Editor’s note: Victor Palenske, born in Alma in 1903, authored this story in 1973, recalling his youth in Alma. Palenske’s penchant for details is amazing and insightful. This editor has added period photographs to Palenske’s words, illustrating his Flint Hills Story.
I have always considered it fortunate that I was born and raised in a small provincial town in the heart of the Flint Hills in eastern central Kansas, about 100 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri. Alma is the County Seat of Wabaunsee County and at that time had a population of about 1,200 people, a couple of hundred larger than it is now in 1973.
The higher Flint Hills cannot be farmed because of the thin soil and outcroppings of limestone and flint, but it grows the finest bluestem grass for grazing. As a result, Alma was a cattle town. The bottom lands along the streams were very fertile and crops of wheat, corn, alfalfa, and cane were grown in abundance. Mill Creek, including South Branch, was a good size stream then, more so than now because of a higher ground water table. The town of Alma is on the west side of the valley and on higher ground.
Alma was quite self-sufficient, thanks to the excellent railroad service. There were three banks, two hotels, three livery stables, three general stores, two grocery-only stores, two meat markets (with slaughter houses in the country), four blacksmith shops, two drug stores, two newspapers, two lumberyards, two furniture and undertaking establishments, three barber shops, one excellent variety store, three abstract, insurance, and land offices, one shoe store, three cobblers, two jewelry and watch repair shops, one dairy and creamery, two millinery shops, three hardware stores, two tin shops, one harness shop, one bakery and café, one men’s clothing store, one broom factory, one pop bottling works, one photo gallery, two restaurants besides the hotels, one tailor shop a monument works, three doctors, two dentists, and a blind pig.
There were two saloons in town that dispensed beer, but for citizens to buy hard liquors the blind pig was a handy place for the thirsty ones. It was housed in a two-story red shed right by our corral, so it permitted me to view the broken stream of callers. It was behind the front structure, Froshien Hall. This was a barn-like building with a small park on the east side which ended in a shallow ravine, and a rather high wooden fence on the street side. As I recall there were a couple of pool tables in the main bar room, some small rooms in the rear for cards, I suppose, and a single bowling alley along the west side in an adjoining building. Across the alley to the west was a stone ice house, which was in the back yard of the two-story stone building that housed Papa’s bank. We lived upstairs.
This seems like a lot of details, but I want to show that Alma was quite an active little town in those days.
Alma is on the main line of the Rock Island railroad. Although our roads were dirt and not so good, quite often deep in dust or deep gumbo mud, communication by rail was excellent. Four passenger trains daily, each way, stopped, so our mail and freight service could not hardly be better. The only passenger trains that did not stop were the Golden State Limited trains. In addition to the Rock Island there was a branch line of the Santa Fe, affectionately called the Pea Vine, that ran one mixed train six days a week from Osage City on the main line. It served well the southeastern part of the county.
Outside the railroads all of Alma’s transportation was horse-drawn. Louie Haller and Bill Spears both had stake wagon drays that hauled freight from the depots to the business places and homes. There was also a hack, an open rear end, covered-top vehicle, with sides that could be rolled up, and bench seats around the front and sides of the passenger compartment. The driver sat in front out in the weather. It met all trains, and also hauled passengers between hotels and around town.
As I mentioned there were three livery stables in town. Alex Johnson’s, up near the court house was mostly a feed and sales barn for horses. Uttermann’s (later Frank Cleland’s) and Albert “Dutch” Copp’s were full-service barns, where one could rent a horse and saddle, or a team or horse and rig, usually two-seater top buggies or single seaters. Papa used to hire a top buggy and team for our all-day Sunday jaunts to visit friends in the country or other towns.
