Volume III, No. 4, Summer 1976
by Danny Hough, Interviews by Donna Scott, Teresa Maddux, Terry Brandt and Danny Hough
Courting, sparking, keeping company, dating. No matter what words we use to describe this important time in our lives, the purpose, both a hundred years ago and today, has not changed. It is the desire of each of us to choose a companion and build a home and life together.
Though the basic purpose and the end result are the same, during the past seventy-five years the process of courting a girl has changed greatly from what it used to be. The advent of the automobile shortened distances and made it possible to travel as far as necessary to date a girl, whereas earlier dating was restricted to as far as one could walk or ride horseback. More boys and girls attend high school and college today than before, and often meet one another there. The 'electronic age' has fostered more pastimes for courting couples than our grandparents would have dreamed about. And most important, today's parents are much more lenient than yesterday's, giving the couples more freedom.
Up until the age of fourteen to sixteen, boys usually showed very little interest in girls. In the one room country school, romance was seldom carried on because after eighth grade, most boys and girls stopped going to school and devoted their full time to farming or housework. There were some couples who met at school, or were childhood sweethearts, and carried on courtship clear through and married, but they were the exception--not the rule.
Farming and housework were both hard, always needed to be done, and left little time for pleasure. As Ila Lamkins told us, "Just about most of the time was work and no play. We had to work if we ate. And everybody wanted to eat."
But still, farm life left room for some entertainment. Social gatherings were well publicized, and people caught up on their work to be sure not to miss these gatherings. A picnic, school or church social was an excellent chance to meet girls and boys from surrounding farms.
"Everybody looked forward to the Fourth of July picnic," Ila said. "Then you saw people from other communities. Your parents would give you a quarter, you'd take off to the picnic and you'd see people from other districts."
The Fourth of July picnic was a big event held every summer. The men would build a brush arbor. They would dig ice from the previous winter out of its sawdust storage and wash it off before putting it into tubs for lemonade, or using it to make ice cream. Each sold for a nickel. People would meet there to enjoy themselves until the evening chores at home called them back. Sometimes the picnic would end in a fight, as it was impossible to keep unfavorable people from attending.
Girls would often make a special effort to attend a pie supper at a church or school, where a chance to meet boys was always good.
"About the only place you went you walked," Ila said. "You went to a pie supper with a beautifully decorated pie and had hopes of some young man buying your pie. He'd buy your pie and want to walk you home."
A good place to meet girls was after a church meeting. Boys would line up outside a church door and, as the girl walked out the door, a boy would ask her if he might walk her home. This placed the boy in an awkward position, for if the girl refused, he faced embarrassment from his peers. Also, it took a lot of nerve to ask a girl for a walk with her parents, especially with the father standing nearby.
Dorothy McMicken remembers, "If we went to church together, we would sit beside each other. Otherwise we'd just go in and set down. Well, when we'd go out usually there's another girl with me. Then those boys would be lined up outside the door and they'd ask every girl that come out. The boys probably got quite a kick out of it. We could turn them down as fast as we wanted to if we didn't want to keep company with them. If we did, we walked home and stood at the gate a little while and that was that."
Neighborhood parties were another place for young people to meet. With the help of a willing parent, an afternoon could be set aside for a party, either Valentine's, Halloween, Christmas, birthday or merely a get together for the young people. Ashford and Ella Hough related their experiences at a Valentine party. Ella told us, "We first met at a Valentine party. My older sister had a party for all the young people in the neighborhood. We had made paper valentines and cut them into halves. Then everybody would pick a valentine and match it with the other half to find your partner. I matched with Ashford. We also made our own refreshments--didn't have anything storebought--and popped corn for popcorn balls."
"Now all of the games were good, clean fun," Ashford continued, "nothing rank or raw about them. It was all a nice clean sport and we all enjoyed ourselves and just had a good time. We played wink-em. The way you played, you lined chairs in a circle and a girl set in each chair with a boy behind her. One boy across the circle behind an empty chair would wink at a girl, and if her boy didn't grab her before she got out of her chair, he'd lose her. Now her sister had a big husky boy behind her, and he was as bashful as could be. So when she jumped, he grabbed at her and tore her waist off. She headed up the stairs right away!"
In many communities dancing parities were not acceptable gatherings for young women. Myrtle Hough said, "Then society sort of looked on dancing as an evil. We had play parties and had all kinds of play games and kissing games. But when I grew up, I went to some square dance parties, but I had to be careful because people sort of looked on it as evil--or girls that danced. The boys weren't misjudged very much, but the majority of elderly people didn't like to think about their young ladies dancing. But it is lots of fun."
