Recorded on February 10, 2012. Length: 30 Minutes.
DG: Good morning. Today is Friday, February 10, 2012. Welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library. My name is Donna Gulley and I am pleased to welcome Bill Borchardt who has lived and worked in Northbrook his entire life. We are looking forward to hearing about the lives of his ancestors who it sounds like have lived in Northbrook forever. Bill, I hope you will tell me whatever you think is most important.
BB: Thank you for having me. I guess I will start with my great-grandparents who lived here when the town was called Shermerville. My great-grandfather on my grandfather’s side had a farm where the Naval Air Station and then The Glen is now. My great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side was the undertaker here in town – Herman P. Mentzer. So August Borchardt, my great-grandfather, was a farmer. The farmhouse I believe is still there. It was moved to the Naval Air Station and they used it – guys would put on their gas masks there and walk around the house. I am not sure if it is still there since The Glen has been developed.
DG: Wow. We will have to go find out. That is a historic place.
BB: When my great-grandfather died and they sold the property, my grandfather took his share of the money and moved into town and bought a house at 1803 Shermer Avenue.
DG: Before we leave The Glen, last month I interviewed Gary Eberlein and he talked about his family being from a farm in the same area so is there a connection between you two?
BB: His grandmother and my grandfather were brother and sister so that is how we are related – cousins down the line there. Two of my grandfather’s brothers died when they were quite young, in their 30s. Of course back then they didn’t do autopsies – one just fell over and died while waiting for the train. So my grandfather moved into town. He bought a frame house, tore it down and built a brick house. Later he told me that the purchase, tear down and building of the new house all cost him $2,000.
DG: $2,000 – and what year was that?
BB: It was 1914 or 1915.
DG: I want some of our younger listeners and others who have suffered during this recession to put the whole time in perspective. What a change.
BB: It was a different time. When they were building the foundation, he would bring a pail of beer to the cement workers and they would pour a little bit thicker foundation.
DG: That’s still pretty common today, isn’t it?
BB: Yes, the house had a good solid foundation. I remember there was a coal bin there. My father wanted to make the hole to the coal bin a little bit bigger. He hit the cement with a sledge hammer and tried to enlarge that hole. He couldn’t do it. My father was born in that house in 1917 on the kitchen table and lived in that house most of his life. After his parents got married they lived elsewhere for 6-7 years. When my grandfather retired and felt he couldn’t manage the house, he asked my folks to move in with them and at that time my sister and I were born. Our family lived on the first floor and my grandfather built an apartment for him and my grandmother on the second floor.
DG: That is somewhat surprising because today senior citizens are always wanting first floor living. The stairs didn’t bother them?
BB: It didn’t bother them. We all lived in the same house. I was always very attached to my grandfather. We did everything together before I went to school.
DG: What kind of things did you do together?
BB: He had a part time job working for Alden Sears, the son of Joseph Sears, the founder of Kenilworth. Alden Sears had a house on Hillside Road with quite a bit of property. At that time it was the largest house on Hillside and in Northbrook although it doesn’t look that large now. My grandfather worked as handyman, gardener and I would go with him.
DG: Were you put to work? Did you horse around?
BB: He let me do stuff.
DG: You said he worked for a man named Sears. Does that have anything to do with Sears & Roebuck?
BB: He was a distant relative of that Sears. Joseph Sears was one of the founders of Kenilworth. They buried all the electric and telephone lines there. No telephone or electric poles. That was one of his ideas.
DG: So, you and your grandpa were good friends. Did your grandpa drive a car?
BB: Yes, he drove a car. My grandmother’s parents lived two houses away from the house my grandfather built. That was Herman P. Mentzer, the undertaker. He was the only undertaker in the area at that time. He was a carpenter and built caskets and that is how he became the undertaker. That’s how a lot of undertakers came to that position. His house is still standing. The Historical Society has a picture of the barn where he did his work.
DG: With you mentioning pictures at the Historical Society, I want you and all of our listeners to know that the Society is always looking for pictures illustrating our history so if you have some to share, please do so. We can copy them and return the originals.
BB: We have given the Society quite a few pictures and if I find some more I will do so. There are pictures of the hearses (wagons) pulled by horses, white horses and black horses. The white horses were used for children. There were two different types of hearses too. My grandmother had two sisters, Minnie and Martha, and a brother, Herman, Jr. When my great-grandfather died, Minnie and her husband took over the undertaking business and built a house across the street from my great-grandfather’s house. This was probably in the late 20s. That was about the time when funeral homes were being developed. Most people had been “laid out” in their house. So he built a big house with a large brick building in the back where his morgue was. He built a house large enough so that he could lay bodies out in the living room and turn it into a funeral home. The living and dining rooms doubled as a funeral parlor. He also had an office. The upstairs of the garage became a casket showroom when that was needed.