I want to get ahead of my story here for a moment. Dutch Copp sort of retired from the livery business, although he kept his barn open for feeding. He bought a Model T. Ford and went into the hack business, doing all sorts of taxi (called a jitney) service around town, and running the old horse drawn hacks out of business. I remember (later, when I was in my first year of high school) that Dutch was bringing three passengers from the Santa Fe depot when he was hit by an eastbound Golden State Limited at the Rock Island crossing. The car was a complete mangled loss and Dutch was killed. The three passengers lived through it, although one needed a silver plate to repair a head injury. He was the husband of Lena Retke who was our hired girl when we kids were quite small.
Alma did not have city water until 1923, so outdoor pumps and privies were parts of each home and business place. It was quite a chore to thaw out pumps with hot water on cold mornings, and we were warned against grabbing the cold iron handle with wet hands or putting our tongue on it. A water pail with a dipper was a standard kitchen fixture. Privies were placed some distance from the house, naturally, and I can assure you that cold winter weather created some genuine ordeals, especially for elderly people. Honey-dippers (privy cleaners) made occasional visits to town and did a right lively business for the most part.
There were eight churches in Alma in those days, including two blacks (there were at least 150 colored people living in town then—there is only one small family there now). The white churches were the Catholic, German Lutheran, Methodist, Evangelical (now United Church of Christ), Congregational, and Free Methodist. The first four are still active, but the colored are long gone.
I was born in 1903 in the upper floor of the last two-story stone building to the south on the east side of Missouri Street, the main street of the town. Papa had his photo gallery in the back of the first floor of the north half of the building. After selling this business, he started a book store, and later added pianos and other musical instruments. Still later, he started and was cashier of the Palenske Banking Company, later changed to the Commercial National Bank. This was in the south half, downstairs.
Sisters, Laura and Florence were also born in this home.
In spite of the fact that Alma had three doctors, the name of the attending physician on my birth affidavit is Dr. Mrs. Zeckser, a midwife who lived next door. There were no birth certificates issued at that time, and I had to get the affidavit, sworn by my older sister, Minnie, at the beginning of World War II when we started doing war work. Mr. Zeckser was a cobbler, and had a shoe store in a frame building next door south on the corner. There is a filling station there now.
Papa’s Aunt Charlotte Palenske, a widow, lived with us. She was “Tante” (German for aunt) to all of us, and I remember her very affectionately as the gentlest person that I have ever known. She died in 1910, and I clearly recall the deep sorrow we all felt at her passing.
My maternal grandfather, Joe Thoes, and an older brother, Peter, were the first to settle in the Alma area. They were German emigrants who came to Kansas by way of New York and Westport Landing, now Kansas City, Missouri. They first saw the area in 1854, returned to Westport for the winter, and came back for good, along with a sister and brother-in-law, Ed Krapp, to settle about four miles south of Alma, along South Branch of Mill Creek. Joe and Peter married Sisters, Augusta and Ernestine Dieball, in 1861 and 1862, rearing families on their farms. Joe had six children; Aunt Bertha Eck, Uncle Emil, Mama, Uncle Dick (who never married), Aunt Paulina Maas, and Aunt Laura Simon Wilson. After the first four children who married had departed, the Joe Thoes family moved to Alma, living in a small cottage a block east of Missouri Street. Aunt Laura lived with them until she married Charlie Simon, as did Uncle Dick. Grandpa Joe lived to be 96 years old, and Grandma dies a year later in 1925 at age 86. They had observed their 63rd wedding anniversary.
My Fred Palenske grandparents arrived on Mill Creek in May of 1955, via New Orleans and the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to Westport, and took a claim just a mile south of Alma on Mill Creek. My Uncle August is supposed to have been the first white child born in Alma in 1856. Papa was born in 1858, possibly the second one.
The first log cabin of the Palenskes was built on low land near the creek, and a flood in 1858 washed them out. A second log cabin was built on high ground on the south side of the creek, and later the two-story stone house was built near the same site. It is still in good shape, now occupied by a Wertzberger family. I can recall seeing some of the second cabin as a part of other sheds north of the stone house. There is a small burial plot east of the house on top of a high bank overlooking Mill Creek, and some of the early family were buried there.
