Who Was Jessie?

The mystery presented itself soon after Ginny Zdenahlik and her husband, Rudy, bought the house on Frogtown Road in Baileys Harbor in 1993. Penciled on the edge of a window screen were the words, “Jessie’s Room.” Who, Ginny wondered, was Jessie? Was she an adult or a child?

And what became of her?

The former home of Jessie de Both on Frogtown Road in Baileys Harbor. Submitted photo.

Longtime residents along the road on a bluff above Lake Michigan only recalled the house was once owned by a wealthy family from Chicago that had a chauffeur. Not much to go on, but Ginny was curious and determined. Research revealed that the house, originally on 10 acres, was built in 1935 by the parents of Miss Jessie Marie de Both, at that time a household name in much of the U.S. and Canada. The de Boths bought the property from Annabelle and Bill Muckian, owners of Lakeside Lodge, where the single male students at the Frogtown Art Colony (a program that flourished for a few years after WWI) lived and all the students took their meals. The lodge had long since burned, and the de Boths’ new home, the first on Frogtown Road, was built on its foundation. Frank Oldenburg was the builder, and he also constructed a garage with an apartment upstairs for the chauffeur.

Jessie was born in 1890, the daughter of a De Pere saloonkeeper. She graduated from Ripon College in 1915, at a time when an unmarried young woman was expected to become a teacher, nurse or librarian. Jessie accepted a position teaching high school English and science in Westfield, Wis., but she had other things in mind. In 1927, at age 37, she moved with her parents to Chicago and began her career as a celebrity chef.

Jessie was more than six feet tall, not bad looking and had an exuberant personality. It’s easy to imagine how she charmed the men (always men, in those days) who ran the newspaper, radio and, later, television industries. Within a very few years, she was known as the expert on cooking and homemaking. She was the author of 35 cookbooks and an encyclopedia of cooking. The “Jessie’s Notebook” column in the Chicago Daily Tribune featured plugs for products like Post’s Wheat Meal, Sunkist Quick Frozen Lemon Juice, Anacin, Kitchen Bouquet and – not surprising for 1953 – Parliament cigarettes.

Newspapers in which Jessie’s wildly popular column was syndicated sponsored “cooking and home-makers schools” in various cities. A full kitchen was set up on stage, and Jessie, beautifully turned out in a fashionable outfit, hat and, occasionally, furs, would burst from the wings waving a sifter and calling, “Yo ho!” The four-day program included giveaways, amateur shows, sing-alongs and musical performances by groups such as the Gypsy Barons Orchestra. At least one of the classes was a “white elephant session” to which husbands were invited.

Jessie loved to invite people on stage to share the limelight. Once she and a policeman from the audience danced the cakewalk. Sometimes she offered a full meal to the plumpest lady in the audience. If no one responded to her offer of a prize to the tallest, skinniest old maid, she announced that she was single and proud of it.

A retrospective story in the May 20, 2000, issue of the Detroit News said that the early shows were free, but thousands of women were turned away, so the price was set at 30 or 40 cents. Still, lines four abreast stretched for two-and-a-half blocks around the Detroit Masonic Temple.

A crowd waits to get into see Jessie de Both for a presentation she held at the Detroit Masonic Temple. Submitted photo.

Dozens of baskets of food were given away at each show, along with prizes like “iceless refrigerators,” washing machines, dishes, flowers, ironers, waterless cookers and Hoover vacuums. During the war years, Jessie’s recipes were geared to rationing; dishes could be made with or without meat. (One of her meatloaf recipes – she must have had dozens in 35 cookbooks – called for a pound each of pork and beef and, curiously, two cups of unsweetened applesauce.)

In the 1940s, Jessie had a radio program based on her columns and homemaking classes, and in the 1950s, she had a TV program called Jessie’s TV Notebook.

On July 16, 1954, Jessie married Carl Dreutzer, a native of Sturgeon Bay. It was announced in the New York Times with this headline: “JESSIE DE BOTH MARRIED; Home Economist Is Bride of Carl Dreutzer, Explorer.” Both were in their sixties. Carl, a prominent attorney, was also a gold miner, an adventurer, explorer and big game hunter. Commissioned by the Brookfield Zoo to capture a young walrus, he brought back three from Cape Prince of Wales in the Arctic Ocean, transporting them to Chicago by plane, ship and train. At the time, they were the only live walruses in captivity in the world. Like Jessie, Carl was a lecturer for the Chautauqua Circuit.

Carl and Jessie spent much of their time at the house on Frogtown Road. Sadly, Carl died in 1958 at age 72, and Jessie just a year later at 69. Jessie was Carl’s only survivor; she was survived by a cousin and elderly aunt. No one was left to keep alive the accomplishments of this early-day Julia Child, who came on the scene two decades after Jessie and survived her by 45 years.

Ginny Zdenahlik’s curiosity about a name scribbled on a window screen and her persistent research has brought to light many facts about the Baileys Harbor resident whose name was once, quite literally, a household word.

In early May, the Zdenahliks listed for sale their home at 7797 Frogtown Road. “Rudy and I have been honored to own it for 20 years, but time has caught up with us,” Ginny says. “All of our years up here, I’ve watched people come and go in various situations. This is so tough for us, as Door is home, but we will smile for all the memories created here.” The couple plans to return to the Chicago area, where they have family.