wait long; from dawn until midnight, the friendly ding of the trolley cars was heard every 15 minutes.
Before Dr. Mitchell headed off to his house calls, he might enlist Doris and her more industrious friends to clear his yard of dandelions. The going rate was a dime for a hundred plucked dandelions — who could resist such high pay?
Once all the dandelions had been cleared, and the other neighborhood games had lost their luster, Doris and her friends, equipped with matches and metal canteens, would spend their days in search of small-town adventures: trekking up State Street Hill toward the Indian mounds, or braving the railroad bridge near the town of Brunswick, or exploring the island in the Chippewa River.
Upon their return, they might celebrate with a trip to Adam’s Drug Store on the 500 block of Water Street (later a health store), where the soda fountain stretched on forever. For a nickel (just half the earnings of a day’s dandelion picking), Doris and the others could treat themselves to one of Mr. Adam’s famous ginger mint juleps. Before heading home, the children might pay a visit to Mr. Evans’ blacksmith shop just two blocks away (later Kerm’s Super Foods’ parking lot), where the man ran the forge like Hephaestus.
But Doris and the other children’s real education occurred while walking between the drug store and the blacksmith. No, not Mrs. Hoffman’s Hat Shop or Uecke’s Dairy, but Sandy Dean’s funeral parlor, which, despite its windows filled with ferns, could not hide the specter of death which remained just beyond the children’s periphery.
“The summer of 1928 would be the last time my Westside neighborhood gang would play together as a group in the homes and yards around Randall Park,” wrote Doris Arnold (as she was later known) in her 1987 book, “Remembering Eau Claire.”
Doris and the others had simply outgrown their childhood, and had no choice but to pass the torch to the neighborhood’s younger children. The card games would continue beneath the trees, and the jump ropes still swung high, but things were different now. Not only for Doris, but for the entire town.
“Motor cars and trucks reduced the number of horse-drawn buggies and wagons,” Doris wrote. “Buses would soon replace trolleys.”
And then one day refrigeration units replaced iceboxes, and the iceman vanished without a trace. How long, the children wondered, until the milkman, too, disappeared?
There was no stopping it, nor did anyone want to.
“We were caught in transition,” Doris explained, “and it felt good.”
Such idyllic scenes seemed pulled directly from Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine.” Not only do both books provide nostalgia-filled odes to the summer of 1928, but they’re both set in small Midwestern towns. More astonishing, they feature scenes that echo one another with eerie detail: from the fond farewell of the trolley cars, to the appearance of the rag-and-junkman, to the annual summer harvest of hand-plucked dandelions.
In Bradbury’s book, the title serves as a metaphor — dandelion wine is the narrator’s best crack at holding tight to a fast-fading summer. It is the 12-year-old’s attempt to savor every last gulp of his childhood before the bottle runs dry.
Doris Arnold’s “Remembering Eau Claire” performs much the same function, though in its own unique vintage. Throughout its 95, spiral-bound pages, Doris, who died in 2010, offers readers of future generations a sepia-toned version of Eau Claire that’s all the sweeter since we’ll never know that place again.
Walking Randall Park today, you will not see any children playing ball and jacks. What you will see is Doris’s childhood home standing stately on the corner. While the park’s statue of Adin Randall draws the most attention, Doris’s former home is its own monument: paying homage to the young girl who observed her world, then wrote it down, and in doing so, paved the way for one last journey to yesteryear.