I do not remember my Grandfather Palenske as he died before I was born. I do remember Grandma Palenske (she was Grosmutter to us compared to Grosmama for Grandma Thoes). She lived most of her later life with my aunt named Richter, in Alma, but we were not as close to her as we were to the Thoes family. Grosmutter died in 1911.
Mama and Papa were married in 1882, and nine children were born to their union. One, a girl, died in infancy, and Homer lived to less than two years, dying of scarlet fever. Severn of us grew up to be adults in this order, Max, Minnie Zwanziger, Fred, Arnold, Laura Stella, me, and Florence Hallgren. Only the three younger ones survive at this time in 1973.
Gus Meier from Halifax, about eight-miles southeast of Alma, bought Papa’s photo gallery, and he lived with us for a while. He later married Mary Wetzel, and Mary and Gus were always considered a part of the family.
Gus liked his jokes, and I can remember the folks telling of some of the goings on. Such as getting Arnold to put a dead snake in Barber Kast’s bed. Barber Kast had a barber shop, naturally, in the front basement of the building to the north of us, and he lived in the back quarters. I am sure that Barber never completely forgave Arnold for that one, but I doubt if he blamed Gus for any part of it. Gus became well-known for his jokes, usually with Arnold as his foil, but this was a bit before my time.
Speaking of Barber Kast, he was the only one in town (this was in my time) who joined the skating crowds with a two-foot long sled. Standing on it, and with a spiked pole pumping between his legs, he could sail along at a fast clip than most of us on skates. In those days, a hard freeze brought out a good share of males of the town for an afternoon or night, with bon-fires, of skating, and some girls, too. There were quite a few stretches of deep water between riffles, so there was plenty of room. The biggest hazards were the twigs fallen from the trees there were frozen partly in the ice. One could really take some surprising spills, especially at night.
I enjoyed hearing stories of earlier happenings to our family from Mama, Papa, Minnie, or any of my older brothers who happened to be home. For instance, one of our dogs, name unknown at the moment, had acquired a deadly hatred for our town Marshall named Pippert. Both sides of the dog’s jaws had been broken by Pippert’s billy club blows, so it could only nip with its front teeth. One day there was a cry of “Fire”, a fearful sound in our small town, and Pippert ran past our front downstairs door on his way to do his duty as a volunteer fireman. Our good old dog tore out, grabbing for pants legs. It apparently nipped at the seam, for it ripped all the way to the pocket. I’m not exactly sure that the dog survived that episode, but it provided our family with a right good true story.
Another early story involving Gus Meier, innocent this time, and Arnold at about age eight or so. We had a wooden fence in the back yard, dividing us from Barber Kast’s. Arnold liked to walk along the 2×4 near the top of the fence, and one day he fell. He hooked on a nail and a sizable chunk of flesh was torn from his hip. Arnold was not one to cry much, but Gus saw the accident and rushed to help out. He noticed the torn pants and gashed hip and asked what became of the missing piece of meat. Arnold’s reply was “Die Katz has es gefressen”. Translated, the cat ate it.
There were some stories involving our family, some of them before my time and this is as good a place for them as any.
In spite of Kansas being a dry state, Alma had a couple of saloons. One was Froshien Hall, and the other was up next to the corner, a few doors from home. It was run by Mr. J. H. McMahon, known as Johnny Mac. He had a pet raccoon, commonly called coon, and thru the course of time it had acquired a taste for draft beer. The early morning janitor saw to it that the coon received its usual ration of beer, and it departed the place with a pretty good jag on. One of its favorite jaunts on any summer morning was down to our place. It climbed the back outside stairs, and had learned to open the screen door latch. If Mama was not around just then it paraded across the dining table cloth, dresser scarves, and bed spreads, leaving dirty tracks to mark its trail. Usually about then it was sent flying by Mama’s flailing broom and her “cuss words” in German.
