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Vonnegut family member recalls orchard, young Kurt Jr. here

July 20, 2013

Pictured are Walter and Emma Vonnegut at the orchard farm on the east shore of Lake Maxinkuckee, Aug., 1936.

The Center for Culver History -- located in the lower level of the Culver Public Library -- is displaying local artifacts and sharing family memories of the Vonneguts of the east shore of Lake Maxinkuckee alongside the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library's traveling exhibit, continuing through this weekend. The exhibits are helping to bring together stories of all four generations of the Vonneguts who lived and worked in our area.

Kit Vonnegut, of Guemes Island, Washington, recently shared recollections of his family with Gregory Waksmulski, Museum Director at the Center for Culver History. Kit's father was close to the famed author, Kurt, Jr., during their time at University of Chicago in the late 1940's, and Kit’s grandfather, Walter, owned and operated the Vonnegut Orchard nearby 18th Road on the east shore of Lake Maxinkuckee. Kit was kind enough to send in several artifacts relating to the orchard, on display at the museum, says Waksmulski.

Kit recalled his father, Walter A. Vonnegut, had lived for a time with Emma Vonnegut in her orchard house, dubbed "the Holly Hocks." Kurt, Jr. referred to his Great-Aunt Emma in a letter as “the real force of the Vonnegut enclave.” Kit also spoke about his grandfather Walter's time as a stage actor in New York in the 1930's. It was during this time that Emma – who the children all knew as “Oma” – took full charge of the orchard. According to Kit, the elder Walter found greater success in the apple business than he had in the arts, and eventually returned to the farm.

His recollections helped to paint a richer picture of what the family and the lake were like in that bygone era. Before the war and the Great Depression, some branches of the family had been affluent enough to afford full-time hired help who would travel with them in the summer, he said. The family came to the lake as an escape from the drudgery of city life in the summers, and Kurt, Jr., would bring his .22 rifle with him for target practice, something he likely couldn’t do a lot of inside of the city.

Kit also noted the family is much more spread out these days and is perhaps less in touch as a result. Luckily, though, the Vonneguts have a famous son who attracts the attention of documentarians, biographers and others, and these investigations occasionally serve to bring far-flung members of the family in contact with each other. Kit had been put into contact in recent years with a long-lost cousin from his grandmother's side of the family, who lives on the east coast.

They swapped stories and shared photographs and found out a bit more about one another as well.

The Center for Culver History thanks Kit Vonnegut for allowing the museum to do the same with the public.

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