‘We were all united’: How St. Charles-area home front, victory gardens supported war front in WWII

“Without the home front, there would have been no war front.”

Generations who fought in World War II and those who stayed home to participate in rationing programs, wartime supply production, or food production with homegrown gardens know what that statement means.

Author and historian Jerome O’Connor speaks during his presentation on the World War II home front last week at the Baker Community Center in St. Charles. Courtesy of Dave Heun

Author/historian Jerome O’Connor made that point during his “Chicago and the Home Front in WWII” presentation last week at the Baker Community Center in St. Charles, praising a “citizen army of 16.2 million men and 300,000 women” working daily at home.

O’Connor said St. Charles was a key place on that home front because of the work of the city’s prolific philanthropists, Lester and Dellora Norris.

As chairman of both the Illinois Victory Garden chapter and the National Victory Garden Institute, Lester Norris was a major champion of the Victory Gardens effort, in which Americans grew their own food to feed each other while commercial crops went to the military overseas. Dellora was also an active supporter of the Red Cross mission.

“The Victory Gardens initiative continues as perhaps the most overlooked combined effort by the American people during the war,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor explained that besides encouraging everyone in his hometown of St. Charles to participate by starting vegetable gardens, Norris quickly encouraged others, including convincing the Union Pacific railroad to earmark some of its land and rail right of way for gardens.

The National Park Service estimated after the war that about 20 million Victory Gardens grown by millions of Americans of every age produced between 8 and 10 million tons of food by 1944. The WW II Victory Gardens were an outgrowth of the successful War Gardens project from WW I.

In a gesture of appreciation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, sent a letter to Norris in January of 1948, acknowledging the Victory Gardens initiative and its role in winning the war.

“Needless to say, your efforts during the war years contributed greatly to the victories abroad and sustenance of our people at home,” MacArthur wrote to Norris. “And you and your co-workers are to be most highly commended for the inspiration and guidance you gave to so worthy a cause.”

In addition to his extensive research and books on the home front, O’Connor also spoke from personal experience.

“I grew up on the south side of Chicago, and every block had a ‘block warden,’ and there would be practice blackouts and air-raid drills,” O’Connor said. “Everyone contributed in some way with a single purpose. We were all united back then.”

O’Connor’s presentation focused on the locations that served as major wartime production plants, from one in Forest Park known as “Torpedo City” to what is now Ford City Mall on Chicago’s southwest side. The largest wartime factory in the country stretched from 71st to 77th streets in Chicago between Cicero and Pulaski, where most of the engines for B-29 bombers were built. It is now a Tootsie Roll plant/warehouse.

“ There were 9,000 machines needed for that (B-29) job,” O’Connor noted.“ And any needed changes in the engine, after testing, would be highlighted on small pieces of paper, and runners would take them to workers along the assembly line.”

With the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion approaching on June 6, the Norris Cultural Arts Center featured the home front discussion during its final spring Wednesdays@One session. Those presentations will begin again in the fall.

Tiffany Topol portrays Carole King at the “Beautiful” musical at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

‘Beautiful’ a fitting title

About halfway through the Paramount Theatre’s wonderful production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” it dawned on me what it really felt like. It was the transistor radio underneath my pillow at night during my preteen years in the early 1960s.

For those older, it may be the music of American Bandstand, sock hops, tunes in your car, dancing, and young love.

No matter how theatergoers assess this production, there is no denying it has a lot of moving parts that brilliantly showcase the highs (with plenty of humor and hard work) and lows of the music industry as well as in the personal life of singer-songwriter King.

Those planning on going to this show at Aurora’s Paramount will quickly find that Tiffany Topol’s portrayal of King captures the youthful enthusiasm of a 16-year-old with extraordinary skills and big dreams to that of a frustrated woman realizing her marriage to songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, portrayed by C.J. Blaine Eldred, was crashing to an end because of his bouts of depression — a reason the Goffin and King tune “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is somewhat of a recurring theme.

King’s songwriting journey has covered several decades, but the play focuses on her many chart-topping hits with Goffin in the 1960s and her solo work in the 1970s.

The ‘60s were undoubtedly turbulent years, but the work of King and Goffin, as well as their co-workers and competitors Barry Mann (Christopher Kale Jones) and Cynthia Weil (Rebecca Hurd), showed that bright, uplifting and romantic styles still had a place.

When Jones and Hurd sang the sweet “Walking in the Rain,” written by Mann and Weil, it was one of my favorites of the night and left this thought: Boy, we could sure use songs like this in the turbulent 2020s.

“Beautiful” runs through June 16 at the Paramount.

Kai Edgar of St. Charles in a scene with cast member Alexandra Silber during “The Music Man” at the Marriott Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Remember the Edgars

If you aren’t familiar with the names Kai and Kalea Edgar of St. Charles, you may be at some point, especially if you are a theater patron or enjoy opera.

Kai, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, and his sister Kalea, a sophomore at St. Charles North High School, are working together with roles in “The Music Man,” playing at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Kai has had previous performances in three operas — New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe — and has traveled to 22 states and three countries with a national tour of “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.” He’s been in numerous other productions, including some at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

This is a talented young lad with a lot of experience, but the production of “The Music Man” is special because it marks the first time he will be on a professional stage with his sister.

Kalea has been in various productions throughout Chicago, and last year was in her high school production of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

“The Music Man” runs through June 2 at The Marriott.

Kai Edgar of St. Charles Courtesy of Joanna DeGeneres
Kalea Edgar of St. Charles Courtesy of Joanna DeGeneres

A lucky streak

When parking in crowded cities during major events, it is often better to be lucky than good when looking for a spot to place your car.

I’m often the one who is frustrated with not being able to find a spot, a trait likely developed during a few years of looking for a parking place at the Metra station garage in Geneva around 7 a.m. on weekdays.

But we hit a lucky streak recently on two important occasions. The first was looking for a spot near Za Za’s restaurant in downtown St. Charles on a busy Saturday night. With the extra parking near the former Blue Goose market completely torn apart in preparation for Whole Foods, we knew some stress might be involved.

We found one spot open in the Sue Klinkhamer parking lot along First Street, a stone’s throw from the restaurant.

A week later, we went to the Paramount Theatre in Aurora for the opening night of “Beautiful,” we ventured into a city loaded with people for a First Friday celebration and a food truck festival.

The parking garage I rely on was full, but I found that out after pulling a parking stub from the meter. The garage manager told me I could park in an “unauthorized vehicle” space if I followed the woman driving in front of me — just as he was putting the “full” sign up to block the entrance.

We parked next to the woman and her husband in an “authorized vehicles-only” spot, and they seemed in a hurry to get to the theater. The husband later told us his wife, Laura T. Fisher, was actually in the play as Genie Klein, the mother of Carole King.

Now that was lucky. She may have told the garage manager she was in the play and badly needed a space. We just tagged along for that ride. By the way, she was terrific in the musical.

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