Of course, this coon pre-dated me, but I sure enjoyed hearing the tales of its escapades. Another one concerned one of our cats named Conie (Max named all of our pets). The stone building north of us was Barber Kast’s, and the one beyond that was Jim Ketterman’s restaurant, both two stories. There was a gap of about a foot or fifteen inches between the walls of the buildings, boarded up at the street but open in the back. Conie had made a practice of nesting her litters of kittens at the far end of the gap up near the street. The buildings were at least 70-feet long. Our coon friend had probably been chased out by Mama, and still riding high in its quest for adventure, blundered into the gap and continued exploring toward the front. Before it reached the end, it was assaulted by the wild eyed, yowling, clawing fury of a protective mother cat. The gap was too narrow for the coon to turn around, so it had to do the best it could in reverse. Mr. Coon survived, but its sleek coat of fur had a rather mangy look for a good many day.
One other story, this one involving Laura and me. Papa had found two baby squirrels on one of his hunting trips and brought them home. He had built a wire cage and about four feet square and twelve feet height, with an opening into a red shed in our back yard for the nest. They grew up but not tame, and were never our favorite pets. One day they got out and were up in an overhead grape arbor in the yard. When Laura and I walked underneath the male, the mean one, jumped on my head and bit me through the right cheek. Laura took a swat at it and was bitten through the thumb. There was a lot of howling and yammering, I can assure you, and a little later when Papa heard of the incident, those squirrels lasted less than 10-minutes. If this was to happen today, I am sure that we would have died a horrible death from hydrophobia, lock-jaw, or worse. We did not know much about infection in those days, and the germs must have respected us kids for the most part.
The majority of the business buildings and many of the homes in town and the surrounding country were built of limestone. With a scarcity of wood, it was fortunate that among the early settlers from Germany were many very capable stone masons and cabinet makers. There were excellent quarries on the hills east of town and other areas, and practically all of the early permanent homes and other structures were of stone. Also, I believe that there were more loose laid stone fences (work for the winter months) in the Alma general area than anywhere else in the state. And still are.
Speaking of lime, recalls a very painful experience for me when we lived up in the corner building. Some plasterers were doing a job downstairs in the building. In those days it was necessary for them to slake lime for their use in the mortar. I do not remember the process, but it results in an extremely hot, corrosive material. It was customary for the plasterers to put it in a mortar box and cover it with sand for overnight keeping. I foolishly stepped into the box, thinking that it was all sand, and I received the worst burns on my feet and lower legs that I ever expect to have. I suppose that I must have done some real top-notch yelling, and people came running from all directions. I was taken to Doc Meyer for treatment. I do not know what he did, but I did survive and have no scars from the incident.
In order to create an ingredient for the mortar in the extensive use of stone masonry it was necessary to convert limestone to lime by burning. A lime kiln, a round stone structure about 12-feet in diameter and 25-feet high, was built across the creek in Clapboard Ravine at the foot of the hill with the larger quarry, and the construction of the many stone buildings was able to proceed. The last time I was in that area, at least 50-years ago, parts of the masonry walls of the kiln were still standing.
Alma also had commercial salt wells, but this was long before my time. The process consisted of pumping the brine, after forcing steam or hot water into the wells, into evaporating tanks. There was also a coal mine, down east of town near the creek. When mining stopped the shaft had not been completely closed, so we boys were able to climb down a short distance, say 25-feet or so. It was a wonder that there were no accidents, as water had filled the pit up to our point of exploration. Of course, I assume that both projects failed for the same reason of high operating costs, insufficient financing, and probably inefficient methods.
Alma’s first electric light plant was housed in a shed in the back of the Fred Wilson home on Kansas Avenue, across the street west from the house in which Mama and Papa lived in their last years. Quite a few of the homes and business places were wired for service, and there were street lights at the main intersections, but the plant operated only during the early hours of darkness. The power was created by a generator driven by a not-too-large gasoline engine, not entirely reliable. A later and larger plant was built across the Rock Island tracks, near the Santa Fe depot. It was a fair size concrete block building. The north half housed the steam boiler and a pretty good size Corliss steam engine which drove a fairly large generator. The south half of the building was an ice making plant and storage of 200-pound cakes of ice. This obsoleted all of the half dozen ice houses scattered around town and along the creek. This electric plant operated around the clock, and there was more wide-spread wiring installed around town. The plant was torn down years ago.
