Growing Up In The Thirties
By Dick Poston
San Diego, CA
edited by Cecil Houk
No part of this work may be reproduced without permission
This is the way I remember some of the things that happened to me. The depression was tough on a lot of people but it also brought them together. At first there were no Government programs to rely on. It was "PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE".
If these little stories bring a smile to your face by stirring up some pleasant memories this work will be a success.
Family photo taken in South Dakota about 1898The photo above is of relatives of my mother. From left to right they are: Great Grandfather Preop, Harmon Preop (his son), Great Grandmother Preop, Lena Preop Densborn (their daughter, my grandmother), and Nikolas Densborn (my grandfather). I don't know the dog's name.
Richard "Dick" Nickols Poston: born in January 1922 in St. Joseph, Missouri. My family includes: Father Frank, Mother Laura, brothers Frank, Roy, Donald; and sister Blanche.
My name was supposed to be Richard Nickolas; named after my two grandfathers, but someone spelled Nickolas without the "a". So I became "Nickols" officially.
We lived in St. Joseph, Missouri three years; right around the corner from where Jesse James was killed. The first thing I remember is finding a way to crawl under the porch. I crawled way back under the steps. I heard my mom come out on the porch and call me. "Dick, Dick where are you?" I thought I would play a game with her. My brother Frank came along and mom asked, "Where's Dick?" I kept saying to myself, "Where's Dick? Where's Dick?" I stayed under the porch and caused a panic. All the neighbors were looking for me. I wasn't very popular when I tired of the game and came out covered with spider webs and dirt. The only thing I remember about that house is underneath the porch.
My brother Roy was born in 1925, but I don't remember anything about it.
We moved to the country outside St. Joseph to a house on a little hill. My father didn't farm; he worked in town as a Boiler Maker. Most people in the area had vineyards and made lots of wine. We had several barrels in a storm cellar.
My parents were away one day and my brother Frank figured out a way to get into the cellar. I didn't do anything but taste the wine, but Frank hit it pretty hard. Blanche kept telling us that she was going to tell on us. She didn't tell but she didn't have to. When my parents came home Frank was rolling in the grass, and about the only sound he could make was a giggle.
I was with my dad and brother in a pickup truck in St. Joseph and talked my dad into letting me ride in the back. I had been told to sit down in the bed of the truck with my back against the cab. After going a few blocks I decided that I was too low to see what was going on so I sat on a coal oil can that was in the truck. The can rolled, and I went over the back of the truck. That is all I remember, but learned later I fell in front of a street car. The conductor stopped and picked me up. He caught up with the truck and yelled at my dad. I saw my dad both glad and mad.
Buggy In A Tree
A cyclone hit our house one night and it was turned around on its foundation. All the windows were gone and most of the plaster had come off the walls and ceiling. A spring buggy my dad had landed in the top of a big tree across the creek from the house. The buggy was undamaged. The problem was the limbs supporting the buggy were not strong enough to support a man to take it apart. I don't know how my dad got the buggy down.
The barn and other out buildings were gone. It seemed strange to look out where the barn was and see no barn. There was a horse in the barn but we never saw it again. Where we stayed after the cyclone hit is gone from my memory.
Node, Wyoming Post Office in June 1992
From time to time in these little stories I will refer to Node, Wyoming. In order for you to get the lay of the land I will tell you about Node. It is just west of the Nebraska state line on US Highway 20 [Yahoo map].
The country is rolling hills covered with sage brush and prairie grasses. In the spring when the sage blooms the air is filled with the most pleasant odors on this planet. Sage keeps its smell well into the fall but after the spring season it's just a hint of what it was.
The road goes straight west for about two miles to Van Tassel, Wyoming. Don't blink or you will miss it. Another ten miles west, northwest and you have arrived at Node. The road is on the south side of the railroad tracks, and a small two story railroad station was on the other side of the tracks. ( In 1935 they gave the building to my uncle Henry if he would tear it down so it is now gone.) A country road (dirt), goes south from the highway, flat for a little way, then up and over a little hill and out of sight.
On the west side of the country road, about a quarter of a mile from the highway is a one room schoolhouse with the required outhouse. Just past the school yard is a small cemetery.
The Post Office, General Store and a home all in one building is about a half a mile east and one quarter of a mile south of the corner of the country road and the highway. The rest of Node is a small barn, corral, windmill and watering tank. The population in 1930 was three.
The next recollection after the wind destroying our house is the last part of our trip. My father wasn't with us and we were riding in the caboose of a freight train. I have no idea how that was arranged or even it it was unusual at that time. I never saw a passenger train go through Node, Wyoming so there probably wasn't one and that's why we rode in the caboose. I don't remember getting on the train or any part of the trip.
It was dark when we got off in Node, and we walked cross country (about five miles), to my grandparents ranch. We went there to attend my grandfather's funeral. He was laid out in a casket in the front room. Seeing him there is the only memory I have of him. He was buried at Node and the services were held at the cemetery. My dad came (with all of our stuff), the day of the funeral, and we stayed.
Nickolas Densborn 1858 - 1926
My grandmother had a garden where she raised strawberries and vegetables. I was sent out with Blanche to pick strawberries. The strawberries were so good that I was eating them as fast as Blanche picked them. She finally ran me off and picked enough for supper. She washed the strawberries and put them in the kitchen. I found them and ate them all. When Grandma went to get the strawberries and found the empty bowl she knew who to look for. I was under the table but she found me and started to tell me what a bad boy I was. She was a little upset and began in English then switched to German. I was so interested in the German that she forgave me and taught me a few words.
To Torrington, Wyoming
My dad helped out on the ranch but didn't get along with one of my uncles. The biggest problem was my uncle Henry had a bad temper and sometimes mistreated his animals. My dad was also hot head. He couldn't stand for anyone to mistreat "a dumb animal". The result was a fist fight between a Banti Irishman and 6 foot 4 inch German. The fight took place in the barn and they did more damage to the barn than to each other. The Irish won but we lot a place to stay.
