Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983




I JUST WASN'T INTERESTED IN STAYING HOME.

A VISIT WITH BERTIE RITTERSHOUSE

Edited by Kirsten Ksara


Sixty years ago people might have thought it was unusual that I wanted to work instead of staying home and taking care of my children. But I just wasn't interested in staying home because I wanted things that I couldn't have otherwise. I worked from the time that I was thirteen. My folks weren't rich by any means, although they had enough to live on. They owned their own property, but that was about the extent of it.

When I had my children, we were in the store business and I always helped my husband in the store.

In our second store we had living quarters up over the store for a long time. When the children were little, I had a girl that always helped me with housework.

Selling real estate was my favorite job. You met new people, and every day there was something new and interesting. I got into it when the house across the street came to be for sale. I wanted to buy it, and I negotiated it. My husband would have nothing to do with all this transaction. He had his business that took up most of his time.

When I got this house, I had to have his signature on everything, his permission, really. Then the real estate man that sold the house to me said, "Why don't you get a real estate license and sell real estate?" So I studied, got my license and took off from there. It was no big deal because anybody could have done it. You just have to have the gift of gab, and I guess I always had it. I loved it. I was sorry that I didn't get into that earlier. But I was in at a real good time before everything was so terribly high.

After I sold real estate for awhile, my husband, Paul, sold the store and retired. Then we bought and sold houses together. We bought a house, repaired and remodeled it. But we made as good money out of it as we did the store by doing a little work on a place that we picked up for practically nothing. I said if we'd kept all the property we had, we'd own half of Springfield.

I'm past eighty-two years old, and I was born in Springfield, Missouri, on a street that the houses have been taken off of and a high rise built on. I live just about two blocks from where I was born.

When I was little it was a special treat to go downtown to shop. There weren't any businesses out where we lived. They were all hubbed around the square. If we went to a movie, that was a really big thing. It cost a nickel.

When I was little I used to sing at some of the amateur shows in the theaters around Springfield. My mother put my hair up the night before in rags. My hair was long and blond. I had several little dresses that I just wore for the amateur nights. Mother got me all dolled up, sent me out and I would sing. I just sang whatever was popular at the time. If I ever entered an amateur contest when I was little, I always won it. My mother entered me in every one she could find. The prizes were money, usually five, sometimes ten dollars. First prize was always something big. The prize money must have been pretty lucrative because we were very poor, and I guess she did it for the money. Back in those days nobody had any money.

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Things were so different then than they are now. I'm trying to think when we had running water in town. When I was first married, we didn't have water in the house. We had a well.

We didn't have electricity in the house for a long time, either. I can remember cleaning lamp chimneys. They probably had electricity in town, but we lived out by the west shops, the Frisco shops, and that was a little ways out of town. I guess it must have been about 1923 when my boys were born before we had electricity in the house.

The first car I remember anybody having was my aunt. They drove up in front of our house one day in this new Ford. I must have been about eleven. It just looked kind of like a buggy with no horses. It had curtains, and they had the curtains down because it was summertime. I wanted to ride in it because I'd never ridden in a car. My aunt said that they were going someplace else and that they couldn't take me. I cried and I cried because they wouldn't take me in that car.

I started to school when I was six. I attended Bailey School. They had all the grades from the first through the eighth grade there. It's been a long time since they've had school there. I think it's something else now.

Mama always managed to live close where I could walk to school. The last half of my sixth grade year we moved out on the west edge of town near my father's job, and then I had to take a street car to school the rest of the year. But then the next year I started the Holmes School. I could walk to school there because it was a couple of blocks from where I lived. It was just a little two room school house. I graduated from the eighth grade there. We had a small graduating class--only five people.

When we lived out by the west shops, we lived a little ways out of town. Right now it's in but at that time it was out. My mother even had a cow. There was a pasture not too far where she kept the cow and she'd go down and milk it. But it wasn't a farm. We only had one lot.

Bertie Rittershouse shows her granddaughter, Kirsten, pictures from an old family photo album. Photo by Allen Gage.

This picture of Bertie was taken before she performed in an amateur talent contest in 1904 when she was four years old.

