Vol. IX, No. 2, 1996


At Home in Butterfield

by Carl Ferguson



This old house, home of the Horace and Flora Ferguson family, also sheltered many Butterfield school teachers, students, road workers and others during the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's. In addition it was the home, from time to time, of our grandmother, Debbie Hankins and Grandad Ferguson, the only grandparents we ever knew.

In 1919 following a few good crop years and high prices during World War I, our parents decided to build a new home for their rapidly expanding family. At that time, we were three boys Eugene (5), Carl (3), and Rex (1). We were living in an old house located just across the street from the present Ferguson house, which Dad had bought from Grandad Ferguson. Our parents' first step was to buy 10 acres of land from Ben Ray. That tract of land included the five acres of the present home site, plus five acres sold to the school district in 1926. The school closed in 1952 and the land is now occupied by two houses.

I don't know who designed the house or where they obtained the plans, if any existed. The design is a one-and-a-half story bungalow, which allows for small closets under the roof in each upper room, and a small attic. The principal carpenter, Boone Kitchen, was assisted by Tom Robinson. The basic house is 30 feet square exclusive of the front porch on the east side and the kitchen and two small porches on the west side. A concrete foundation supports the central portion of the house and the front and back extensions rest on concrete slabs. The framing and lath holding the plaster on the walls and ceilings are Ozarks oak. The flooring, porch, and kitchen ceilings, trim, doors, window frames and drop siding are first-quality southern pine, probably from Arkansas. Originally the exterior was painted a dark yellow with white window trim and black wooden frames around the window screens. Sometime in the early 1950's, following the custom of that time period, Dad installed the present covering of white asbestos shingles.

The total cost of the house was about $2,700, the figure I remember from Dad's conversations. I have not found any record of costs in his old papers which would verify that figure.

Several short-time boarders took board and shelter during the construction of State Highway 37 in 1924.

Horace and Flora (Hankins) Ferguson and sons; Butterfield, Barry County, Missouri, 1923. The Fergusons built their house in 1919, and had a formal portrait taken of it with their family. The author is in the center.
Photo courtesy of Carl Ferguson.

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Again, in 1934 and '35, during the rebuilding of the highway, a number of engineers, truck drivers, and caterpillar operators enjoyed inexpensive country cooking and low-cost shelter. They paid 25 cents per meal and 50 cents per night for a place to sleep. Some slept in the sorghum house across the road, as there were not enough beds in the house to accommodate all.

Other short-time boarders and long-term guests included uncles, aunts, and cousins, many from a distance, who had returned to Barry County to reconnect with their Hankins or Ferguson ancestors. Our mother was a very caring person, particularly toward aged people. At times, she invited elderly friends and others in need of temporary shelter and means, to stay with us for a few days. Sometimes these visits stretched into weeks.

The food on our table, while not classic cuisine, was plentiful and nutritious. Meat dishes were minimal, but vegetables and fruits in season were plentiful. Dad fattened and butchered pigs in late fall and preserved the meat by either the salt or sugar cure method. Sometimes he smoked the meat over a smoldering hickory wood fire. Pork shoulders and trimmings from other cuts went into the sausage. Seasoned with sage, pepper, and salt, mom fried the sausage in large frying pans and preserved them in the pork lard in sealed glass jars. Chicken, then more expensive than either pork or beef, generally appeared on the table only on Sunday or special occasions. Beef was almost unknown to us, except ground beef occasionally for meat loaf or hamburger. We ate fresh wild greens picked from our woods and fields in early spring, and a wide assortment of vegetables from the garden in season. Frozen foods and prepared packaged foods had not yet appeared in the local grocery stores, except for Post Toasties (corn flakes). Incidentally, during that period there were four, and sometimes as many as five, grocery stores in Butterfield. Now, there are none.

Like all farmhouses in this area at that time, this old house had no plumbing, central heating or electricity. We carried water for drinking and washing from a 55-foot deep well across the road and near the old house we had vacated. Dad recalled the well was hand dug in 1901, a year remembered by Butterfield old timers as the year when all of the cisterns, and most wells in the community, dried up due to an extended drought. We drank from a common dipper in one of the twelve-quart water buckets on a shelf immediately to the left of the inside kitchen door. A granite enameled wash pan and a bar of Lava soap in a dish nearby also rested on the shelf. A Turkish towel hung on the nail in the door facing.

