The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

White tells of life growing up during depression in the Northwoods


October 24, 2019

Kim E. Strom/Daily Globe

Jeanette White holds a plaque her husband received in recognition of his being the creator of the first Smokey Bear costume "used by any state in the nation." The plaque was presented to Frank Brunner Jr. by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry on July 3, 1994. White gifted the plaque to the Mercer Public Library to go next to the actual head of the first bear costume, made in 1950, and preserved in glass at the library.


Mercer - The Mercer Public Library has embarked upon a new project - Mercer Memory Events. As part of this project, Jean (Brunner) White came to speak at the library Wednesday about what the family's history was like growing up in Mercer. White was joined by her two sisters, Margaret (Peg) Brunner and Kathy (Brunner) Kadrlik. It was recorded on video.

It's not the first time for them. In the past, the focus was on the history of Smokey Bear and how their father, Frank Brunner Jr., created the first costume and character. But that's not what White came to talk about today.

"So much was made of my dad," White said. "But Mom was the backbone of the family."

"It was a tough life," said White, who was born in Bessemer in 1929 and grew up in Mercer during the depression with eight brothers and sisters. She remembers the log house on the corner of Brunner Road and County Road J. "It was a hard life, but a good life," she said.

In fact, that strand of happy childhood memories ran through much of White's story. Never mind that mom didn't have a washing machine and hung her clothes out to freeze-dry in the winter, or that there was no electricity and no refrigerator. Or that the big pot belly stove in the living room only managed to warm up one side of a person. They all made room for each other around the stove.

White's dad was a trapper and her mother stayed at home to raise the family. "Dad might have been famous, but mom was the woman behind the man," she said. She was a good disciplinarian, said White. She remembers her first spanking when she went outside in the mud after her mother had dressed the children up to go out somewhere.

But normally that wasn't necessary. All mom had to do was say, "You kids are driving me crazy." The kids took that literally and didn't want their mother in an asylum, so they behaved, she said.

"And you never had to worry about sending your kids outside to play (without an adult). It was safer back then. Times were different ..."

Then came World War II. "It was hard on every person in the nation," she said. In her graduating class there was one boy. "The rest were gone to war or worse."

And then there were the ration stamps. You couldn't just go buy anything you wanted. White tried to talk her mother into writing a cook book titled, "1001 Ways to Cook Spam." They ate a lot of it over the course of four years, she said.

But then those meals were supplemented with the wild animals her father caught or trapped and food from their gardens and wild produce picking.

"Mercer seemed like a big town back then," said White. "I remember when the community center was built. It was a big asset to the community. And there were four grocery stores, a sawmill and the train depot, which was the most popular place to be when the mail train came in. And there was a sweet shop where the cafe is now, called the Sugar Bowl."

Then there was mom's cooking. A well-balanced meal and dessert was never forgotten, even if it was just graham crackers and fudge frosting, she said.

And then, there were winter activities, skating, snowshoeing and skiing. In fact, Whites uncle pulled the kids on their skis behind his car and tried to shake them loose for a game.

She went on. The homemade ice cream from the cream skimmed off farm fresh milk where they all took turns churning. The wood cookstove her mother cooked on....Many people from the audience could relate, saying it was exactly like that at their homes too.

"Mercer has a distinct culture, different from Ironwood," one woman commented. "That's where everyone went shopping. But here, we were 'do-it-yourself-people,'" she said. White added that Mercer has always been noted for its friendly people.

While there were plenty of good memories, a drawback to that time was the lack of medicine and equipment doctors have today. Her mother suffered with a bad gall bladder and a bad heart. All the doctor could do was give her pain medication at the time, she said.

But mostly White told her stories with a nostalgic smile, her sisters chiming in occasionally to fill in blanks.

Upon wrapping up the session, White presented the library with a plaque that was a gift to her father from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry. It was given as proof that her father really did create the first Smokey Bear costume.

The Mercer Public Library is hoping others will come forward and tell their stories. "Its a part of Mercer history, we'd like to capture as much as we can," said library director Teresa Schmidt. Even coming to share what life is like today will be someone's history someday, she said.

For questions about the project, call (715) 476-2366.


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