DG: You say there was a time when a person was just “laid out” in their own homes? Then it isn’t such a stretch to use your living room as a funeral parlor.
BB: As time went on funeral homes were developed. This one was called the Lauer Funeral Home. Rude Lauer was my great-uncles name. He was ahead of the times. He was also president of the Deerfield Bank and put his own money into it during the crash of ‘29 so that the bank could stay open.
DG: I was fascinated when you told me that. It sounds like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Is that about the same era? What personal responsibility people took.
BB: That’s right. He came through it okay. Unfortunately, he died when he was in his 40s. He had an appendicitis attack and they just could not get him to a hospital in time to save his life. My great aunt felt Rude was everything to her and did not want to change anything. She had an undertaker come in to manage the business but my father was the only person who could talk her into making any changes to update things. The Lauer Funeral Home stayed in business until Minnie died in 1972 or 1973. The house was later moved over to Waukegan Road. I remember when we were selling the chairs and things, a man came from Indiana and was looking inside the garage where the morgue was located. He said he had never seen a building from the 20s with steel beams. It was uncommon in that period. My grandfather was ahead of his time. I wonder how he would have fared if he had lived.
DG: It sounds like he was very much ahead of his time. Now, you were born here?
BB: I was born in Evanston at the hospital. My father was born on the kitchen table.
DG: So, your grandfather built the house, your father was born in the house and you grew up in the house on Shermer Avenue so that house has seen a lot of stories. Is that house still here?
BB: No, it was torn down in the 70s – maybe 76 or 77. There is a medical building there. DG: So you went to school here? What years were you in school?
BB: I went to St. Norbert’s school, started Kindergarten there in 1952. They had about 9 classrooms and a cafeteria in the back.
DG: How big do you think Northbrook was at that time?
BB: Boy, I don’t know exactly. Probably about 5,000. The city limits of Northbrook are a lot bigger than they were then. At that time Western Avenue was the limit. Beyond that was unincorporated.
DG: So, tell us about St. Norbert’s School.
BB: They had a cafeteria when I was in kindergarten. By the time I got into first or second grade, they turned the cafeteria into classrooms. Then they built a wing of new classrooms and a gymnasium. The church was in the same building but when the church was too small, they turned the gym into the church. When they were building the gymnasium they asked for donations for the floor of inlaid wood. Everyone who could afford it bought sections of the floor. When they decided to use the gym as the church, they screwed pews into the floor. Some who had donated for the beautiful floor felt it was wrong to do that. At the speed Northbrook was growing at the time, they couldn’t keep up with classrooms. Later it was harder to keep the classrooms full. Now there seems to be a resurgence. When they built the new church on the other end, they turned the space back into a gymnasium.
DG: What was school like in the 50s?
BB: We walked to school, even in the winter, when your hair would be frozen by the time you got to school, since you always wet your hair down. We would go outside for recess, played in the park across the street. We wore uniforms and bow ties and at the end of the year would burn our bow ties in the park.
DG: You went to Catholic School – was your family Catholic?
BB: My mother was Catholic. She was the outcast when they got married. Everyone else went to St. Pete’s. It was a close community. I don’t know how many churches there were at that time in Northbrook, but St. Pete’s was one of the big ones. My relatives were from St. Pete’s.
DG: Did your dad go to church with you?
BB: He didn’t really go to church. On Christmas and Easter he would go with us.
DG: If we go back and talk about school a little bit, the 50s when you were in school, who do you remember as being on TV?
BB: “I Love Lucy,” “Captain Video,” “Howdy Doody” were some of the programs I recall. My grandfather bought a TV in about 1949, I think. I was only a couple of years old. My sister would bring kids over to watch TV in the afternoon. It was a big box with a very small screen and black and white – not like TVs today at all.
DG: You said your mother was a Catholic, but I don’t know her name.
BB: Her name is Betty Oden. She was born in Chicago but grew up in Glenview and attended Glenview High School. She was in the first graduating class. Before that you only went two years and then had to go to Highland Park or New Trier High School for the last two years. My father went to Highland Park for his last two years.
DG: A good friend of your mother was Gladys Heinz – who is Gladys Heinz?
BB: She was Gladys Potter. Her parents lived on Church Street behind our property but to the side. I think my grandmother was a distant cousin of Mrs. Potter. I remember her telling me she was in the Potter’s wedding party. I am not sure how they were related but she was a distant cousin. Gladys and Don Heinz who were in the same graduating class were active in the Historical Society.
