REMOVE YOUR MONEY 9/11/2010
An army of volunteers seeks to help “Aunt Aggie,” a 100-year-old Monee woman who raised 40 foster kids on her farm
April 27, 2010|By Colleen Mastony, Chicago Tribune reporter
Let the bankers come with their foreclosure notices. Invite the building inspectors, too. At 100 years old, Agnes Albinger has lived on her 70-acre patch of farmland longer than most of those people have been alive.
She has seen two world wars come and go, survived the Depression — in part by subsisting on minnow stew — and raised 40 foster children. Now, she has become a rallying point in this rural community as she fights to keep her Monee farm.
“I’ll never leave,” she said one recent morning, as she stood with a walker on her sagging front porch, looking out over the fields she tended for most of her life. “I’d like to stay here until I die. This is my home. This was my land. I owned everything once. I worked awful hard on this place to make it what it was.”
As Albinger faces foreclosure on the property where she has lived since 1949, a coalition of friends and strangers has mobilized to help the woman everyone calls “Aunt Aggie.” They have set up a , Web site, saveagnesfarm.com, and volunteered to help with cleaning and repairs. On a recent Saturday, nearly 100 people showed up to clear brush and haul away rusting farm equipment.
For many in Will County, helping Albinger seems to be one of the few ways they can push back against the waves of foreclosures and layoffs that have swept the nation.
“It goes further than what’s happening to Agnes. This same thing is happening all over. The value of American land is going down, homes are foreclosing. All these bankers think about is how much money they can make,” said Jim Armstrong, 59, a friend who helped organize volunteers. “They don’t care that there’s people who live on this land, people who love this land.”
As for Albinger, she says she’d rather die than leave. Her body is stooped with age and her hands are gnarled from decades of labor. But her mind seems sharp, and she fiercely defends her right to live independently. ” Nursing homes are made for people who cannot help themselves,” said Albinger, who uses a walker and who has a live-in caretaker to help with the heavier chores. “I can cook my own meals. I can do my own dishes. I can do everything myself.”
But the question of her best interests remains complicated. The farm has fallen into disrepair. The yard is strewn with cast-off furniture, stacks of old tractor tires, two abandoned cars. The porch is piled with junk. The roof leaks and, until recently, Albinger kept her last chicken inside the house, to protect it from raccoons.
And yet, when asked what the place means to her, Albinger replied simply: “Home. Don’t you have a home? Then you know what it means. It’s security. Love. Peacefulness.”
From 1 big family to another
The fifth of 11 children, Albinger was born in 1909 to Lithuanian immigrant farmers who cultivated land they rented near Kankakee. As a child, she attended class in a one-room school house, herded cows on the open prairie and helped plow fields with a team of horses. After a failed harvest, the family moved to Chicago, where in 1940 Albinger married her husband, Matthew. “A wonderful husband,” she said.
The couple couldn’t have children of their own, so they became foster parents, taking in the orphaned and abandoned. They bought the farm in Monee in 1949. Back then, Albinger said the land was still “all prairies, all over. Wild animals, everywhere you could see.” But, a few years after they purchased the property, Matthew died of a heart ailment, she and family members said.
“When my husband died, I had the four (foster) kids,” Albinger recalled. “And the welfare let me keep them. They said they’ll be company for me. As they grew up, I got more.”
Over the years, she raised 35 boys and five girls. In 1969, she was nominated for Cook County Foster Mother of the Year, according to news clippings.
“She taught me everything — how to live and survive,” said Michael Follmann, 54, who had bounced between more than a dozen “pretty brutal” foster homes by the time he came to Albinger’s farm. “I was a hot-headed young boy at the age of 9 after all the stuff that happened to me. I didn’t trust or believe in anybody. Then Agnes stepped into my life and taught me what it was like to trust people again, to have faith in people.”
“In my opinion, she saved my life,” said Greg Crosby, 54, who was 5 years old when his father abandoned him and five other siblings. The children had been malnourished and close to starvation, Crosby said, when Albinger took them in — all six kids — and made sure that the state didn’t split them up. “She taught us how to garden and things like that. She taught us to take care of animals. It meant everything.”