Ella said, "I'd have got a whipping if I'd have gone to a dance. The reason mostly was there were fairly rough crowds at dances. Really they didn't hardly have any dances out in our neighborhood. Adjoining neighborhoods maybe, we heard about them, but our folks told us we weren't going. We were raised strict. We tried to mind the best we could. I guess sometimes we misbehaved. We couldn't get very far away from home in those days."
But in other neighborhoods where the dancing was held in homes by parents and the whiskey toting crowd excluded, young people would meet at dances. Dorothy met her husband at a dance at his parent's home. "In wintertime, and that is when most of the dances were held, I would go to my sister's, for my brother-in-law was a fiddler and I knew he would go--he and his wife. My folks never objected to me going up there and I went with them. And if I went with them, then I came back the same way. Sometimes we went to dances and Charles came and got me."
Having met a girl, the boy was sorely pressed to find time to court. Sunday afforded the best time, as families always set time off to attend church and Sunday School and visit neighbors. Only necessary chores and cooking were done on Sunday. "Lots of times the young people didn't have anyplace to go, so they took their dates to church and Sunday School. And they would have sing-ings and other such things," Ashford said.
Once at church, the boy usually sat beside the girl if he had accompanied her that day. Otherwise, the girls sat in one group and the boys in another, until they became acquainted after church was over. But church occurred only once a month in most districts, and once a month was hardly enough. Sunday afternoon boys would visit their young ladies at their homes.
"Why, they'd come to your house on Sunday afternoon and you just set around, either in the parlor or the kitchen and visit until usually when the man of the house began to wind the clock, why they always knew it was time to take off. You sat at home and did your sparking," Ila told us.
"He always come Sunday afternoons," Myrtle said. But usually he would come in the morning and we'd walk down to Sunday School and we'd walk back. Then he'd go home and eat his dinner and then he'd come back in the afternoon. And of course now, you have to stop and think. There was just a crowd of young folks there all the time."
Brother Patterson remembers, "We weren't a social bunch. We didn't attend dances and parties. We'd go to picnics and county fairs. We'd have more fun there than anywhere. But, the last year we planned for our wedding and then we planned how we was going to set up housekeeping and we learned what each liked. She tried to fix just what I wanted for breakfast. And after awhile I learned to take just what she set in front of me. You grow into that, you know. You know each other."
Getting together often had still more limiting factors. Bad weather, poor roads and long distances hampered visits. Dorothy lived in a place that was particularly hard to get to. "He would come on Sunday and Wednesday nights if the roads were passable. It was about six miles from here, but the roads were bad in the wintertime. It was just old flat ridge land and the bottom would just drop out. Now it was hard for a horse to pull through that. We'd go to Sunday School on horseback and them horses would just pull their feet out of that ole mud. You couldn't think about going over it in a Model T in the wintertime a large part of the time, so we figured on going horseback, if we could get there on horseback. Sometimes he just could get through with his Model T, if it was frozen up enough so he could. So we'd see each other Saturday night, Sunday and Wednesday. It was just come to my house unless if there was something to do like come to a dance or party or something like that. Of course there were revivals and things like that to do, too."
There remained the problem of getting the approval of the parents, who played the biggest deciding role. A parent's yes or no was final and arguing usually resulted in ever stiffer treatment.
"I was the only girl in my family," Mary Moore said. "I had three brothers and if you had a daddy as cranky as mine, you wouldn't do no walking with a boy."
Until the family got to know the young man better, sometimes the couple would see each other without their knowledge. "Sometimes I'd get to walk home with her from church," Ashford said. "We got along pretty good that way. Of course, back to start with, she had a pretty wise old mother. She didn't know what a good fellow I was, so we just wasn't open and above board. I have a few times turned home before I got quite all the way there with her. But they finally got to know me. During that period of time, why, we seen one another most every week. Once in a while we'd fail, but most every week we'd have a little chat some time and that was about seven and a half or eight years before we got married.
"She wasn't sure, see. It wasn't that easy for me to wait that long, but her being younger, why it was a little harder for her to make up her mind. No, she was raised in a family that was going, doing things in a big way in that day and age, and she went on to school after she got through with grade school. She went to Springfield and got an education and then she taught school.
"And we were up and going. We had to work at home to keep things going and we had to study at school to get our lessons, you see. So we were a busy bunch. But we enjoyed life. We got together, had parties and things of that sort. And we lived good lives. In fact, there was nothing much wild going on back in those days. it was pretty well civilized. The people were pretty well under control and they controlled their children pretty good. Of course, now and then there'd be one get out of step."