Dad left and went to Torrington, Wyoming and found a job in the oil fields. As soon as he had a place for us to live we left the ranch. We lived in a house out of town and right out back were abandoned gravel pits that made great fishing. We caught crappie (I think), about 5 or 6 inches long. My mother never seemed too thrilled when she cleaned and cooked them.
I had not started school and I remember waiting in the front room with my nose against the window watching for the school bus that brought my sister and brother home. I could just see the top of the bus from our house when it came down the country road and stopped at the corner. It seemed like a long time after the bus was gone that they came into sight as they came from behind the hill. Sometime after that my dad would come home from work and we were all over him to see if he brought anything home for us in his lunch pail. Usually he had some tid-bit for us. Just a little thing but it meant a lot to us and no doubt it pleased him to see us happy.
My mother and my sister were cooking doughnuts and I was playing on the kitchen floor. Having doughnuts was a very special event at our house. They were large raised doughnuts cooked in a big skillet full of grease. When the dough was put in the grease it just crackled. When done they took them out of the skillet and rolled them in powdered sugar. Just hearing the crackling was enough to make any sweet lovers mouth water.
The day I'm talking about didn't go well at all. I was still on the floor pretty close to the stove when Blanche decided to carry the skillet of hot grease to the sink. It was too heavy and the skillet twisted in her hands and the hot grease poured out right on top of my head. I saw shooting stars going in all directions. I don't remember any pain and when I came to I had a white hat that I couldn't take off because my hands were tied to my belt.
For a while there were a lot of people sick with Rocky Mountain Tick Fever, and we couldn't go into town and they closed the schools. I thought that was great because my brother and sister were around to play with me. There was a lot of talk about all the people who were dying. We were told that we couldn't get the fever unless we were bitten by a tick but people were afraid and kept to themselves. It was almost impossible to buy food or other supplies because people closed their stores. My dad got the fever and for days he was out of his head. After he could get out of bed he sat in the kitchen and talked about a herd of horses that was running across the prairie. He kept pointing at the kitchen cook stove and saying, "Look at them run. Look at them run." He seemed so sure there were horses I thought there must be something wrong with me. I tried hard but couldn't see horses.
We all went to visit some people my folks knew who had a lot of chickens. I don't remember why I was in the chicken pens but I was in the wrong place fore sure. A big rooster decided I was in his territory and attacked me. The next thing I knew he had me on the ground and was standing on my stomach and doing his best to peck my eyes out. I covered my eyes with hands and screamed for all I was worth. Someone rescued me but by that time I was bleeding from my eyebrows and I though I was blind. I still have scars in my eyebrows from that encounter.
There was a new baby but after a few days the baby died. My mom just sat and stared out the kitchen window for many days after the baby was buried. No one talked about the baby for many years.
The oil field job ran out and dad got a job in a sugar mill. One day he came home and told about a friend of his who got his arm caught in the gears of the mill. He said they never found the arm and it got in with the beets and was now part of the sugar. I didn't put sugar on my oatmeal for a while.
The house we lived in was big and one of the bedrooms was used as a place to keep a still. One day my mother went into the room to check the still. I was standing in the doorway watching her when all of a sudden she yelled, "Run Dick fun!" She scooped me up on her way out and got as far as the kitchen before the still blew up. Plaster from the ceiling rained down on us. Stammie (the man who helped with the whiskey deliveries and took care of the still at night), came out of a bedroom in his long johns yelling, "What happened! Where the hell are my pants?" I think they were buried under the plaster. A very rude way to be awakened. My brother Frank Jr. (Bud) who couldn't whistle let out a long whistle. I don't know why Bud was not in school that day but it was a school day because my sister had gone. A lot of things were going on all at once.
After the dust settled we checked the damage. There were no windows left and the chimney was in the driveway. The roof and ceiling of the house had been lifted clear off the walls and when it came back down it no longer matched the walls. Aside from being pelted with plaster no one was hurt. We were lucky there was no fire. I think the explosion blew out the kerosene stove. By the time my sister got home and my father returned from work the car and trailer were packed and we headed for the ranch.
Dad played any of the country music instruments. Mom played Church music on the piano. It's a mystery to me when mom learned to play. There wasn't a piano at the ranch in Wyoming, and we never had a piano in any of our many houses. Perhaps she learned when she went to school in North Dakota.
Whenever we went to a barn dance in Wyoming dad always ended up playing a borrowed instrument, generally a fiddle but as often as not a banjo or guitar. He also called the square dances. Those dances were great fun. Everyone danced and it was not uncommon to see a teen age boy dancing with his grandmother of an eight year old girl. Everyone just had fun. I can hear it now, "All join hands and circle to the right. Ladies to the center, men outside. Get your ladies and Doe-Si-Doe. Promenade."
It seems strange to me that I don't have any music ability. I spent one whole winter out on the prairie herding sheep, and try to play a mouth organ. After about a year the best I could do is a mournful rendition of "Red River Valley" and "Old Black Joe". As far as singing goes I did fair till I had trouble with one of my ears. From then on I can't carry a tune. The rest of the kids, except Bud, were like me but they could at least carry a tune.
Bud, like my dad, could play whatever he wanted to. His favorite was the accordion and he pushed and pulled on that thing till he drove the rest of us nuts. However his music made him popular at barn dances in Wyoming and the mountains of California.
My folks had some friends who lived in the mountains of Wyoming and we went to see them. They lived in a log cabin that was just one big room with a loft for a bedroom. That was the first time I had been in a log cabin and it seemed to me to be rather crude. Half of the floor was dirt and the other half was rough hewn logs with the spaces between them filled with dirt. All the dirt was about as hard as cement. The windows were some kind of material with grease or something rubbed on them that made them so a little light came through.
The people were very glad to see my folks and we stayed about a month. Dad worked with his friend putting up a soddy. A soddy is a house made from mud and prairie grasses or straw, with a roof of lodge pole pine for rafters, and covered with dirt. After several weeks the roof had prairie grasses growing on it and was water proof. A soddy is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Most soddies were dug into the side of a hill so were about half underground.
