Emma Ellinger taught for several years at Princeton High School, located on the triangle in downtown Princeton, before getting married in 1929 and moving to Minnesota.

I headed to the Princeton Public Library recently to see if a couple of local history books were available following the move.  The books were not there, as most of the library’s collection is in temporary storage while work continues on the new library.

But librarian Jan Gruenwald Manweiler, also the always-responsive contact for the Princeton Historical Society, suggested “Endless Echoes” by Elmer Krueger or “Small Potatoes” by Emma Ellinger Mathews. I was aware of the Krueger book but not the Mathews book. I borrowed both books, and they have since been added to the http://www.princetonhistory.com history resource list.

(An interesting side note: Ellinger was one of Krueger’s teachers at Princeton High School, and correspondence between the two is included in Krueger’s book.)

Both books are interesting reads, but I especially enjoyed “Small Potatoes,” published in 1974 by Adams Press in Chicago. “Small Potatoes” traces Emma’s life from her childhood in Princeton, through her years as a teacher in Princeton and later at a deaf school in Minnesota, to her retirement years as a grandmother.

I had come across Emma Ellinger in my research of early Princeton. I knew she had earned a reputation as a good teacher in Princeton and was largely responsible for some of the young high school’s success in interscholastic competitions.

Princeton Republic, July 11, 1929: “During her career as teacher of English in the local school, that particular branch was built up to receive a superior rating under state supervision. The Triangle, Princeton High School paper, was twice given the All-American rating while she was its adviser. … Miss Ellinger has taught in Princeton for ten years and enjoys the distinction of having received an A rating from the State Department on all five points on which teachers are rated. This is the highest rating a teacher can reach. She was a very successful English teacher and coach in public speaking and very popular with high school students. She has a contract to teacher here next term, but it is not known whether she will teach or resign.”

Emma’s family arrived in Princeton in 1886, moved here by her father, Charles, from a farm near Almond to be near her grandfather, Frederick Ellinger, and other family members. The families lived side-by-side across from the Methodist church, which at the time was at the southwest corner of Harvard and Howard streets.

Frederick Ellinger came to the U.S. from Germany to escape military service. “My authoritative grandfather had no truck with any liberal ideas,” Emma recalled. “Having left Germany because he didn’t want to serve in the German army because of its regimentation, he continued all his life to find fault with the country that gave him freedom, criticizing adversely any trend toward freedom of ideas. Yet he served in the Civil War, suffered in a southern prison camp for a short period and came home with weak eyes to sit out many years before his death.”

Charley Ellinger became street commissioner in Princeton and later also worked on county roads. He suffered a heart attack and drowned on a hot day in July 1917 while swimming near the Fox River bridge in Princeton.

Emma had two brothers: Emil, who died in a gun accident shortly after she was born, and Richard, who was publisher of the Green Lake Reporter for several years but died young, at age 32, of diabetes.

The book’s name comes from a story Emma shares about a neighbor, upset about the Ellingers’ landscaping along the property line, who derisively said the unpretentious family was nothing more than “small potatoes.”

Many of the chapters deal with Emma’s life after she got married and moved to Minnesota, but several chapters provide insights into life in Princeton in the early 1900s. She remembered, for example, seeing Hailey’s Comet with its tail above the Congregational Church near the Fox River, at the end of Harvard Street, in 1910.

Emma’s other reminiscences in the book include the following:

  • “Only at holiday time did we have oranges because they were hard to get. John Shew, our grocer, would get a few crates by rail.  … I would like to suggest that in Princeton when I was a little girl, it was great to get an orange. The fruit was much admired for its gay color and its sweet juicy sections.”
  • “I was considered a prude at parties in Princeton because I didn’t even touch wine. Princeton, where the Germans and Poles all drank more or less. Princeton, where the tiny group of women who belonged to the WCTU were spoken of with a bit of amused scorn.”
  • The whistle (of the 8:30 evening train) was the signal for everyone of walking age to gather at the post office to wait for the evening mail. The jam in the post office lobby was an institution. It was a village get together, a daily time to gossip, and giggle. Businessmen, retired farmers, school children, just about everyone had to get the evening mail. We stood in the lobby massed together, making a great noise with our laughing and talking. Sometimes the postmaster and his assistants would pound the wall to tell us to pipe down. There would be a hush, but before long the noise grew loud again. One in a while, the village marshal would step in and demand silence.”
  • “I may sound like a neurotic when I report from my early teens, I have disliked using the telephone. I used to go across the road to Al Eygabrod’s home to use his telephone when something extremely important made it absolutely necessary.  … Why? I just don’t know. … Uncle Al, not my uncle but uncle to the whole town, was generous with his telephone, inviting any and all to use it. He was blind and liked folk to come in and feel free.”
  • “As a teenager I had been allowed to join a group of girl Turners in my hometown, Princeton, Wisconsin. This was a great privilege for me because my grandparents and my neighbors had pointed out to my mother that nice girls should not be wearing bloomers, much less jump on wooden horses and swing from bars.

Emma was born in 1896, attended the public school until fourth grade and then attended the German school on the West Side. She took German classes and was the only child in her class who had not grown up speaking German. She graduated from Princeton High School in 1917 and attended the teacher training school in Berlin for one month to get her teaching credentials.

