[Transcript of interview with Martha Bell Martin, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]

Recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District’s 2010 Big Read.Martha Bell Martin, March 11, 2010.

The Watermelon Festival

Most rural towns in the Midwest have a late summer or early fall festival. It may be called Fall Festival, Homecoming Day, Pumpkin Day, Heritage Day, or Apple Day.This is a time when the summer harvest has been gathered and friends and families come together to enjoy a respite from the hot days and hard labor of summer before preparing for the final harvest and the cold winter ahead. One such festival is called Watermelon Day.It is celebrated in a small Midwestern village on the last Saturday in August. It is in an area where truck crops such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, watermelons and cantaloupes are grown. The watermelon and cantaloupes ripen at this time of year.The farmers donate their surplus crop to provide fresh, juicy fruit to all the visitors and home folk.The merchants provide the musical entertainment, amusement rides, and games. They make an agreement with an amusement company to provide the entertainment and they don’t always know what they will be getting until it arrives.One year, this church-going community experienced a shock when a group of dancing girls arrived, set up their tent in a corner of the park, and opened their ticket booth.

An older retired couple known as Mama and Papa Smith lived in this small prairie town.He had worked for the railroad and she had cared for the elderly sick folks.They were quite a contrast in the way they lived.Now, Mama was an avid church member; in fact she was a pillar of devoutness in the Methodist church.She was there every time the church doors opened.She was a Sunday school teacher, the president of the Ladies’ Aid Society, and the ‘pianer’ player.Piano is a word city folks use, but in the country the word was pronounced ‘pianer’. Papa, on the other hand, was not very righteous and was regarded as sort of a scofflaw.He never went to church; instead he visited the boys at the service station, the only business open on Sunday, or lounged in the train depot waiting room watching the trains arrive and depart.He always walked Mama to church, then he met her after church and they would walk home together because they had no car.

On Watermelon Day the churches and service organizations erected food and craft booths in the park. This year they had to share the park with the tent full of dancing girls.They were mortified and unhappy with the unexpected turn of events.The merchants claimed that they knew nothing about how the dancing girls came to be there, and since they came on the railroad train it would be difficult to get them to leave before the festival was over. Mama Smith was working at the Methodist booth, selling pies and coffee, when she looked up and saw Papa Smith come around the back of the girlie tent, scurry up to the ticket booth and buy a ticket. Now Mama had a reputation to protect. She threw down her apron and ran out of the booth and all the way home.  Soon she was back at the park.This time she was carrying a big wood-chopping ax.She marched over to the tent of sin and began chopping the ropes holding up the tent.Some men came along to her and asked what she was doing, saying that she should not cut the ropes because Papa might be in the tent.She replied I know the old fool is in there and I want him to get hit on the noggin.The men took the ax away from her, so undeterred she rushed to the tent opening, went inside, and grabbed Papa.She warned the girls that they had better fold their tent and be on the next train out of town.She pulled Papa all the way home all the while berating him for his sinful action. Mama was taller and larger than Papa. The other church ladies complained so loudly about the tent of evil that the entertainment committee told the girls that their show had been cancelled and that they best fold their tent and catch the next train out of town.They did as requested rather than face the ire of the devout.

On Monday when Papa appeared at the train depot he wasn’t wearing his usual straw hat.When asked why he said the hat wouldn’t fit on his head. Upon closer examination he revealed a large knot on his head.You see Mama didn’t need a psychologist to tell her how to resolve her marital conflicts because she was of the frying pan school of persuasion.This event was the talk of the town for a while but things soon returned to normal.Mama went to church with her head held high, and Papa went back to watching the trains come and go.And thus, another watermelon festival came to a close.

Pioneer Preacher

This is a true story of how a dedicated and determined Baptist preacher who with his wife began a long and precarious journey from Kentucky to north central Missouri in 1849.They brought their personal possessions, seeds, farm equipment, horses and livestock. They traveled by keelboat and covered wagon, which brought them to a small hamlet in north central Missouri where two Indian trails crossed.Theirs was a path blazed by others who came with hope of free land and to escape the crowded settlements of the east in order to pursue the American dreams of independence and self-sufficiency.

They settled on a farm and began farming as did others in that day.However, his purpose was to teach and preach.He was not well educated but he had a burning desire to share the good news from the Holy Bible with those who were lost in sin and unbelief. Upon arrival he found only a few churches.This did not deter him as he set out to become a church planter.It was not long before he had a congregation established in a log church but he was not content with just one church so he went on to the next village.

He had a unique way of attracting attention upon arriving at the new village.He rode a horse and attached to the saddle were two saddlebags. In one he carried a pistol and in the other was the Bible.He would ride into the center of town and begin firing his pistol into the air until a crowd gathered to see what the commotion was all about.When a group of people assembled he would put away the pistol and take out the Bible and say now that you’re here we’re going to have a preaching service.Soon another church would be organized.

He was very direct and forthright about his beliefs and how the business of the church should be conducted. He often clashed with the deacons on church business but he was never one to waste time on petty differences so off he would go to start a new church in another frontier village.His motto was ‘I planted, you can cultivate, and the Lord will reap the harvest’.By 1871 he had established a circle of churches so that he could leave his farm and family and visit the churches on a regular schedule.Thus he became known as the circuit riding Baptist preacher. He could preach and teach and not have to be concerned with church business.