Dating away from home was mostly restricted by age. Girls especially were seldom allowed to date alone until sixteen or eighteen. A brother or other family member often accompanied her as a chaperon. Instead, boys and girls would gather together in a big group and all would go out at the same time. Boys and girls paired off in couples, each with his or her special partner.
In spite of these restrictions, all the people we visited remembered what good times they had. Myrtle said, "I think every generation has its own fun. I can't think of any more fun to have than we all had as we were growing up and as we were dating. It was a lot of fun in those days, just the same as it's fun for young people today."
Lois Beard said, "We had lots of fun and we walked from my house to church and back--and we always had barrels of fun. There was, of course, things that were not so pleasant in dating in that day, but we had fun as much as you have today."
"Let me tell you it was fun," Elvie said. "We just had a lot of fun, but we didn't cover the whole state of Missouri or Laclede County a-running around. Lebanon was a long ways." [20 miles]
Myrtle continued, "We had no way of going only in a wagon or in a buggy. The Hough family had a buggy, but there were three boys they had to share it with, so most times one boy would get it one Sunday, another boy get it the next Sunday. But there wasn't many places to go in a buggy, only to town. We didn't do that. Elvie one time even before we were engaged took a wagon load of young folks to Lebanon to the fair. And we all had a ball. Just a dirt road here to town in a big old farm wagon."
The couples stayed out until the affairs were over, usually no later than nine or ten o'clock, as it was always necessary to get up early the next morning. After the night's date, the boy walked the girl to the gate where they had to part company. After a few last words, anywhere from a minute to half an hour, and a goodnight kiss, they separated until later.
If not out courting, then the group would congregate at someone's house to pass the time just being together, playing ball games, croquet or singing.
"When we had a group together on Sunday afternoon we played croquet in the summertime," Lois said. "We sat around the old organ or the old piano in the wintertime a lot. We had lots of group singing. And we had ball games. The boys used to have cob fights--you know, throw corn cobs at each other. The girls would be at the house getting popcorn or homemade candy ready and the boys would get out and have a cob fight. Never did have one but someone got their pants tore off of them. They'd start to jump a fence or start running around the barn and get hung up on a nail somewhere. And when they came in someone had to hunt up a pair of britches."
Very few people owned cars in the Ozarks until the 1920's, so the only two methods of transportation were either on foot or by horses. "I walked many miles," Ashford said. "That's what made me so strong. I got in good exercise, see. And I built up a good healthy man out of me."
Horseback riding was one of the activities left open to courting couples. They often took advantage of it providing that they had the horses. Sometimes they rode work horses or even mules bareback if saddle horses were not available.
"We would go horseback riding," Ila said. "Most of the time they'd come after you to go somewhere on a horse.
The girl would ride in the saddle and the boyfriend would ride behind. If they had a real nice saddle horse back then, it was as if you have a new Lincoln car now. And if you had a fat horse, it was really something."
Most of the women we talked with rode astride in special divided riding skirts. Mary being a few years older than the others, said, "I rode side saddle. It was red velvet on top and good leather in it. You know, we didn't have many places to go and when we was going together, there wasn't much to it. I went a-horseback. I had a nice saddle and a riding skirt. I rode many a horse."
Myrtle had a near serious accident while riding horseback on a date. "I'll tell you one thing that was really funny. There was about six or eight couples of us going to the McBride Church. A revival meeting was going on, so we all went horseback. Everybody had their own horse.
Elvie brought me a horse to ride. I rode straddle saddle. There was a road went back behind our farm down this way and straight to McBride Church which is about three miles from here. And as my horse went under a limb, it caught me right by my neck here and I just went back off of the horse clear off on the ground! But we had fun that night. They all accused Elvie of trying to break my neck!"
Occasionally a buggy or hack was obtainable and the use of one was thought to be a royal treat, especially in winter when the cold weather was offset by a heavy lap robe. Also, it was 'necessary' to sit closer together to stay warm, making winter a favorable time to court.
"We went in a buggy and you know, we couldn't set four in a seat," Lois said. "I was always the little one that always had to set on someone's lap. It was much more fun than a car. And the team was always gentle. You just tied the lines together and threw them over the dashboard. We wasn't in a hurry to get someplace and it wasn't taking a lot of expense." The best thing about a horse was that he knew the way home, freeing both the driver's hands!