Before 1928 when electricity came to Butterfield, two or three coal oil (kerosene) lamps, moved from room to room as needed, provided light. When we boys studied, we shared a lamp in the middle of the dining room table. The lamps were filled weekly with coal oil from a one gallon coal oil can, refilled at Gentry's grocery store. Some years before we had electricity, Dad bought a 5-gallon oil can. It had a little built-in hand pump with a curved spout, making it easy to direct a stream of coal oil into a lamp without messing up the floor. Lamps also required regular servicing to remove unburned carbon from the interior of the glass chimney, using a piece of newspaper. The wick required trimming to remove charred material, thereby exposing a fresh, unburned surface. This servicing assured a stronger, brighter flame, and consequently more light. Mom would use kerosene from time to time to stimulate a reluctant fire in the kitchen stove, but she knew very well the precautions to take when using it to start fires.

Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves can sometimes be major fire hazards in rural homes. Kerosene lamps can also be very dangerous. An upset lamp can quickly start a hot, rapidly blazing fire. I don't recall any incident of that kind in our home, but Rex---or was it Burl?--both of whom were less prone than I to do foolish or dangerous stunts, experimented with a celluloid comb one night to see if it would burn if placed over the lamp chimney. Within seconds, it caught fire with a hissing sound. He threw it on the living room floor near the fireplace, where it quickly burned a black, comb-shaped brand on the pine floor. I believe that black image can still be seen under the linoleum.

The only modern apparatus that we had that I remember was a hand-cranked telephone attached to the wall near and to the right of the front door. Three "shorts" signalled that a caller was on the line for us. A switchboard in the Butterfield post office (also the home of Manford and Georgia Gentry) connected us to other party lines in the community, and to the outside world through the Southwestern Bell System's lines, which ran through Barry County on State Highway 37 right-of-way. Sometime during the late 1920's, rural telephone service in the Butterfield area ceased. Fortunately, John Garrett's Cafe maintained a connection to the long distance Bell lines, and any long-distance calls reached us, courtesy of John. When we got the news that a long-distance operator was calling, we were very nervous. We knew that the message would be either good news or bad news. For example, the contents of the telegram I received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington in June 1941 offering me a job in Texas was received first by Garrett's Cafe. A couple of days later, I received the telegram in the mail.

Another important item in the living room, a large calendar, hung over the fireplace mantel. Dad insisted on having a large calendar hanging in a prominent place where one could easily and quickly verify the day of the week and month. That place is now occupied by the stern visage of our maternal grandfather, Samuel Love Hankins.

There are three small closets in the living room. The largest, under the stairs, served as a repository for tools and other items used around the house, including the wire mesh corn popper, made for use over hot coals in a fireplace. On a row of nails on the left wall, we used to hang outerwear; jackets, sweaters, etc. The little closet over the fireplace mantel contained sundry items, much as we use it now, including small hand tools, nails, tacks, screws, keys, string, barber clippers, and an awl for sewing leather. In the closet under the bookcase, one found in summer the fireplace tools and a shoe repair kit, including metal shoe lasts of two or three sizes and the stand for the lasts. Dad used to replace the heels and soles of our shoes because there was no shoe repair man in Butterfield.

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Our first radio, a GE bought about 1930, occupied an important place in the living room. At night, the news with Lowell Thomas and Walter Winchell kept us informed on national and international matters. For evening entertainment, we had Amos and Andy, Lum and Abner, Fibber McGee and Molly, George Bums and Gracie Allen, The Grand Old Oprey from Nashville, Tennessee, and the National Barn Dance from Chicago. The only major sports we heard on radio were the baseball games, particularly those during the World Series, and championship boxing matches. A radio report Dad rarely failed to hear during the lunch hour was the weather forecast of C. C. Williford, the Springfield weatherman on Station KWTO.

During the 1920's we welcomed Sunday visitors in the parlor. For youngsters, the center of attraction was the player piano. One could make music simply by inserting a music roll of perforated paper into the player mechanism and make music by pumping vigorously on the pedals. Our collection of music rolls included favorites of the period: "When You and I were Young, Maggie," "The Old Oaken Bucket," "The Missouri Waltz," "Beautiful Ohio," and the catchy tunes "K-K-K Katie," "Turkey in the Straw," "Arkansas Traveler," and "American Patrol."

The Butterfield singing class (Dad sang tenor) often practiced in the parlor before participating in song conventions.