Papa’s bank needed more space and a better location, so it was moved to the north end of the block on the corner. It is a two-story building, and has a mysterious basement with a vaulted curved ceiling wine cellar. It was unused, as we heated with stoves, but it was always sort of scary for us younger kids. A sheet metal addition had been built onto the back of the main stone building, with the kitchen upstairs and laundry and storage on the first floor. This sheet metal part has since been removed. The building is rather unique with its curved top windows and unusual front pillar treatment, and was about to fall down before being restored and refurbished.
The building was recently purchased by money given to the Wabaunsee County Historical Society by brother Fred to supplement his donation to build an excellent museum across the street. This building is now named Palenske Hall, and has become a general meeting place for the various organizations of modern-day Alma.
The old stone school on the top of the hill on the site now occupied by the city water tank, was still standing when I started school, but its educational use had been discontinued. I attended the “New School”, a 2 ½ story stone building. The grade school, two grades to a room and no kindergarten, occupied the first floor, and also had home economics in the attic and labs in the basement along with the washrooms and the heating plant. I attended the first five grades in this building, and later, the four years of high school.
Although there were quite a number of bicycles owned by boys (not so many by girls) Papa could never see me having one. Earlier I had a tricycle, which was stolen, and an “Irish Mail”, probably one of the most inefficient vehicles ever built. You pumped back and forth with your arms for locomotion and steered with the feet, and if one got up a speed of over ten miles per hour, he just had to be going downhill.
The old courthouse, on the same site as the present one, had a band-stand just to the north. It was used all summer long for concerts and homemade ice cream socials. Catty-corner to the northeast stood the “Opera House”, a wooden building having two fairly large rooms, or they seemed large. One was for receptions or food service, and the larger one for entertainment, which consisted of wrestling matches, political meeting, small traveling shows, and other affairs. But most of its use was for school plays and exercises. The stage was elevated about four feet or so, and the floor was flat and bare, with folding chairs used for seating. I recall being in two different productions. Once I was the 5-year old Hiawatha, sitting before a tepee with Nakomis, and scooting inside when an owl hooted. The other occasion found me a part of a group of boys, dressed in overalls and straw hats, barefooted, and holding cane fishing poles, singing a very silly song about how we loved summer vacations. Oh, yes, I almost forgot another very important occasion, when I sang a solo about the fuzzy caterpillar who was a champion corn stalk climber. The old building was razed later, and George Miller erected the stone one on the site to house his Model T Ford agency. It later became the Haller Chevrolet agency, and remains so up till now.
Of course, we had a county sheriff, and also a town Marshal. He made the rounds at night, checking for unlocked doors or any mischief that might be going on, as he was our man on the crime detail. I do not remember any serious crime problems. We also had a volunteer fire department, with Uncle Dick Thoes the Chief for as long as I could remember. Without city water they depended on several cisterns, filled by run-off from the business buildings, scattered thru the business district. The old hand drawn hand pumpers, with long handles on each side, dropped its suction hose into a cistern, and the hard-working pumpers squirted a fairly good stream. Of course, fires in the outlying residence areas got the old bucket brigade treatment. Fires with any start at all usually ended up in total losses for the buildings.
Alma was a cattle town, with many square miles of excellent pastures in the surrounding hills. Shipping times, both in the spring coming in from Texas, usually, and early fall, going out to the Kansas City, St. Joe, or Chicago markets, could be a little exciting at times. Because of the locations of the Rock Island and Santa Fe stockyards it was often necessary to drive the steers right thru the main streets. As most of the cattle were quite wild, many with long horns, some serious and some comic situations did occur. Needless to say, the streets were almost empty when the drives were made with most homes and business places closed. I do recall being told of one old longhorn charging thru one of the stores that failed to lock up—in the front door and out the back without touching a thing on the inside.
