Arlene Lighthall: generations, professional changes, and earning a living at La Porte
WNLP Editor’s Note: Here is another chapter from the memoir of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall. Arlene, who now lives in Del Mar, Calif., Grew up in La Porte. The many responses from WNLP readers to her memoir added sweeter stories from our hometown. Arlene graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and graduated from Ball State and Indiana Universities; she also studied in various European countries. Expect more of his memoirs soon on WNLP.
I call my memories “My La Porte” to isolate a particular period from early childhood to my entry into high school. “Ma La Porte” is no longer there, just like Gertrude Stein’s writing “there is not there, there”. There were other La Porte. One was for my parents and another for my grandparents, and yet another for my great-grandparents. These La Porte are also gone.
Wallace Stegner once said, “History… does not exist until it is memorized and written, and it is not really memorized or written until it is vividly imagined. We become our past, and it is part of us, reliving our beginnings. “
I am like a little Russian doll. Open to me to find my parents inside, and inside them their parents, and inside of them…. La Porte has been a part of my entire family since the mid-1850s, when nothing more than a milk bottle ride on a world map brought my ancestors to northern Indiana. Life in Prussia was hard. Although serfdom had been abolished in 1820, many nobles were ignorant of the law. The unrest sparked an unsuccessful civil war. Because the harvests had been poor, the local dukes freed workers who had nowhere to live without jobs. Immigration records do not register people from “Germany”. They came from their provinces named Poznan or Mecklenburg or Pommern or, more generally Prussia. These territories had been circulated for centuries between the Swedes, Poles, Russians and Prussians to the point that the emigrants may not have known their own origins. Many have taken as family names the names of their villages of origin.
The Porte was the destination of my ancestors and my starting point a century later. Perhaps their relatives or friends had made the trip and wrote to the Old Country that the soil of northern Indiana produced bountiful crops of wheat and corn, despite the occasional rusting of spring wheat. A woolen mill on Fox Street might have encouraged some to raise sheep. The growing city needed masons, carpenters, lumberjacks and skilled laborers. The word “worker” on the ship’s manifesto indicated that my ancestors were not looking for jobs as teachers or clerks in the new confectionery or bookbinding at La Porte. Not declaring any particular skills, they wanted honest work in freedom. They wanted to earn food. My mother’s maternal grandparents chose a country life. His other grandfather made cigars in town.
How did they travel from New York to La Porte? Who did they stay with? What were they doing every day? When I could have asked my grandmothers about the good old days, I was too young to care. They all had to work hard. Maybe they were too busy to talk about their parents and the past that should be forgotten. The pleasure would come from their own productivity and its rewards.
Popka’s great-grandparents operated a farm outside of La Porte in a village called Tracy, only half a point on an old map if it even appeared next to a collection of farms called “Kingsbury”. In forty or fifty years, they had a house, a horse and a buggy. They worked hard and saved.
Little remains of Tracy. Most were demolished during WWII, not through bombs but for bombs at KOP (Kingsbury Ordnance Plant). Its products would demolish villages in the Old Country, and after World War II and the Korean War, the KOP itself would be abandoned, remaining only a memory for those who found decent employment there. The cemetery in Tracy has been moved and no one knows if all the stones were put back in the same order. Hopefully those who are together in life have stayed together in death and do not fight underground with hostile neighbors.
The Porte in the mid-1850s was growing rapidly to meet the needs of the surrounding farming communities and the city itself. Old newspapers have reported that a church has secured new pews or purchased property, a business has held an open house in a new location, an enlarged bank has elected new leaders. A bank, a bank, a bank – the constant subject of old newspaper articles. Lots of money changed hands and good deals were made for new construction, often on a pile of smoldering ashes. No reliable fire force existed with personnel or equipment to extinguish the many fires that occurred: a lamp knocked down by loose cattle roaming the streets, a casually knocked over cigar, an unattended wood stove. Or arson?
The growth of La Porte brought wealth. The demand for agricultural equipment was going to explode because of the machines pulling stumps from the harvesters. Local entrepreneurs were doing business in South Africa, Russia and Italy. Their spacious Victorian houses required housekeepers, nurses, laundresses, and cooks. My grandmother Mathilda Popka found such a job as a home farm girl. She worked hard. The men came with their dreams and their savings to invest. They became our patriarchs, our own barons in the late 1800s. The streets and subdivisions still bear their names, names that I have used as landmarks to explore La Porte by bike with an abandon and a freedom comparable only to those of the cows and pigs without enclosures that partied in the city center in the early 1900s.
My paternal grandfather had left when my father was only 12 years old. Because dad had to provide for his mother and four sisters, he always worked hard. My maternal grandfather died when I was so young that I have no memory of him. A single son supported his widowed mother, and she ran the house for him. I know she had time for a church social circle. The Lutheran school in St. John’s and its day school was very important, where mom and her siblings were educated. To them there was no other denomination.
Shortly after my parents got married, the Great Depression hit. Those lean years required frugality to recycle, repair, grow vegetables and become as self-sufficient as possible.
Today’s environmental practices are nothing new to me; they have always been part of my life at La Porte.