John Bartol, clerk of District No. 1, Marquette County, hired her for $40 per month. She lived with the Soda family one-quarter mile from the school in Mecan Township. Two years later, she became principal of a two-room, state-graded school in Germania.

Emma took a summer course on education of the deaf and graduated from Milwaukee Normal School in 1920. Her mother wanted her to teach in Princeton, so Emma rejected an offer to teach deaf children in Ashland and said she’d stay in Princeton for one year. “Instead I stayed until my marriage in 1929,” she notes in the memoir.

Emma taught at the brick school built in 1894 on the triangle in downtown Princeton. The principal’s office was next to her seventh- and-eighth-grade classroom. She did not know it at the time, but the principal could hear everything that went on in her classroom through a vent.

Meanwhile, “I began to hear rumors about the high school study hall: paper wads flying high and low, chalk flying up and down as well as erasers,” Emma recalled. “When an eraser struck one of the teachers in the face one day, things came to a climax. Principal Forstad was informed by the by school board that the two new teachers, both graduates of the University (This was something big in the 1920s.), could not return another year because they were unable to keep order.”

Principal Erling Forstad suggested that Emma be hired to teach English. “The clerk of the board was horrified,” according to her memoir. “He said I didn’t know enough, had no background in English, and was only a grade-school teacher. Principal Forstad prevailed upon them.”

Forstad knew, from listening to her classroom, that she knew how to teach and how to maintain order.

Emma spent the next six years teaching English, coaching plays, training speakers for speech contests and acting as adviser to the school newspaper, which won the prestigious All-American award.

In her 20s, she was among the first women in Princeton to have her hair bobbed: “I remember when seeing all that red brown hair lying on the floor of Roberts’ barber shop, I suffered a temporary feeling of dismay. It is amusing to recall that the first teacher who had her hair cut was criticized adversely for several months until, suddenly, the craze for the bob exploded.”

Emma also provides a unique glimpse of the emotions felt in Princeton and other German communities before and during World War I. (I hope to include her reminiscences in the WWI chapter in my book.) The local newspaper reported about loyalty rallies and the war effort but made little mention of how Germans were treated during those years.

“Before the First World War I had not thought very much about being a German, one way or another,” Emma recalled. “Princeton was a German Lutheran and Polish Catholic community. We boys and girls grew up together and after the Lutheran and Catholic youngsters finished parochial grade school we all enjoyed high school together. I recall no feelings of apartheid, superiority or discrimination. …

“Just before World War, I came suddenly to the knowledge that I was German, one of a despised nationality. The few in our town who were of English descent formed a committee and demanded that all folk buy Liberty Bonds. I well remember the consternation in our front room when two tall men pounded on the door and upon entering, peremptorily demanded signatures for buying bonds. I was teaching then, earning sixty dollars a month, so I had no trouble buying bonds, but my parents were astounded. They had only a small income, but they signed. There was nothing else to do. And they were loyal! I had never heard one pro-German comment in my home, only a shocked sense of fear that maybe they were different from others.

“The insanity of those months was made clear from day to day by various goings on. My pal Elizabeth’s aged grandparents lived across the river in a comfortable old house. What do you suppose some of the English Americans did? They stormed into this home, tore the Kaiser’s picture off the wall, threw it on the floor, breaking the glass, strode about the rooms looking for German pictures and souvenirs, and at last marked the house yellow.

“These old people had done no harm to this country. They were so shocked and disturbed over the incident that they did not live long after, some said, because of the treatment they had received.

“This is but one example of the unpleasant happening in this small town of 1,500 at the time of the First World War. We Germans were all suspect and were considered yellow by many, that is disloyal and unpatriotic.”

Emma lived in Princeton until she married Frank “Nave” Mathews, a brakeman on the Great Northern Railroad, in 1929 and quit teaching to start a family.

The newspaper lamented Emma’s decision to resign:

Princeton Republic, July 18, 1929: “With the retirement of Miss Ellinger from the teaching force, the Princeton school loses its veteran teacher. During her years of teaching Miss Ellinger was successful and made an outstanding record in every school in which she taught, receiving a promotion each year. It is unfortunate that just when she had received the highest rating obtainable by a teacher in Wisconsin, the schools lose her services.”

Frank died in 1940, leaving Emma with two young boys to raise. She was 44, didn’t have much money and was told by her pastor that no one would hire her. Undaunted, Emma got into social work and two years later moved to Faribault, Minnesota, with her aged mother and two sons to teach at the Minnesota State School for the Deaf.

Emma continued her education over the years at various normal (teacher training) schools, colleges and universities but did not receive her Bachelor of Science degree in special education until 1959. She had earned all the credits necessary years earlier, but the university in Milwaukee said she still needed a semester on campus to fill the degree requirements. After the school became part of the University of Wisconsin, trustees waived the on-campus requirement and granted the degree. Emma was 62 years old.

Emma taught until June 1968. She died on Feb. 13, 1980, in Faribault, Minnesota. She was 83 years old.

Gone, not forgotten, and certainly not “small potatoes.”

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