My brother Frank and I spent our time exploring a canyon that was right next to the cabin. The canyon was about a half mile across and was flat on the bottom. It had a little stream that was a watering place for sheep, deer and antelope. My brother Frank shot a deer for fresh meat and we cut it up and packed it out of the canyon on our backs. The deer was cooked outside over an open fire on a spit that we turned by hand. We ate outside most of the time and it was like a month long picnic. I was sorry when we had to go back to the ranch.
There is an interesting story of how the mountains southeast of Lusk got the name Rawhides. It seems that in the days of the wagon trains the trail went past the mountains and the Indians who were friendly came down to trade. There was one young man on one of the wagon trains who was eager to fight off the Indians and shot one of them as they came to trade. The Indians gave the people a choice, give them the murderer or they would wipe out the entire group. The wagon master took a vote and gave the man to the Indians. They took him up on the mountainside and removed his skin, inch by inch. (Rawhide) They say the people on the wagon train could hear him scream for about half a day. I found out later there are about seven versions of that story.
Hershey, Nebraska 1929
My father went off to look for a job. The depression was getting worse and men came on foot to the ranch looking for work. Most were willing to work for their board (food only). The men were given a meal and sent on down the road.
We moved to Hershey, Nebraska where I attended my first school. I did well in the first grade because my brother and sister had taught me to read when they were learning and I had read all the books they brought home from school. After that I read all the books I had in school the first week. I never could understand just reading a little bit just to get the next lesson. That habit served me well because for the next ten years I spent less than half my time in school. I didn't get along well with the other kids bit it didn't bother me because I lived with my real friends. My heroes were my big brother and my dad, and my buddy was my sister Blanch. I called her "E-O".
My father worked as a salesman, selling patent medicine for livestock to the local farmers. Whenever he made a good sale he would come home and gather everyone around him and give us all some money. One of the things that I always remembered about my dad was he always shared what he had. It was impossible for him not to help anyone who was down and out. I know he quite often gave away his last nickel to someone that he figured had less than he.
The house we lived in in Hershey, Nebraska had a barn on the back of the lot and we were told not to go in it. The temptation was too much and it wasn't long before Blanche and I found a way to get in. The barn had a lot of furniture and farm equipment in it. In the hay loft was a trunk that was locked and it became our one ambition. We finally just pried the lock loose. There were all kinds of old pictures, clothing and trinkets. Someone's dearest possessions and we were pillaging them. We both felt guilty and talked about what we were doing being wrong and what was going to happen to us if we got caught, then went right on with what we were doing. I found a small bundle about the size of a fist, and eagerly unwrapped it. A pair of false teeth fell out into my hand. We never went back into the barn
We lived there for a while then moved into a house across town. A nice lady lived i a large house about a block from us. She had a huge Great Dane dog and I remember the dog like a horse around the house (outside). Perhaps the dog wasn't as big as I remember and I probably pretty small.
The whole family was on the way to North Platte (map) in a Chevrolet sedan. A big truck forced us off the road and our car turned over in the ditch. My father had a broken neck and I got my head caught between ground and the roof of the car (outside the window). No one else was hurt bad. We were both taken to a hospital in North Platte where we both stayed for some time. I think we were both sent home at the same time. Soon after we came home my father fell over the banister of the stairs to the second floor and landed on the first floor. He survived without any after affects.
I was told latter that I wasn't expected to make it, and if I did would probably not be right. I sometimes wonder if they were right. After a couple of days they built a wire cage around my head and put little screws in my skull and wired it in place till it healed. The top of my head is still a little bumpy. The only thing I remember is looking out through the cage. I thought this must be the way a bird in a cage feels. I could see (in my mind), a bird in a cage with its feet sticking out the bottom walking around. Shortly after getting out into the world again I tried to jump across an automobile oil drain pit and broke my leg. My brother Frank jumped it so I was sure I could make it.
Blanche and I were great friends and we often went to a canal across the highway to try to catch (baby) ducks. I don't remember getting any ducks but a bull almost got me. I was just about to jump into the canal to get away when the bull gave me a big boost. I was very lucky that I didn't get hurt. After that we stayed on our side of the canal.
Blanche and I were the same size and we liked to change into each other's clothes to see if we could fool dad when he came home. Some times we did because he had been having a few with his Irish buddies. I think most of the time he just played the game with us. We lived in three houses in Hershey. Each house was smaller than the one before. I think dad had called on all the farmers within miles, and his sales were fewer and fewer.
The depression was talked about but I didn't understand what it was all about. It didn't seem to me to have anything to do with us at that time and I didn't worry about it. Some way or another we always had enough to eat. By today's standards we were very poor and deprived. We were one step away from being homeless. We were lucky we always had the ranch to go to when things got really tough. No one came around from the county and told us we were poor so as far as I was concerned there were two kinds of people. The rich and the rest of the people like us. We had it better than a lot of people at that time. In 2000 we would be getting food stamps, surplus food, children's assistance, rent supplement and there would be no way for my dad to make enough to match that so we would live on the taxpayers from now on. (That would have killed my dad.)
We moved to North Platte, Nebraska where I attended my third school. I fished in the river with my father and brother Frank. I roller skated with my sister Blanche on skates we got for Christmas from my aunt Blanch. She always saw to it that the Poston kids had a good Christmas. She was a great lady. Blanche and I skated all around town. We weren't used to the big city of about sixteen thousand people, and were hopelessly lost two or three times. Someone always pointed the way for us. That was the first place we lived that had sidewalks.
There was an old woman who lived about four houses down the street who yelled at me whenever I skated past her house. Those old steel wheeled skates made lots of noise. Of course I skated past her house every time I got the skates on. Sometimes I even dragged a few tin cans tied to a string behind me and that really made noise. One day she came out of the house yelling and waving a big butcher knife. I went as fast as I could but she was catching up. She was probably not as old as I thought. I went up on a porch and pounded on the door. There wasn't time to wait so I went in and slammed the door behind me. The lady in the house laughed about what happened. I didn't think it was funny and I skated in the other direction after that, and to this day I get a jumpy feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I approach a big front door with a stained glass window.
