Volume VIII, No. 3, Spring 1981




We Just Made a Team

A VISIT WITH LETHA AND SHERMAN WEBSTER

Edited and photographed by Allen Gage


I was too young to remember when Sherman and Letha Webster moved from their Niangua River farm to our neighborhood in 1966. I do remember, however, the birthday dinners that they have had for me since I was four years old. At the first birthday dinner they had for me I had to sit on a small stepladder because I was too small to reach the table on a regular chair. I sat on that same stepladder for my sixteenth birthday but this time I towered over the table. As long as I can remember they have shared joys and pleasures with my family.

In the summer I enjoy going to their house and sitting in the cool shade of the trees in their backyard. Sherman and Letha love to talk and I love to listen to their lively stories.

In this visit, I will indicate when Sherman is talking by using italic type and Letha will be in regular type.

We just never have any trouble. We set the resolution when we married that we wasn't going to have no trouble. We didn't either one like that so we just didn't. We always just agreed and we still do. And I think it's about the best way to get along. We've both worked hard. We've both got a bad heart condition and things like that, but we just live with it. That's all we can do.

Sherman was born in 1900 and I was born in 1902. I was born right down there on the farm, that first 160 acres Sherman and I moved to. I was raised there on that place where me and Sherman lived all this long time. My dad homesteaded that back in the early 1900s and got his abstract when Teddy Roosevelt was the president. He's the one that signed it. The president had to sign the abstract back then. They don't now. When I was sixteen my dad bought on the river about two miles down and we stayed there till I married.

I wasn't from a big family. I had two brothers, one older and one younger, and Charlie died when he was small. We belong to the Missionary Baptist Church down at Ira where I got my education. The cemetery's there, and we've got our marker there for when we're laid to rest.

I went to school at Ira and stood on the floor one time. That's all the punishment I ever got in school. The teacher give me spelling. I was just five. The word was 'ISLAND' and I thought it was 'is land.' If he'd called it 'is land,' I'd spelled it quicker than the teacher. Ira Waterman was the teacher, a great big fleshy kind of a young man. After I seen what it was, I told him I could spell it. He said, "Well, you ain't stood on the floor yet." And, of course, I tuned up to cry. He come and got me, let me spell my word, took me back and let me set in his chair and give me his pencil to write with. He carried me around that whole school. I was awful little, you know. He was an awful good teacher.

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Letha is happy to recall a story from over fifty years of marriage or to share one of her. many experiences of life on the farm forty years ago. She said, "We never thought of doing anything else."

I don't know what Sherman was doing when I met him. My brother married his sister. We met at my home down below Ira We went together eleven months, and then got married down here at the courthouse with Homer Davenport on a late Saturday evening. And then Monday morning we got in his car, a little 1925 Model T roadster, and started to north Missouri up in Saline County, and we stayed up there seven years. We had one hundred and fifteen dollars in money between us. We took Ray, his youngest brother with us. He was fourteen, and we kept him till he got married just before he was twenty. He was just like a member of the family.

I had a quilt and two pillows and a few little things such as a little hope chest to start out with, and his sister give me a half gallon can of peaches to make us a cobbler for Christmas. That we did. Out of this one hundred and fifteen dollars we rented us a room in town there in Marshall, Missouri, and Sherman went out in the country and got us a place on the farm to move out to. We bought us this little housekeeping outfit. He got a new cook stove and the rest of the stuff was all used. He give seven dollars for two bedsteads and springs, and we're sleeping on one of the beds yet. I wouldn't trade it for a new bedroom suite. We stayed up there seven years and saved every penny we could I took in what little work through the country that I could get to do, washing and ironing and a little bit of housecleaning and stuff. I wasn't close enough to do other work.

Sherman usually sits quietly listening to the conversation but he is always ready to tell one of his lively hunting or fishing stories. "I used to trap thirty years ago and that's the only way you could make money then," he said.

[15]

"I don't know what the happiest time in my life was. I guess I'd just about have to put it all in. We've never had no trouble."

We worked on a farm up there for forty dollars a month. Sherman just worked ten months out of the year and he drawed his check every five months. He got a two hundred dollar check. I raised a big garden, done a lot of canning and I took in washings and ironing--anything I could get to do. That about supported us, don't you see. We had a little money on interest and drawed one and a half cents interest on it. Well now, that counted up. You see, you could buy a lot with a little bit of money, so it went quite a little ways.

