“Why is it called the Shady Dell?” I recently
asked my mother, the world’s oldest living Dell rat. “Since a dell is defined as ‘a small secluded valley’, why is a house on a hill called by that name?” I wondered. As we left after the last visit to her childhood home before it changed owners, Mother answered, “It was named for the real Shady Dell right down the road. I’ll show you where it is.”
What a revelation! I didn’t know that the house’s namesake existed so close by. Mother pointed to a long narrow valley on both sides of the road, mere yards away from the Dell property, covered with tall wild grasses and guarded by a large metal gate. “The Sittler family raised pigs on a farm there”, she said. “One day when I was a little girl playing in the woods across from my house, the pigs somehow got loose and came running up the road and chased me back home. I was scared of pigs for a long time after that!”
We laughed picturing her, now a very old lady, as
a startled youngster suddenly jumping up from her fun, screaming and running as fast as her little legs could carry her, away from those grunting and squealing pigs - who were probably more scared than she!
I explored the site of this porcine mayhem, the place so rich with my family’s history, on the morning that I returned alone for a last visit
to Mother’s childhood home. Before I helplessly witnessed the ghastly smoldering remains of my grandparents’ demolished barn and the Ettline’s famous dance hall, I made a solitary pilgrimage
to the storied glen nearby.
Finding the spot Mother showed me earlier, I
parked the car and climbed over the guardrail to
enter the first Shady Dell. A steep embankment slopes downward, covered by a sun-dappled tangle
of lush green forest and underbrush. In some places this diminutive ravine widens into quiet golden meadows, carpeted with wildflowers. Threading its way through the middle, a sparkling stream tumbles over rocks. Here and there, small inlets dug into its mossy banks by local muskrats form small placid pools.
This truly beautiful and ancient place is the only Shady Dell my mother and her family knew a century ago, and is the one after which John and Helen Ettline undoubtedly named their restaurant many years later.
It doesn’t show on this old photo of the house and barn that my grandfather built in 1912 because it is located at the bottom of the hill beyond and below my grandmother Allie’s large vegetable gar-
den and past the orchard where my mother and her brothers and sisters played.
Sparrows were chirping and flitting among the branches overhead as I walked a few feet into the brush. Looking up through the morning mist at an opening in the foliage of now-towering trees that cover the hillside of Mother’s time, the house appeared ghost like in the distance. There was Mother’s old bedroom and beneath it, one of her favorite childhood spots - the porch where she loved to spend time swinging and roller-skating.
A small sound interrupted my thoughts. The large brown eyes of a young doe stepping gracefully out of the woods met mine, but unlike Mother and the pigs in her story, neither the deer nor I was afraid. After nonchalantly nibbling on a tuft
of grass she disappeared into the underbrush.
I smiled, for she seemed like a gentle messenger from the past. I wondered if her ancestors also wandered these woods, first wary of the Native Americans who depended on them for survival, and later of my grandfather, George Andrew Brown - an accomplished hunter with noisy dogs and a butcher by trade.
So many kindred spirits were with me that morning: prehistoric inhabitants, animals, and most of all - my grandparents and their large family. I imagined a slender Allie looking up from her garden, wiping her brow with her apron. She laughs as she waves a handful of green beans at her husband. He salutes her loudly with the large bulb horn on his new
REO automobile as he chugs past on Starcross Road. Sounds of their children’s laughter rise from the wooded valley below as they wade in the stream catching crawfish and salamanders to cool off from the summer’s heat.
They have all disappeared, but surely not their spirits now enshrined in these woods. I am profoundly grateful that their house remains and their stories are entrusted to me by their last living child, my 100-year-old mother. This is truly hallowed ground!
As we slowly drove by after the story telling weeks before, Mother silently looked out the car window with wise old eyes, not only seeing the late-summer Shady Dell now overgrown and abandoned, but also remembering sounds and images from another time in her long life.
I heard that the original Shady Dell was used as an overflow parking lot and I wondered aloud how many teenagers never knew or cared where their hangout got its name. I bet many others are still unaware of its beauty and magic as they speed past. Mother is used to knowing myriad things that most people around her, including me, never heard about or experienced. Still looking out the window as the sun set below the trees she quietly said, “Probably a lot.”
Please join us for:
Chapter 4: Allie's Rats, Pt 1: Hill and Dell
Chapter 3: The House on the Hill
Chapter 2: Margaret is Born...and So Is the Dell
Chapter 1: The Beauty and the Butcher
Introduction: My Shady Dell "Roots"