Nelson’s Variety Store was a classic “five & dime” store that first opened in West Racine in 1940. They were a fixture that anchored that neighborhood shopping district for decades. A second Nelson’s opened in the late 1970’s on the far North side of Racine. Their doors closed for good on 1 Apr 2017 and left a void in Racine that won’t be filled by Amazon.
Nelson’s was not my place growing up. I was a Northsider, and while I had close family just a few blocks away I don’t recall going in more than once. In high school I had a girlfriend who loved the place and went with her, and I remember going to the far Northside location once about the same time for some school party. But, I knew Racine would be losing another part of our history and so the closing resonated with me.
Facebook Strikes Again
Local Racine historian Todd Wallace put out a call out on a Facebook group that specializes in Racine history, asking for someone with a high-quality film camera to capture Nelson’s before it was gone. I had been a photojournalist in the early 1990’s, and had just picked up a camera again so I took him up on it. The Nikon F4’s that I craved back then (when they would cost me half a year’s salary!) were now going for $300 on eBay. I had bought one recently, and a nice low-light lens, and thought it would be fun to document these unique institutions.
Wandering the aisles over the 3 days I shot my 5 rolls of color film, I came to fully understand what I missed out on in my childhood. The toy aisle was fantastic. Little bins of everything you could ever imagine, and you could still walk out with a few things for a dollar. I would have lost my mind in the marble bin in 4th grade…when kids still played marbles on the playground! And I can’t imagine what I would have done with all of the little dinosaurs. It was just row, and row of little…stuff. Not junk. Stuff. Things I didn’t know I needed, but now I knew I wanted them. How did I ever throw Packer parties and not stock up at Nelson’s?
I took a total of 5 rolls, 2 interiors at each store, and 1 exterior between them. The bad news is that I didn’t run enough film through my camera. One of the mirrors in the eyepiece came loose, and completely threw off the light meter readings. I remember when it happened, I was in the Westside store finishing my 1st role of interiors. I wouldn’t know until their were processed months later, that most of Westside interior shots, and all of my exteriors of the original store. were unusable. The less historic Northside location was fully documented. I’m still upset by that. Much of what I lost was the very cool fixtures that made up the edges of the display area. And, the exteriors. It was a perfect, moody, foggy dusk and I took several time exposures which just would have been amazing. They all turned out blank.
I hope they capture the feeling of what it was like to walk into these amazing establishments. Most focus on the little quirky details that I’ve never seen anywhere but Nelson’s. And now, we’ll never see them again.
The Impeachment Trial of the President of the United States this week felt so historic at times that it seemed unprecedented. It felt that the country was facing a challenge to its democratic traditions unlike anything we’ve ever faced. However, our family history reminded us that the country has faced this political tyranny before, when one man wielded control over the White House and both houses of Congress due to Republicans not having the will to stand up to an American despot. It also reminded us that we can celebrate an ancestor who defeated that threat with a courage and sacrifice that seemed completely absent from today’s Republican Party.
Michael’s 2xGreat Grandfather Elmer Addison Morse was born and raised in the farming community of Franksville, WI but he was elected to Congress in 1906 as a Representative from Antigo, WI. E.A. (as he was known) was aligned with the Progressive wing of the Republican Party and was one of the founding members of the National Progressive Republican League along with Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette in 1911.
During Morse’s time in Congress, the main block to many Progressive reforms was the Republican Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon. “Uncle Joe” Cannon was a conservative Republican and led the “Old Guard/Stand Pat” wing of the Republican Party.
Gurney served as Speaker starting in 1903 and he amassed an unprecedented amount of power. He was not only Speaker, but he was also the chair of the House Rules Committee which determined how bills could be debated, amended, and voted upon. Bills couldn’t reach the floor unless Cannon approved of them, and he alone could determine what form they would take if they reached the floor for a vote. Additionally, he solely appointed all committee members, of both parties, which ensured that the blossoming group of Progressive Republicans were kept off of important committees and could leverage very little influence.
[E.A. Morse] was a part of a small group of Republicans that stood up for what was right and for what was best for the democratic institutions of this country. They did so at the risk of their political careers, and each House Progressive paid for their courage by losing their seats soon after their insurgency.
