Kane County History: A Mormon Tale in Aurora, IL

Kane County History: A Mormon Tale in Aurora, IL

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Aurora Historical Society President Mary Clark Ormond.

She had come to Aurora during the Great Depression, a child of 5 or so, raised with her little brother by devout Mormon parents looking for work after crop failures forced them out of farming.

He came to Aurora some years later, a young Mormon man who, knowing the scanty job scene in Utah, had seized upon military service as a likely career. He was sent to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, where on weekends he would, for 50 cents, hitch a ride with buddies to the Aurora area.

Louise Greer graduating West High 1942.

In addition to enjoying big city life including the Paramount and Tivoli theaters he could attend Mormon religious services and spend time with leaders who were establishing a new branch (subdivision) of the church there.  One of those leaders had a daughter just going on 17.

“She” was Louise Greer (July 30, 1924, to  Sept. 21, 2014 ), an artistically-inclined junior at West Aurora High School at the time they met, and “he” was Bob Erekson (March 24, 1921, to Dec. 22, 2010), 20 years old and a staff sergeant with the Army Air Corps.

Although they would later characterize their early relationship as “not romantic,” Louise and Bob married a year later (1942) in Salt Lake City and returned to Aurora, where they raised a large family and become bedrock citizens of the fledgling Mormon community in Aurora.

Cover of “Fitly Framed Together” by Ginger Hamer featuring newlywed photo.

Their story is told in the 2009 book Fitly Framed Together (Pacer Books, Billings, Montana), a collection of their memoirs put together by their daughter, Ginger Erekson Hamer. It is a fine-grained view of middle-class life in Aurora in the mid-20th century, shaped and colored by their devotion to the Mormon way of life.

If ever there were a life story of hard work, flexibility and perseverance, theirs is one.

With Bob in the military, the young couple began their married life in Urbana, near Chanute Field, but it was wartime, and Bob immediately found himself on a merry-go-round of assignments which included a year in Panama.

First home in Aurora – trailer on vacant property 1945.

Their first child, Ginger, would be 2 years old before Daddy finally came home in 1945.

Having a new baby did not prevent Louise from finding work while Bob was away.

As a high schooler she had worked as a carhop and ice cream scooper at Prince Castle and a mother’s helper for Jane Snook whose husband, Albert, was the president and general manager of the Beacon News. Now a teenage wife and mother, Louise found work with the city of Aurora, where she supervised art and play activities and coached sports for the Playground Department.

She also worked at Stoner Manufacturing, where she inspected bullet cases, and then at Lyon Metal, where she inspected rivets on the curved tail assemblies of F4U Corsair fighter planes, the “Angels of Okinawa”.

In her memoir she says, “I don’t remember how much I made an hour, but I made all kinds of money.”

Ford station wagon (1956).

Indeed, she made enough to buy five lots in the 1500 block of Hoyt Avenue, a 1936 five-window Ford coupe and a used 21-foot travel trailer, all of which she and Bob immediately put to use as their first home in Aurora.

Sleeping on the fold-out couch (with little Ginger sleeping on the kitchen bench) and cooking on a kerosene stove, they only needed to dig an outhouse, build a storage shed, drill a well and run electricity onto the property to feel they were proper homeowners.

That early little homestead at 1515 Hoyt on what was at the time a gravel road on the outskirts of Aurora was just the first house for Louise and Bob. Over the years, they lived variously at 144 Franklin St., 715 Cypress St., and finally 773 North Edgelawn St.

As the children kept coming – eight of their own and two adopted later — and their commitments to the church multiplied, the family sometimes found itself in difficult financial circumstances.

Bob had taken up the trade of carpentry and even started a company with friend Bud Marshall. Erekson and Marshall Builders lasted only six years, after which Bob made a living building chapels and centers for Mormon expansion in the Chicago region.

Family portrait 1963 (Ginger was away at BYU).

One of the characteristics of the Mormon Church is that every member participates as a volunteer in the work of the church, and in a small branch like Aurora, members were often asked to take on two, three or more jobs.

Bob and Louise faithfully accepted “calls” from the church leadership to do unpaid work as educators, evangelists, youth advisors, social service coordinators and, in Bob’s case, Aurora Branch president. The workload was considerable and also included fundraising.

The women of the Aurora group held monthly bake sales, usually at Ward and Jones Furniture in downtown Aurora, at which they would have the children don sign boards with messages like “My Mommy’s cakes are good!”  Those proceeds were directed to a building fund while other fundraising efforts went to the general budget for rent, utilities and supplies.

The branch had begun with a handful of members in the early 1930s and met until 1959 at Odd Fellows Hall on LaSalle Street. Ginger Erekson Hamer, recalling her childhood church-going, wrote:

“In the late afternoon meeting, the sun glared in our eyes. Summers, it roasted us. If we opened the windows for ventilation, the sounds of the street and the tavern across the street drifted into the meeting. And every Sunday, exactly on schedule, the California Zephyr … roared by, rattling the windows and drowning out the speaker.”

Later, the branch would rent space at the 7th Day Adventist building on Plum Street as well as at Lincoln School, Allen School and the Christian Science church on New York Street. There is no longer a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in Aurora, although there are half a dozen in the greater Chicago area.