I really have not said much about the Flint Hills, but they did have an impressive and lasting effect on me. They are pretty high around Alma and on south, and they are a most beautiful sight in the spring when the grass is green and fresh looking. It was the universal custom in the late winter or very early spring to burn the dead grass on the hills. It was really spectacular and beautiful sight to have our town ringed with fire at night, with the pleasant, pungent smell of burning grass in the air.
Grandma and Grandpa Thoes celebrated their Golden Wedding in June, 1911, and all aunts, uncles, and cousins were assembled. My three older brothers could not make it. Aunt Paulina Maas was there with her husband Adolph, and four kids, two of each. They lived about eight miles west of Alma, nowhere near any railroad tracks, and it was quite a joke for we “city fellers” to see our cousins rush out to watch a Rock Island train pass as it rushed thru town, whistling for the many crossings.
There were plenty of sports for those that wanted to find it, mostly some form of baseball or the various games that were popular in those days, bur for me the best centered around Mill Creek. There were many riffles, as the creek had quite a rapid fall, but also many deep, wide pools in between. This made for good swimming and fishing all summer, and good skating a good share of the winter. We used skates that clamped on the soles and heels of the shoes, with straps as reinforcements to keep the heels from pulling off. Also, with so many hills, coasting was a major winter sport. It was fun, too, to hook rides with our sleds, even thought the vehicles were pretty slow moving.
One of my early jobs was with Arthur “Boss” Simon. He had an artificial leg, having lost his own hopping freight cars. He was always the prime example when parents were warning their sons about hopping freights. His brother, Charlie had a small printing shop and had built an outdoor theater called the “Air Drome” to show the early movies of those days of 1910 thru 1914. Charlie, who had married my Aunt Laura Thoes, moved to Yampa, Colorado, so Boss took over the shop and theater. I peddled bills for the coming attractions, and later on I pumped the old pianola player attached piano to supply the music for the shows. I can honestly say that the music I played had not the least connection with the action on the screen. I did get to see some real humdingers of the old films, called flickers, mostly two-reelers. The reels had to be run one at a time, with a “Please Excuse-Operator is Changing the Reel” slide flashed on the screen between times.
We had our usual rough times like everyone else did, but it is pleasant to recall those old days, as you can tell by now. For instance, a real treat was seeing Halley’s Comet in 1910 in the western sky, framed by the sides of our east-west streets. Or Minnie acting as policeman on Sunday when the folks were gone somewhere to see that we three younger kids talked only German while at play. We did not really learn to speak English until we started first grade in school.
We always had plenty of animals around, like cats and at least two dogs. Bounce was a big white dog and Kubelik, a twisting little short haired brown one, could actually laugh when he would get excited. We also had a team of black draft horses that were used at the mill, and two milking cows. One was a peaceful little Jersey, and the other a big red old battleax named Bossy. We kids had an unholy fear of that cow. She once butted me up against the corral fence with her head, and I have always wondered what might have happened if Mama had not been there. Bossy had a lot of respect for Mama.
The cows, along with a couple of our neighbors’ milkers, had to be driven every day to a pasture at least a mile, and sometimes a mile and a half, south to what was the old Palenske homestead. I cannot imagine how I was able to do it on foot before school. And, of course, I had to bring them back in the evening in time for milking. And across the Rock Island tracks, yet.
I remember seeing the first horseless carriage that came to Alma. It was sitting in the covered part of the Eck lumber yard, and it attracted quite a large group of interested men. It was a regular single seat buggy, with a top, dash, and whip-socket, and solid rubber tires. It had a single cylinder gasoline engine, mounted in the rear, with a chain drive to the rear axle. I do not recall what sort of a transmission it had, or anything about the brakes, throttle, or things like that. There was no windshield or instruments of any kind. I did not see this one in operation, but did see some later moving slowly on the flatter streets of town.