While Cannon was a key foe to Teddy Roosevelt, the election of William Howard Taft in 1908 led to Uncle Joe taking complete control of the Republican Party and thus dictating the actions of the Senate as well as the President.
In the 1908 Presidential election, the majority of Republicans (and all of the Progressives) ran on a platform of lowering tariffs. Protectionist tariffs had been passed years earlier, but since they were designed more to protect business interests than consumer interests, prices on key consumer items had skyrocketed. Cannon understood his power, and sensing that Taft was not as formidable as Roosevelt, he decided to break Taft of any Progressive leanings while crippling the Progressives. Against the wishes of almost the entire party, Cannon ensured that the 1909 Payne-Aldrich Tariff was signed into law.
The tariff bill was a thinly veiled punishment to those that challenged Cannon, and a threat to those that supported him, in a bid to ensure they continued that support.
Instead of the promised reduction of tariffs, Payne-Aldrich raised them on many of the 2000+ items listed. The few reductions were largely given out at political favors. The Republicans ultimately felt that failing to pass any tariff bill would be seen as a fiasco for the party, and they chose party above the relief they promised their constituents. Cannon recognized that and used it to bend the party to his will, and even many of the reformers (likely even our E.A.) fell in line and supported the bill.
Taft spun the bill that had been forced upon him by Cannon as “the best tariff bill that the Republican Party ever passed.” Taft also admitted that he put the interests of the party over the interests of the country: “I believe…the interests of the party required me to sacrifice the accomplishment of certain things in the revision of the tariff which I had hoped for, in order to maintain party solidarity.” Cannon had become the single man in charge of the American political system, and he effectively controlled both the Executive and Congressional branches of government. From this time on he was widely referred to as “The Tyrant from Illinois”.
In 1910, the Progressives found the courage to stand up to Cannon and politically neuter him in spectacular fashion. On March 17, 1910, the House was in session but lightly attended. There was a quorum, but many Republicans were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and had either left for the week, or a long weekend, and were likely not in shape to return to the Capital. It was during an otherwise routine management of House business that a Progressive insurgent struck out at Cannon’s power.
George Norris, a Republican from Nebraska, had been laying it the weeds waiting for this moment. For two years he’d carried the text of a resolution in his pocket to amend the House rules to remove Cannon from the chair of the Rules committee and to strip him of his ability to appoint committee members and leaders. There had been a seemingly innocent debate the day before on if bills could be introduced directly to the House floor if they dealt directly with a Constitutional question. Cannon and Stand Patters ruled that it was permissible, even if the bill was not pre-printed and that the House as a whole would have to vote directly on those bills. Cannon couldn’t control those bills from being debated and voted upon.
St. Patrick’s Day morning, Norris, sensing his opening, copied the text of his resolution on the back of an envelope and rose to introduce a “resolution privileged by the Constitution.” Cannon, not knowing the danger of what was unfolding, allowed Norris to proceed. Very quickly it became apparent that Cannon had accidentally allowed a direct challenge to his power and he didn’t have the votes to stop it. One of Cannon’s allies made a Point of Order that Norris’ resolution wasn’t privileged, and that set off 26 hours of political gamesmanship. Ultimately Cannon couldn’t muster the votes and allowed the Point of Order to be voted on by the House. 42 Progressive Republicans joined 149 Democrats to ensure that Norris’ motion passed, breaking the greatest concentration of power in American political history. Cannon’s hubris and display of punitive power in the tariff bill hadn’t broken the Progressives, it laid the groundwork for them to rise up and seize control back from Cannon.
The Progressives voted for Country over party, but it cost them dearly. In the 1910 election Democrats took over the House, while many of the Progressives survived re-election. However, the 1912 election was a disaster for the Republicans and the death of the Progressives in the party.
The Progressives planned to seize control over the Republican Party during the 1912 Presidential election, but they didn’t anticipate Teddy Roosevelt’s return to American politics and his usurping of the Progressive Party, re-naming it The Bull Moose Party. Additionally, a dethroned Cannon had enough power to ensure that each of the Progressives that voted to remove him faced well-funded challengers in their House elections. He also pulled strings to make sure that promised Post Offices that were key to legislators in Progressive districts were delayed until after the election.