Parlor furnishings were a cut above those in the other rooms. They included an Axminster carpet on the floor, a divan (we called it the davenport) which unfolded to make a double bed, and ! believe that the buffet, which is now in the dining room, was also in the parlor. In addition, there were six straight back oak chairs. These furnishings, bought new when the house was completed in 1919 or early 1920, reflected the special status of the parlor as the place to entertain guests and close friends, particularly on a Sunday. I retain a clear mental image of our Uncle Will Hankins, County Superintendent of Schools, expounding to Dad, and others whose names I don't recall, on the state of Barry County's agriculture and the current strawberry crop in particular. Prior to being elected County Superintendent of Schools, Uncle Will had been a highly successful school teacher and prominent landowner and farmer.

Plan, Ferguson house, Butterfield, Missouri. The bath in the rear bedroom is a recent addition. The wall between kitchen and porch has been removed, and the porch enclosed to enlarge the kitchen.
Need for additional bedroom space in the late 1920s required that use of the parlor only on special occasions had to give way to more practical needs. We moved the piano first to the living room, then to the dining room. The parlor chairs served the needs of both dining and living rooms. In addition, the davenport became a full-time bed in the former parlor. The abandonment of the parlor concept was completed when Dad bought the GE radio, previously mentioned, about 1930 and placed it in the living room.

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Carl Ferguson was born on his family's farm at Butterfield, Barry County, Missouri, in 1916. He was a small child when they moved into the new bungalow which is the subject of this account. It was his home until 1936, when he left for college. After retirement 39 years later, he and wife Faye bought out the other heirs' interest in the house and a hundred acres of the old farm (it had never left the family). They have made it a second home since. It is the site of big family reunions every three years. Carl's address to one of those reunions is the basis for this account, generously contributed to OzarksWatch.
Carl received the Ph.D. in Soils Science from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1941. After World War II service (75th Division Artillery Captain, European Theater including Battle of the Bulge) he began practicing his profession. First he was an agronomist at Texas A and M University (where he met wife Faye, a native Texan), then a long career mostly on foreign assignments in the U.S. Agency for International Development. One of the very few agronomists who spoke French, his posts were mostly in francophone nations--Haiti, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal. He also served in Iraq, and had periodic stints in Washington D.C. Retired first to Alexandria, Virginia, Carl and Faye moved to Springfield, Missouri, in 1992 "to be closer to the house," as Faye put it.

The northwest rear downstairs room served as the master bedroom. Dad and Mom used it most of the time in the 1920's and 1930's. Sometimes they would sleep upstairs when our grandmother Debbie Hankins came for an extended visit. In the early 1930's, Grandad Ferguson lived with us for a few years and slept in the former parlor.

The present dining room furniture, table, chairs, and buffet, date back to the time we occupied the house in 1919 or early 1920. The only difference is the library table, which was purchased some years later, and the butane gas stove dating from the 1950's. For many years the wall space where the buffet now stands was open, except for a board on the wall into which a row of nails was driven for hanging jackets, coats, caps, etc.

Our mother followed a very simple rule in deciding how much food to prepare for a meal. She used to say, "I cook more than enough for those who I know will be present, because I never know who may stop in at dinnertime, and I like to have left-overs for tomorrow.'' This habit probably was a carryover from her youth, when her parents had three sets of children, "his, hers, and theirs." In addition to their children at home, Flora, Stella, and Bertha, Samuel Love Hankins had forty living grandchildren from his first marriage and grandmother Debbie had twenty-seven from her marriage to John Reuben Vineyard. Mom said they never knew who might appear at mealtime expecting to be fed.

Although our parents must have been very proud of their new home, the largest in Butterfield, Mom soon discovered that one room, the kitchen, had a serious flaw. It was simply too small, only 10 feet square. Her stove was a tiny wood-burner with four lids on top and a very small oven. In 1928 when Uncle Milo Burnett and Thelma moved to California, Dad bought their Home Comfort cookstove. This stove was a great step up in kitchen equipment. It had a much larger top cooking area and oven and a large water reservoir. My job was to keep the reservoir filled to provide hot water for cooking, washing, and bathing. It also had a warming closet heated by the stove pipe.

For satisfactory burning, fuel for a cookstove must possess certain qualities. The wood must be dry for easy lighting, uniform burning and heat production. Ideally for the Home Comfort stove, the pieces of wood should measure 16 or 17 inches in length and 1-1/2 to 2 inches in cross sections. Split wood is preferred to round wood because it is easier to light and bums more uniformly. Well-seasoned oak is the wood of choice.

The built-in cabinet, the old two-piece kitchen cabinet, a pie safe, and the shelf with water buckets, dipper, and wash pan, and a common towel hung on a nail nearby, completed the kitchen furnishings. We were taught to wash our hands before eating, a practice I usually followed until my first job in Texas as a field soil surveyor, when I often had to forego handwashing because of a lack of sufficient water at lunchtime.

