My family lived in a seven room frame house on the north end of town. There were six of us; my parents, my older brother, the twins, my brother and sister and me. Charles, the oldest died when I was five. Our small town of 752 people was located 65 miles almost due east of St. LouisMo. And about 200 miles south of Chicago, IL. Our area was called “little Egypt” because of the climate, I was told.
Our home in Ashley had neither storm windows nor storm doors, very few homes did. I’m not sure if the house was insulated. Most homes in that area and time were not. We did have screens on our two main doors but few if any of the windows were screened. In the winter we heated the house with coal stoves. These were pot bellied stoves, capable of burning either coal or wood. We had no access to wood, so heated the house with coal. I remember the coal being delivered in the fall. It was brought by a fellow using a horse drawn wagon. He would drive to the side of our coal shed where there was a small door, about wagon high, and used a shovel to unload. I believe about a ton was all he could bring in one load, so during the winter, we’d get 2-3 deliveries. The coal was local coal mined in southern Illinois. It had high sulfur content and gave off smoke, and lots of soot. Much of the coal was in chunks the size of your head or larger. My chore each evening was to fill the coal buckets, one for each stove, plus an extra box in the kitchen along with bringing is some wood “kindling.” The good-sized cook stove in the kitchen was used for both heat and cooking. We had a stove in the living room which was used every day but our separate “front room” was kept pretty much for company and was closed off most of the winter. Our piano and “good furniture” was in that “company” room. There was also a smaller stove, about 12-15” across and 3-31/2 ft high, in the bedroom that my brother and I shared. When the temperature got extremely low, as it could, this stove was lighted for a short time in the mornings to help warm up the place. The living room and kitchen stoves were both “banked” to keep a small fire burning all night. By closing the drafts, and adding a piece or two of the larger chunks which would burn slowly all night. Pop may have tended these stoves at night, but I’m not aware of it.
To fill the buckets with the correct size coal, I used an ax to break the larger hunks into softball size pieces. This was the size used for most of our needs. The coal also made a lot of ash, so we had to clean out the accumulation in the bottom of the stove every day. All the stoves had a moveable part of the grate we used to shake down the ash.” Clinkers” were portions of coal that failed to burn. They would remain when the fire went out and resemble porous ceramic or metallic masses. These often stuck to the grate and had to be removed.
We owned about six or seven acres, five in pasture land and had one to three cows plus we usually raised pigs and chickens so this required the room. We always had a garden, a big one, an “orchard” of 10-12 fruit trees, and a grove of 15 or so of the “red-goose” wild plum trees.
Ashley town center was made up of the post office, one hardware store and three combination grocery-general stores which sold food, cloth, clothes, shoes etc. We also had a doctor and a dentist along with two barber shops. Our house was about one mile north of the main part of town on an unpaved street about ¼ a mile long, running east-west. There were 5 houses on this street all facing south. When I was about six or eight years old, a house west of us burned one night. I remember being awakened and watching it burn. We had no fire department then. People would gather and do what they could. Later the town bought a “bucket brigade fire wagon.” It was a wagon similar to those drawn by horses but intended to be pulled by two or more men. It carried many buckets, perhaps as many as 50 or more, plus two ladders about 15 ft long. However, this house burned before we had a fire wagon so by the time I got there everyone was just standing around watching it burn. I don’t recall any other house fires.
I remember winters in Ashley when the snow was higher than the fence posts which encircled the field immediately in front of our house. The posts must have been 3 ½ to 4 ft tall, and I remember lots of winters when the posts would be nearly covered. Just a few inches of post sticking up.
We had no car at that time, so all transportation was by foot. My Dad at that time was working for the railroad. He was a night man, working at the L&N (Louisville-Nashville) railroad depot. He met the night trains, probably 3-5 depending on the time of the year, to put mail and items of freight on the train, and remove the same. We had an intersection of railroads at Ashley. The L&N crossed the north-south IC (Illinois Central) The IC came from Chicago from the north heading south to Cairo, Paducah etc. So, much stuff (from Chicago that was heading for St Louis or EvansvilleInd. for example) would have to be transferred at Ashley. This was part of Pop’s duties, along with selling passenger tickets. The “telegrapher” was in another building which was about 25’ high at the rail intersection. This fellow sent and received telegrams as well as manipulated the large levers that opened or closed the switches for cars to be switched to the siding
Pop used to wrap cloth around his legs from the knees down to keep the snow out when he walked to and from work. This heavy snow never seemed to last too long, but to have 10-15 inches on the ground was not unusual. We were only about ¼ of a mile from the school, so always had an easy walk to it. We used to get quite a bit of sleet, and the ground would be covered with sheet ice which would last three or four days sometimes so we used “ice grippers”. They were metal pieces about 3” long with two prongs on each end. You placed these right in front of your heel, strapped them on and they gave traction while walking. Without these and with the wind we had there, walking could be very difficult. I remember walking to school with the grippers, then taking them off so I could join the kids in sliding on the ice around the school.