The Swimming Lesson
I remember going fishing with my father, my brother, sister and a friend of my dad's and his kids to the North Platte River. I was fishing in a deep hole all by myself. My father and his friend had the Ford blocked up and were working on it. It was hot and after a few beers both off them were asleep under the Ford. I remember getting a big tug on my line and the next thing I was trying to remember what I had been told about how to tread water. In any case about the time the boy who was with us noticed my problem and jumped in to save me, the current had carried me to shallow water. I lost my fishing tackle and dad got hell when we got home because everyone had to tell my mother all about it.
My dad insisted I learn to swim shortly after almost drowning. His way of teaching me was showing me how to move my arms and legs then tossing me in a canal with a long cord tied around my waist. He stood on a bridge, held the cord just tight enough to keep me from sinking, and I swam against the current. The other kids stood on the bank and yelled advice. I learned to swim in one afternoon.
I also learned that I could give the cord an unexpected yank and have company (Dad), in the water with me. We may have been short on worldly goods but we had fun.
Sometime after learning to swim I was fishing with my dad. We were using a throw (Trot) line and I took the end of the line and swam across the river with it. I dropped the end of the line then swam back. On about the second trip I was very tired and I panicked, I started yelling for help and Dad jumped in with all his clothes on and swam for all he was worth. About the time he got to me I had drifted to a shallow place and my hand touched bottom. He looked up and there I was, standing in water about knee deep. He didn't say one word, he just stood up and walked to the bank. I noticed a smile on his face when I arrived back at his side.
High Tech 1930
Dad bought a kit to build a small radio called a crystal set. How it worked was a great mystery to me. There was a little shiny stone, a wire wound around a little cardboard tube, a pointed wire you used to touch the shiny rock, called a crystal, and an earphone. There was a wire stretched between the shed out back and the house and another wire attached to a water pipe in the basement. The radio worked so good that Dad bought a larger kit.
The new radio was about twenty inches long and about eight inches high. The front was some kind of material that was black and shiny like plastic. There were all kinds of things I didn't understand in that radio. There were tubes that looked like small light bulbs but didn't burn very bright. There were a couple of things that looked like two stacks of metal but with space between each piece and half of the pieces could be moved by turning a knob. Dad called them condensers. [variable capacitors] He said that made it possible to hear many stations. There were wires running all over the place that were soldered in place.
It must have been quite a task to get that radio put together. There were drawings and instructions that had all kinds of words that I had never heard before. Dad also had two or three books on radio that he spent a great deal of time reading. When he was trying to assemble parts he had two extra heads and four extra hands in the way most of the time. One of the things I never understood about my dad was that he was such a hot head and yet he almost never got in the least upset with any of us kids.
When he got the radio all put together it worked great. The only thing was we had five people to listen to it and one set of earphones. The thing I remember hearing most was, "Whatcha hear? Whatcha hear?" and "It's my turn."
The Toy Makers
Nebraska and Wyoming in the thirties
The kids growing up in the thirties had a big advantage over the children of today. We made most of our own toys and learned in the process. The only store bought toys that I remember were the ones that aunt Blanche sent us for Christmas. I received a pair skates, a toy truck and a couple of games. All other Christmas gifts we received were more practical, things like something to keep us warm or something we could eat.
Once I saved my money and bought a couple of two inch long toy racers made of pot metal. I improved them by filling the hollow bodies with wax from mom's supply she used to seal jar tops of her home made jelly. The cars were heavier with wax inside and rolled faster down the track dug out of the side of a bank and paved with thin mud, smoothed out by hand and let dry. It was a tough choice of getting two racers for five cents each or going to the matinee to find out how the hero saved himself or the maiden from the impossible predicament they had gotten themselves into. Typically Pauline was left tied to a railroad track with a train roaring towards her, or had just been pushed over a cliff. Unlike the movies of today they taught that right always wins and kissing was limited to the cowboy and his faithful horse. The show was ten cents and was a bargain; you saw two features and the weekly chapter of the serial.
We made racers from any wood box we could find, fitted with wheels, not necessarily all the same kind or size. Most of our racers were guided more like a horse than a car. Steering wheels were a little too complicated for us till later when we learned to wrap the ropes used to steer the racer around a shaft made from a broomstick and fitted with a small wheel. You must remember that wheels were hard to come by, every kid in the neighborhood was looking for them. The best source for wheels was worn out baby buggies or little girl's doll buggies. Most girls did not leave their buggies outside unattended. I still hate to pass up a good set of wheels any of my neighbors put out for the trash man.
Scooters were made with the front and back wheels from a single skate nailed to a two by four about twenty or so inches long with a box nailed to it for handle bars and a place to carry our valuables.
We made little tractors from thread spools, a rubber band and wood clothes pin. Skate boards were made like scooters but without the handle bar box. (Almost as good as the skate boards selling for ninety dollars today.) We made crystal sets and learned all about how a radio worked. (I'm still not quite sure.)
We played with a wheel and handle made from two sticks nailed together to form a "T". We called the set a "Hoop" (as in barrel hoop). The idea was to make the wheel go where you wanted.
We made stilts and put the foot pieces as high as we could. We were ten feet tall, at least while on the stilts.
There were two wheeled vehicles that we hooked onto a wagon whenever we could without my uncles or dad noticing us. I remember being hooked up to my uncle's spring buggy and going down a prairie road. The buggy wheels were in the smooth ruts and we rode on the high centers, a bumpy ride and the cart didn't last long. Once I was hooked onto a hay wagon and was involved in a runaway. That was quite a ride while the cart lasted. Most of the two wheeled vehicles were the result of not having four wheels.
We made musical instruments: Whistles, Flutes, Sweet Potato (Ocarina) and Reed Trombones. As I remember it was very hard to find a gourd the right size to make a Sweet Potato. In any case I couldn't play any of them.
Rafts and boats were made from anything that would float and sometimes things that wouldn't. We rode many unsafe water vehicles down the Platte River and walked many miles back to where we started. Our starting places were wherever we lived. Places like North Platte, Hershey and Sutherland. I often daydreamed about our rafts going all the way to the ocean.
We learned by doing, and it was great fun.
