Small town girl makes good and holiday contemplation

December 17, 2009

We heard she had done well “out east”.  Folks said she was a friend of Pearl S. Buck and had lots of other hoidy toidy friends as well.  For someone from a small, rural place like Hollandale, Wisconsin, that would be something to crow about.  But all this was back in the 1940s and 50s so no one here really had any facts.  But it was a fun story and as clueless as I was I had fun telling it, too.

In these parts she was simply Alyce Engelbert Stocklin, the daughter of Nick Engelbert, the guy by Hollandale who built the statues and decorated his yard with them.  She went to school here – little town of about 300 – and like many kids, left for a big city to further her education.

Nick and his wife Katherine had four children.  They all did well, we’re told, which makes sense because the parents really stressed the importance of education.  All four indeed were college-educated.  I think 60, 70 years ago that may not have always been the case for young women but it was for the Engelbert girls as it was for their brothers.

The Engelbert kids have passed away now, but I was fortunate to meet them in 1997 when they came home one last time.  The Kohler Foundation had purchased and restored their childhood home – now known as Grandview – and the occasion was the gifting of the place back to the community.

The four Engelbert children, home for the last time. Alyce Engelbert Stocklin is between her brothers Ed and Ernie.

With the site came a lot of history and some great archives: lots of old pictures, family memorabilia, documentation of Nick’s art, Katherine’s many outstanding gardens, old news stories and information on the site’s restoration.  Recently the Kohler Foundation gave us a new box – more treasures to be discovered.

Like many rural folk I am seldom inside when the weather is decent.  The chill of fall brought wood chores, which is a huge job.  It takes scores of pick-up truck loads to keep us warm, so weeknights and weekends are consumed.  But when winter finally set upon us in earnest with the first major snow, it gave permission to relax and be thoughtful.  I sat down with the newest archive box like a kid at Christmas.

After an hour or so of sorting through old pictures, I got to a three-ring binder that seemed kind of musty and forgotten.  As I paged through quickly, the 1950 clipping of women planning a fashion show and tea did not grab me at first.  It is an ugly old photocopy.  But I had just done some reading on Pearl S. Buck so I stopped to check it out after I saw “Welcome House” in the headline.

And there was Alyce Engelbert Stocklin from little Hollandale, leaning over to look at something being held by Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein, who hosted the get together.  To her left was Mrs. James A. Michener.   I thought, “Oh my – the stories were true – big time true”.

So with apologies for name dropping, all this is fun and, if you’re from a little place often confused with the Dutch, it is certainly something to be proud of.  Who cares if it was in the last century?

Of course, the real story is what she did, not whom she did it with.  Another clipping in the musty folder showed a picture of Alyce holding an orphan.  The headline is: “Break Down Racial Barriers” and the caption reads, “Mrs. Walter Stocklin and an unadoptable”.

Some of the things in the article were a little disturbing but worth sharing. Those were different times.

It read: “Welcome House was founded in 1949 by Pearl S. Buck, author of “The Good Earth” and other books, who has lived in the Orient for many years.  Miss Buck and several of her Bucks County, Pa., neighbors, including Stocklins, began the project to give “unwanted” children of part American, part Oriental blood a chance for opportunity equal to that of other American children.

“While adoption has become an accepted part of American social life, these “half caste” children have remained a problem because they are unwanted in many American homes because of prejudice against color differences and “slanted” eyes.  As a result, according to Mrs. Stocklin, many children of exceptional intelligence must be sent to institutions……..”

I thought of my brother-in-law Allen, who was “detained” in a “relocation camp” during WWII.  Allen was as American as I am, but of Japanese heritage.

And I wondered what values were instilled in young Alyce by family and her little country school that made her such a supporter of these children.   Courage is certainly right up there.

My daughter and one of my sons graduated recently.  They too, are Hollandale kids, although the school is now Pecatonica and their father is not the artist Nick Engelbert was.  As a jaded, older parent it seems that sometimes values can lie somewhere between Facebook and the Food Court – but maybe not.   I think those same principles that Alyce championed continue to be instilled by our teachers and families.  The kids still get it and maybe more so.  We aren’t the same America; we’re a better America.

It’s hard to stop thinking about this, but that’s OK, it’s the holiday season and some contemplation is good for me.

I stopped by a snowed-in Grandview this morning, waded through the drifts and sat on the porch for a while.  It is vacant and cold but still Alyce’s home.

And I thought about my daughter.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, Wisconsin

Happy holidays everyone………