During the winter I always kept at least 2 rabbit traps set. They were the “rabbit walk-in” kind with a figure 4 type release, baited with a piece of apple and placed in or near a rabbit run (path). Almost every morning I would catch a rabbit. They provided much of our meat during the winter. Pop (and later I) would take the 12 gauge shotgun and shoot a rabbit in our pasture at times.
My earliest recollection of a playing accident was when I was less than five years old. It involved my older brother Charles, who died when I was five. Our street had a concrete sidewalk along the front. At places where it crossed the ditch immediately east of our land, the concrete had buckled. We had a play two wheeled wagon with a wooden seat for one. It had a handle that I remember as four to five feet long. In front of the seat on the handle were two pegs, one for each foot to rest on. One person could pull the wagon by the handle. I remember my brother Charles pulling me, running very fast, and when we hit the bump, it must have been 4-5 inches high and either the handle flew from his hands, or he turned loose of it, or tossed it into the air. Anyway I remember turning a backwards summersault, coming down on the concrete on the back of my head. I remember the wonderful aurora borealis that I saw. Also had a lump like ½ a tennis ball for a while, too.
Just in front of our house was a cottonwood tree probably 35-40 feet high. About 25 ft up was a fair sized hole. A screech owl lived in this hole several summers. We’d see it sitting at the edge of his home many evenings in the summer. Was never aware if it had a mate, or if they ever raised any young. Never heard it call either.
I saw lightning hit the branches of a large elm tree near our home one stormy afternoon. I was with Pop and we were driving home. It was a very bright flash, and then a ball of fire, two ft or so across fell to the ground and splattered. It did not run down the trunk, but rather seemed to hit the outlying branches, and fell from there.
Our barn and outhouse were located to the north of the house, about 100 feet or more. The path from the house to these buildings went thru a wooden grape arbor which was fully covered with grapes during the summer. The sides were app. 8 ft. high, and must have been 8-10 ft. wide. I remember during the summers how nice and cool it was inside the thick grape arbor. Also, we had lots of purple grapes that Mom used to make grape jelly.
The outhouse was out between the barn and the chicken house. It was a two holer, enclosed and with a door. Toilet paper as we know it today was not available, so for that purpose we used the outdated Sears catalogue. Tear off a sheet, scrunch it up and it did quite well. Once or twice a year, we had to clean the pit out. Pop usually did this. He’d use an old galvanized tub and spade the offal into it. We’d then drag it out into the pasture area and spread it around for fertilizer. It was a necessary chore that required doing with our way of life.
We had to carry water for the animals from a well located at the edge of the back porch to their water tub near the barn. During the heat of the summer, they would drink several buckets each so we’d have to fill the tub at least twice daily. I can remember Dad used to say he was going to fix up a trough arrangement, so we would just pump the water into the trough and have it run to the tub. I used to think what a good deal to get that. We never did.
In the barn the cattle feed was kept in wooden barrels. Their feed was sold in 100# bags which we emptied into these wooden barrels. As far as I know, there were no poisons available for use to control the rats and mice, so they flourished around the barns. We always had several cats which kept the mouse population down, but the rats were more nocturnal so the cats either wouldn’t or couldn’t control them. So several times during the year, we’d pour water down the holes in which the rats lived to run them out. Usually my dad and brother and I did this chore. We’d carry quite a few buckets full and pour the water into the holes. When the hole was nearly full of water, out would come the rats. We’d battle them with clubs, killing as many as we could and would also drown the young. Our soil was full of clay, so the holes would hold the water for quite some time before it drained.
Behind the barn was the “pig pen.” It was an enclosure that Pop had built partly out of old rail road ties. I remember it as about 20’ by 30’. The north east corner had a covering about 2 ½ to 3 ft high to provide shade for the hogs during the heat of the day. Later in the afternoon the barn would shade the area, but the pigs used this corner during the heat. We usually kept up to five pigs, raising them on table scraps, extra milk and grain. When the pigs were large enough, my brother, sister and I would ride them. Bare back, of course. The pigs would always head for this corner shelter, which would “wipe you off” if you were a bit late in dismounting. After a rain the pen would get very muddy, which made the fun of riding even more exciting. During the muddy times, the fun was to jump onto the three cornered shelter, just as the pig ran underneath. If you timing was right, you’d go right up onto it. If you misjudged, you had to explain to Mom why you were so muddy. Riding the pigs wasn’t an authorized past time, and I doubt if Mom knew about it.
