Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994



These Were The Good Old Days:

A Missouri Farm Boy Remembers The Thirties

by Dean M. Wiley




Dean Wiley is a member of the Ozarks Watch Society.

The Great Depression was in full swing, laying waste to every thing and every one. Most farmers had lost their farms to the loan institutions, laborers were without paychecks, and bankers stared at piles of uncollectible notes. In New York, investors and brokers jumped from skyscrapers' windows, ticker tape clutched in their hands.

But rural people were often more stoic; things couldn't get worse.

They did get worse. The drought of 1934 and '36 devastated the chances of raising ten cent corn to feed ten cent hogs. Looking back, it seems like Northwest Missouri was especially hard hit; but life went on and we children and teenagers did not suffer as much as the adults, for most of us could not remember it having been any different. We helped with the work, had fun, and felt for our parents who seemed so sad.

Entertainment

Mostly we made our own as long as it didn't cost anything. There were occasional outside diversions and chief among these was the summer arrival of an "Indian Medicine Show." It consisted of an old truck, used as a stage, and three or four people, one of whom was dressed as an Indian medicine man. Of course he was a fake, for no self-respecting Indian would stoop to the scam that was to follow. He had concocted a potion that was supposed to be a panacea for nearly all ills, internal and external. The liquid must have been 75% alcohol and the rest bitter herbs. (Medicine had to taste bad to be effective.) When the citizens gathered around there was a show of songs and recitations and other oratory. Then came the pitch. In this "dry" community it wasn't hard to find an arthritic old gentleman who had never tasted alcohol in his life. Twenty minutes after he had swallowed four or five tablespoons of the concoctions he was ready to testify to all claims. More songs followed, often patriotic and complete with flag waving. One more sales talk and then the show folded camp and stole away in the night.

On Saturday night everyone in the area came to the village; the farmers to sell their eggs, chickens, and cream, and the townspeople to buy a few staples and to visit. On a few summer nights the merchants sponsored free movies. The theater was Main Street, the seats were planks borrowed from the lumber yard and laid on concrete blocks. The celluloid film was old and it broke often, resulting in a wait while it was repaired. The splice, of course, deleted parts of the plot, but our minds were imaginative enough to fill in the blanks. The main thing was it was free!

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The first radios in town were a marvel and we gathered at the homes of those affluent enough to own one. They were large, cumbersome boxes with two or more tuning dials that had to be coordinated, and a directional antenna to be adjusted. We could hardly believe the number of places we could hear. Down in Shreveport, Louisiana there was a station owner who gave the newscast himself, often becoming so irate when reporting the political news that he would begin editorializing. Once he had to be shut off the air because of his swearing.

Then, too, there was the "goat gland" doctor whose station extolled the restorative powers of his transplants. He was ordered out of one state after another until he was finally forced to move his transmitter to Mexico. When the Mexican government ousted him, he set up on a small ship off the coast of California and finally just faded away.





Another well remembered radio program was "Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy." A super athlete in all sports, he touted a breakfast cereal and caused us to faithfully save boxtops to exchange for decoder rings, badges, and pictures. The adults suspended games of cards or dominoes or just stayed up late until 10:00 PM when "Amos and Andy" came on. Anyone who talked out loud during the show was banished from the room.

Religion

Most villages in the area had two churches; usually a Methodist and a Christian Church.

Almost every year one or the other of the sects would have a concentrated effort to regain lost sheep and to intensify the fervor of the faithful. These services were known as revivals, protracted meetings, or tent meetings, and a visiting minister, particularly one of fiery oratory, would be brought in. Every night for two weeks he would extol the ecstasy of virtuous living and the consequences of the alternative. At the end of each sermon came the call for those who wished to repent to "come forward." Having gone to Sunday School faithfully and-having been baptized at age 13, I always admired those who made their way to the alter and had their sins washed away. My admiration dimmed only slightly when, as I grew older, I realized that, having backslid during the year, it was mostly the same old crowd who responded.

Food

To farm kids things were not too bad in this category. Anything that could be home grown we had; produce, dairy products, chickens, eggs, and a hog or calf to butcher. But there is no nostalgia connected with rising at 5:00 AM to hand milk the cows, particularly when the temperature was around zero.

Fish was a special treat, unless one caught catfish in the One Hundred and Two River. Having this dish necessitated a trip to the county seat on Friday because they had Catholics down there and the markets stocked perch and cod for that meatless day.

Refrigerators were available but the money to buy one usually was not. Most homes had ice boxes, but that also necessitated a trip to the county seat to purchase ice. Fifty pounds cost a quarter. It had melted to 35 pounds by the time it was hauled home and decreased another 10 pounds in cooling the box. The ice was gone by Monday and the only evidence left was when one stepped barefoot into a puddle on the floor when someone forgot to empty the drip pan.

Education

A five room building with five teachers was the school for all twelve grades. In high school sixteen credits were offered and it took sixteen to graduate. There were no electives. The superintendent, in addition to his administrative duties, taught five classes a day and coached the basketball and debate teams. The principal, in addition to teaching regular classes, supervised the production of a school newspaper and a hand-printed yearbook, and was sponsor of the Dramatics Club. All of these activities were considered extra-curricular and were mostly done before or after school or in the evening hours.

The privies were outside the building by half a block and a long run when the temperatures were down to zero. The basketball court was also outside and covered with sand that was abrasive to bare skin. It was often necessary to scoop the snow off in order to practice. Every one had a collapsible metal drinking cup, and a hand pump supplied water for the students and the ponies ridden to school.

We were fortunate to have a State Teachers College only nine miles away, making it possible to commute on a daily basis while living at home. Tuition was $19 a quarter, which was as hard to come by as today's hundreds or thousands per semester. Counselling was minimal and many more students might have fumbled their way into teaching had not World War II intervened. The GI Bill provided latitude in college degrees for those who would not have made very good teachers anyway.

In spite of the inconveniences recorded here, we have survived and most of us are living better than we dared dream about then. Today the outward appearance of my village shows only a shell of what it once was. The once 300 population has dropped to less than 200 and a junk yard and auto repair shop are the only businesses left in town. No service station, grocery store or drug store remain and the post office is open only for an hour or two every day. The high school has been consolidated with another in a nearby village.

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Yet some of the people of my day and descendants of others still live there. They are the same decent and honest people, as loving and caring of their families, friends, and neighbors as they were sixty years ago. Both churches are hanging on and the Lions Club is active doing the things that Lions Clubs should do. A community building, built a few years ago is very much in demand for family reunions, wedding receptions, etc. Although there has been no high school for almost thirty-five years, an Alumni Banquet is still held every year, with the same dozen or so people doing all the work, so that a hundred or more of us who went elsewhere to work can come back and greet old friends and reminisce.

We never thought of it happening then, but a sort of invisible bond formed by a group of youngsters almost sixty years ago still exists today. We have mellowed with age but we remember together hard times mixed with fun, hard labor, and a conservatism born of the depression which will never completely leave us. The thought that comes to this writer is if things had never gotten better we would never have known how bad it was.

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