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Local News

An Extraordinary Life: 'Not as good as great-grandma's'

Elwood woman tackled everything with excellence

Bessie Frederick of Elwood
Bessie Frederick of Elwood

ELWOOD – Nancy Steinberg of Elwood was baking with her 6-year-old grandson, Alex Null of Channahon, trying to reproduce the taste and consistency of her mother’s frosting – and failing.

“He said, ‘It’s not as good as great-grandma’s, but it’s OK,’ ” Nancy said.

Bessie Frederick of Elwood also was known for her potato salad and mashed potatoes, Nancy said. Even Alex’s 5-year-old brother Eric – who shied away from mashed potatoes – liked Bessie’s. Simple foods, yes, Nancy said, but every dish always received rave reviews.

“She never went by an exact recipe,” Nancy said. “It was always throw in a little of this and that.”

Bessie also had a knack for decorating, quilting, nursing abandoned baby rabbits and birds to adulthood, and gardening. Nancy surmises her mother acquired her skills from growing up on an Elwood farm, still in existence today, near Hoff and Old Chicago roads – the second-oldest of seven children (twin brothers died in infancy), Nancy said.

She certainly could tell the stories, such as how all five siblings rode a single pony to school although they had to walk home because the pony would not wait, and a mishap on the front porch that involved mud pies and a horse, Nancy said.

“They must have put corn or carrots in the mud pies to make the horse come up,” Nancy said. “When the horse turned around, he put his butt through the window. They all took off when that happened.”

Bessie lavishly decorated her house for every major and minor holiday, Nancy said, acquiring decorations inexpensively from thrift shops. She also quilted large bedspreads and lap quilts featuring family photos; she scrapbooked family memories.

Family and hard work defined Bessie, who worked at the Joliet Arsenal during World War II and in the 1960s. That energy remained even in Bessie’s later years, Nancy said.

“After my dad retired, they got up early and started working around the home,” Nancy said. “They always had a project going.”

The garden at Bessie’s former Joliet home in the Ingalls Park area looked like a park, Nancy said. She recalled a certain Dusty Miller Bessie threw away behind the fence, landing near a pussy willow tree. It was still lying there the next spring, blooming, so Bessie replanted it, Nancy said.

“She was so good with plants, she couldn’t even throw them away,” Nancy said.

Each fall, Bessie, on hands and knees, would remove her geraniums from their containers, knock off the dirt and then place them in a cool, dark basement room. Come spring, geraniums and containers went back in the ground – trimmed back – and they would bloom.

“She just did that two days before she died,” Nancy said, “and they’re looking beautiful.”

After Louis, Bessie’s husband of nearly 70 years, died in 2013, Bessie began to have some health difficulties, although she still lived in her home, Nancy said. Up until then, Bessie had kept pace with her great-grandsons Alex and Eric.

She chased them around the house; and read, played board games and pushed Hot Wheels on the floor with them. She even joined them in a friendly game of baseball, with Bessie batting and running bases with the boys. The last game was two years before Bessie’s death May 6 at the age of 90.

“We played in her backyard,” Nancy said. “She was pitcher.”

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or

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