We did the same with the calves we sometimes owned. We’d either ride them bare back, or hold onto their tails and holler so they’d run, pulling us around. Some fun. They’d run fairly fast, and when they turned, they would “sling” you. Good sport.
Fall was butchering time. We’d usually butcher from 1 to 3 hogs. I remember a man would come to help Pop. The first chore done early that morning was heating a large tub of water. This was done on an outside fire and the water put into a barrel, similar to the 55 gal drums we have now. The man who helped was a professional butcher who owned the necessary tubs, knives etc and was hired to help. He worked with many of the locals helping them butcher. The animal was usually shot with a 22 cal. rifle, and then the juggler vein was cut. If you planned to make “blood sausage” you’d catch the blood in a large bowl, if not it’d just spill onto the ground. We did it both ways at times. After the bleeding you’d hook the hind feet to a pulley and by using a tripod, raise the pig over the barrel of hot water. By lowering it into this hot water for several minutes the dirt would come off and the hair would soften. We’d then take “bristle knives” and scrape the hair off. I remember how clean and pink the outside hide would look after being scraped clean of hair and dirt. After this the animal was opened, gutted, and then cut into the hunks desired. We’d hang the meat in a storage shed and let it age and cool for several days. (I don’t recall the flies or other bugs being a concern back then.) We’d usually butcher 2-3 pigs at the same time. For the meat to age properly, it had to be kept cool so butchering was always done in the fall. Next, we’d take a large portion of meat into the house, cut it up into slices and fry it. By frying the pieces to about ½ done, you got quite a bit of grease. We had several large crocks that we layered the half fried meat slices into, then covering each layer with grease. Eventually the crock would be full, and we’d put a top layer of grease to seal it. The filled crocks were put into a cool room and the meat would keep all winter. I still remember the wonderful smell of frying pork. Since it would take several days to do this, the smell would be around for a week or more. Then when you used it you would take out several of the half-cooked pieces and finish cooking them. They would be deliciously edible.
Making apple butter was another fall project. We’d gather all the apples we needed, both from our trees and from orchards in the area. In those days the orchard owners often would give the “dropped fruit” away free if you came and picked it up. So we’d go and pick up several bushels. It would be a job lasting two or more days (with everyone helping) to peel, cut up and take out the wormy parts to get enough apples. We’d always start with 2 or 3 tubs of apple slices. When “cooking day” came, we’d again have a big fire outside. Pop would rent a copper kettle, 30 inches or so across and 2-2 ½ feet deep. Putting this just above the fire, we’d add water. When the water would boil, in would go the apples, sugar and spices. The really important was to keep the stirring paddle going to keep the apples from burning. It was made of wood with the stirring end perpendicular to the handle braced on each side for strength. The part that rested on the bottom was curved to fit the bottom of the copper pot. It needed to be push-pulled constantly while the apples were cooking while we slowly walked around the kettle. This paddle had to be kept in constant motion, so my brother, I and others would trade off doing it. You also had to check the fire. If it came up too high on the side of the pot, it would cause the apples to stick to that side and burn. You couldn’t move the kettle, so we were always aware that the fire had to be kept just hot enough to keep the cooking going.
When taking a bath today, with the temp about 15 or so, and the hot water running freely, I thought of the “bath times” back during those days. Our kitchen, since it was heated for cooking also served as the family room quite a bit. We had no rug or other covering on the floor. Jut the wooden boards. Each board was about 3” wide, and of the tongue and grove type commonly used then. Our floor was not painted, but had darkened with use. To take a bath, during the cold weather, we’d heat a couple buckets of water on the kitchen stove, bring in a galvanized laundry tub and there it was. The tubs were about 30” across and 12” deep. We put papers (newspapers usually) on the floor to help absorb the slops and this is how we would bathe. We often used soap that Mom had made. Then in the later years we’d buy soap. My earliest recollections are of the “yellow bar” soap made at home. No two bars were the same size, since they were hand cut. We three kids would bath at the same time, one following the other. Additional hot water would be added after we removed some of the cooled off/ dirty water and the soap curds to make it half way clean and warmer for the next dirty kid.
I remember how lucky I felt when I was big enough to try out for the basket ball team so I could use the showers at the school gym. PT wasn’t part of the school day, but came after school. So this must have been before my high-school days, since I worked most of the time during high school. My first year or so of high-school, I had the local paper routes. I delivered both the morning and evening papers all over town. I believe I was paid something like $2.65 a week for this, seven mornings and six evenings. I think it was between my 2nd and 3rd year of high school that I started working evening and nights at the bus terminal. I would get off after the main bus exchange around 10PM during the week. On Fridays and Saturdays, I would work all night.
George and Bessie Jones lived to the east of us. Their house was just across the driveways from ours. They were only 10-12 years older than I, so they were more like older buddies than married people. One day, Georges’ younger brother Raymond came to visit. He and I were playing catch between the houses using a wooden croquet ball. We didn’t have a baseball. The folks had bought the croquet set (or it had been given to us) and Raymond and I were using one of the balls. We were doing pretty well and then he threw a long high flyer which I had to catch coming from above. I held my hands out in front of me (we didn’t have gloves) to catch it and was a trifle late in grabbing it. My failure to intercept the projectile caused it to accomplish a “hard landing” right on my nose! I again saw stars from that and wow, how the blood gushed from my nose. Sorta took the fun out of playing catch that day.
George pulled a shyster’s trick on me once. I’d just been paid-I think it was while I had the paper routes, and was paid the $2.65 a week (our papers were trucked in from St. Louis, MO each day). George had just got a job working at the railway “car barns” in Mt. Vernon, some 12 miles to the east. It was a central depot, where the rail cars were cleaned and repaired. He had evidently just been paid, because he flashed a roll of bills, the biggest I’d ever seen and said he had a hundred dollars. I don’t recall anyone other than he, I and Bessie being there, but we’d been kidding etc, so when he showed me this bundle of bills and bragged that it totaled $100., I just knew he was kidding. So I said something like “Baloney, I don’t believe it.” The controversy grew, (I later thought I was being set up for this) but he kept it up. Finally saying “I’ll bet you I’m not fooling (or lying). So since I’d never seen $100 in one place before, and really thought he was not telling the truth, I bet him a dollar. Ha! I lost one of my hard earned dollars in a hurry. He did have his $100.00 although not much more but enough to win the bet On the 50 ft walk home, I thought I was somewhat foolish to have done that. I soon reasoned he had to know how much the money totaled. I knew he could count and add, so I thought, “Boy, your weren’t too smart just then, that’s no way to get ahead”. Looking back, I think it was a fairly good lesson. I don’t recall ever doing anything quite that foolish again, although I’ve had the opportunity many times. So, maybe it was a dollar well spent.
During the summer time when I was working at the Greyhound bus terminal I worked the night shift. I’d hitchhike back to town, or walk—the terminal was west of town about 2 miles. Then I had the mile north to go, so on the way through town, I’d stop at the Kroger grocery store and buy a box (50) of 22 rifle shells for 9 cents. I’d take them home and usually shoot them all before going to bed. I had a new single shot Remington rifle that I paid about $9.00 for. To practice shooting I’d stand wooden matches up, get back 20-25 feet and shoot at them. Soon, breaking them wasn’t too much of a problem, so I’d start shooting for the heads, trying to just graze them causing them to light. I got so I could hit them this way once in a while. I’d also take black walnuts (about the size of a golf ball) toss them into the air and shoot at them. I found that by tossing them fairly straight up they were fairly easy to hit. I could hit 2 or 3 out of 5 fairly often. I used to win a lot of bets with my buddies by doing this, but since no one had any money to bet, it was all “just for fun.” So although I could do it, I couldn’t make it pay. (George wouldn’t bet me on it.) Some others tried it but didn’t seem to see that the trick was to toss the nut fairly straight up, thus making it much easier to hit. I don’t think I ever did tell them.
We had several large elm and maple trees growing along the east edge of the house at the property line. One had a large horizontal limb pointing toward the house. It was ideal for a rope swing. The rope was long enough; one person could get quite a nice high swing on it. We had a step ladder too, so we’d climb to the top of this ladder while holding the rope and swing off. You could get quite an arc that way. I was the one that had to climb the tree usually, so it was my job to replace or move or take the rope down if it was needed for another use.
Our first car was a used model T Ford sedan. Probably a 1926 had two seats and as all cars then, was jet black. We were all so proud that we had a car. I remember washing the dust from it several times. Pop had me “shine” it, using a rag dampened with a very small amount of kerosene. I guess we didn’t know, but of course, this just attracted more dust and although it really looked pretty just sitting there wasn’t really too practical. Car polish was unheard of then. We had no ant-freeze then either and just used water in the radiator. During the very cold times, we’d have to drain the car radiator in the evening and refill it when we wanted to use it. You had to be careful too. When it was very cold, the radiator could freeze up even with the engine running. Then we’d have to cover the radiator and let it idle to thaw.
One late summer day, must have been 1926 or 27. A traveling salesman came to the house selling Maytag washing machines. The old square sided kind, with two large thick rubber rollers to wring out the clothes. He wanted to demonstrate it and sell one to the folks. This was common then since local stores didn’t carry merchandise this large. (Too much money tied up in inventory). They didn’t think they could afford it. The salesman offered to leave it for a few days to let Mom “see why she had to have it.” The next AM we were all up early, heating lots of water. Mom washed everything but the model T the next few days. All bedding, the rugs, all our clothes, etc. I remember her saying she was so sure she’d have to give it up she was going to get every thing “done up.” When the time came for the decision, the folks decided they could afford it. So we were able to keep it which made us all happy. I pretty well had the idea we couldn’t afford anything, so when this decision was made, I figured we must be doing better. The machine sat on our back porch for years, being rolled into the kitchen for winter use. I remember it would cause the fuse to blow sometimes, and I would be called to come home during recess, to change the fuse so Mom could continue to wash.
We had electricity in our home as long as I can remember, although all it amounted to was one light on a cord hanging near the middle of each room. The wires, a greenish cloth covered wire, with red flecks in it, two wires twisted together, would run along the ceiling before it hung down to about six feet off the floor. We had no toasters or other appliances so its only use was for lights. The first electrical device we had was this MAYTAG washing machine. To use it we’d replace the light bulb, with a plug-in to power the machine. Later we got an upright electric vacuum machine. I remember hearing the folks talking of the “electric sweeper” they had ordered. I think they ordered it from the Sears catalogue and it was shipped from Chicago. Anyway I misunderstood the word sweeper and thought they were talking about an electric sleeper! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how an electric sleeper could be used, or why it was needed. I didn’t think anyone had any trouble sleeping. Why I never asked I don’t know but after we received it and I saw Mom using it the mystery was solved.
More on our living conditions. I remember the “tangle foot” fly catchers we used in those days. Since we had no screens on the windows and they were open during the hot summers, there were many flies. We would hang “tangle foot” strips to catch them. These were very sticky strips of strong paper. They were usually about 2 ½ to 3 ft long and about 2 ½ inches wide. They came in a small paper carton, like a small rolled oats box. You would take off the paper cap, and there would be a small string or metal ring. By pulling this ring, you would unravel the sticky strip from the carton. It would hang from the ceiling and usually catch literally thousands of flies on it. We’d have anywhere from 2 to 6 or so hanging primarily in the kitchen. When they became completely filled with insects we’d replace them.
We never locked any doors in those days. In fact, I don’t think we even had locks on our house doors nor windows. Burglary was unheard of back then. I don’t remember us ever losing anything.
I remember cleaning out the wells. We had 3 on our place. All had been hand dug, and bricked up. The one just off the back porch had a wooden cover with a pump. This is the one we used for most of our needs. The next was just west of our house and was used as a secondary well. We’d use water from it to water the garden, all done by hand. It had no pump, but did have a wooden cover, with a boxed arrangement and you would draw water from it using a bucket on a rope. Some how some debris had fallen into this well and Pop decided we needed to clean it out which was quite an undertaking, so during the dry time of the summer we started early one morning, drawing water from this well. I don’t think my brother was old enough to help, so Pop and I (with him doing most of it) brought bucket after bucket of water up from the well. It was a bricked up hole in the ground, about four feet across and perhaps 35-40 feet deep. It was about ½ full of water when we started. Sure enough, by mid afternoon or so (we’d been at it all that time) you could start to see the bottom. Finally the water was so low the buckets would no longer fill. I remember looking down into it and seeing several bricks, boards and some gooey mud. Since we had no ladder long enough to reach the bottom I was volunteered to “go to the bottom”. I remember Pop making a loop at the end of the rope where I put my foot then by hanging onto the rope, he lowered me in. I remember the cautioning from him, “Don’t kick or hit the sides, you might cause the bricks to come loose”—this on the way down. So I rode the rope elevator down. I remember how nice and cool it was on the way down. When I got down, Pop again lowered a bucket and I put in the bricks, the boards etc. He dropped me a can and I scraped the mud from the clay bottom of the well. I remember thinking how funny, no bricks on the bottom, to hold the water in. Course all this time the water was oozing and dripping and running in small rivulets from between the brick sidings. I recall looking up and how funny it looked. All I could see was the sky, and it gave a telescopic look. After some teasing about “We’ll be back in the morning” etc. I was brought up the same way I went down.
Many people would keep cat fish in the wells and especially in cisterns in those days. The fish would eat the bugs and any larva and help keep the water clean. But Pop always thought our water was too cold and too clean to support fish, so we didn’t do it. I don’t recall seeing many bugs or tadpoles in it either.
We had no refrigerator, but did have a wooden ice box on the back porch, however we seldom had ice. Consequently we would lower our milk, butter etc, in a bucket down the well, the open one. By hanging it down near the water it would stay quite cool.
We always had cows so milking was another of my chores, both morning and evening. We also had cats around which would often come and sit nearby while I milked. I got pretty good at squirting them in the face with a stream of fresh milk. They liked that. They’d lick their chops clean, and then meow for more. I also got pretty good on leaning over and squirting myself in the mouth with a stream of warm milk. You couldn’t let the pressure die off slowly or you’d get milk down your front. Didn’t matter though. Our summer uniform was always bib jeans; we called them overalls, or Osh B’Gosh’s (brand name). We seldom wore shoes during the summer. I was milking old “Bossie,” the Holstein cow, one evening and she moved a hind foot and put it down on the top of my left foot sliding it down onto my toes. It mashed my big toe enough that to this day I have an ingrown toenail.
The railroad switched empty refrigerator cars to a siding just to the west of us, about ¼ mile or less. I think they shipped bananas in these “refrigerated” cars. These cars were always yellow so if we wanted to make ice cream or had another need for ice we’d watch for those cars. When they appeared (and they seemed to often during the summer) we’d go to the tracks and climb on top and open the end compartment to see if any ice was left. This ice compartment was across the entire end of the box car, maybe three to four feet wide. Often we’d find a hunk of ice, the size of a large bucket or better. We’d climb in and hand the ice up to others who would put in a feed sack. Some compartments had very slick sides, so climbing back out was sometimes tricky. Course those on top would always holler, “Hurry up, here comes the engine to move the car”.
We’d also go near the tracks for fun when the freight trains went by. There must have been 12-15 trains a days and we’d throw the “ballast rocks” at the cars. These were the rocks they used to set the ties both in and on. We’d see how good we were at hitting a particular sign, or some other target on a car. Since some moved quite fast, you had to “lead” them quite a bit. My sister, shortly before she died, reminded me of the time she was along and we were “running the train outtta town” and one of the fist sized rocks bounced off the car and hit her on the head, cutting the skin and causing it to bleed. She ran home, hollering “Franc tried to kill me” and just whooping it up. She said it almost scared Mom half to death. She was more scared than hurt, we imagined.
We had fair grounds in Ashley where the Washington County Fair was held yearly. I often was able to get a job helping set up tents or the rides etc. and would receive a free pass, saving the .25c entry fee. It used to run for several days and I used to think how lucky! I could go “just anytime I wished” since I had the pass.
The 4th of July picnics were held at Nashville about 9miles west of us. I think this was before the days of the County Fair at Ashley. I must have been 5 or 6 back then. I remember looking forward to going because they always had iced tubs of FREE bottles (no cans) of soda pop. I especially liked the cream pop. I can still see 6-8 large tubs of iced pop scattered around under the trees, and “all you had to do was go and get one!” To me this made the 4th of July worthwhile. I don’t know how the pop was paid for. Perhaps there was an entrance fee, I don’t know. Other than drinking 8-10 bottles of pop, all I recall is the ball game. I was too young to play, but remember other young men in their white shirts, many wearing sleeve garters and straw, flat topped hats, playing ball. I don’t remember them having fire works, although they were sold then. We always had some fire crackers, some bombs, sparklers etc. I guess the folks bought them since we kids had no money.
During the late summer of one of those years, they were holding the adjoining county’s fair at Centralia (16 miles north) I forget just why but there was to be something special at this fair. It might have been a stock car race (which was a new attraction then) or an airplane demonstration or some such, but several of us young fellows decided we wanted to see it. One fellow had the use of their family car, so several of us went. Somehow I got separated from the rest and when it was time to head home I had NO ride home. So I started hitch hiking. I’d done that quite a bit and always had good luck, but for some reason this night I couldn’t get a ride and wound up walking all the way. I recall stopping somewhere along the way and sleeping a while then walking the rest of the way. I don’t remember what the folks said. I’m sure they knew it.