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The west shops was the Frisco Railroad shops where they repaired all the coaches and engines. The Frisco really employed a lot of people because it was the main hub for Springfield. Springfield was the main terminal. The trains went out from here to all the little southern towns around.

I didn't go on to high school after the eighth grade because I wanted to go to work. Not many people at that time went to high school. There was a restaurant down near the west shops, and a lady fed the shop men at noon. So I helped wait on the tables, clear the tables, and wash the dishes. That was a two hour job. I think I got about two dollars a week. It was very little, but to me it was a lot of money because I was just thirteen years old.

It was about this time that I met my future husband at a party. Mr. and Mrs. Rittershouse and their kids were there. Flo, the oldest daughter, was also there. I saw Paul, my future husband, but I thought that he was Flo's husband. I thought he was cute but I just gave him a good letting alone. After the party broke up, he came and asked me if he could walk me home, and I nearly fell over because I thought he was married. I said something about his wife, and he laughed and said, "I'm not married. That's my sister." I said "Yes, you can walk me home." That was the beginning of it. I was thirteen and he was seventeen.

My mother didn't want me to go with him, but she finally gave up when she saw there wasn't much she could do about it. She thought I was too young to go steady, but she did allow him to come to the house and see me, and we'd go places with my mother and father. My family had a horse and surrey. We did most of our sparking in the back seat of that surrey with my mother up in the front. You can just imagine how hot and serious that got! But it was better than walking. We'd drive the surrey to the movie and take my mother and father.

I went to work at the telephone office in 1916 when I was sixteen. My mother thought it was a good place. I ran the switchboard which was hard work. You sat in a chair with the switchboard in front of you with the numbers on it.

The telephones were the old fashioned kind with a receiver on the side. A person would just pick their receiver up, and their light would come on the switchboard. You'd say, "Number, please." You'd get their number, plug it in up on the board and they're connected. You had cords about as big around as your finger to plug them in with. You had to reach all those numbers, and some of them were so high, you'd have to stand on the rung of your chair to reach them. You get all those cords up there at one time, and you have to trace them. Once in a while you'll pull the wrong one out and disconnect somebody. It was an interesting job, but it was hard work. But I always worked fast, and I always liked to be on the busiest position. I worked there about two years until I got married.

I was married in 1918. My husband was in the Navy at the time because this was during World War I. He came home on furlough and we were married.

You should have seen my wedding shoes. They were pearl gray high heels and they buttoned up just below my knee. They were just beautiful. I think they must have cost at least ten dollars which back then was worth about sixty now. And my dress was kind of a buff- colored heavy satin. Paul was married in his sailor suit.

Paul never did go overseas. He had enlisted in the Navy when he was old enough, but the war was gone pretty much over at that time. He was stationed at Bremmerton, Washington, and he was there seven or eight months.

At that time the women didn't do much of anything for the war effort, not like World War II when there was Rosie the Riveter. I don't know any women that went to work especially because their husbands was gone to war. Of course, I was working anyway, because I wasn't married at the time.

Then I went to work at Kresge dime store. I liked that very much because it was down before people. At the telephone office you didn't get to see anybody while you were working. I worked on the cosmetic counter, but women didn't wear cosmetics like they do now. They wore rice powder which came in a little round box. But nice girls didn't wear lipstick, rouge, eye shadow or anything like that. I was married before I ever wore any lipstick. There wasn't much fixing up. If you was ugly, you was just ugly and that was it. You couldn't camoflauge it hardly at all.

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The summer after we were married my husband came home from the service and we traveled with a Chautauqua owned by my sister-in-law and her husband. They'd fold up in the wintertime and start out in the spring. We went with them for a summer.

The Chautauqua was like a road show. They had a regular route they followed every year. It was in the northern part of Missouri. We'd stay five or six nights in one place, and then they'd take the big tent down, fold it all up and go to another town to open on Monday. We had our own piano and I think they had some trucks that they hauled the tents On but that wasn't my end of the deal. We went by train because nobody had a car.

It was exciting for the small towns. They'd fill that tent every night.