House designed and built by Bob at 773 N. Edgelawn c. 1968.

Having a houseful of little boys (and a girl) to raise, having obligations to the church and having irregular income began to take their toll. Louise managed to find part-time jobs. She worked as a cashier at Maudsley’s grocery store on Galena Boulevard, and as a gift wrapper at Sencenbaugh’s downtown department store.

She painted Christmas scenes on plywood for the city display between the old City Hall and Post Office (one of which – a children’s choir against a backdrop of painted stained glass windows – was purchased by the organizers of the still-popular Lehnertz Avenue Christmas display).

None of this was easy. In May of 1963 she wrote to their daughter, who was away at Brigham Young University:

Well, Ginger, I’m hoping that when you get home we can do all the things that need to be done. Our grass is about six inches high, the flower bed in back is just torn up, nothing fixed right, we have motorcycle parts and a go-cart and junk and more junk all over the back yard.

The flower bed in front is just started, nothing done.  I can’t get the clothes even sorted, the basement is a mess, the kitchen is really dirty. It needs a good cleaning. No ironing is done, this office is piled under junk and paper, etc.   … nothing is right around here. We hope to have a garden, but nothing is done there either. I really want a garden. I’m afraid I’m planning too heavily on you coming home and helping me.

Whether or not that garden ever got planted, a year later Louise explained her values this way:

I really feel the gospel is the most important thing in the world.  Everything we do should be subordinate to it.  If you have to choose between housework and a well-prepared Primary lesson (she was a volunteer religion teacher), you prepare the lesson.

Daughter Ginger Erekson Hamer c. 1968.

While Bob worked in fits and starts, Louise continued to accept and prioritize assignments as a church volunteer, but the wolf was at the door.  We are down to the last crumb at this house she wrote in a letter.  I did buy a dollar’s worth of bread yesterday.  We’re out of flour, sugar, eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit.  We have dry milk, potatoes and bread, and hopes of a paycheck tonight.  I don’t think we’ve ever gotten so low on food.

Soon life in Aurora simply crumbled. Work opportunities dried up for Bob, they were $6,000 in debt, and they were a year behind in payments on the house he had built for them at 773 N. Edgelawn. With such a large family, they couldn’t even find a place to rent.

On March 5, 1968, after yet another day of unsuccessfully looking for work, Bob went to Maudsley’s store, found Louise and said, “There’s no work out there.  Why don’t we go to Billings?”

By midnight they and their three youngest children were on the road in their 1963 Rambler station wagon to lay the groundwork for their next chapter.

The move was not as random as it sound, since friends had long raved to them about what a great place Billings was. It certainly suited the Ereksons.

By the time summer arrived they were hard at work on new church assignments and Bob was busy making camper tops for the budget-minded young people of the west who did a lot of family camping. The children were growing up and going on their church-based recruitment missions around the world. An avalanche of Erekson weddings and baptisms began.

As their children married, the roster of grandchildren and great-grandchildren swelled to dozens. Ginger had earned her degree at BYU, returned to Aurora, married a newcomer to the Mormon community, Bill Hamer, and was teaching English at West Aurora High School, her own alma mater as well as her mother’s.

In a way it completed the circle for the Mormon life of the Ereksons in Aurora.

In 1968, during their final days in Aurora, while they emptied the house and organized the kids, Louise wrote a farewell note which was published in the Beacon News.

EDITOR BEACON NEWS: Our family is moving to Billings, Montana, this week and we would like to take this opportunity to tell our friends in the Aurora area how thankful we are for the many things they have done and for the help and influence they have been to our family.

My husband is a building contractor and, in this position, has built many homes in Aurora. We hope we have given good service and quality work. 

We are grateful for the school system where our children have attended, for the teachers, too numerous to mention individually, who have taught our children and helped those who have finished school to decide on their careers. We thank the Aurora Foundation and the PTA for their help with scholarships to Ginger and Erik.

Our boys have had paper routes for eleven years … thanks to the Aurora Beacon-News and the Aurora News Agency and all their customers. The Galena Food Store has employed our boys for seven years, we thank Mr. Maudsley for these jobs.

Never shall we forget the time our youngest son, Matt, wrote a letter to Santa Claus in the middle of August. It was published on the front page of the Beacon. At Christmas time the real Santa Claus, sent by the Beacon-News, brought him a live puppy and a stuffed monkey … our whole family will always believe in Santa because of this wonderful experience. 

Our thanks to all the stores, the banks and loan companies who have served us for many years. Especially we are grateful for the help given us by Mr. Nathan Bernhardt of Home Building and Loan. We enjoyed getting to know Jack Cunningham during the last primary election. He was a good influence on Cris, our budding politician.

As we prepare to leave, we are pulling up our roots, but not cutting our ties. We hope to find success and new friends in Montana, but we shall always remember and keep in touch with our friends in this area. 

THE ROBERT L. EREKSON FAMILY:  Bob and Louise, Ginger, Tim, Erek, Cris, Doug, Randy, Jay B. and Matthew

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