I also remember my first really good paying job. I made $3.00 a day, shocking wheat and that was GOOD money then. Machines would cut the wheat and tie it into bundles about 6” thick at the tie. The wheat heads were left on the stalks. These bundles were stood up in groups (shocks) to dry out. After several days they were taken to the barn area where the “thrashers” would harvest the grain. The thrasher was a large machine, similar to what is used today, but not very mobile. They would be powered by either a tractor or a steam engine. Wood would fuel the steam engine and a large belt some 8 inches wide and maybe 100 ft long, would run the thrasher. The belt always had a cross in it. Just why I don’t know, perhaps to keep it on the pulleys. Anyway, Pop and I got a job working on this farm. We’d pick up the wheat bundles and put them into the shocks. I believe I remember the schedule. Up at 3 AM, breakfast and into the fields by 4 (just barely daylight) then around 8-8:30 the women folk would bring the “morning lunch” into the fields. Often it was fried chicken, potato sticks, rolls, etc. stuff you could eat with your fingers. Always a big jug of lemonade (no ice) then about 11:30 we’d knock off, go to the house and wash up. A BIG meal then at 12. I mean, fried chicken fresh pork, beef mashed potatoes, gravy and all kinds of other good stuff. Back to the fields at 1 PM. Another “in the field” lunch around 3:30 or 4, then work until 8. We’d go in then, wash up at the “water shed” and have supper around 9PM, another BIG meal after that bed time. And at 3 the next AM, start it over. I think the time I did this I worked four days. Other such jobs were only a day or so. I remember how lucky I was because there were few others my age that made that much money. $12.00 for just 4 days work, imagine!
I remember one other episode that happened during the depression. Pop was off working somewhere or trying to get a job, and I remember Mom telling me how hard up we were and that there just wasn’t enough food for the 4 of us etc. So I hitchhiked up north to a strawberry farm I knew of. Actually the owner was a teacher in our high school who farmed on the side. He gave me a job hoeing strawberry plants for $1.00 a day I forget the exact hours, but it was pretty well sun-up to sun-down. He had several of us kids working there. He let us sleep either in a shed or in his basement. Forget what bedding we had, but it worked out ok. He also fed us. I worked a week or so (don’t remember how long) until the work was finished. I was really tickled when I took that money home to “help out.” I kinda figured I was doing my share.
The last episode, when in my early teens, four or five of us young fellows would usually meet in the evening after supper and either play ball, run, or just talk and fool around. By then our local bakery had closed so bread was baked at a larger town like Centralia and delivered to the smaller towns early in the morning. Because of this the grocery stores kept a “bread box” sitting on the sidewalk in front of the store. These were about 2 ft long, 2 ft wide and 2 ft deep. They were tin lined, to keep rodents and rain out. It had a hasp the bread delivery man could close if needed because of high wind. So for kicks we’d pick on someone in the group and put him in the bread box, close the hasp and leave him. The night watchman would come by, find the fellow (you could hear him hollering for miles) and let him out. Being good “mafia” members, they never told who had locked them in so we never got into trouble about it. I was always able to out run or talk them out of “picking on me” so I was never honored.
Must tell you about the “corn cob” fights we used to have when we went to visit Pop’s sisters and hubby, Henry & Connie Soeteber. They lived on a farm near Oakdale, IL. and raised corn. They always had a several cows, pigs etc. The cows were fed the corn while it was still on the cob, after the husks had been removed. They would eat the corn, cobs and all. For the chicken feed though, Lyle and Carl, (about the same age as Ken and I) would use the “huller” to take the kernels off the cob. This small machine was all metal with a hopper and a funnel arrangement sitting on top. You could put about a bushel of corn in the hopper and single ears would feed down, coming into contact with a wheel that had dull, steel teeth sticking out from both sides. By turning this wheel, the cob would slowly work its way around the wheel while rotating. The dull teeth would strip the kernels off the cob which would fall into a bucket, the cobs falling alongside. You could run an ear through and it did a really good job of stripping it in seconds. It had to be turned by hand, so was a tiring chore. So they always had bushels of corn cobs lying around. I think they may have fed some to the cattle, but there were scuds of them. When they found out we were going to visit, usually on a Sunday, the boys would put a good supply of the cobs in water to soak. By breaking them into pieces, about 3-4 inches long, and soaking them, we could have a really good “fight.” It’d always be Carl (the younger boy) and I, Lyle and Ken. We’d fill our pockets with the soaked corn cobs and play around the barns and other out buildings. You’d try to sneak up around a corner, or over a feed trough to find someone hiding. You’d throw one of these “soakers” as hard as you could. If you connected it would really raise a welt and sting like the dickens. Lyle was able to throw them about 110 MPH it seemed and was pretty good on the “running shots” so made quite a few hits. I remember going home with big welts from this “fun” game. Thinking back, the folks either didn’t know or didn’t worry, because if one had hit an eye, it could have been real trouble. I doubt they knew of our “fun”.
