Margaret Hawkins Rockwell

Wringer-Washer Brings Memories of Mrs. Rockwell to the Surface

The Conlon Double Tub wringer-washer came with the house when Rita Fossell and her husband, George, purchased the cottage on Sylvan Lane in 1965, and it is still in pretty good shape despite the passage of time. Rita recently shared photos of the machine with the Lake Bluff History Museum, which got the Museum board thinking …

What was life in Lake Bluff like for the original owner of the wringer washer?

Both the washer and the cottage were owned by Margaret Hawkins Rockwell, who was born in the late 1800s. Widowed as a young mother, she was the first owner of the circa 1925 house, where she raised three children while working as a teacher and principal at Lake Bluff School. One of her children, Robert Rockwell Jr., went on to become a famous American TV star, and her two daughters, Mary and Georgia, both married and raised their families in Lake Bluff.

Fortunately the Museum was able to talk with Mary’s daughter Virginia (Ginny) Dangremond Houghtaling, who was born in 1943 and grew up in Lake Bluff just a few blocks from her grandmother. She even lived in the house on Sylvan Lane with her mother and grandmother during World War II, when she was a very young girl and her father, a surgeon, was serving in the military. She lived there again during the summer of 1963, while in college, and she has many warm memories of her grandmother, the house, the village …. and even of the washing machine.

“You had to crank the ringer and feed the clothes into it to get the water out,” says Ginny.

It was hard work, but the basement held promising surprises as well.

“There were all kinds of fun things that happened in that basement,” remembers Ginny. She vividly recalls a large fabric bag filled with grapes that hung from a rafter above a bucket, which collected juice in preparation for the making of grape jelly. This would have been in the 1950s, when her grandmother grew some of the grapes in the yard and picked others at orchards.

Ginny also remembers a large secretary cabinet in her grandmother’s dining room that had many drawers and opened to reveal a desk.

“When I was little I would get into those drawers, and my grandmother would say “No Ginny, that’s mine.” And when I was 2 years old, I started calling her “Mine.” From then on we all called her “Mine,” and all the other grandkids did so too, and even kids in town called her “Mine.”

Margaret Rockwell’s husband died of Hodgkin’s disease when Ginny’s mother and her siblings were 3, 5 and 7. She “stayed home” with the children until her youngest was in school. That’s when Margaret Rockwell became Mrs. Rockwell, beloved teacher and then principal of Lake Bluff School, a job she held for many years.

“But as enrollment grew, it was decided by the board of education that a man needed to be principal,” says Ginny. “That was devastating for my grandmother.”

Mrs. Rockwell went back into the classroom as a teacher until she retired some years later. Ginny remembers that after retiring from her school job, throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, her grandmother began a treasured cocktail ritual every evening with Ginny’s parents.

“Every night before my dad left work he would call my mom to say he was on his way home, and my mom would call my grandmother, and my grandmother would start walking over from her house on Sylvan to our house on Prospect.”

Their cocktail of choice: a bourbon Old Fashioned.

After she sold the Sylvan Lane house to Rita and George Fossell in 1965, Mrs. Rockwell moved into an apartment in uptown Lake Bluff for some time before moving in with Ginny’s parents and spending time each year with her TV star son in California.

And the wringer washer? It has remained in the basement on Sylvan Lane to this day.

Thank you to Rita Fossell for sharing photos of her Lake Bluff treasure with the museum, and thank you to Ginny Dangremond Houghtaling for sharing her memories. Do you have an interesting artifact in your Lake Bluff home or memory about life in our village? Please email adrienne@lakebluffhistory.org and tell us your story!