The Big Freeze 1931
I don't know what caused the move but we went back to the ranch. It was winter time when we arrived and it was right after a blizzard. My uncle Henry was out looking for his horses. My dad took Frank Jr. and me out with him. The horses were found standing against a fence frozen stiff. Henry lost everything because he had borrowed money to buy the horses. He kept the ranch only because the bank didn't want to foreclose.
After it started to thaw we skinned the horses and left all the carcasses except one in the pasture. That one we dragged in to the corral and let the hogs have it. Henry didn't like to furnish the coyotes all that winter food but that's all we could do. Any way the birds got a large share of the meat. Helping skin twenty frozen horses in the winter time is not my idea of fun.
The school at Node was open and it was decided that Frank, Blanche and I would attend. The school was about five miles cross country and all three of us rode one large horse. That may sound kind of crowded but it sure was a lot warmer, especially if you were in the middle. There were about four other students so when we came we almost doubled the size of the school. I really liked that school because all the classes were in one room and I got to hear all the things the older students were learning. All the kids along well and the only thing I remember being teased about was a poem the other kids made up about three kids on a horse. "Rub-A-Dub-Dub, three kids on a plug."
We only went about two months and something happened to cause the school to close and we were told that everyone would have to go to Lusk and board with someone to continue. We dropped out because there was not enough money board out three kids. We kept the books and read them over and over.
The school at Node, Wyoming we attended in 1931 - in June 1992
The school was closed in 1949, but the door was open; nothing has been taken.
On the ranch in Wyoming 1930 +
One of the things the women looked forward to was the Watkins salesman who came to the ranch about once every three months. He had what was probably one of the first RVs. It was a Ford delivery truck that he had modified to hold and display his products. It had a bunk bed and a little wood burning (or cow chip) stove. He had a large assortment of seasonings at a good price. The women seemed to prefer Watkins over the products in the store in Lusk. He also had a small assortment of patent medicines, salve to rub on your chest and cough medicine. He had a few pot and pans the women oohed and aahed over but I don't remember them buying any. The skillets they had were iron and they didn't wear out in one lifetime. Even most of their pots were iron, the rest were porcelain and lasted well unless they were dropped and the porcelain cracked; then they rusted through quickly. Some of their pots had been patched with a small bolt, two washers and a couple of small pieces of rubber.
The other Peddler I remember came in the largest wagon I had ever seen pulled by a team of Morgan horses. It must have been some sort freight wagon or he had it made special for his business. He came three times a year: spring, summer and fall. He had an assortment of hardware that was much more interesting to us "men". Bolts and Nuts, an assortment of Horse Shoes, Hand Tools, Axes, Shovels, Pitchforks, Knives, Pots and Pans and a few guns and ammunition. He always had medicines like Sheep-dip and Horse Liniment. There was also an assortment of catalogues that you could order all kinds of things at a better price than the Sears catalogue. He even had catalogues of Justin boots and Stetson hats; a cowboy's dream. Most of the things my dad and uncle bought were paid for with a golden tinted liquid in fruit jars direct from the storm cellar. There was always a few jars hidden away for the peddlers.
It seems like every time a peddler came to the ranch it was just before meal time and if it wasn't they were delayed till it was. The ritual both parties went through in order to delay till meal time was interesting. Uncle Henry would pick out some small thing he could use and ask the price. He was given a ridiculously high figure. Henry would act shocked and say he would have to think it over. They talked about what was going on around the country and then returned to the haggling. The closer to meal time, the closer to an agreement on the price. Most of the time Henry got the item as a present (after dinner).
As soon as the meal was over and the dishes done we all sat on the porch and heard the news about the people around the country. Grandma and my folks knew or at least had heard of everyone within twenty of so miles of the ranch, and were always eager to hear about who got married, what couple had a baby, or who had been hurt or died. There wasn't a newspaper or radio so the best source of news was visitors. I don't know why but we didn't seem to get much information when we went to town or a square dance.
The trade of a meal and a little feed for the team for news was a good deal for everyone and it was accepted by the peddlers and the ranchers. It was a fine deal for the peddlers because the ranch women always laid out the best they had for visitors. (After all they wouldn't want it told they weren't the best cook in the country.) I think the peddlers were pretty smart because all the news they had was never the gossipy kind. Of course they didn't want to make anyone mad at them.
You always hear that everyone in a small town knows what everyone else is doing. Look at it this way. The prairie is like a small town, it's just spread out more. Instead of having a neighbor across the street you have them across the next county road, a few miles away. You didn't hear about what went on last night you heard what happened during the last three months. The peddlers were the town criers of the prairie.
The wild wild west in the thirties was more like a tame west.
The Water Fight 1931
No one was home except mom and us kids. It was a hot day and we were out by the windmill and water tank. Someone splashed a little water on someone else, that someone cupped water in their hands and threw it on someone else. The situation then rapidly developed into a full fledged water fight. Everyone was throwing water with any kind of container that was handy. It wasn't long before all four of us were in the water tank and most of the water was out on the ground.
About the time everyone was exhausted and about to run out of water my uncle Henry and Dad came home. Henry didn't think there was anything funny about what was going on and when he stopped yelling about the stock not having any water we were invited to leave at our earliest possible convenience. We didn't leave and Henry got over his mad by the next day.
This is not a prairie fire, but it is a beautiful photo of the Montana fire of 2000.
Prairie Fire 1931
(nine years old)
It was hot and dry. Good weather to get the hay in so Dad and uncle Henry were out early to get the first load. Uncle Charlie was getting his home made tractor ready to cut and rake. Frank Jr. and I did the chores so we would be ready to help unload when Dad and Henry came in with the first load.
We talked about prairie fires once in a while but I didn't give them much thought. As far as I knew there never had been one on the ranch or anywhere near. I couldn't see much that would burn out on the prairie. I didn't think about houses, barns, sheds, corrals, hay stacks, hay fields, fence posts and grazing feed for the cows and horses.
The first the rest of us knew of any trouble was when someone noticed the wagon coming up the lane as fast as the horses could run. Hay was being scattered as they bounced and by the time they came into the ranch yard the wagon was empty.
When they announced there was a fire we didn't understand what they were talking about; we didn't see a fire anywhere. They told us a truck had come by on the county road and was spreading the word that a prairie fire was south of us and coming fast.
Everyone was assigned a job to get ready for the worst. I was told to get my horse and go to the southeast and drive all the stock to the fence by the county road that ran north and south; they could then be driven north to the oiled highway. After completing my job I was to go back to the house and help there if needed then get a shovel and go south to the county road. If the fire couldn't be stopped at the county road south of the ranch it surly would be stopped at the highway because it was wider and more help would be available.
The county road was not necessarily the best place to try to stop the fire. The road was just two ruts between two fences and in most places the grass was higher than in the adjacent fields because it wasn't heavily grazed. It was just a location that everyone was aware of without a lot of confusion.
Uncle Charlie hooked his home made tractor to a disk and started to disk a new firebreak around the buildings and corral. If the fire got that far there should be enough help to stop it from burning the buildings.
Frank Jr. and I were sent to the Klopfers (our neighbors to the north), to warn them and tell them to send as many as they could to the county road, then return home to see what to do next. As I remember they had a hired hand and Fred would no doubt be there. If Frank wasn't needed at the ranch he was to go to the county road with a shovel and a couple of gunny sacks and a small milk can full of water.
Mom, Grandma and Blanche were to get every bucket and anything else that would hold at least a quart of water, fill them and put them near the house. The water was to be used to put out sparks carried to the house by the wind. They were also to move everything they could from inside the house to the porch so it could be put on the truck in a hurry if it was necessary. If the fire got close to the buildings we were told to not use any of our water on the barn. It was a hay barn (made out of hay), and there would be no chance of saving it with sparks flying through the air from the fire.
Dad and uncle Henry took the truck and headed south toward the fire. They took a milk can full of water, axes, shovels and gunny sacks with them. We were all (except the women), told to go to the county road with a shovel when we completed our tasks. We were not to go south of the road under any circumstances.
By the time I was ready to start for the pasture we could smell smoke in the air and the sky started to turn a little dark. The fire suddenly turned into something real and frightening. I just got started to the south and ran into the horses headed north. The cattle were not far behind. They evidently had smelled the smoke and were heading away from the fire. The stock had no intention of going any direction other than north and there was no way I could make them go by myself so I went ahead of them and cut the fences so they could get through to the north. There were no more fences between there and the state highway and I figured someone would let them through if the fire got that far.
By the time I started south to go to the county road the sky was filled with smoke. The wind had shifted around and was now coming from the southwest. By the time I got to the county road it seemed that everyone in the country was there. Some of the men were starting fires on the south side of the road and then putting them out. They were also cutting the prairie grass with shovels and covering it with dirt.
All the kids were told that if we got trapped by the fire we were to get on our horses and go straight through the fire at a dead run and just keep going till we reached an area where the ashes had cooled. If there was anyone around without a horse we were to pick them up and ride double. It was kind of a thrill just thinking about doing that.
We could see parts of the fire on the horizon as it came over the tops of the hills, probably three miles away. It looked like a long line of dashes constantly changing. As the fire came over a hill and started down our side it would gradually disappear in the middle, blotted out by the top of a nearer hill then both ends would spread out. The smoke was like a huge curtain in the sky. As it approached us it became a solid line of bright yellow fire. The sun was blotted out and the daylight turned to gray.
Rabbits, a few coyotes and a small bunch of antelope came across the road but didn't seem to be in a hurry. The land south of the road had been overgrazed and there wasn't much fuel for the fire and the wind continued to shift around until it was blowing the fire back [onto its self]. The men talked it over and several truck loads of them went in that direction. By nightfall the fire was out and everyone started home.
Two days after the fire Frank Jr. and I rode our horses to the place were the fire had burned. We expected to see a lot of burned animals but when we got there all we found was thousands of fresh tracks in the ashes. There were lots of places where the small prairie animals had rolled in the ashes, and some places where they had dug up roots of plants to eat. We did find a couple of burned up bird nests that looked like they might have had chicks in them. All the small animals had to do was to go into their borrows to get away from the fire. I don't know if is true or not but I was told that they go in then plug up the entrance so the smoke can't get in, and the oxygen is saved so they can breathe as the fire burns over them. After the next rain the area where the fire came through turned green and the grasses grew better than ever. There is no doubt in my mind the Indians knew better how to take care of the land, but they didn't have all those thing that would burn. At that time most of the lush prairie grasses were gone and the land could support only part of the animal life it once did. Now the land supports many more animals because the present day ranchers understand how to take better care of the land. Most of the sage and cactus is gone and good feed grasses have been planted.
The Outhouse 1931
The outhouse was about thirty yards from the house in the winter time. It was so cold out on the prairie the odor from the outhouse froze. A rope was fastened from the porch railing to the outhouse so you could find your way in a blizzard. My uncles always moved it further away in the spring after things thawed out a bit. A new pit was dug somewhere downwind from the house and the outhouse to its new location. The old pit was covered over. Once in a while I would forget it had been moved and have a little panic attack when I headed out and looked up and it wasn't there.
To go to the outhouse at night in the middle of the winter was something to be avoided. You soon learned not to drink much liquid late in the afternoon, and did your best to go before bedtime. You didn't have to go outside to pee but just getting out of that warm bed and going to the slop jar was pretty chilling. Getting wrapped up for the trip out in the cold was bad enough but to take them off and set on that cold seat was torture. The one good thing about the whole thing was getting back in the warm feather bed and snuggling up to my big brother. Sometimes I got kicked a little. In order for you to understand exactly what happened it is necessary to describe how I dressed to go to the outhouse. First as I already had on long underwear with the flap in the back so I did not bother to put on pants. I also didn't put on shoes, I just wore my overshoes. Overshoes over bare feet fit very loose. I put on a jacket and a long overcoat but did not put my arms in the sleeves. I just held the coat closed from the inside. A warm hat and scarf completed my wardrobe.
