from the upcoming and untitled book about Northwest Missouri
Lightning Strike, Skunked, and Following the Thresher
By John W. Hutchcraft of Union Star, Missouri
I was born in DeKalb County, Missouri and lived my first 9 years about two miles northeast of Union Star, Missouri on the Davis sister’s farm. I am the oldest of seven children, five sisters, and one brother.
We had no electricity until I was 8 or 9 years old. Our radio ran by large dry cell battery. On Saturday night, my parents always listened to the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville. My father also liked Gang Busters, Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Mollie, Duffy’s Tavern, and Sam Spade. I learned to tell time, because the Lone Ranger came on radio Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings at 6:30 and the Cisco Kid was on Tuesday and Thursday evening at 6:30.
The telephone hung on the wall and had two large dry cell batteries in it, which were changed once a year. We had a party line phone and 10 or more people on the line, with each home having a particular ring. If you wanted to talk to the telephone operator in Union Star, you turned the crank on the side of the phone for one long ring and she would answer.
One evening my parents were out choring and I being about 5 years old, decided to visit with the operator, so I called her. She was not interested in visiting with me, as she had other calls to handle. Sometime later that evening she called my parents and told on me. After my parents finished with me, I knew not to do that again.
I used to get on the stairs, just out of my mother’s reach, and mock her while she was on the phone. She would get mad at me.
The phone bill in those days was paid once a year. They called it “central dues,” and it amounted to $12.00 a year. The manager of the telephone exchange, Link Graham (a short, jovial man with a cigar he never lit), would bring out new telephone poles each summer. The farmers would get together and replace any broken or rotten poles and cut the brush out of the telephone lines. When it rained, the two steel lines would ground out if they touched wet trees or brush. In bad weather, the switch had to be thrown on the side of the phone or the lightning could come in and blow the phone out. My mom was throwing the switch when lightning struck and it came in and knocked her down when it hit her.
As we had no electricity, my mother had a wringer washing machine with a gas engine to run it. My mother’s long hair got caught in the wringer while she was using it to get water out of the clothes. She could not quite reach the release on the wringer to disengage it, so she pulled on her hair to try to stop the engine, but it would not stop running. She finally reached the release and was able to stop it and pull her hair out. She hurt so bad she cried like a baby. Due to my young age, it scared me and I was no help at all.
My father had a faded blue 1930 Model A Ford car. It was a coupe with rumble seat, which I was allowed to sit in, if the weather was warm. I did love to sit back there.
We had no running water or bathtub. We used an oblong, galvanized tub, which was hung on the back of the house when not in use. Saturday night was bath night and hot water was heated on the wood stove, later a kerosene stove, in teakettles for our bath water. Oh, was that metal tub cold!
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Wednesday and Saturday nights were “Town Nights,” especially Saturday night. In Union Star, there were four grocery stores, 3 produce houses, and two implement dealers who stayed open until 11:00 or 12:00 PM midnight. There were also three gas stations that sold “regular” for 19.9 cent and “ethyl,” or (high test) for 21.9 cent per gallon. If there was a “gas war” going on the prices got cheaper. Main street would be parked full of cars. People would be to the show first, and get their feed and groceries later. In summer, there would be many people on the town sidewalks visiting.
Before Union Star built a theatre, we would go to King City on Saturday night to either the Lucille or the Royal Theatre. Union Star built a new movie theatre around 1949 about two doors west of John & Etta Pickard’s grocery store. Pete and Toots Gallagher operated the movie theatre for several years. It had first-class projection equipment, and fine movies. The movie would be run twice for those who arrived late.
Some of the special people in my life, besides my parents, were our neighbors that my father traded farm work with at harvest time. They included Alvin and Pearl Lindley, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Ashler, Floyd and Esther Terry, Ern and Lula Gillip, Charley and Katherine Davis, Orrin and Nellie Aborn, and Charles and Florence Saddler.
Threshing time in July was something a kid looked forward to. There was one threshing machine in the community that belonged to Oscar Angles. He would go from farm to farm to thresh wheat and oats. All the neighbors would congregate at the designated farm on threshing day. It took many hands, and hard work to get the job done, and when you finished at one farm, everyone moved on to the next farm until everyone’s wheat or oats were threshed. It took many days to do this. I always knew that we would eat well on threshing day. All the neighbor women would get together and cook while the men were out in the field. Fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, green beans, corn, lots of pies and also iced tea and lemonade in big crocks were the usual fare offered at these gatherings. I was too small to help thresh, but I got to ride on the bundle wagon, which picked up the shocks of grain and hauled them to the thresher. This would have been in the mid-1940s by the time, I was old enough to help, but we had an Allis-Chalmers combine.
My father and one of his brothers, Preston, followed the corn harvest one year in the 1930s up into Iowa. Dad said they were paying 3 cent per bushel to shuck corn in Missouri and when they got into Iowa, they were paying 6 cent per bushel to shuck. Dad said, “We thought we had died and gone to heaven.” A man could shuck 90 to 100 bushels of corn a day on average. When they followed the harvest in the evening, they would ask a farmer if they could sleep in his barn. If they were not near a barn, they sometimes slept in a haystack provided the weather was good.
Before we got electricity, we had a homemade icebox. Twice a week, my father had to get a 50-pound block of ice to keep it cold. The catch pan under the icebox had to be emptied every day, as the ice melted.
We always had cats and dogs as pets. One spring when my father was plowing, he hit a nest of skunks. The mother was killed, but the four or five baby skunks were not. The babies did not have their eyes open yet. My father brought them home and put them with a mother cat that recently had lost her kittens. The mother cat adopted the babies and raised them as her kittens. My sister and I played with these skunks until they were grown. As they were not de-scented, we were careful not to hurt them. When they were half-grown, one of them got its paw caught in a rattrap in the chicken house. I, being 5 years old, knew better than to try to get the skunk out of the trap myself, so I talked my mother into getting the skunk out of the trap. Mom got the skunk out of the trap, but she got liberally sprayed in the process. She washed her long, dark hair in milk, tomato juice, and vinegar, but she could not get the smell out of her hair. She finally had to get her haircut.
There were three teachers who were very special to me in school. My 1st and 2nd grade teacher, Miss Ada Stratton, who taught at Union Star for 16 years, was a very kind, sweet person. Mrs. Persis Kennedy Courter taught 3 years at Union Star and was my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teacher. She cared about her students and made sure they learned. I did not care much for school until I got in her class. Mr. Keith Christie was the high school coach at Union Star from 1958-1960. He was a good Christian man that I will never forget. My senior year, Mr. Christie encouraged me to go out for track, and he made a miler out of me. I was able to qualify for the sectionals and go to Maryville, Missouri to compete. I did not win first place, but it was a good experience.