My husband helped with props, with taking down the top and all that stuff. He didn't have any talents for show business, but I took a part. We would do a different show every night with plays and. singing and musical acts in between. I played the part of an old witch who was terrible. I played several parts and I did acts in singing in between. There were fifteen or twenty people in the show. There was a leading lady and leading man with eight or ten in each play besides what they did between. The same people would play different parts. I also took tickets.

Now I don't think they have anything like that. It went out in the thirties.

The Chautauqua was quite an experience because I hadn't got out of Springfield until that time. Girls didn't get out and run around then like they do now. But that one summer on the road fixed me. I didn't want any more of it.

After that I went back to work at the telephone office again until my son Paul was born. When he was about six months old, we sold our house and moved to a farm out west of town. My husband worked in town at the Frisco, and he left before daylight and got back after dark.

I guess I came nearer going crazy that winter than I ever did in my life because I was stuck there with a baby and couldn't get out with the deep snow and cold. There wasn't anybody in miles around. I said then if anybody ever got me on a farm, he'd be smarter than I was. I'd never done farm work, and I'd never been on a farm in my life. But Paul had when he was growing up. They lived in Shannon County. Most fellows think they want a farm one time or another.

Then we moved in town to a little house. It had two acres, and I'll be doggoned if he didn't start raising calves, turkeys and chickens. I don't care for livestock. I like a dog and I like a cat once in a while.

Bertie at eighth grade graduation.

Bertie and Paul were married in 1918 while Paul was in the Navy. Right--

Bertie, Paul, and their oldest son.

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After that we moved out to another farm near Elwood, Missouri. So I guess he was smarter than me. That was where my son Paul went to school his first year. It wasn't as bad then because my mother just lived a quarter mile up the road from us and we had the car. It took about ten minutes to drive in town. We lived there a couple of years, but it was still enough for me.

After my second son, Billy Ward was born in 1926, we moved back into town. I went back to work at the telephone office for awhile.

I always liked the telephone office. They paid better than anything in Springfield, and it was a nice clean place. At that time there weren't any men around at all. I guess it was unusual for a married woman with children to work, but I always had my mother. She always wanted to have the children, so it was all right with her if I worked. But if you didn't have a relative that took care of them, you stayed home and took care them yourself.

Paul worked at the Frisco for several more years until he got laid off. Then we bought a little grocery store. We expanded it so it was two times as big as it was when we bought it. Then we sold it and bought another store. It was at the end of the street car line. That was why we did such a good business. All the people way out in the west part of town would walk up there to catch the street car. Then when they came back at night, they would stop and get their groceries.

Everybody rode the street cars. They ran right down the middle of the streets. They were electric--they had a thing that went up and touched the cables. The system was quite extensive.

We had the great big refrigerator cases like they have now, and then we had a big walk-in icebox, too. It was modern for a store at that time. My husband had the first soft ice cream business in town. We furnished, oh, I guess, two thirds of the small stores in Springfield with ice cream. He made it almost twenty-four hours a day right in connection with the grocery store. It was all in pints. We charged ten cents a pint. And it was delicious ice cream, much better than you get now.

We usually had about four or five working in the store. We also had a butcher. We needed the help because we stayed open from six o'clock in the morning till twelve o'clock at night.

My husband went to Kansas City and got most of his produce. He did his own buying. That's so we could sell it cheaper than somebody else. It was a very good business.

We delivered, too. Everybody in the store business then delivered and did charge accounts. There was no extra charge for delivering because very few had cars then. If you were going to carry your groceries, you'd have to have a car or something. Later when they did have cars it was one car to a family and the husband took that to work more likely. So most stores at that time, I would say, delivered. We had three or four grocery trucks. We also had a motorcycle with a side car. Paul and Billy had a time with that.

We had three telephones. If we delivered, somebody would call up and somebody would take the order. We would then collect the groceries there in the store. We had to put up the order and get it delivered by a certain time.

I remember the day the stock market crashed and everybody started having runs on the banks. But we didn't have any money so it didn't matter. It didn't hurt us. Paul was never one who kept money in a bank. And he'd carry the most gosh awful rolls of money around with him, but when we had extra money we'd put it in stock for the store or something.

I guess we were one of the very few that made money during the Depression, but we did because of the kind of people we served. They were working people, and everybody has to eat. Of course, we did a tremendous credit business. People were pretty good about paying up. We had two McCaskey's which are big things that you keep your credit files in. We had both of them full, and they each had five hundred books apiece so we really had a good business. You had to trust people, and you soon learned who to trust and who not to trust. But we had a lot of bad debts. My husband was not a pusher, it took me to push. He'd go along with them even if he knew he wouldn't get the money.

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Bertie and her sons Billy Ward (left) and Paul about 1931.

The first grocery store the Ritters houses owned about 1925.

Their second grocery store with the delivery trucks displaying the store name.

Bottom--The Chautauqua where Bertie performed for a summer in 1919. The show took place in the middle of town as indicated by the buildings visible at the left.

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If he saw somebody that had traded with us, and they got out of work, he never did see any of them go without what they needed because we always had work that somebody could do. He'd have them put a concrete porch on the store, a concrete sidewalk or something.

There's a church down there that we helped build. Paul gave them all of that worm eaten rock for it because he'd had it hauled in, stacked there in the back of the store during the Depression. We weren't going to use it so he gave the church all that rock. He'd have stuff like that that men could do and get groceries for. And they were tickled to death.

We served a lot of men on WPA. They worked for work orders. Each man would work so many hours and he'd have so much. They'd take them to their grocery store, and trade out the amount of money. We had stacks and stacks. It made a real good business. We sent them to the government, and they refunded them. They were worth so much. That was the only way they had of paying their accounts. They just used it up for however much it was. It was a time to live through.

Oh, people griped about the New Deal. Some of them felt so degraded because their husbands would have to work on WPA and get that scrip to use. Some people had never done that before in their lives. They always had good jobs before, but they were laid off. The women would be ashamed to come in the store and get the groceries. But I just couldn't understand it because after all, they weren't the only ones and they had to eat.  It was rough going.

Then we went out on Glenstone Street. We had the first supermarket in Springfield out there. It was the first one of its kind. It was before all of these chain stores. The supermarket was an improvement for a time. It took it a long time to go over, because it was a little different. We didn't deliver there. You didn't have clerks to wait on you. You had a big butcher counter, but then you just had a cashier, and they brought their things up there and it was charged.

When a customer came into the old store, they would sometimes go down the aisle and collect their own groceries but they'd want help. In the old-time store everybody knew everybody by name. They knew you and they knew your kids. It was sort of a family deal. Now on Glenstone, you didn't know anybody. Just like a supermarket now, they don't know you from Adam, but in the neighborhood stores it was different.

My husband did his own buying there too. But he had a big truck, and he'd haul all of his produce from Kansas City. He trucked in fresh vegetables, and fruit, lemons, oranges and grapes. It was really a lucritive business right then. The store prospered and was there for years and years.

Billy Ward died in 1938 after an accident he had playing golf with his friends. That was a great sorrow, of course, for us.

My daughter, Janice, was born in 1939. That's when I bought this house. We were living over the store at that time, and I didn't want to raise Janice in the store.

I began selling real estate soon after she was born, and I continued until my husband got sick in 1970. He died in 1971, and I let my license go then. I was always sorry I did because I could have gone right on.

Things are so different now. But that's the changes in times. I lived in a hard enough time. I don't think I'd have liked to live way back when my grandmother came to Missouri from Kentucky in a covered wagon as a baby. She grew up around Nixa and was married and had her family of nine children. They lived all in one little old bare room, countrified with more rocks than ground and as poor as Job's turkey. Back then if they got two weeks in school they thought they were doing fine. My grandmother couldn't even write.

When my mother got married, she moved into Springfield and had a boarding house. She did all right, but she didn't have much education.

I never had a college education and I sure missed it as the years went on. Of course at that time when I was growing up it didn't matter because very few people went to college. So I was very insistent when it came to sending my children to school and getting an education. And I encourage my granddaughters, too. If you've got that nobody can take it away from you.

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Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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