DG: So, we are starting to get a flavor of Gladys and Don and Gary and you – there is quite a nucleus of people who have been in Northbrook for a long, long time. So you have seen lots of changes. I am wondering what you think about the growth beyond Western, about new people come in and all the changes?
BB: I remember when they built the shopping center and the new library on Shermer across the street from our house in 1953. The shopping center was built in 1954. We used to play in those fields before the construction and then we played in the buildings when they were being built.
DG: No barbed wire or electric fence around that construction site?
BB: The original library was over in the Village Hall. I guess it was the library, fire department and police department all together in the same building.
DG: Was Shermer the main shopping area when you were growing up?
BB: There was a new supermarket across from the Northbrook Garage building. Before that there was just Melzer’s Grocery Store. Eventually that A&P burned down in the late 50s. I believe they rebuilt at the same location. With the shopping center, the Jewel came in and that became the main grocery store. Other stores were the Ben Franklin, a shoe store, a hairdresser, a dress shop, Huerbinger Drug Store and some medical offices. The shopping center on the other side of Church was built later and also after the church was built. I vaguely remember was I was very small there was just a house where the church is now and then all of a sudden there was a church there.
DG: St. Norbert doesn’t have a high school so where did you go to high school?
BB: Glenbrook which was just one high school at that time located where Glenbrook North is now. My senior year was the last year with both Northbrook and Glenview students as Glenbrook South had been opened. I graduated in the Class of 1965.
DG: Did you know that the class of 1965 across the United States is a big class? There is a book about that class. You were in a famous group. So then you went to college?
BB: I went to Lakeland College in Sheybogan, WI.
DG: Did you come right back here?
BB: Yes, I came back here and married a girl I went to grade school with who was a year younger than me. I didn’t really know her well in grade school but she lived next door to my best friend. We dated in college a couple of times. She went to school in Cincinnati and stayed there to teach. In the summer she would come back and work at the YMCA.
DG: So how long did it take you to marry this gal?
BB: I guess I started to get to know her when I was a sophomore in high school and we got married in 1976. Laurie Mayer is her name and we had two children. My son lives in Cary near where I now live and my daughter lives in Woodstock.
DG: What did you major in in college?
BB: History. I was going to be a history teacher.
DG: And did you teach?
BB: At that time, it was hard to get a job. The market was flooded with teachers so I got into the automotive business as I could make more money at that than I could teaching. I never pursued the teaching.
DG: Did you learn the automotive business on the streets?
BB: Yes. With today’s cars with computers you actually have to go to school to learn to work on cars but then it was a matter of taking it apart and putting it together.
DG: Where is your business located?
BB: We are on Techny, 1855 Techny Road. The business is Calbri Automotive. Tom Calbri started a gas station in 1949 at Shermer and Waukegan. I started working there in high school, pumping gas and stuff after school.
DG: Is the football field at the high school connected to your family some how?
BB: No, no.
DG: Somebody told me it was named for your great uncle, William Lutz.
BB: Oh, yes, Bill Lutz is married to my father’s first cousin, Esther Lutz. She is my grandmother’s sister’s daughter. They lived across the street when they were kids and became very close. Esther married Bill Lutz who became the athletic director at the high school.
DG: After you graduated from high school and were in college, the Viet Nam war came along.
BB: I had a college deferment and after college they had a draft lottery and I got number 32. I was pretty close to being taken when I graduated from college. I joined the National Guard at O’Hare Field, then my draft notice came up and I had to take a physical which I flunked. So I did not have to serve in that nasty war. I had friends who served and heard their stories. One friend was showing some pictures and pointed to a soldier and said, “he saved my life.” When I asked how that happened he said the soldier had thrown himself on a grenade. My friend was very matter of fact but I know he suffered from migraine headaches. Now he has moved away and I have lost track of him.
DG: We are indebted to those people. When your children were growing up here, did they go to St. Norberts?
BB: No, I moved out to Cary in 1976 when I got married but continued to work in Northbrook.
DG: What was the attraction? Why did you move to Cary?
BB: It was to find a place to rent. I had a friend who had a cottage there which he hoped to use as a retirement house later. He was going there every weekend to cut the grass so I said I could save him that trip.
DG: As time has gone on, how has your commute from Cary to Northbrook changed?
BB: It has changed quite a bit – more stoplights. I counted them one time. If you leave early in the morning and go home late at night, it isn’t so bad.
DG: As we conclude, what is your most special memory of Northbrook?
BB: I guess being young and being able to play in the field across the street.
DG: Thank you so much for coming and doing this interview today. Northbrook Voices appreciates having your history.