One very cold night I woke up with the urge to go and after laying there for a long time hoping the call would be canceled I gave up and started out. It was snowing out and about as dark as it gets so I used the rope to guide me on my way instead of lighting a lantern. I was sitting there in the dark and the toilet began to shake and the noise seemed enough that whatever was about to get me was coming right through the back. To say the least I was terrified and I went out of there running. I hit something about waste high and went head over heels and lost my overcoat and jacket. I got back to my feet and started out again. That time I went the wrong direction and hit the guide rope about belly button high and did another flip; this time loosing my hat and overshoes. The next mistake was finding the rope again and going in the wrong way. If there was anything I didn't want it was to be back at the outhouse.
I arrived back at the house in my long underwear with the flap open and the scarf still around my neck. In the morning I looked out to see where my missing clothes were and there were two of my uncle's big old boar hogs out by the outhouse. There several mounds of snow where my coats, hat and overshoes were. The lessons I learned that night were: always take a light, the frozen ground is very hard, and no matter how fast you go your behind gets cold if your flap is down. I also know what "PANIC" means.
In the spring my uncle Henry and my dad set up a still in the storm cellar, and after a while many visitors came to the ranch. One day Dad and Henry were sampling their product and agreed they had an exceptionally good batch of corn whiskey and decided to save some of it. The had a couple of small oak kegs so they filled them, wrapped them with tar paper and poured melted tar over that. They buried both kegs out on the prairie so many steps this way and that from the corner of the barn. They refreshed themselves as they worked. All the time they kept telling me not to tell anyone where the treasure was buried. We had a secret from everyone else.
One day the police came to visit. They sat on the porch and talked about how bad things were. They all had some lunch and a few drinks and took a couple fruit jars full with them. When they were in their can, and ready to leave, the one in charge said, "I know you fellows don't have a still here but I just though you should know we are going to raid this place tomorrow." After they were on the way down the country road we all went to work getting the still out of the storm cellar. There was about three barrels of mash working and we carried it out in buckets and poured it in the hog troughs. A lot of mash was spilled on the ground on the way to the pig pens but it didn't matter because the chickens were eating the grain as fast as it was spilled. The still was put in a depression out in the pasture and covered with tumble weeds.
The police arrived the next morning waving a paper and saying, "Henry we understand you have a still here and we are going to find it." They looked in all the out buildings and they looked in the storm cellar. When they opened the door they all took a few steps back and told Henry he ought to be more careful about letting potatoes rot in the cellar. They all sat on the porch and mother fixed something for them to eat. When they were ready to leave one of the policemen said, "Henry you fellows ought to take a look at your hogs and chickens. They must be something wrong with them." All the hogs were laying out in the pigpen waving their feet and grunting. The chickens were just flopping around. One rooster was trying to get by the snubbing post in the middle of the corral but just couldn't make it. very attempt resulted in a collision with the post. That post must have looked like a picket fence to him. They were alright the next day; although somewhat less active than usual. We worked most of the next day putting the still back in the storm cellar. A couple of days later mother said the eggs tasted funny.
In those days if the law wanted to catch people making whiskey all they had to do was find out who was buying large amounts of sugar. Henry and Dad bought sugar from a man from Torrington who delivered it right to the ranch in a model T Ford truck. The truck was always loaded with sugar and headed for Nebraska to make deliveries.
Dad, Henry, Frank Jr. and I went to the Rawhide Mountains to get lodge pole pine to build a hay barn. (Not a barn to put hay in, this is a barn made with a frame of lodge pole pines with hay piled against the walls and on the roof. When finished it's like a hollow haystack.) A hay barn can be real handy if you are short on feed for the livestock before the spring thaw and new green grass.
We took two teams, and wagons with rubber tires my uncle Charlie had made from old truck parts. They were much easier for the horses to pull than the old steel rimmed wheels, and heck of a lot smoother to ride on. When we got to the mountains Dad and Henry decided to sleep in a little tar paper shack that some wood cutter had put up. Frank Jr. and I made our beds on one of the wagons.
Just about daybreak I woke up and heard my dad say in a hoarse whisper, "Hank, wake up. Hank, wake up." After a little pause he said, "Hank, wake up. Hank you Son of a Bitch, wake up." I knew something was really wrong because that was the first time I ever heard my father swear. Frank Jr. and I got up and looked in the shack, and there was a large rattle snake on my dad's bed. It was curled up between his arm and his side; with its head pointed right at his face. There was no way for him to move without waking the snake. Frank Jr. very slowly reached across my dad and the snake, and pulled the blanket over the snake, and rolled it up in the blanket. Dad shot it with a shotgun and that woke up uncle Henry.
On another trip to the Rawhides as usual Dad and Henry were sleeping in the tar paper shack and Frank and I were on one of the wagons. We had a canvas stretched across the wagon over a couple of poles as a sort of roof to keep out the morning dew or water if it rained. The wagon was setting in a dugout place on the side of the hill to make it level and easy to load. One side of the wagon was about even with the ground.
It had been raining but had cleared up, and the moon was full and bright. Just before daybreak a wolf (or coyote), came into camp looking for something to eat. Frank Jr. woke up and shot at the intruder with a 22 rifle. The shot woke everyone up and mass confusion set in. For whatever reason the animal jumped on the wagon with us. The canvas was knocked down and Frank, the wolf (coyote) and I had one thought in common: get out from under the canvas, off the wagon and as far away as we could. All three of us made it out from under, and went in three directions. The smell of a wet animal in bed with me is something I'll never forget. There was a long discussion about the advisability of shooting anything bigger than a rabbit with a 22.
On one of our trips to the Rawhides I begged to go hunting for deer. After about three days of nagging my dad finally gave in and gave me a rifle and one shell. He told me that when they heard the shot someone would come and help me carry the deer back to camp. Help would be necessary because most any deer that I would shoot would probably weigh more than I did. No one mentioned the possibility that I might miss. I understood without being told that it would be a long time before I got another chance if I missed and someone walled up the mountain for nothing. Besides the ammunition cost about eight cents a round. That's the day I found out how close I could get to a deer if I was down wind and moved very slow. I got close enough to shoot after about the third try, and got a deer. I was one proud kid for a while. Think about it, I put meat on the table for everyone.
