From the book about Southeast Kansas, Willow Whistles and Barefoot Summer Days
The Village Blacksmith's Daughter, Those Trailer Camp Kids, and Skipping School
Submitted by Virginia Kelly of Independence, KS
In the 1930s, my father was the village blacksmith for the town of Howell, Missouri. His shop, along with the Muchaney Grocery Store and the funeral home, composed most of the downtown. The shop was the place you brought your horses to be shoed, your plowshares to be sharpened, and your farm equipment to be repaired. It was not quite proper for women and girls to hang around the shop. It was a place the men went to visit, share stories, and catch up on local gossip.
We lived on the edge of town at the “Crow Place” in a small house. The main house belonged to Dr. Crow, a Presbyterian minister in St. Louis, Missouri. Our home had no running water, electricity, or phone. When we received a phone message Miss. Annie and Miss. Allie, who lived down the hill, would hang out a white dishtowel and I would be sent to get the message.
Sundays were spent walking to church, because we had no car, and visiting with friends and relatives. Our small four-room home was often overflowed with many family members who were out of work and came to stay for a while with my parents.
All of our vegetables were grown in the garden and canned by my mother. We raised pigs and butchered them in the yard, grinding sausage using the motor of a neighbor’s car. For my birthday, I was thrilled to receive a Banty Rooster wrapped in orange cellophane. Much of my time was spent playing outside. Once or twice a month a black farmer would ride by on his horse. Whenever I saw him I would run out to the game and we would visit. He was on his way to the blacksmith shop and would bring me a piece of candy on his way home.
The Second World War changed the lives of everyone in America, but most especially the lives of our family. In 1941, the government purchased the town of Howell, Missouri, and the surrounding community, to build a TNT plant. Those of us who grew up in the Howell area can never go home again.
In 1944, I was a young child living with my family in Happy Valley Trailer Camp at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My father was a blacksmith working for Jones Construction Company. There were 5,000 trailers, all painted army green. We had no identity. Our address was row and trailer (such as Row 16, Trailer 16).
My father, along with all the other men and a few women, went to work each morning and had no idea what project they were working on. There was a lot of conversation and speculation about what was being built in “the mile long building with no windows.” We all knew it was something for the war effort, but we did not know what nor did we question.
Living at Oak Ridge meant wearing a badge to go and come, attending the government school, and being referred to as “those trailer camp kids” in town and at church outside “the area.” It also meant a happy carefree kind of life for the kids. The trailers were very small and had no indoor plumbing. So, a visit to the bathhouse was an adventure and we were always accompanied by our father. The men’s and women’s showers were separated by a wall half way to the floor. If you dropped the soap, a strange male hand would give it back to you.
Everything was rationed or in short supply. Refrigeration was unheard of, so my mother made a daily trip to pick up ice at the ice dock. If anything was broken in your government owned trailer, you waited for someone to move and at dark you took your broken item to the empty trailer and replaced it. So, when you moved in most everything you had, was broken. You just waited for someone to move and replaced it.
Now, over fifty years later, it may be difficult to understand that we were proud to say we had worked at Oak Ridge and helped to build the atomic bomb. We felt we had been a part of winning the war.
It was a beautiful cool morning in March 1946. I was living with my aunt and uncle in Mexico, Missouri. My father was out of work due to the steel strike and I had been left in Mexico, Missouri to attend school.
Aunt Ardis had woken me early and said to go get my clothes on quickly. She told me I was not going to school that day. We were going to Fulton, Missouri to see President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. I was probably more thrilled to be skipping school than going to see these two famous men.
After a big breakfast, Aunt Ardis, my Cousin Marie, and I rode a school bus to Fulton. When we arrived, the streets were filling up with people waiting for the parade. I remember someone told us to look up at the tops of the building and we might see some of the security officers protecting the President. There was a great air of excitement as we waited for the parade to begin.
By the time the parade started many people were lining the streets along with vendors. Aunt Ardis bought me a green banner that read “Harry Truman and Winston Churchill.” It is still a treasure of mine.
They rode by in an open car waving to the people on the streets. Winston Churchill had his famous cigar in his mouth, with his hat set back on his head. Harry Truman was smiling and waving as they rode past our location. People along the parade route cheered and talked about the great honor of having them in Missouri together.
After the parade, they went to Fulton College, and Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. However, that particular day we did not know it would become famous. After the speech, we stood outside the college under the trees and visited with people until late in the afternoon. Then we rode the bus back to Mexico.
It was several years before I came to appreciate the fact that I had been witness to an historic event. To most of us, riding over on the bus that day, it was a day out of school and a time to see two very great men.