Winter, and the snow along with it, brought sports and other dating opportunities. With the necessary work at home done, the group would build a big bonfire and the young people skated on frozen ponds, pausing from time to time to warm up before continuing. They sledded on snowy hillsides on handmade wooden sleds, built snowmen and had snowball fights.
Whether horseback riding, wrapped up on a buggy ride or sledding, the young people wished to look their best. Their appearance was just as important then as now. Even without the many beauty aids we have now, girls and boys still managed to primp up for the date. Girls used hair wavers and curling irons, which were heated by placing them in the chimney of a kerosene lamp until they were 'hot enough to fry spit.' Any hotter would burn the hair. Then the girls applied them to their hair to get just the right wave or curl. If curling irons were not at hand, girls would cut tin strips from a tin can, roll paper around them to protect the hair, and then roll hair around that. It was difficult to sleep with these in the hair, but they achieved the wanted effect. The girls, wanting their shoes to be clean and shiny for church, often walked barefoot to church, putting on their shoes just before getting there.
Since facial powder or rouge were scarce, girls often bought a chalk powder to use as a foundation. Another cosmetic was made from the leaves of the wild tansy plant. Girls endeavored to keep their face and arms white and wanted to remove or cover up a tan. The tansy leaves, which are large and fern-like, were crushed and mixed with buttermilk, then applied to the face and arms, bleaching the skin white.
Boys didn't fix up as much as the ladies, but every boy had his hair cut and combed in a certain way. Both usually dressed in their 'Sunday best,' a suit and dress saved for special occasions.
The age of courtship varied greatly, usually for girls from fifteen to twenty, boys anywhere from sixteen to twenty-two. Many times boys would be several years older than the girls, and parents were reluctant to trust their daughter with an 'older' boy. Again, it fell upon the boy to impress her parents favorably. With the very few opportunities open for courting, it sometimes took months or even years to please parents.
After the couple began serious courting, they had to make very sure they were right for each other. Marriage was a very serious thing, and divorce was scorned almost as a sin. Therefore many couples dated from six months to a year.
"When you Were picking your partner you didn't have many to choose from," Ila said. "It wasn't like it is now. And you didn't take as long as they do now. I think it was more serious than now. And you had to kinda spark the old folks, too. Because you always had to ask the parents for permission. I guess now there's not much of that goes on."
The young man first had to ask the girl to marry him and did not always ask simply, "Will you marry me?" as happened with Myrtle.
"Now he never asked me outright to marry him. The first time he said anything he asked me if I wanted to peel tomatoes for him the rest of his life. You see, he likes tomatoes real well. Then later on at Christmas he gave me a birthstone ring. When he gave it to me he said, 'Now, when you promise to marry me, I'll replace this with a diamond.' That was the second time he ever did say anything about marriage. He didn't say, 'Will you marry me?' he said, 'I'll replace this with a diamond when you promise to marry me.'"
Lois told us that she and her future husband were in a buggy. "Cole said, 'Why don't you marry me?' And I said, 'Oh, I'm too young. Dad and Mother wouldn't let me marry now.' I was about seventeen. He said, 'Oh, you tell them I'm going to commit suicide.' And just as that was said, a neighbor stepped out from behind a tree. He'd heard every word of it. We was going right along top of the hill above his house and he'd come up a side road and stepped out from behind that tree. Now we weren't in a car. We were in a buggy and he could hear it all!"
If the boy was successful in asking the girl, his next task lay in asking her parents. Again, this was a very awkward situation, for the boy was never quite sure how the parents felt.
"We had already decided we were getting married," Brother Patterson said, "but we still had to ask her parents. She was afraid to ask them, but I said we should just go ahead. The only problem with us getting married was that she was the organist at the Methodist Church and I was a young Baptist preacher. And I figured there might be some trouble since the Methodists would be losing their organ player. And while we were talking, her mother came in and I knew she suspected something. She said, 'You kids are kind of staying late tonight, aren't you?' And she--my wife--said, "Mother, we're talking about getting married and we were just wondering what Dad's going to say.' Well, she told us to go ask him and we might be surprised. So I went on out to talk to her father who was milking since it was evening. Anyway, I engaged him in a conversation until I run out of things to say. I finally asked him if he had any objections to me marrying his daughter. Well, he stopped milking, and he looked up at me and said, no he didn't mind if we got married, and he said he had been expecting it. Well, I was so happy when I left I jumped over the rail fence in the yard."
After the young man was successful in winning the heart of his girl and gaining the blessing of her parents, there was still more to do. Before they could take their place as a new family in the community they had yet to take the final step--marriage.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues