Volume IX, No. 2, Winter 1981
IN ELDRIDGE MISSOURI
The village is an ordinary sight to a visitor who is passing through--elderly people gossiping at the age-old bench that sits on the porch of the general store, the empty windows of deserted paint-chipped buildings, the eroded memorials in the overgrown cemetery, the dominant appearance of the church steeple overlooking the town and an occasional hound lazily yawning in the afternoon lull--all are scenes of normal life in a rural community.
But as the visitor studies these scenes--searches the buildings, reads the cemetery's markers and listens to the people--the stories unfold of the town's past, its beginnings, its growth and, eventually, its decline.
Unlike most communities of the area, Eldridge was settled by a group of emancipated slaves who took the hilly, woody, rocky land and homesteaded it, clearing it to create a settlement.
Many of the second generation stayed in the area helping to farm the land, but they and their children left during a period of about twenty years in the early 1900s, looking for better opportunities. As the black population was moving to the towns and cities, more white people began moving in, causing a major transition in the social and economic structure--the transference of the growing town's residences and ownerships to the whites.
The economic development changed little through these years. Everyone, blacks and whites, remained poor. George Case's family was a good example of a black Eldridge family that moved during this time. He explained, "We moved around. Back then we had a hard time and we didn't have money, so we had to scratch where we could." It was no different for the whites. Although they were somewhat more financially stable than the Eldridge people, the newcomers were poor also. Robbie Wilson, a farmer who lived near Eldridge stated, "It's a poor man's country. You come in poor, you will stay poor." A common practice of many people, which kept them in debt for years, was borrowing from the bank to buy the Eldridge farms.
During this time business in the village was growing. Six people established stores. Mr. Schwartz built a woodworking factory and the Fohns owned a mill. The majority of the Eldridge children attended the one-room school while their parents worked on the farms. In spite of the low economic level, the township's population grew with the second generation of whites and then the next generation was even larger.
With the increased number of youth a problem with the scarcity of jobs grew. The major occupation for the people of the area was farming. Since there was no more land to homestead, the only way to acquire a farm was to buy or inherit the land. It was almost impossible for a young person to accumulate the initial investment to buy the land. Travel was limited to a local area, and so leaving the area to go look for jobs was the only option left for most young people. That is what most of the Eldridge youth did and are continuing to do still today.
The town began to decline--the factory and mill closed, stores closed until there are only two in operation and the majority of the youth is gone. The visitor sees these trends as memorials to a life once existing in Eldridge. As he discovers the life of this town, an intriguing story unfolds--a story that needs to be told.
"Right after the Civil War," Jess Easley explained, "the colored folks down in northern Mississippi decided they would go north. They didn't have very much of anything like money. I guess they had oxen and maybe horses. Several wagons with different families started out together. They went as far as they could go until they ran out of money and then they settled. They ran out of money here in Lebanon. At that day and time there was a lot of homesteading going on. It didn't cost them anything, so they homesteaded the land around Eldridge and found plenty of woods, creeks and hills."
The freed slaves chose this section of land to homestead because of a huge spring which has served several people. It became known as the Alfred Spring for the original settler, Alfred Eldridge.
The town gained its first post office in 1876 and was officially founded as the Eldridge Township in 1884. "They say my grandfather, Alfred Eldridge, was the first settler there, and that's where the name came from," Ethel Brown stated. "He settled there with my grandmother and father after the emancipation. Grandma Mandy and Grandpa were both slaves. My father was a slave baby, too.
"Grandma Mandy used to tell us some tall tales about slave times. She always told us she was Old Boss's and she didn't have to worry about going to the field to work. One time she was told to crumble the cornbread, and she said, 'I'm not going to crumble that bread. It hurts my hands.' She got mad and pouted and Old Boss said, 'You know you don't have to crumble no bread.' She was something! After Grandpa died, she remarried, but we never would call him Grandpa. We always called him Uncle Mose.
"My father was married before he married my mother. They had four children and then they separated. My father was much older than my mother, for his four children were as old as she was. Mama was born in Eldridge and was fifteen when they got married. I guess he was twenty years older than she was.
"All six of us children were born in Eldridge. I was born in nineteen ought one at home with a midwife. I was the eldest girl of six children. My mother became a widow because my father got killed when I was about ten. His son-in-law ran up a big bill on him at the store in Eldridge. The farmers paid their bills once a year when the crops were in. He went in to pay his bill and this big bill was sitting there. My father would not pay it. He went down after the son-in-law and the son-in-law shot him. The son-in-law didn't get too much time. He disappeared right after that, but later on, when I was in Kansas City, somebody told me they saw him. He finally committed suicide. He went crazy and shot himself.
"Since my mother was a widow woman, all of the neighbors, both white and colored would get together when we had crops to gather and get them in. We'd cook and they would work and eat. We had one hundred and eighty-eight acres. We had mules, horses, cows, ducks, geese and turkeys, and we raised wheat, corn, alfalfa and cane.
"All of the people in and around Eldridge were farmers," Ethel continued. "That was about the only thing to do. They went to Lebanon to sell their crops, and they came back through Eldridge to pay their bills.
"Eldridge didn't have anything but a store, post office and a little blacksmith shop. The store was a grocery and dry goods store combined. Black people could trade there as well as white. At the post office you almost had to walk in and back out it was so small.
"When I was there, we went to Lebanon to do shopping. That was a day's journey--fifteen miles. It took all day to get where you were going and back.
"The Gregorys were our closest family and the only white people round us. We were bored, so we swapped and we did everything together. When we butchered, we didn't have any way to keep fresh meat so we'd divide up. When someone else butchered, they'd give us something, and then when we butchered, we'd take them something. Everyone was as poor as we were.
"We'd take eggs into Eldridge to sell. If we had a bumper crop of chickens or turkeys, we'd take a load to Lebanon and sell them. We used to make ties. That's how we got spending money. My brother and I used to go out in the woods, saw down trees and hew the ties. We'd load them and take them to the river where they'd make the rafts.
"There was nobody to work for. Everyone was as poor as we were. Even after we moved to Lebanon, there weren't very many people to work for. During the summer I worked for the Esthers and Barnetts. They were very prominent people and they had a lovely home and fine big horses. I used to just love to go out there because they had horses and I would ride. I'd go out there and stay in the summer and they paid me a dollar a week.
"We got along pretty good. We didn't have a lot of money but we had clothes and good food. At Christmas we cut down a tree, decorated it and put stuff under it. We'd have the same doll for five or six years and then just put new clothes on it.
"We had picnics sometimes. Everybody would get together and carry something. The churchyard wasn't big enough for the picnics. Some farmer or someone would have a big clearing place. They'd have music and we'd dance."
George Case told of his childhood in Eldridge. "I was born in Eldridge. The school that I went to was the Case School It was an all black school. The only integrated school around Eldridge was Marble when my uncle and aunts went to school. The year I graduated from Eldridge was 1935. When I graduated that closed the Case School because there wasn't enough kids to keep it going. I think the state law said there had to be as many as six. They didn't have six. The other kids moved to Lebanon then. I went to part of my high school in Springfield and then I came back to Lebanon and finished."
"The little school where we went was in a colored section," Ethel continued. "It was a log building close to the cemetery, with wood heat. I was the oldest girl of six children, so I only went to school off and on. My older brothers didn't get to go to school enough to amount to anything. They helped on the farm. There was quite a bill at the school with the Thompsons, the older Cases and the Eldridges.
"It was a school through the week and a church on Sunday when a pastor came out. He'd have to stay overnight and people would take turns having him. I don't know if the preacher got paid. They didn't discuss it with us children. You didn't know up from down in those days unless you found it on your own. When you asked a question, they'd say, 'Shut up! I'm busy!'"
George said, "The black church used to set on the cemetery. There used to be a road through there. The cemetery was on the left hand side at the gate and the church sat on the right. They used to have dinners, big spread dinners."
"I don't remember any police or sheriff," Ethel said. "Eldridge wasn't a rough place then. There wasn't nothing there to be rough. George Appleton hung a boy once, though. There was this man and this boy working for him and something was done. The boy didn't do it. It was the other man who did it, but Appleton hung the boy. The boy had a knife and cut the rope, but he had a rope burn for a long time.
"The families I remember were the Kenolys, Gregorys, Owenses, Alfreds, Thompsons, Nashes, and Fohns. I really don't know why everyone moved out from down there. When young folks got older there wasn't nothing to do but farm, and a lot of them didn't want that. You know how young folks are restless. They just started drifting off. All of us left there at some time."
George explained, "The black people began to move out in the 20s before and during the Depression. A number of them moved back to Lebanon and some of them went to Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield. Most of my people went to St. Louis. The Snotty's went to Fayette and Fulton. Most of the Eldridges went to Springfield."
As the younger generation of blacks moved out of Eldridge Township, a gradual movement of white settlers came in. They started more businesses and bought out the established farms of the blacks. As the shift occurred, the relationship between the races remained friendly. The majority of the Eldridge people lived on widespread farms in the area around the village and had little contact with any but their closest neighbors whom they depended on for friendship and help when it was needed. "Most of the farms were black at one time," George said.
A few people remaining in Eldridge can trace each farm from its first settler to its present owner. Even though many of the people are gone, they have each left their lasting imprint on the memories of the town in some way. Old abandoned cisterns, the blacks' cemetery hidden under weeds, names of places whose origin has long been forgotten and even a lineage of horses--all are remnants of former Eldridge as it was when the first settlers were there.
"My mother and father homesteaded a place out here on spring Hollow in 1880," Jess Easley said. "The first main white store was owned by John Owensby." Once the growth of the town began, it continued until it was quite prosperous.
Paul Odom said, "There were six stores in Eldridge at one time. There was a pool hall and a barber shop and six grocery stores. The pool hall had a pretty good business. The barber shop was fifteen cents hair cut, ten cents a shave. Also there was Jake Waters's store. He lived above his store. On down the street there was another barber shop. Then on down the street there was a drugstore. That was old Doc Poynter's. Across the corner there was another store and there was Sam Rector's store. He sold me the first thing I ever bought on credit, a pair of overalls. There was the Fohn's store. Then there was a blacksmith shop. There was a store which was a block building. The merchants would buy railroad ties and would take it out of their customers' groceries. I think ties sold for thirty-five cents apiece. Mother used to own the post office where the road is now. We had a building with a shoe shop and my father had shoes."
George remembered, "The Keith's had a general store and post office all together. And there was Bessie Hufft's store, too. At one time Bessie was postmistress for awhile."
The Fohns were one of the establishing white families of Eldridge. "There was a little barber shop that Russell Fohn had," Irene Fohn said. "And William Fohn had a barber shop down the street. That was in 1916. After William sold his barber shop, he owned a little grocery store and lunch counter. Then we had the store for forty-four years. It was a grocery store and service station. Also there was a butcher shop, a pool hall and another barber shop. There was a feed store here in town and a little restaurant.
"Back then, when I was a little girl, the government didn't have their say so in everything. You did as you pleased. People would come through here with wagons of beef and pork and stop at every house and you could just buy what you wanted to of it. They had scales in their wagon. Now the government has taken over everything. You can't buy what you want to anymore."
Not only were there businesses in Eldridge, but there was also a mill near town. Irene continued, "My grandfather, Addison Urer, had a mill down by the old mill pond. He had a saw mill and a grist mill there.
George added, "The original Fohns had the corn mill, but they couldn't make flour. We had to go to Brush Creek. People didn't buy just ten pounds of flour then. They had 200 or 300 pounds. They went to the mill once or twice a year. Three or four families used to get together, take their wagon and team and take their wheat to the flour mill. They'd spend a day and a night to and from the mill. The road to the corn mill is on the north side of the pond now. The mill sat on the south side.
"Jimmy Waterman had a blacksmith before Harry had one. That was Harry's father," George said. "His first shop was the building just across the street and his last shop sat down on the right hand side of the mill pond."
Paul said, "The Schwartzs had a casket factory and woodworking shops. He used to make caskets, wagon wheels and posts. He was very good with wood."
Although the businesses were essential for life in Eldridge, the school and church played an important role in the community also. Paul continued, "I thought part of the whole experience of the village was my school. My first year of school was in Eldridge and I still lived here when I finished all of my college work. The school I started in burned and they moved the classroom from there to the church in Eldridge. Ira Waterman was the teacher and he had enrolled one hundred and five students and had ninety-five regular attendance. He was a good school teacher and he was a Freewill Baptist preacher, too.
"He did a good job of it. He didn't do like they do now and preach for fifteen or twenty minutes and then go home. He preached with conviction. Big old tears rolled down his cheeks when he preached. It seemed to me like he and his cousin, Rufus Waterman, were two pillars of this community at that time. They both were preachers and they done a good job, too."
"Rufus Waterman married us," Irene said. "I was married at my mother's. Used to be when the young folks would get married, the girl's mother would have the wedding supper or dinner. Then the next day the boy's parents would have what they called the 'infare' dinner and invitee everybody. There were a hundred at our shivaree when we were married.
"A lot of people came around for church. They'd load up on one wagon and come. They'd have cookies if they got hungry and they used to have tubs of butter at Waters' store. It was in molds. I can just visualize that butter in his store. There'd be tubs of butter and people would bring dried fruit and head cheese.
George added, "That bell in the old Eldridge church would ring any time anybody passed, had a fire or anything. You would hear it and know something was wrong. If anyone deceased, that bell would usually toll. They'd ring the bell for two or three minutes and then they'd stop and hit it on one side. That's what they called the taps. It tolled for the number of years. You could listen awhile and tell how old the person was when they passed.
"I remember also when they used to have their baptizings at the Jump Off. They'd have the people line up sitting on each side of the ravine and the preacher baptized in the Jump Off. Everybody could see because the hills are quite steep and it made just a regular arena.
"My grandfather Thompson pastored the Eldridge Church from around the early 30s until the 1950s. They used to have what they called brush arbor meetings out in front of the church. At that time it was in timber and they'd make a house out of brush for church. Grandpa preached at that quite a bit.
"When I first remembered Grandpa, he had an old red mule that he called Jack. He rode him to Eldridge, and as he came from service, he'd come back around by our farm and stop to have dinner and chat with the folks.
"They had several people pretty well ended up in Iberia. Mr. Nash was also a circuit riding preacher. He lived at Eldridge until he passed."
Jess Easley added, "Ira Waterman was a minister. He about represented Eldridge in this county. Anything going on in Eldridge and he was the one to go to. He lived down there. As far back as I can remember any time that court was going on up here Ira Waterman was there. Ira didn't set back in the audience. He got right back behind the rail behind the attorneys and stayed there with them. By golly, he was a kind of an arbitrator between anybody around Eldridge and anybody else that wanted to do anything down at Eldridge."
Within the community there was a division between two groups of people. On one hand there were the town people who thought of country folk as simple, crude people. On the other hand there were the farmers who considered the town people to have low morals. In their isolation, the farmers were able to have a stricter way of life with a strong emphasis on religion which was undiluted by exposure to outside people.
In surrounding areas people considered some of the Eldridge people to be rough, law-breaking people. Long after the people are gone and times have changed, stories of Eldridge's reputation are still told.
One story is about a banker who went to Eldridge looking for a man that had taken a mortgage. When he arrived in the community, the man's wife explained that her husband was in the field digging potatoes. The banker went to the field, but the man was nowhere in sight. The banker then went to the business section of town thinking that he might be visiting. He went to all of the shops asking for the man, but each time he received the same response, the man was in the field digging potatoes. Finally the banker reached the house of an old gentleman who didn't voluntarily tell him where the man was that day, but when he gave the same response as all the others, he inadvertently looked toward a patch of woods. The banker then drove to the woods where he could hear men shooting men and asked him if he had seen the man he had been looking for, and, although the banker knew he had just been with him, he once again was told that the man was digging potatoes.
"That's the way it was. Nobody told on anyone," Jess explained. "It was pretty rough. It was a frontier town and it was rough as a cob. You didn't go around down there and fool around with anything. People living there in those days didn't pay much attention to law. They pretty well did what they wanted to. There was a lot of fighting and killing going on and lots of drinking.
"I used to go from school to the courthouse and listen to the circuit court. I remember one time, under Judge Woodside's rule, about 1905 or 1906, Jim Moore had a case. Jim Moore handled all the cases down there. He knew everyone down there. He got ready to swear in the witnesses. He began calling off names and finally he said, 'Everybody from Eldridge stand up,' and he swore in everybody from Eldridge. Judge Woodside chewed them up one side and down the other. He said, I've been seriously considering holding a court down at Eldridge to save the county money.'
"There were always a half a dozen cases from Eldridge, one kind or another. It gives you an idea of the nature of things. Lebanon was a rough town at one time, too. Now that's all changed, like it has everywhere else. The thing about it is, there was just a lot of people who disregarded the laws. Though some people had a bad reputation there, of course there were lots of people that didn't make a bad reputation for themselves, good fine people."
Attending court when it was in session was only one pastime for this community. "Of course, back then," George said, "almost every little town had two or three little ball clubs. Eldridge had one of the better ball clubs. I played with the Eldridge some, but I played with the Marble's too, and we played against Eldridge."
Paul added, "People used to go out in these woods all around Eldridge and hunt bees. You'd see a bee go across country and you'd follow it to the tree."
Old Photos courtesy of John Stewart and Tracy Waterman.
Irene said, "We'd set up the croquet set and play croquet in the evening and on Sunday. My dad had a horseshoe pitching outfit down there, too. They used to box in this big livery barn where my house sits now. We had play party games, candy braiding, drop the handkerchief and other games.
"This used to be a real busy place. On Saturday this was a busy little town. The people of the country would come in and bring their produce. They had what they called the 'whittler's bench' out there in front of Jake Waters' store."
The town developed after a few people had gathered around a spring. It centered on the Negro farmers for many years. Then the town survived the out migration of the population and the transition to entirely different circumstances. The community was then based on the white newcomers and their businesses in the town. But after they were established, the younger people once again started leaving. Irene reflected, "It's different now than it used to be. Older ones live around here now. The younger ones are leaving." That would explain why the visitor sees only older people as he is passing through.
After hearing about the past life in the town, if the visitor were to linger awhile longer, he would notice as the old clans are gradually moving from the area, other people are coming to this community to "get back to nature." One group of these newcomers are well-educated, financially stable, middle-aged people from the cities who are retiring on the farms that they have dreamt of for years. Since in today's Eldridge long-time farmers can no longer survive with only subsistence farming, they sometimes find jobs with the newcomers who hire them for their farm experience and knowledge of the land.
Another group of newcomers are the flower children of the sixties, who have established communes in the isolated areas of the township. Usually these people are unemployed, but occasionally they, like the long-time residents, also work on odd jobs for the retirees.
As he observes these changes, the visitor must wonder how they will affect the village and its people through yet another change in population, until a few years ago, the people of the area, isolated from foreign ideas, were self-sufficent, tenacious people who accepted tough hardships. In recent times the looser moral codes, the dependence on government aid, the modernized way of life and the slow dwindling of the town's businesses have had their influences. How will Eldridge change?
These changes will add chapters to the story that future visitors will hear. The story of Eldridge will continue.
Story and drawings by Melinda Stewart. Photographs by Melinda Stewart, Tracy Waterman, Todd Waterman and Kathy Long. Researched by Tracy Waterman and Melinda Stewart
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.