On the Record

Storied past

On the Record with Natalie Calhoun

Natalie Calhoun of DeKalb holds an oil painting she created from an old black-and-white photo of her female ancestors. Above her is one of her earlier works.
Natalie Calhoun of DeKalb holds an oil painting she created from an old black-and-white photo of her female ancestors. Above her is one of her earlier works.

History and stories are important to Natalie Calhoun of DeKalb.

She grew up 30 miles west of DeKalb, near Ashton, in the same house her relatives built in the 1850s. Calhoun was born in 1924: before the Great Depression, World War II and the invention of the television. She has three master’s degrees, taught for nearly 40 years and is 92 years old.

Calhoun, whose maiden name is Chapman, was related to Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, on her father’s side. Other paternal relatives include James Chapman, who fought in the Revolutionary War at age 16, and Madison Chapman, who was injured in the Civil War and was sent home to die.

On her mother’s side, she is related to pilgrims that immigrated to the New World on the Mayflower. While watching a National Geographic program on TV about Thanksgiving, she recognized the name and story of her ancestor, Edward Lester, who’s brother, a fur trader near Roanoke, Virginia, was murdered by Native Americans.

When her family moved to Illinois in the 1850s, more stories followed: her great-great uncle’s wife was related to the Bailey family of the Barnum and Bailey circus, so her family babysat a sick elephant; a man digging a well on the property was injured and his arm had to be amputated; her Great-aunt Emma was given a copper pence by Abraham Lincoln to stop her bloody nose; and her sister was saved by a Jewish doctor from Germany when she needed an emergency appendectomy during the middle of the night.

Calhoun has stories of her own too: she traveled around the U.S. with her Marine pilot husband, raised two daughters, follows politics and continues to audit art classes at Kishwaukee College. In her spare time, she creates oil paintings, charcoal drawings and jewelry.

Calhoun’s jewelry, metalwork and paintings will be on display through Sunday, Feb. 26, at the DeKalb Area Women’s Center, 1021 State St. in DeKalb. Marilyn Sjoholm’s jewelry and beaded necklaces also will be displayed in the art gallery. The gallery is open by appointment, and will be open from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Calhoun met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss her ancestry, her love of the arts and advice for living a long, healthy life.

Milton: Tell me some stories about your family?

Calhoun: My mother was a reader, and she, too, just loved history. I would listen to the stories she would tell us. There were always a lot of good stories on the farm. We shared stories and were aware of the stress and worries of everyone on the farm. We would talk about the weather, farms, friends and family. We talked about everything. We were living the drama.

Calhoun: Before my family came to Illinois in the 1850s, they lived in Delaware. Red hair runs in my family. One of my great-aunts, possibly Jane, gave birth to a baby with red hair. A constant stream of Indians came to see the red-headed baby, they never saw anything like it before.

Calhoun: My great-great-uncle John’s wife was a cousin to the Baileys of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The circus was traveling cross-country, and the cousin got in contact with my family. The circus had a sick elephant, and they asked if they could drop it off at the farm and pick it up on the way back. Can you imagine what the neighbors must have thought in those days?

Calhoun: In the 1800s, our family had a man come to deepen the well. He caught his arm in the machinery, and my grandma heard him yelling. In those times, all farms had a big bell. You would ring it and everyone would come running if there was a fire or an emergency. My grandma tried to ring the bell, but the men were far away in a field and couldn’t hear. She readied the horse and wagon and went to get help. The neighbors all came and they sent for a doctor. The doctor came and operated on him on the kitchen table. He removed his arm, but he lived. My grandma, she could not stand the sight of blood. Just couldn’t stand it. So during the operation, she sat out behind the barn and peeled potatoes. The man was from Dixon, and his wife came to stay with us for five days or so.

Calhoun: This is just a story, but it supposedly happened. My great-grandfather was going to a funeral, and he told my Great-aunt Emma that she couldn’t go. But, being a bit of a tomboy, she went and decided to crawl under the seats. She started bleeding profusely from a bloody nose. Abraham Lincoln was at the funeral, saw her and gave her a copper pence to put in her mouth, on her gum, to stop the bleeding. She later moved up to Montana and Idaho. She told her family that story, and still had that copper pence when she died.

Calhoun: My cousin died from appendicitis when she was 5. My sister had a stomachache. My aunt, we called her Aunt Chappy, was a practical nurse in Chicago. She became a reader of good books and attended lectures in the city. She worked with Italian immigrants and the Salvation Army in the 1930s. She worked with a Jewish doctor that escaped from Nazi Germany. When my sister had the stomachache, we called my aunt, and she and the doctor came in the middle of the night. He operated on her on the kitchen table. My family remembers him criticizing the rusty knives. But we think that he saved my sister that night.

Calhoun: My Aunt Nell’s house had a lot of wild grapes growing along her fence. Somehow, people in Chicago found out. They heard that they could pick as much as they wanted for free. So they all came out on the weekend and picked the grapes. Aunt Nell would sit in her rocking chair on the porch and watch them as they picked the grapes and filled their baskets. When the baskets were full, she drove out in her Essex. She grabbed the baskets, put them in her car and drove back to the house. By the time they arrived at the house, she emptied out the grapes from the baskets. She tossed the empty baskets back to them and said, “These are my grapes. Next time, ask.” She had confidence and could stand up to anyone.

Milton: Tell me more about you.

Calhoun: I was born at home in 1924, the fourth of seven children. I remember my family used to say, “Natalie won’t amount to anything, she is only interested in clothes and boys.” I have three master’s [degrees] and taught for almost 40 years. I remember the heat during the Great Depression and how we had electricity, but no running water.

Milton: Do you have any stories about your life?

Calhoun: I married my high school sweetheart, and he was a pilot in the Marines. I moved a lot as a Marine wife. My husband was a jet pilot in Hawaii and flew helicopters in North Carolina. When he was stationed in Hawaii, there was a tsunami, but we didn’t call them that back then. We had to head to the top of the mountain. In North Carolina, there were hurricanes and snakes. There were copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. They were in trees and on the sidewalk. You always had to watch where you’re stepping.

Milton: Have you always been interested in art?

Calhoun: I was not artistic. My family was musical. My dad sang tenor and taught us children to sing in harmony. I sang alto and played the violin in high school. Music was more of a big deal. … My husband and I were not compatible, so I left him. I returned home to my family and went to school for speech therapy and elementary education. I became a teacher and taught more than 80 children a week. I taught students that knew other languages and had learning disabilities. I realized that the children that didn’t know English did artwork that was years ahead of their skill and time.

Milton: When did you start practicing art?

Calhoun: I took my first art class in the early 1980s. I remember during the first project, I woke maybe four to six times that night, remembering exactly where I was with that drawing. I just remember how everything was sticking out to me, like where the walls met the ceiling. My teacher said that he liked my abstract artwork, but I really didn’t know what that meant. Then I started taking a metalwork class at Kish, an evening class. My children were out of the house or moved away. I kept taking classes. Now I have a master’s in art, a master’s in education and a master’s in Gestalt psychology. You can grow and train your brain. If you stick with it and really practice, you’ll get good at it.

Milton: What do you think contributed to your good health and long life?

Calhoun: I think that a lot of it is having good genes. I have three aunts that lived to be older than 100. … I taught until I was 75. I exercise and walk a mile every day. I don’t have high cholesterol, diabetes or high blood pressure. I watch what I eat, lots of fruits and veggies and I eat meat. I eat things with little or no preservatives. I want to stay in my own home and not use a wheelchair. I want to keep my body going and continue doing what I’m passionate about.

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