Man’s small-town tales tell of life in a different era
August 27, 2013 1:02PM
Retired autoworker and lifetime Gifford resident Forrest "Fuzz" Campbell. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 29, 2013 6:08AM
“Spittin’, whittlin’, tellin’ lies
Sittin’ on the ol’ dead pecker bench
Drinkin’ an R.C. and eatin’ Moon Pies
Singin’ Mabel on the Hill”
— Author unknown
Fuzz Campbell, 77, lives a couple miles west of Gifford, which is about 10 miles north of Rensselaer. He is a retired autoworker and a widower. He and Linda raised three children.
I first met Campbell about a month ago at the Rensselaer Public Library, where I was doing a presentation of the documentary film “Everglades of the North.” He approached me afterward, telling me that he had worked with my Uncle Joe at Ford for many years.
Being a dipper of snuff, Campbell kept his spit cup nearby while we conversed.
I’m going out on a limb here and assume mother Campbell didn’t name you Fuzz.
“My real name is Forrest with two ‘r’s,” he said. “My last day on the job at Ford a guy I worked with more than 30 years asked me, ‘Fuzz, what the hell is your real first name?’”
Were you born in Gifford?
“Yep. Take Gifford Road two miles due east. I went to grade school in the nearby town of Newland.”
What was the population of Gifford when you lived near town as a boy?
“About the same. Back in those days, believe it or not, the town of Gifford had two stores. My dad owned one of those general stores. Everything is big-box stores these days. You can’t compete. Can you believe as big as Medaryville and San Pierre is they don’t have a grocery store?”
Tell me more about your childhood in Gifford.
“There was a lot of people coming from the South and they all had seven, eight, nine kids. We all went to school and played together. But in the evenings, when things got kinda slow, the old farmers, trappers and hunters would sit on my dad’s store porch and tell their lies.
“I’d say 75 percent of the time, I was sittin’ right there with them while the rest of the kids were playin’. I liked listening to their history.”
How old were you?
“Probably about 7 or 8.”
One of the more memorable characters who would frequent the store’s porch?
How do you spell that?
“Well, I don’t know. Dicey’s probably was his nickname. I never did know his real name. But then again, those old-timers had some funny names, so maybe Dicey was his real name.”
What about the spelling of Zook?
“Yeah. How else would you spell it?”
How old was Zook when he’d tell his tales to you?
“Well into his eighties.”
What did Dicey do for a living?
“He was a professional hunter.”
I love this kind of stuff.
“I remember me and Dicey was sittin’ on the old Gifford Ditch before they cleaned it out and ruined the fishin’. We’d fish together for hours at a time.
“Dicey was born during the Civil War. As a child, Dicey played with the Potawatomi boys whose families remained after removal. Those Indian kids play like any other kids.”
I’d imagine so.
“In the spring of the year, as soon as the ice was off, my dad and Dicey would take rakes and an old boat and collect frog legs. Dad paid for his first car from money he got shipping those frog hams to Chicago.”
Can you imagine the wild game in this area back in the day?
“Some of those Chicago restaurant owners would come down here wanting to know who was the best shot on the marsh.”
“That was who they’d hire to shoot the game for them. The restaurant people would furnish the ammunition. Dicey told me they gave him a few cents for a rabbit, a few more cents for a pheasant or a duck. A goose paid more than a duck.
“You shot year around in those days. There wasn’t any laws. They’d pack waterfowl into wooden barrels and put ice on it.”
The Grand Kankakee Marsh — “Chicago’s food pantry.”
“The men responsible for draining the marsh should have been prosecuted.”
Men like Benjamin Gifford?
“BJ Gifford named Gifford after himself, obviously. He also built the town of Kersey. He had his own railroad and had 35,000 acres of marshland. He drained the marsh with a floating steam dredge. He run it 24-7 until he cut all these ditches, then he leased the ground into individual parcels and encouraged his tenants to grow onions. That’s where his railroad got the name Onion Line.”
Tell me one more of those “Dicey” stories.
“Dicey used to hang around old man Granger’s boys. The Grangers were a rough bunch who lived on the river. Dicey told me about a time when he was hunting with one of those Grangers in a canoe; there were game wardens by then. Anyway, they was shootin’ ducks out of season when they heard a strange noise coming from somewhere else in the swamp. Granger says, ‘Dice, I’m gonna let you out on this island. I’ll be back.’”
That’s kind of odd.
“Dicey thought so, too. After about 10 minutes, Dicey hears the report of a shotgun. Soon after, Granger returned just like he said he would. Dicey asked him, ‘What did you shoot?’ Granger replied: ‘Oh, never mind. Everything’s alright. We won’t be bothered no more.’”
He shot a game warden?
“You didn’t cross the Grangers.”
Let’s switch gears. Did you attend Rensselaer High School?
“No, I went to Wheatfield High School. DeMotte, Fair Oaks, Tefft, Mount Ayr, Kentland and Morocco all were in our conference. It would always come down to the nitty gritty between us and the Morocco Beavers.”
Of which sport are you referring?
“Football. I was starting quarterback all four years. We played six-man football. Can you imagine that? Back in those days the quarterback didn’t throw that much because it was a running game. In four years, I don’t believe I threw the ball a dozen times. You had to gain 15 yards to get a first down.”
Fuzz, it has been a slice.
“When you see your Uncle Joe, tell him he better not mess with me. I’ve been drinking this special muscle milk.”
“And, Jeff, tell him to stop on by next time he’s near Gifford. I miss that ornery cuss.”
After our interview, I checked out the hamlet of Gifford. There were a couple dozen modest houses and not a soul in sight. I made a U-turn near the Gifford Church of God and started back home.
Like Lot’s wife, I couldn’t resist the urge to look back. In my rearview mirror, I yearned to catch a glimpse of a weatherbeaten market hunter telling tales on the front porch of Campbell’s General Store.
But just as sure as the Onion Line once chugged through a vanishing swamp, a lad named Forrest did see such things 70 years ago.
And I’m grateful a retired autoworker they call Fuzz told me all about it.