After founding the last church this redheaded preacher with a zeal to match, settled down and stayed until his death.He along with his faithful wife are buried in the church cemetery.As a result of the preaching of this mid-nineteenth century Jeremiah there are three churches still in existence in north central Missouri 153 years after he came to proclaim the message of God’s love.He is my great grandfather Benjamin Oliver.

When Mama Missed the Train

My mother had a wonderful sense of humor.She could see humor in ordinary events and in telling about them soon would have everybody smiling even when she was the object of the humor.She had many adventures on the farm with herself as a human protagonist and the farm animals as the other characters in the story.

The story I’m about to tell you is one adventure that took place away from the farm and is entitled “When Mama Missed the Train”.First let me give you some background information.We lived on a farm about two miles south of the Little Prairie Village which had a population of about 150, that is, if all the dogs and cats were counted.This village had one distinctive feature that other small villages did not have.It had two railroads that crossed there. The Milwaukee Railroad went east and west and had its tracks and depot a mile south of town.The Rock Island Line went north and south through the village, and had its depot on the east side of the tracks.

This event took place in 1943 during World War II.Tires and gas were rationed so the only way to travel was by the steam-powered trains. During the day the local trains ran. They carried mail, small freight packages, farm produce, and passengers.The rails were reserved at night for the fast freight trains that ran without stopping at the small villages.The Rock Island Line had a morning northbound train so folks could go to the villages along the line and come home on the southbound train in the late afternoon and be home in time for supper.

So came hot, hot August and the county fair.The fair always occurred at the hottest time of the year on the Midwestern prairie. Each township had a homemakers extension club for which one member was delegated to go to the fair and judge exhibits before the fair started.That year my mother was chosen to be the judge.Daddy took her and my eight-year-old sister to the depot to get on the northbound train.The local trains were more utilitarian than fancy, consisting of the steam engine, coal tender, mail car, baggage car, and a passenger car.These trains were also called whistle stop trains.The trains stopped just long enough for the station master and his assistant to throw on the mail bags, luggage and freight items. The farmers were there to load their cream cans, squawking poultry, and egg crates.This gave the passengers time to get off the train and the new ones to board the train.It was the custom to let the passengers on the incoming train to get off first; then the new passengers could quickly scramble aboard.

On this hot day in August, Mama and my sister were on the platform waiting to board the train when a friend of Mama’s got off the train.Her friend was so excited about her recent trip that she stopped Mama to tell her all about it.As they were chatting away my sister skipped up the stairs and onto the train, which Mama did not notice because she had her back to the train.Her attention was to the conversation, and the hissing of the escaping steam prevented Mama from hearing the conductor call “All board, last call”.The train engineer sounded the whistle two times to indicate the train was leaving the depot.

When Mama heard the whistle sound she turned around and saw the train chugging northward.My sister was gone, and she was still standing on the platform.She jumped down from the platform and ran after the train waving her handkerchief and calling “stop, come back, my baby is on board”.  Alas and alack, the train did not stop but continued forward on its tracks as a train is wont to do.She walked back to the depot contemplating her next course of action when she heard a farmer call out, “The train is stopping!”Another cried, “The train is backing up. It’s coming back to the depot.”

When Mama saw that the train was indeed returning she jumped upon the platform and when the train stopped she was aboard quicker than grease lightning.The conductor signaled the engineer to proceed.Two short whistles were sounded and the train moved forward. The conductor then told Mama that my sister had screamed and cried and tried to get off the train.He said he couldn’t stand all the wailing so he stopped the train and came back.My grateful mother said “Thank you, thank you!”

They went on to the fair. She judged the exhibits, and when they returned on the southbound train that same day Daddy was there to meet them. Neither Mama nor my sister said anything about their train adventure until suppertime, when Daddy asked my sister how she liked to ride on the train.It was then that she told how Mama missed the train, and when she cried the train returned for Mama.Now the cat was out of the bag.Mama was forced to tell the whole story.Mama was quite embarrassed about having missed the train, but soon saw the humor in it and could tell the whole story and have everyone laughing.

It was quite the topic of conversation at the village.Soon the grapevine spread the story abroad.The depot gang had never seen anything so exciting since the last watermelon festival when old Miss Jones tried to cut the ropes of the tent where the dancing girls were performing.Mama learned her lesson.She never missed a train again, nor did she let my sister out of her sight.

Alas, they are all gone now. The train engines have been cut up for scrap metal or retired to train museums to be assaulted by fifth graders on a field trip.Their whistles and wheels are now forever silent.The train tracks have been pulled up, the depot, stores, and farm buildings torn down.The land has reverted to the prairie from whence it came with no visible signs to this generation that the age of steam railroading has come and gone.Gone too are the people.The train depot and section crews, the storekeepers, Mama and Daddy, old Miss Jones, and the farmers all lie in yonder Elysian Fields to await the day of Resurrection.

Thank you for letting me reminisce about Mama, the Prairie Village and the steam trains.

Recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District’s 2010 Big Read.For more information contact the library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web at thelibrary.org.

[Transcript of interview with Martha Bell Martin, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]