While we lived in Saline County we come down here on a vacation once, and we had a pet pig. The boss give me every little ole odd pig that come up that he didn't want in the bunch, and this one was a light red with a white strip across its shoulder. He brought that pig to me, and we was coming down here on a week's visit. I didn't have no one to leave my pig with. I just set him up in the car like a pet, and it came with us. I brought him some milk and something to feed him along the road. We stopped over at Mack's Creek at a filling station to get some gas, and the man kept a-looking in the car. I just kind of held my pig up. It was pretty good-sized, oh, thirty or forty pounds. He said, "Well, every car that comes through here is full of dogs and cats, but that's the first one that ever come through with a hog." I told him, I said, "Well, we was a-going to the folks to stay about a week, and I didn't have no one to leave my pig with, and I just brought him with me." "Well," he said, "I'd rather have a pig in there as a cat or a dog."

Then we bought the 160 acres, my old home place, for six hundred dollars, and they was a big old log house on it. We moved back down here on the first day of March in 1937, and we brought a whole bunch of chickens and a big sow and this same little housekeeping outfit. Of course, we had accumulated quite a lot of stuff. We didn't get down here till night, and the door was locked. Well, the man that had been a-living there had some stock he hadn't got moved away yet. He come to feed and let us in the house. He helped Sherman set in the heavy cookstove and stuff like that, and he had left a heating stove. We cooked us a bite of supper on that.

[16]

I brought a big old white cat with me, the ole favorite. "Well," I told Sherman, I said, "I'm going to let this ole cat stay in the house tonight. He might run off." So the next day I got up early and looked out, and there set my cat out on the front fender of the car. He went out at a crack in the house.

We unloaded boxes and stuff and undone them and got stuff to setting up. Just as soon as we got one of them big cardboard boxes empty, we nailed it over the worst places. They wasn't a paper on the walls in that house, and that old house dated back close to the Civil War--it was old. By that night you wouldn't have thought that it was the same room that we had set in on that morning. We had newspapers--that was the general run of paper back then--and we had that room fixed and papered and everything set out, and it did look real nice.

"Ought to be a good day to go fishing. Used to fish for catfish all of the time at the Blue Spring and all down through there."

Well, the next morning we set in on the kitchen. But it had been sealed with pine lumber and it wasn't bad--much better and easier deal. So then in a short time Sherman went to town and got some of this wide green roll roofing and covered the outside of the house. He re-cased the windows outside and painted them white and the corners of the house up to the roof and down the eave. He painted that all white in, I'd say, ten days. A lot of people thought we'd practically built a new house. It was an eighteen foot room each way. It was a good house all right. And the man that owns that now took a dozer and pushed that over!

We bought 240 acres more land to go on that 160 which made us 400. It was a mile and a quarter north and south and a half mile east and west. That made it a nice way of fencing, but it was down in them old rough hills, a lot of it.

Then later we bought another farm out on the ridge of 375 acres. So we went and redone another house out there and added some rooms on. We moved out there in 1960, and we moved on the creek now in 1937, so we stayed on the creek all that time.

Oh, we had lots in a way, I'll tell you, like ups and downs such as high water, creeks a-getting up, rats a-getting in our chickens and one thing and another that was just the usual life of a farmer.

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We never thought of doing anything else. The stock was our hearts' delight. We like all of it, the farming, raising our feed and getting our feed up for winter, and getting our winter's wood in and everything like that.

I don't guess we never did lose a crop. We have lost some hay that was cut and the river would get up and wash it out or something. We've had the corn cut and in the fields, and then the river got up and the creek, but we took a boat and boated them shocks all out.

We had a wheat ring in the kitchen made out of ties and we had that full of wheat. That river got up and got back there. When the water went on up and slopped agin the bottom of the floor, we packed the wheat upstairs. We had one of them range cookstoves and the river got up in the house big enough to fill it up with water. Every time it come a flood, it'd be up there.

We took care of our stock and give it good attention, fed it awful good. When we first moved to the 160 acres, we bought us a team of mules, some farming tools, a cow and calf, and then later that fall, we bought a bunch of calves--I don't know whether it was six or eight, mostly heifers. Well, we saved all the heifers and went to raising up a herd of cows. From then on Sherman went to buying sale barn calves, and they just kept accumulating. We handled lots of cattle, big herds of cattle, forty, fifty, as high as sixty head some years.

We never did lose in all that time many cattle. We'd have as many as twenty-five to thirty cattle to raise calves in one spring, but we never did lose but two grownup cows in all that time. We never lost very many calves either.

I'm not foolish about dogs and cats, but when it comes to the stock part, I like them all. I raised a lot of pet pigs, little goats and such things as that.

An old sow we had had twelve little pigs and we got to feeding them them worming pellets, and them little pigs really liked them. When I set down, I had the pellets in my pockets. Well, here they'd come and get in my pockets.

We had worlds of chickens. I had 115 white leghorn hens one fall and sold them for fifty cents apiece dressed. Can you imagine that? Well, they was only five cents a pound, and they wouldn't have brought me over twenty cents if I would've sold them at the store. I got rid of all of them and I filled our own deep freeze.

Sold eggs a nickel a dozen!

I never raised mules, but I bought two mules here in town. They run in by the Blue Spring of a winter. Oh, it was cold and the son-of-a-bucks, you couldn't hardly keep them from crossing that river. I'd have to have a little patch of corn over by the spring. I'd have to cross the river and then I'd have to cross back across to get to the corn. I just hated to put them mules in there, for them son-of-a-bucks would go down there and get in it every day.

I bought a mare, old Nell, and raised one colt. She wouldn't let you catch her at all. I had a ridge up on a hill, and they was a field back behind it. I'd go up there to get her to work her. Well, I'd have to send Letha up in the field to head her off. We'd go up there after her, why she'd go down that hill and through the field and come up the other way, right back where she was. I put new shoes on her one day and went up there after her. She broke to a run and some way or another, she stepped on them there shoes and turned a himerset [somersault] and her head went back under her body. Oh, you've never seen a head like it. After that you could just catch her anywheres. That broke her. That was worth money.

Back in them days it wasn't nothing to shoe a horse or a mule. My dad used to run a blacksmith shop, just for himself. He fit his own shoes and had lots of cattle and stuff and fixed up his own shoes. In them days, the shoes all you had to do was put the crook on them and bend the heels. I'd do that.

Sherman kept the team of mules till they died of old age. Then we got a team of horses and then he bought a tractor, a Massey Ferguson. Boys, we went to town then. Setting up on that tractor, I mean to tell you, was something fine! He give some twenty hundred dollars for the tractor, and he got a plow and cultivator.

[18]

Sherman got the first one of them little chain saws that was down in there. I'm telling you what, now, pulling them crosscuts is bad.

We didn't get electric till in 1951. We got the first kerosene burner frigidaire that was down in our community, and it had a little deep freeze at the top, just enough to stick a little bit of stuff into it.

Boys, now when they run that light down there for that yardlight, we thought we had something.

When we moved down on the ridge, they was a cistern. Sherman redone the house and put a lean-to on the back side of it, and that took the cistern in. It had a pitcher pump and that put water in the kitchen--it wouldn't be running water, but we thought that was something!

We didn't have much of nothing for entertainment. We didn't even have a radio until the 1940s, but we was close to Blue Spring and a lot of good fishing. We was noted hunters and fishermans both. We caught and killed our part of the fish and game stuff, both of us.

I used to fish for catfish all the time at the Blue Spring and all down through there. I've seen them a-laying in that eddy just thick. The branch's about dry now. When we moved there, why shucks, the water was all up. You could run a boat up in there, and last time I was there, you had to pull the boat to get it up in there. The spring runs right out in the Niangua. At night we'd be a-gigging and come along there, and that fog would come out of there and hit you and just be as warm. You could get in that water of a wintertime and it was warm. Of course, it was cold like it always was, but it felt warm. Our farm was about a hundred yards from Blue Spring. I had it rented clear down there. I run right down close to it.

One of the funniest things that ever happened to me while I was fishing was when I caught about a four pound catfish. The minnow on my hook was dead, the gnats was eating me up and I was wanting to come home. Sherman, he didn't want to. He was getting a bite now and then. So he said, "You better put you on a live minnow. They won't bite that old dead minnow." And I said, "Well, I'm not going to fool with it. They can bite it or leave it alone." I just dropped that hook back down in there and there was a catfish caught it and went here and yonder and about. I was trying to get Sherman to help me and he wouldn't. I got to crying and he was dying laughing at me. I said, "I'll tell you what. If my fish gets away, you'll do something besides laugh!"

We was down fishing one time and they was some people there. I don't know where they was from. They raised them worms, and some of them was ten inches long and as big around as my thumb. We passed them and one said, "You got any worms to fish with? .... No, we're out of worms. We're going down here to try and dig some." "We've got some here." He reached in that box and give Letha one, and, oh, she wouldn't take a-hold of that thing no way. She was afraid of it. Yeah, she wouldn't put that on her hook!

Them fishermen, they would come there to the Blue Spring. I'd go down there to the river and catch minnows and took them up there and poured them in the branch. Fishermen'd come there, and I'd take the seine and seine them out a few minnows, and they would go up the river. Oh, they paid what they wanted to. And Letha's dad--they lived about a mile and a half down the river--he had a cabin down there. Why, people'd come from Kansas City and it'd be a sight. And I'd have to go down there and haul their boats. I'd get Letha to go with me and drive the team back. I would take the boats over there and put them in the river there. She'd bring the wagon back to the river, unhook and leave it on that side. She was afraid to bring the wagon across and ride the mules. I'd run them fishermen around and just take what they give you.

That was about thirty years ago, I guess. I used to trap there and that's the only way you could make money then. But now you catch a coon, they'd be worth fifty dollars. Then you got a good price if you got six bits for it.

I had about eighty steel traps. Them fellers that lived up here in Lebanon, they got to coming down there and setting traps. They set them right along by mine and floated clean down the river. One man would bring another one down there with the boat that morning, and he'd go down and trap, and that other one, he'd go down and bring the boat back. One night they caught ten mink. They come in there, and they wouldn't even stop. I went up there one morning, and I told Letha, I says, "People here by the river needs to trap and these others are all trapping. They're just running a business." I says, "I'm going to stop them." I went up there and put a sign on the gate, NO TRESPASSING. They come on through. I stopped them, and I told them, I said, "Take them traps up. People that lives here on the river needs to trap for a living, and you're just a-running around here making money." That stopped them.

[19]

I trapped muskrats and minks and coon. Mink season was never open when muskrat and coon season is open. I know one time, ten days before mink season opened, I went to set me some traps. I went back and had four mink. Course they jumped in the river when they got caught and drowned theirself. They had me arrested and I come to town. That blind man, Homer Davenport, used to run the courthouse and he said, "One time when the river had flooded your house, I talked to your dad setting in a boat. He had the boat pulled in the door of the house talking on the phone to me." I said, "Yeah, I can see him now setting in that boat talking on the phone. We was out on the hillside eating where we had moved our belongings." He said to the game warden, "Now you let them boys go home and let them trap. Why I've caught ducks in traps. How could he keep them mink out and them others in? Let them go home." And I did too. He was a good old man.

But in hunting we've had a lot of experience, oh, squirrels, just you know, small stuff. I never did kill a deer. Sherman did. He's killed lots of deer. But I never. I didn't want to. I could've. When it comes to rabbits and squirrels, mostly squirrels, I've killed my part of them, and groundhogs by the oodles and oodles.

I hunted with a twenty-two and a shotgun, too. I shot a squirrel once going up a tree. I knew he was going to jump out, and I kept going right up after him. I guess I didn't have my gun solid enough against my shoulder. I shot just as it was about to jump and that gun kicked me right in the mouth. I got my squirrel, of course, but I come on back to the house. Oh, I was hurt. I've been hurt a lot of times. I've had both arms broke.

"I like to sew and cook and I like to can. I'd like for you to go out at the back to see our pretty garden."

Letha is the one that squirrel-hunted. We give everybody squirrels.

[20]

"Back in them days it wasn't nothing to shoe a horse or a mule. My dad used to run a blacksmith shop, just for himself."

They eat my corn it was a sight on earth. I'd go down there when I wasn't working and set, and they'd come off of that hill down there in that corn. I'd shoot them. I'd give them to everybody that would take them. We had a deep freeze full of them. We didn't eat them much, but I wouldn't throw them away.

There wasn't many rabbits down there. Them foxes caught them. I killed eleven foxes one season catching the chickens after we moved there.

Once when we lived down there on the farm, a car come by there one night, just had the parking lights on, and, man, he was just sailing. The cattle would come up there and lay in the yard of a night around close to the house, forty and maybe fifty. I had a yardlight and pretty soon another car came by, and it had its blinkers on. It just come by the hen\-house and I flipped that light on., He run right up to the door, and it was the sheriff. He said, "Was there anyone passed here a while ago and went down?" And I said, "Yeah. He didn't have his lights on." He said, "That's the ones I'm looking for." They killed a deer out of season and they knew the sheriff was after them and was about to catch them, so they packed it across the river to keep him from catching them. Of course, I didn't know who they were.

One day I went up on the ridge there, and boy, they was all kinds of hunters, but I had to come to town to bring my cream and milk. (We milked cows then and separated it with a separator.) I told Letha, I says, "That there deer that I jumped this morning had crossed the river. After I get back, I'll go over there and get him." I come to town and when I got back I went over to the cornfield, but I never did see it. I got back up and going through the bottom, there's where he was running. He'd seen me. I seen where he'd went on the other side and swum across the river. I went back over there and run the boat back across and went down a little path that went to Letha's dad's. I thought I'd go up that holler and get up on that ridge, and maybe he'd come up on that crossing. I just got up there, and, boy, I guess two men down there, they emptied two guns at that deer, and I says, "Why I run that across here and they got him." I was standing there against a tree, and I seen the deer coming, and I never seen nothing running so in my life. I says, "I can't get him but I'll try." I caught me an opening and held that gun. When he come in that opening, I pulled the trigger, and, shucks, he just turned a himerset. I was wanting them horns. Oh, he had horns that was three or four points. I got up pretty close to him, and he raised up. They say about the time you get to them, they jump up and run off. I thinks to myself, "I better shoot you." I shot him right in the head and knocked the one horn off. And them people come up through there laughing. One man said, "Why, there ain't a man could hit that deer as fast as it was running." Well, I never thought I'd hit it, but I killed it. He was really moving. They'd shot both rifles empty and missed but I stopped him.

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When I used to live down there I didn't have to buy a license. We lacked just a little of having 800 acres of land, and I didn't have to have no deer tag or nothing. I hunted on my own land. And I'd bring them up here and have them checked, and they wouldn't even ask me about a tag.

We both hunt and we both fish. We're both good hunters. We're both good fishermen. We've caught and killed our part. We don't need no more. But I would like to go a few more times.

We had a bad time when Sherman was sick with a heart condition and was down about three months one winter. And he wasn't able to do much the next spring, but I went ahead with the farming and kept everything a-going. He done what little he could do. I had old Dillard and Nell out just every day, but I had done that while I was at home before I married. It wasn't nothing new to me.

Well, from there we sold out down there and all that stock. Now that hurt when that stock went. It hurt me.

We moved to Lebanon because Sherman wanted to retire, and, of course, we had bought that land at a very, very cheap price and sold it high. We could have kept it, I guess, a little longer and sold it a lot higher. I bought a little piece, kind of a little three cornered piece for twenty-five dollars and sold it for three hundred dollars. I oughta kept it. They was good blackberries on it.

We moved to town in 1966. It's been fourteen years since last November. We bought this in September and we stayed on the place down there a little while.

We've stayed right at home and right on the farm, and I guess always will. We take care of a lot of the neighbors' mail for each one when they go on vacation, but we don't take vacations. We just stay at home. We've always done that, and we never visited a lot either. We've been good neighbors to everybody and got lots of good friends. Two elderly women cried when we moved out from down home and said they just couldn't stay down there without me and hated to see Sherman go just as bad.

We've done a lot for other people. I kept my mother till she passed away. She was an invalid. I kept her about twenty-six months. Then I kept my dad five years before he passed away. She was eighty-seven and he was ninety-two.

Sherman and I've been married fifty years. See my plate up there? Married in twenty-nine and in seventy-nine that made us fifty years. We didn't have no celebration, not a thing.

There's not a lot of it that I'd change. We both like farm work. We didn't know nothing else but that, I guess you'd say. We enjoyed all of our work. We'd get up early and we stayed late. We'd see to the stock at night when it needed seeing to and all things like that. We're both farmers. We never hired nothing done. Why, he helped at the house, and I helped in the field. When the field work come we both went. We both cut corn. We both put up the hay and everything there was to do. We've never had no trouble. We've always got along good. Why, we just made a team.

"Well, I'll tell you, Sherman wore overalls till we moved to town," said Letha. "I did too. I had pockets for all my needs, hammers and everything like that. You go to fixing on them long strings of fences and take a twenty-two rifle and with all this stuff to carry, you can't carry so much stuff. I filled my pockets with hammers, steeples, and bailing wire. I'd take an ax. I had to take an ax to cut me a stub here and there and things like that. Overalls just come in awful handy. And Sherman just won't get by without them. He keeps a new pair. He likes them on certain occasions. If he goes he wants his overalls. I like to never in this world got used to him with them pants on. It looked like he was going somewhere."

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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