The kitchen had no running water, electric lights, refrigerator, icebox, freezer, toaster, dishwasher, disposer, waffle iron, or coffee percolator. In spite of the absence of any of these modern conveniences and equipment, our mother was an excellent cook and could prepare a bountiful meal of good country cooking.

The original floor plan had twin porches, one on the north side of the kitchen, the other on the south side. Both porches were covered, and the comers of the roof were supported by wood posts. The north porch was used mainly for storage and for washing clothes. From about 1926, we had a mechanical washing machine. First, a gasoline-powered Maytag and later, electric-powered Maytags. The south porch was screened, and in summer, it often served as the dining room. On the south porch we had a hand-cranked cream separator for removing cream from fresh milk. The separator contained a dozen or so of conically shaped discs, which fit into a similarly shaped bowl. The bowl, after assembly of the discs, sat on a rapidly turning spindle. The fresh milk was allowed to run down into the bowl where a strong centrifugal force forced the heavier watery portion to separate from the lighter cream. Each of the two fractions followed a different exit spout into appropriate containers. During that time period, more than one of the Butterfield stores had a cream buying station where farmers could take their cream and receive cash payment for it, based on the fat content. We actually kept only enough milk cows to satisfy our family needs. The cream separator was included in a deal Dad made for two milk cows. It soon became apparent that our operations in dairying would be minimal.

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Upstairs there were four bedrooms and the landing at the head of the stairs. The stair rail, or bannister as we called it, descended at a steep 45-degree angle and was secured in a solid post at the bottom of the stairs. After countless poundings by our little bodies sliding down the polished mil, it is still solid and firmly attached to the base. The two large dormer windows gave additional room in the landing and in the southeast bedroom. Four doors opened from the landing into the southeast, southwest, northeast, and northwest bedrooms. This is an accurate naming of the rooms, since the house faces due east, and the crown of the roof runs exactly north and south. Each room has a long, narrow unfinished closet under the low-ceiling side of the roof. The landing has always been used as a storage place for furniture, boxes, and other items. For many years, the "old clothes box" stood under one of the windows. It contained cast-off clothing we had outgrown or worn out and items our relatives had given us. It was the source of our costumes when we played "dress up."

The four Ferguson boys slept in two double beds in the southeast room. Neither of us had the luxury of an individual bed until we went off to college. Gene and I slept in one bed; Rex and Burl in the other. That was the situation in the 1920's and early 1930's. Afterwards, sleeping arrangements varied depending on who was at home and who, and how many roomers and guests were here. In winter we slept on feather beds laid on coil springs, with flannel blankets and quilts as cover. On the coldest nights, we would heat bricks or flat irons in front of the fireplace, wrap them in pieces of flannel, and use them as bed warmers. In spring, the feather beds were removed, and a straw-filled mattress or tick was placed on the springs. The bedroom had one dresser and sometimes a chair or two, and an enameled pot to serve our nightly needs. Somewhere upstairs, you can see one of the originals. Nails on the exposed studs in the closet held our one Sunday outfit, an extra pair of overalls, and a work shirt or two.

The southwest room always served as a store room for food items and flower bulbs. Shelves held canned fruits, vegetables, pork sausage, and various jams and jellies. The cool, unheated dry air was ideal for storing sweet potatoes and dahlia bulbs. I don't recall that room ever having a bed in it during the period under discussion, but I could be mistaken. Faye and I removed the shelves some years ago to make room for a double bed. The northeast and northwest rooms were used mainly by roomers and guests, boarders, schoolteachers, students, and others.

The basic floor plan of the house has undergone only two changes since construction. Taking in the southwest porch doubled the size of the kitchen; it is now 10 feet by 20 feet. The northwest porch was enclosed, making it more usable in winter, and shielding the kitchen from north winds. A small bathroom was built in the 1940's, after a pressure pump was installed in the well, as a part of the master bedroom.

Major improvements we have made in the house, other than painting and replacing the roof, include strengthening the underpinnings of the north side of the house, and replacement of the old electrical wiring system. The new wiring has 25 circuits with 200 ampere capacity. It meets modem code requirements with respect to size of wire, outlets, switches, circuit breakers, etc.

I hope that my recollections of "how it was" in the 1920's and 1930's will provide readers of OzarksWatch with a better understanding of the way we lived while I was growing up in Butterfield, Barry County, Missouri.

Faye and Carl Ferguson "at the old place," May, 1996.
Bob Gilmore photo.

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