“I got my work ethic and, I think, my integrity through her,” said Greg’s brother, Ray Crosby, 57.
“I still call her ‘Mom,’ ” said Richard Rose, 49, who was 6 when he came to the farm. “Who knows where I would be if it wasn’t for her.”
Albinger introduced her foster children to the wonders of farm life. She showed them how to feed baby chicks by dripping water off a fingertip, and how to use a hand crank to separate the milk from the cream. She kept all sorts of animals including, at times, two peacocks, a pony and a monkey.
Life followed the rhythms of the seasons. They planted corn in the spring, cut hay in the summer and brought turnips into the cellar in the fall.
As years passed, the children grew up and moved away. But Albinger kept the farm going and, even well into her 80s, still milked the cows by hand and kept a few head of beef cattle. “I used to overhaul my own tractors. I did all my own field work,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of work.”
The farm had been free of debt, family members said, until 2000, when court and land records show that Albinger took out a $100,000 mortgage on the property. Albinger then began to sign over parcels of land to a trust and also to a company called Phoenix Horizon LLC, which according to state records was formed by Albinger’s niece, Bridget Gruzdis, 47.
In an e-mailed response to questions from the Tribune, Gruzdis said Phoenix Horizon was created “for the sole purpose of land development and sale.”
Over six years, Albinger and Gruzdis took out a series of mortgages on the farm, eventually borrowing $700,000, according to court and land records.
Albinger says she might have signed some papers but never knew about the mortgage debt. In September, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings. As recently as last week, a prospective buyer walked the property, which was put on the market a few years ago by Phoenix Horizon and is listed for $4.6 million, according to Ron Sales, a real estate agent in the area. But Albinger and other family members said they didn’t even know the farm was for sale.
Monee Deputy Police Chief John Cipkar said that the department is investigating and detectives are trying to determine if “Agnes was in full knowledge of what she was doing” when she signed. DinSFLA- Course she didn’t! They knew what they were doing was pulling a scam!
Gruzdis said in her e-mail that Albinger is suffering from dementia — an assertion that other family members dispute. She said that Albinger was involved in the formation of Phoenix Horizon and that the mortgages were taken to cover Albinger’s expenses and to “provide funds for Phoenix Horizon’s business objectives.”
“Agnes absolutely did know,” Gruzdis wrote. “Agnes was personally involved and signed all documents with her own hand.” DinSFLA- Not so fast “STAR”…your part of the investigation!
‘If I get to live here…’
In Will County, many hope that Albinger will somehow be able to stay on her land. In preparation for a May 1 deadline set by the Monee code enforcement department, volunteers have cleaned out Albinger’s basement, removed a crumbling shed from the yard and towed away the old tractors. Next, they hope to fix up the interior of the house.
“You’d have to be coldhearted not to have some compassion for her,” said Jim Frazier, 57, a volunteer. “I feel that she should be able to stay there at least to live out the days she has left.”
Meanwhile, Albinger’s extended family is struggling to decide if they should move her to a nursing home, a place where they believe she would be well-cared for, but where they fear she would be unhappy. “Myself, I would like to see her stay,” said Bob Szorc, 68, a nephew. “I would like to see her retain her independence. And once she goes to a nursing home, that’s not going to happen.”
“If she goes to a nursing home, her life will be cut short. I don’t think she’ll care to live anymore,” said Patricia Ritacco, 72, a niece. “You know, sometimes when you take away what’s important to people, they can’t exist any longer.”
As for Albinger, she is enjoying spring on the farm. The daffodils are blooming in her garden and the lilac bushes have begun to flower along the northern fence line.
Even at 100 years old, Albinger is thinking about farming and making plans for the future. On a recent morning, she stood on her porch and eyed her last chicken, clucking in a cage. “She’s a nice little girl,” Albinger said. “If I get to live here, I’m going to buy a rooster and see if I can raise a couple of chicks.”
Where is OPRAH??? Chicago hello???