Sometime that summer we moved to Sutherland, Nebraska where I attended my fourth school but I don't remember much about it. I helped my brother deliver papers on his bicycle. Bud's (Frank Jr.), bike was too big for me, and I could ride it only by putting one leg through the frame. That made it impossible for me to reach in the bag on the back of the bicycle to get a paper. If I let go to reach for a paper the bicycle, papers and I landed in a heap. I did a lot of stop and go on that paper route.
I killed a chicken that belonged to a neighbor that kept straying into our yard. I was pretty good with my sling shot but maybe it was just luck, I hit it in the back of the head. After chopping its head off it quit flopping around, and I presented it to my mom. I caught hell for killing the chicken and I had to go to the neighbor and tell them my criminal act. I had to work spading up their garden to pay for the chicken. The chicken tasted good.
American Justice 1931
My folks and their friends talked about a "Nigger" who the people in North Platte had caught; he had raped a teacher. The mob found him under the house that he and his family lived in. They tore the floor out of the house to get to him. They tied him to the flagpole on top of the one room school house and set it on fire. The mob then went to the part of town where the "Niggers" lived and put up signs for all to be gone by the next Saturday. Later the teacher admitted that she hadn't raped, and had never seen the accused man. Why that particular man was singled out as being the rapist I never knew. That was the first time I ever heard of any problems with colored folks. Up till that time I had no contact with them. I thought they were just like everybody else except they were colored. My dad took my brother and me to North Platte and showed us the house where the mob found the victim. We saw the place where the school house was burned down. There was nothing but ashes left.
My mother was driving down the road and a big cyclone was coming right down the road at us. Mom drove the car off the road into a deep ditch and went under a bridge. The storm passed over us and made a noise that really scared me. We had to get help to get the car back up on the road. A farmer with a team of horses pulled the car out of the the ditch and up on the road. We all got very dirty, and it was great fun.
The Poor Farm
The depression was talked about all the time and it seemed to me that most people were out of work. There was a "Poor Farm" somewhere close to where we live and my mother went there to visit someone she knew. They ran a regular farm with all the farm animals you would expect and a great many ducks and geese. I learned a lesson on that farm. If a bunch of geese want you gone it's best to go.
The house had a big screen porch and I talked with an old woman there, she sat in a rocking chair and talked to me like I someone she knew. Most of the time I had no idea what or who she was talking about so I just said, Uh Huh", once in a while.
There was a storm cellar (spring house), and they had many crocks of cabbage setting; they were making sauerkraut. The smell was really strong and I still don't like sauerkraut very well. The old people who lived on the farm felt they were very lucky to be there. There were a great many people who had no place to live, and only what they could beg or get in a soup kitchen to eat.
The Cure ? 1932
My father left and I was told that he was sick and was in Lincoln in the hospital. After some time my mother took us to see him. He was in the Veterans Hospital and didn't seem sick to me. I talked to a veteran while my mother talked to my dad. The man had a funny book [comic] that had only a few pages left. He read it over and over. When I got to talk to my dad he told me the man had been shot in the head and his memory was gone. He lived only in the present. There were many men without a leg or arm or crippled up in some way. I learned that was what war did to people. Until then I thought that war was a big thrill and everyone came back with a bunch of medals and was a big hero. All men would like to go to war. The only veterans I had seen before then were in parades marching down Main Street waving flags on the Fourth of July.
Dad came home and left again to try to find work. There was nothing being built so he had to try to sell something. After a while he sent for us to come to Lincoln, Nebraska. We moved into a house on the west side of town and I went to my fifth school. By this time I had become a bit of a fighter. In those days when you went to a new school the tough kids made sure you understood the pecking order on the play ground and on the way home. It was different then tough, it was always a fair fight and no one would dream of ganging up on you. All the kids watching the action chanted, "Fair Fight. Fair Fight. Fair Fight."
It seemed to me the new kid (me), was always the one blamed by the teachers for starting the fights. About that time I began to not want to get to know the kids in school. I didn't want to know their names or get close to them in any way because I expected to be leaving any time; besides I had my brother and sister, and we had our own thing going. We tended to be very close.
Dad told me many times to never start a fight be never to run from one. It always seemed to me that if at all possible the best bet was to avoid fighting and if running would take care of the problem that was the way to go. One day I was using my run away strategy and was cutting across a vacant lot across the street from our house. I was well ahead of my antagonist and about half way across the lot when I looked up and there stood my dad. I stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, stuck out my fist and the boy ran into it. The fight was over and Dad never said anything about my running away. I learned a valuable lesson. Surprise is very good strategy.
Across the alley from us was an empty house and I went through the yard on my way to school. A big kid (at least bigger than I was), caught me by the empty house about three times a week and bloodied my nose or gave me a black eye, and dirtied my clothes. Quite often that made me late for school and that got me in more trouble. I complained to my dad expecting him or at least my bib brother to interfere. "All he had to say was, "There is no one who can't be knocked down, clubbed down, cut down or shot down." However cut down and shot down were forbidden.
After thinking that over I came up with a plan. I put a two by four at the corner of the house and enticed my antagonist into coming around the corner to get me. When he came around the corner I swung. I left him laying there with his teeth scattered around on the ground. I worried all day that maybe I had killed him. I knew I would spend the rest of my life in prison or be hung. I ran all the way back as soon as school was out but he was gone. I never saw him again.
My dad sold Electric Light Plants to the local farmers and was good at his job. Someone said he could sell an ice box to an Eskimo. Later he sold cemetery lots. Once he took me with him to the cemetery and we met a colored man digging a new grave. My dad asked him, "John aren't you afraid of all these dead people in this cemetery?" The answer, "No sir it's the live sons a bitches I's afraid of." My dad left me to hang around with John while he went to do something else. The first thing he said to me was, "You ever knowed a black man befo?" I told him no but I heard that there were lots of them down south. He told me to rub his arm to see if his black would come off. I never heard of such a thing but I rubbed his arm. He laughed when I looked at my hand. John told me wonderful stories the rest of the day and shared his lunch with me. I thought he was a wonderful man. I never saw him again.