We’ve all heard about the fairy godmother. I had a fey aunt. She had the broad, capable hands and blunt fingers of our German ancestors. With them, Aunt Marie created magic, in paintings, clothes, costumes, sculptures, parades, pageants, Santa Claus Houses, and in 1957, a museum, The Old General Store, known as far away as Russia. From her, I developed a love of history and the understanding that we must nurture whatever talents we’ve been given.
Marie Louise Duerrstein was born just after the turn of the last century in the Northern Illinois village of Guilford, approximately ten miles away from Galena. Television was decades away. Entertainments were homegrown. Mom and Aunt Marie played in the Small Pox Creek with their three other sisters. They made up games, hiked the spectacular countryside, had picnics, and dressed up strange costumes. Their first car, the Jumpin’ Jive, got reupholstered in lively colors, and its wheels painted yellow, and took them laughing and bouncing over the country back roads.
Mom always longed for her youth in Guildford, but Aunt Marie had dreams. Galena was close enough and just the right size for her head full of ideas. She became a seamstress, sold paintings, and asked the old-timers about Galena history. From Grandma Swing, (no relation and over a hundred), Aunt Marie heard about Lincoln campaigning in Galena, at that time, a boomtown three times its present size. The original buildings on Main Street are still standing, something she fought to preserve.
Until the dike was built in the nineteen-fifties, every spring the town flooded. Merchandise was moved to the top floors, a lot of it forgotten. Aunt Marie told the owners that she would clean out the top floors if she could keep what she found. She unearthed, cleaned, and repaired enough to open The General Store, where nothing was for sale. She dubbed it “A Step into the Past,” and it felt like it when you walked through the door with its tinkling bell. Later, she expanded, adding an office, tavern, WC, and living quarters. The kerosene lamps worked, the pot-bellied stove and range in the living quarters supplied heat. The apples and crackers in the barrels were real, the food on the dining table, the cookies and hard candies in the jars. She made the mannequins and dressed them in clothes from the eighteen-eighties. People came from all over the world to hear her talk about Galena history.
Her apartment was stacked to the ceiling with labeled boxes filled with ribbons, fans, underwear, celluloid collars, waistcoats, and hats. When film crews came to town, they stopped to talk to her first. Her collection of period clothes provided for a fashion show and helped costume more than one film, but what I loved the most was her sly humor when Halloween rolled around. My favorite of her many costumes was the year she made the Two-Faced Couple. Mom was in a dress, halved, so the front was the same as the back. Masks had the same face on both sides. Aunt Marie dressed as the man—the shoes had no backs, only fronts, the same as her clothes. When she and Mom walked in the grand march at the Turner Hall party, Aunt Marie walked backwards, and you couldn’t tell. Her shoes, clothes, gloves and hat were exactly the same on both sides.
To follow are some photos. (Forgive my lack of expertise and impatience with the creation of an interesting layout.) The first is an early painting (with the use of perspective and highlighting that I needed private lessons to understand), high school picture, as an extra in the film “Gaily Gaily, and Mom in the fashion show, in a duster walking her dog, Orby.
Like a Pied Piper, she badgered people into helping her create pageants and parades. She wanted Santa to be real and every year did what she could to keep him alive with a “house” where children could sit on his lap, tell him their wishes, and get a cookie. Funding for all of her projects came from handmade donation containers Galena merchants kept by the registers.
Since I followed her around, there no was no chance of staying idle. She slapped a paintbrush in my hand, dressed me up and put me to work in the museum, showed me how to make a life-sized elephant, used me as a model whenever a newspaper or magazine came to interview and photograph the museum. Her mantra was “never pay for advertising,” and yet the store ended up in regional and national newspapers and magazines. Her last project was her undoing—a fashion show with period clothes. A stroke followed, but before it hit, she said she had another idea, this time, about a circus, but she had difficulty with vision and talking afterwards. There were no more Santa Houses and parades. Galena evolved without her into a haven for artists and one of the few historic sites in the US left intact.
I have no doubt that Aunt Marie is in heaven, arranging for some event, having fun with her sisters, and finally able to create the ideas and visions that were too big for this too small world.