I feel the folks had a very rough time during those years and it was not really their fault. It was just the times. Pop was laid off work from the railroad very shortly after the “bust” in ’29. I remember seeing the headlines, that the banks were closed, and also when I passed by our bank (Stanley G. Berry, prop) I saw the signs saying, “Closed until further notice.” I remember hearing stories of people losing most or all they had and remember hearing of suicides from people jumping from windows or other high places in the cities. I’m sure we didn’t have much in the bank and I remember thinking “How lucky we are that we didn’t have anything to lose when the banks closed”.
Pop’s first job, after losing the rail road job was as Postmaster at Ashley, a political job. For some reason the job was open and he applied for it. We were to receive notification by mail, coming from St. Louis. I remember walking to town many evenings to see if the letter had came on the 6 PM train. It was one of the two daily trains that it could come on. So around 6, I’d walk down to the post office and wait until the mail had been distributed and see if the letter had come. Since this was our supper hour, Mom would fix me a fried egg sandwich to eat “on the way.” This was my supper during many of these walks. Finally the letter came but I didn’t get to receive it. It must have come during the day. But the news was good. Pop was appointed as postmaster. I remember the jubilation around the house. We’d have a pay check coming in again. But in just less than two years FDR was elected, the Democrats took over and all the small jobs such as Pop’s went to “loyal Democrats”. So before FDR even took over, they relieved Pop. He was out again. What made this especially galling seems the PM could choose his assistant, pretty much on his own. Pop had kept the fellow who had previously held the job, but when FDR came in, it was found this fellow (Harry Stevens) was a Democrat and they appointed him as postmaster. He picked someone else for his assistant. (As I recall he said he was “forced” to) but this cut deep.
Then there were several years of trying anything. Pop tried several things, among them selling Raleigh Products. It was a “Fuller Brush” type operation, although they carried all kinds of household products. I remember the black-jack chewing gum. Pop would give us a stick once in a while, and the vanilla extract. It had the best smell. The idea was to travel the country side and sell to the farmers, saving them the time and expense of going into town. While postmaster, Pop bought a 1930 Chevrolet, black of course. This was the vehicle he used in his selling travels. He had a metal rack fixed up to ride on the back bumper where he tied a “chicken coop” to hold the chickens he’d swap for. Thinking back, that was probably a pretty good idea basically, since farmers who owned their land were by far better off because they raised so much of their food and people had to eat. I remember Pop coming home with chickens, eggs, apples etc that he had taken in exchange for his products. Some items he had to sell so he could pay the company. Some we’d use. I doubt if he really made much more than gas money, but he tried. He also opened a small store in town where we sold groceries, clothing etc. We bought cream from the farmers and I remember helping “test” the cream to determine the butter fat content. Again, this was not a very well paying proposition and didn’t last too long. I would drive Mom to a dress factory in Pinckneyville, IL, about 35 miles away. She would pick up several dresses that she thought would sell. Seems we did that about every three or four months, so they must have sold.
I remember during this time, someone told the folks, Mom especially, that money could be made by preparing and selling a cheese flavored chip, similar to potato chips. I remember being in the kitchen in the evening frying these chips and putting them into waxy bags (don’t recall how we’d seal the bags). We’d make up several dozen packages of them. Must have been while Pop was away for some reason, because I’d take the car (I had learned to drive) and go around to the bars and “road houses” and try to sell these chips. I remember going in, although I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12, and talking to the owners. I’d give them my pitch and open a bag and let them try one, and if they had customers I’d pass them around, and if lucky, he’d buy some. If he didn’t go for buying them, I’d leave them “on consignment.” I tried to set up a pattern, so I could establish a regular route, but we never did do much with this either. The chips would become stale in a fairly short time, a couple of wks or so and they were no good. I forget if they got stale or just rancid from the grease. But I remember going back and they’d have quite a few left over and I’d replace them with the fresh. I’d eat some of the stale chips and didn’t think they tasted too badly. Again, this did not last long.
After we kids left home, Pop finally got work with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) these were “make work” projects to help get the nation out of the depression. He worked with them repairing roads etc. for some time. After this he got a job as guard at the prison at Chester, Illinois, southwest of St. Louis. This didn’t turn out well either, since he had to rent a room and buy meals there. This took quite a bit of what he made plus he was gone all the time. He later got work as a prison guard at Vandalia, IL so they moved there and bought a home. Mom went back to college at Carbondale, IL and renewed her teaching license. She taught school for several years then. These were probably the best years of their lives, money wise. They finally had enough money coming in and they could pay their bills and take a few trips. They deserved it.
Francis H. Potter.