Alma had an unsuccessful lynching once, but it was before my time, and I have to tell it as true family hearsay. A black alleged murderer was taken from the county jail, dragged one block to the main square by a rope around his neck by a man on horseback and hanged from the cross bar of a telephone pole. However, after stretching his neck at least a foot, so the story goes, he was cut down by the sheriff, and lived to die in prison after his trial.
I do remember a murder trial, known as the Mullins case. This Mullins was a hard character from up near Junction City who was accused of killing a man at Alta Vista, in our county. His gang of toughs was in town for the trial. During some sort of scuffle on Missouri Street some shots were fired and a traveling salesman, called a drummer in those days, standing in front of the Brandt Hotel a block away, was hit in the leg by a stray bullet. I am not sure of the Mullins verdict, but I think he was found guilty.
How we looked forward to the visits of our older brothers; Max and wife Florence, Fritz, and Arnold coming home from Chicago and Kansas City. The splendid cities of the Arabian Nights could not compare with our dreams of what Chicago and Kansas City were like.
We three younger kids sure looked forward to Christmas Eve. Our hired girl, Lena Retke, took us to her Lutheran Church for the services. They always had a big evergreen tree of some sort, and it seemed quite full of trimmings and lighted candles. We each received our paper sack holding an orange and some candy—then the big rush home to see what Santa Claus had left for us.
Holidays were wonderful times in those days of very little glamour; no radio or TV, and very few movies. Christmas, Thanks giving, and Easter were joyful occasions, with toys, feasting, and egg hunts (Gus Meier was the boss of the egg hunts), but the really great ones were in the summer. Decoration Day was a grand homecoming for many former residents, and there were still enough Civil War veterans around to do some marching and give our city band a chance to parade out to the city cemetery, playing “Marching Thru Georgia” and other war songs. My Uncle Dick Thoes played a valve trombone in the band.
Alma celebrated the Glorious Fourth every year, and we saved our nickels and pennies for weeks. All sorts of firecrackers, torpedoes, etc. were sold without restrictions. I remember having some skin, about the size of a quarter, peeled off my forehead the first time that I lighted a “cannon cracker” with an inner burning fuse and did not get rid of it in time. The festivities centered around Liederkranz Park, a mile or so southwest of downtown. It was in a nice grove of trees, and the German singing society had built some good solid buildings, including a roofed but open sided dance pavilion. There were some carnival rides for the occasion, such as a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, and others. I almost lost my left arm when I let it get caught between the eat arm rest and a radial frame member of the Ferris wheel. A man riding with me swing the seat backward to allow me to pull my arm out. I still have the scar above the elbow—my “vaccination mark”.
There was dancing both afternoon and night. There were several refreshment stands, and places for the many families that brought picnic lunches. There were usually two baseball games, one in the forenoon and the other in the afternoon. The diamond was in a flat field north of the park. There was almost always a wrestling match after supper on the site of the ball field. The light, as was true all over the open parts of the park, was furnished by metal torches. They had a round coal oil tank, about a foot in diameter and three or four inches thick, at the top, with metal pipe turned up like a letter “J” with a flower-like burner at the end. They did not give much light and smoked like crazy, but they were the only light source available. Fireworks from the hill north of the ball diamond ended the day. These drew the usual ohs and ahs that modern displays are still blessed with. Once in a great while, a spark landed in the box of rockets and stuff, and that really added to the excitement.
The three blacksmiths in town had quite a rivalry in the matter of starting the day of the Fourth with a bang. An anvil was set upside down on another fixed anvil, with a fuse running to holes full of gun powder. It seemed like it was almost always clear, and the one who set off his charge first when the sun peeped over the hills to the east was declared the winner of the prize set up between them, usually a keg of beer for them all. If you have never been awakened by these anvil blasts you cannot imagine what a gosh awful noise it can be.
Like most small towns before and just after the turn of the century Alma had its share of small traveling shows and circuses. There were carnivals with rides, too, and the usual crop of medicine shows, wild westerns, tent stage shows, and the small circuses that traveled around the country in wagons for one-night stands. Most of them had a band of sorts that marched up town for a concert in the middle of the main square, and they managed to attract fairly good crowds. There were no other distractions then, such as radio or television, so a show of almost any sort was a welcome diversion.
