The Family Cottage: A Love Letter


Lois and Art Henrikson (left) relax with friends at the cottage

“The afternoon is serene, simple, and pure at the cottage. Beneath the shadows of the trees, I lie in the hammock. The breeze that calms me and the whispering leaves create within me a tranquil lull… I hear the ducklings quacking; they, too, enjoy resting in the comfortable grass. The fragrant odors of the flowers sweeten my contemplative thoughts. It is time for sunset. I walk to the bank of the river. Now the motor boats don’t disturb the water. The waves sprinkle my face with tasty kisses. In the sparkling water, I see the reflection of an iridescent sky, and I reflect on this ethereal sight.”

In 1973, I recorded these impressions of our family cottage in a college literature class essay. This treasured property in Johnsburg, a northeastern Illinois village along the Fox River near Wisconsin, was a gift to five generations from my great-grandparents, Bernhardt (Barney) and Carolina Henrikson.

In 1853, Barney was just two when his family sailed from Arendal, Norway to Buffalo, New York via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Carolina Eugenia Oscaria Tilberg, his future wife, saw her parents for the last time when she boarded a ship to America to work as a maid. Barney and Carolina both learned English, but they spoke in Norwegian and Swedish when they didn’t want to be understood.

In 1872, the couple had a triple wedding ceremony in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a city on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Allen Bernhardt, my grandfather, was the youngest of five children to arrive in 1888. Six years later, Barney and Carolina (aka Little Grandpa and Little Grandma) moved to Chicago for coveted work for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Little Grandpa designed and built a stately home away from Lake Michigan in suburban Austin. Little Grandpa invented and patented a chin and shoulder rest for violins, a hose-clamp tool, and a flue cutter to clean debris from steam engines.

From left Art and Lois Henrikson, grandmother Florence Dixon Henrikson, great-grandfather, William Dixon, cousin Lester Dixon and grandfather, Allen Henrikson, kneeling. 1948

In 1919, Little Grandpa neared retirement and yearned to own waterfront property to relive happy times spent near Lake Michigan. He and four co-workers purchased five adjoining riverfront lots with identical small square wooden cottages. Chicago family and friends took the train to nearby McHenry and traveled two miles on the Fox River to their property.

My father wrote in his memoirs, “Bulrushes had to be removed…” to dock their boat and walk to the cottage. The cottage had a potbellied stove, an outhouse and a pump for well water. Overnight guests played heated card games of fast solitaire around a large round wooden table on the porch and threw horseshoes in the yard.

Allen Henrikson inherited the cottage after Little Grandpa’s death in 1933. He was an engineer accountant for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, but his true love was his Henrikson Orchestra. His wife, Florence, was the group’s pianist. My father, Art, and his brother, Vern, inherited their parents’ musical talent. It is no surprise that musical friends frequently visited the cottage overnight. Art and Vern rode their bicycles 56 miles from Chicago to Johnsburg occasionally, and they engaged in horseplay with friends in and out of the water. Swarms of bees sometimes interrupted softball games. They delighted in making homemade ice cream, hearing the sound of acorns hitting the roof in the morning, and burning fall leaves.

Diane with parents 1954

The cottage became modernized as it aged. My grandmother installed long-overdue indoor plumbing, a modern kitchen and an upgraded front porch. My parents, Art and Lois, installed a room air conditioner, bought porch furniture, added siding and a new roof, and built a pier and a sea wall. Under my watch, the cottage got another new roof and a new well.

Sisters Jan, Diane and Michele and cousin Dawn 1967

Allen and Florence’s five grandchildren arrived from 1952 to 1962:  Diane, Jan, Michele, Craig and Dawn.  We loved opening the heavy metal gates before driving from the one-lane gravel road into the backyard. We celebrated many Independence Days, summer birthdays and other special occasions there. We laughed as we played fast solitaire, badminton, horseshoes, jarts, and croquet. We giggled as we tipped each other over in the hammock. The smell of charcoaled hamburgers and hot dogs wafted in the breeze, while we squealed with delight as we jumped into the wading pool and/or river.  On a hot day, what better activity was there than a short walk across the Johnsburg Bridge to get ice cream?

Nieces Laura and Amy 1993

Laura and Amy Smetana, my nieces, were the fifth generation of Henrikson descendants to enjoy the cottage. The young sisters learned to play fast solitaire, badminton, horseshoes, and jarts, and they savored ice cream at John’s Burgers.

Front row: sister, Jan Henrikson, Tom Russell (Diane’s spouse) and Diane. Back row: Art and cousin Mark Wessling 2006

The cottage also served as a quiet source of inspiration. My father, a professional cartoonist, sought the solitude of the Fox River on weekdays when he needed cartoon ideas. In the summer of 1972, he wisely brought me to the cottage and watched me sway in the hammock while deciding a new undergraduate major. My father and his brother went to the cottage weekly to chat and reminisce as widowers.  A cousin and his buddy raced to the cottage on summer weekends to seek refuge from weekday cares.

Great-grandparents Barney and Jenny Henrikson, grandparents Allen and Florence Henrikson and great-aunt Mella Henrikson Millard in hammock. 1920

When reminiscing about his 1920’s childhood, my father could “see the older Henriksons leaning on the fence posts in the yard and looking down the yard towards the river” in his mind’s eye. On his final trip to the cottage in October 2012, my 91-year-old father was still in awe:  “It is so peaceful here.  I love it.”

Diane at the cottage dock

Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects.

5 Replies to “The Family Cottage: A Love Letter”

  1. Thank you for your comments. I found my great-grandmother’s family last February and wrote a story called “Family Found,” which was in OLLI Connects in June 2021. The Tillberg family in Sweden always wondered what happened to Carolina Eugenia Oscaria (nicknamed Jenny in America).

  2. I love this story! What a great way to capture your family history and treasured memories. It reminds me of my childhood in northern Wisconsin living in our house by the lake. We always had lots of family visiting in the summer.

  3. Thank you Diane for such a lovely love-filled story. I admire people who respect and remember “where they came from,” and you do it in such an artistic way permeated with nostalgia. I identify with you . . . .

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