In E.A. Morse’s case, in addition to facing a Democratic “wave” election in 1912, the Old Guard Republican governor of Wisconsin helped ensure that this district was merged with another and that he faced a challenge from a popular Republican Secretary of State. In the end, Morse was handily defeated and returned to private life, in no small part due to his challenge to Uncle Joe Cannon.
It’s easy to ascribe only the noblest of intentions to our ancestors, and obviously Elmer A. Morse is a heroic legend in our family. And while we’re well aware of many troubling aspects of his life, in this case he was a part of a small group of Republicans that stood up for what was right and for what was best for the democratic institutions of this country. They did so at the risk of their political careers, and each House Progressive paid for their courage by losing their seats soon after their insurgency.
This week, 110 years later, the Republican Party couldn’t muster 3 people courageous enough to put a tyrant in check. The risk of losing their seats was greater than their sense of duty to what was right and best for the country.
We’ve seen this before, where one man stood above the Constitution and the country, but that time he was brought to back in-check. Knowing that, however, just makes this week’s failure more disappointing.
Before we get into the amazing connection we’ve made recently, here’s a quick update on the broader collection of 2500 glass plate negatives we were able to rescue that comprise the surviving images from the Home Portrait Studio. We talked about how saved these plates earlier, and about how we intend to scan and share all of these images publicly (Our project to save a piece of Racine, Wisconsin history, Part 1 – Getting Started), but in the months since our last update we found out it would be nearly impossible to use a flatbed scanner to capture those thousands of images without it taking years to complete. Fully processing 50 negatives was taking about 8 hours. We’ve since bought a bunch of equipment to instead photograph each negative digitally, and invested in software that allows us to now fully process those same 50 images in just under an hour. We expect that with this new process we’ll the entire first box up and shared next month (440 images), and we’ll provide much more detail as soon as they complete.
In the meantime, through an amazing set of coincidences we determined the name of the man in the WWI uniform we posted originally, met his grandson, and learned more about Frank Stritesky who owned the Home Portrait Studio.
The photo is William H Rastall (born in 17 Jun in Racine, Wisconsin) and who served in the US Army from December 1917 to January 1919. William was the brother of Frank’s wife Anne, and lived in the same neighborhood.
Just days after we first shared these images on the “Racine History” Facebook group, and on this blog, William’s grandson Michael began searching the Internet to buy an original or reproduction of the patch on William’s uniform. The photo of William with the 119th patch was a family treasure that had been passed down.
Michael’s first search turned up our scan, posted to a military insignia message board that we’d used to try and narrow down the timeframe that image was taken. Michael has prints of this family heirloom, and figured that the negatives were in the home that housed the studio which was owned by Frank’s daughter Betty, so he was floored to see a full-frame version of the picture randomly by a stranger on the Internet!
He reached out the next day, and after exchanging texts and phone calls, it turned out we were close enough for lunch, and got to meet and exchange stories. Michael was able to share many of the family pictures that were taken by Frank over the years.
The image we first published of William was almost certainly taken in 1918, at a time when Frank was just getting Home Portrait Studio up and running, and during that time he’d often take photos of family to practice/build his portfolio. William married after returning home from his WWI service, and he and his wife Alice had one son, Patric who had a life-long interest in photography owning back to his Uncle Frank. Frank had let Patric work the cameras from time-to-time when he was younger, and Patric’s interest eventually rubbed off on his son Michael, who works as a professional photographer in the Chicago Suburbs (Michael Rastall Photography).
Patric and his wife had visited Betty decades ago hoping to salvage the remaining negatives and maybe some of the studio gear, but Betty wasn’t interested in letting anything go. Given the condition they were being stored in there was little hope they survived after Betty’s passing, so it came as a complete shock to the family that they were seeing the light of day. With any luck, as we continue through the 6 boxes we saved they we’ll find more of those family treasures.
We’re also hopeful we can eventually reunite many more families with these amazing images of their ancestors, but for now we’ve at least made that first link!