I was born in a house my father built. This is not to say that my father drew up the architectural plans for the house, that he dug the basement or poured the cement for the foundations of the house. Nor did he raise the walls, shingle the roof, or install the plumbing and electrical work. My parents paid professional workers to do all these tasks; they oversaw the work and even suggested two or three small refinements to the original plan. But it was their house from the beginning; no other family had ever lived there before, and no other family has lived there since.
The land was a gift from my mother’s parents. In 1939 they purchased a farmhouse and three acres of land from the original farm. Their plan at the time was that their son and their daughter would each be given a quarter of the property to build a home. This plan was fulfilled; so my nearest neighbors growing up were my grandparents next door and my uncle and aunt and cousins behind us. For legal purposes, my parents were required to pay some money to my grandparents to acquire the land. My father gave my grandfather a ten dollar bill the day the papers were signed to transfer the property; at the end of the ceremony, my grandfather secretly returned the cash to my father, telling him, “You need this more than I do.”
Not only did my father really build the house; I was not really born in the house. I was born eleven miles away, in the maternity ward of a hospital. The family doctor my parents chose practiced in that hospital, not in the hospital located in their hometown, which was much closer to their house. My birth certificate lists my legal birthplace as one town, but my genuine hometown has always been the house where my parents lived when I was born, the town where I grew up and went to school, the town where I was baptized and confirmed, where I attended church with my parents, where I played outdoors with the neighborhood children or alone, where I learned many of the things that I know and remember today.
Winfield had 567 residents in 1940, the year after my grandparents moved there. I had a railroad station, a tavern, and a tuberculosis sanitarium that would become Central DuPage Hospital. By the time I was in school, in 1970, the village had grown to 4,285 residents. Today the population approaches ten thousand Winfielders. The hospital is the largest employer in town, along with the school district and some stores. For the most part, Winfield is a bedroom community; workers live in Winfield but drive or take the train to their jobs in other places. Wikipedia lists a number of famous people who have lived in Winfield: professional athletes, writers, artists, and the like. My name is not yet on that list. Also missing from the list is Colonel Robert McCormick, whose mansion is just south of the village. McCormick once owned the Chicago Tribune. His estate has become a museum commemorating his life and remembering his service with the First Infantry Division of the United States Army. The property also includes flower gardens, picnic grounds, and a display of tanks on which children have climbed and played for years. The McCormick Estate is called Cantigny—technically pronounced “canteen” for the place in France, but always given the obvious three-syllable designation by those of us who lived nearby.
Wikipedia also mentions Schmidt’s pond, from which ice was harvested every winter to sell to families during the spring and summer and fall. Peter Schmidt dug the pond and began the ice business, but my mother knew it as the Klein pond and I knew it as the Enders pond, since the land changed ownership over the years. In the late 1980s, I met two women in Chicago who had traveled out to Winfield and visited the Kleins when they were girls, long before I was born. The pond was across the street and on the other side of the creek from the house where I lived.
My mother attended a one-room schoolhouse. I went to the same school years later, but several wings had been attached to the original structure, and a new Middle School was built across the street while I was a student. I walked to school every day regardless of the weather, went home for lunch and returned for afternoon classes, and walked home again at the end of the day. The walk was short; I had to walk farther to catch the bus that took me to high school after I graduated from eighth grade.
I cannot go home again. Our house was built in a flood plain. A few years ago it was bought by the local government and leveled. Other than the school and Cantigny, not much remains from the village that I remember. Things change. People change. The landmarks of my childhood live on only in memory. J.