Alma was lucky that just once it had a real top-notch and good size circus show there. Of course, it was due to a mix-up in their schedule, as it was supposed to transfer from the Rock Island to the Santa Fe, it being a railroad circus, at Alma, but arrived too late for the Santa Fe connection, and could no go on until the next day. Apparently not wanting to lay idle for a whole night, it was decided to set up and give Alma a real high-class show. And that it was. It had a regular side-show and a menagerie, three rings, and first-class acts—even flying trapeze acts. As I recall, the name of the circus was Campbell Brothers.
We were fortunate to have a week of so of Chautauqua for several summers. This was a tent stage show, emphasizing educational type programs, and was part of a national circuit. The tent was set up in what is now the city park, right down town. These performances were really the cultural high-lights for the town, and almost everyone bought tickets. I do not remember how we younger kids got in, for it was inconceivable that the cost of a ticket would be wasted on us, but we always managed to make it somehow. There were the usual bell ringers and other musical groups, probably one dramatic presentation during the session, but the real stars were the lecturers. Probably the most famous one to hit Alma was William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued orator out of the West (Nebraska, I think), but there were others that us kids liked better.
Winter and fall had their attractions for a young boy, but summer was the best time of the year. Going barefoot was standard practice, to save show leather, and just because it was the thing to do. There was something special about dust or mud between the toes. And, how hard it was to get used to shoes again in time for school, especially if one of the big toes was wearing a dirty bandage protecting a bad stubbing.
Besides going fishing we also went frogging, either with a triple hook on a cane pole or a spear. As my own family learned years later, frog legs, properly prepared and the right size are a real treat, indeed. We also liked crawdads. The center fan of the tail was pulled out, removing practically all of the critter’s innards, and the whole animal was cooked live in boiling water. The shucked tails were the only parts fit to eat, but that was really sweet meat. We usually caught them with a piece of meat tied to a string for them to catch hold of with their pincers. They were easily seen in the clear water at the riffles. The easy and mass production was when the mill wheel had to be cleaned, and the water was shut off at the upper end of the flume (wooden sides and bottom) that channeled water to the wheel. The lower sides and bottom were literally crawling with big crawdads, and pails were used for the grand harvest. You can bet that quite a few families had a feast that night.
The summer public attractions at Liederkranz Park, except for the Fourth, were the various organizational picnics, and we boys attended them all. There were the Catholics, the Lutherans, the St. Johns Day by the Masons, and Emancipation Day by the colored (they came from all around for this one). It was a big thrill to meet old Number 35, our morning westbound local train at the Rock Island depot, and watch Jackson’s band from Topeka disembark, get in formation, and lead the struttingest parade of the year up Missouri Street. And, I still remember the fancy dancing and goings-on on the dance floor at the Liederkranz.
Although Kansas was dry it was possible to have kegs of draft and barrels of bottled beer shipped from Kansas City (beer was not packed in cases then). The express trucks at the Rock Island depot were piled high with empty kegs a couple of times a week for shipment back to K.C. The story was told of a man sitting in a passenger coach of a stopped train, observing the many kegs, remarked that he thought that Kansas was dry. The conductor supposedly answered, “This is not Kansas—this is Alma.” A part of Alma’s Fourth celebration was the private beer party in artist August Ohst’s tree shaded yard at the west edge of town. We boys were always in attendance for a little while, and even were rewarded with a sip or two of beer, which was something for us.
When we lived upstairs in the corner stone building our back yard was a small bare area about 30 x 40-feet, between the sheet metal addition and the stone ice house, and under a pretty good size locust tree. Laura, Florence, and I decided to have a “circus” one day. We were assisted by a little red-headed neighbor girl named Madelyn Frey, but she was so bashful that she would not show her face. I solicited all of the town loafers in the neighborhood, from Froshien Hall and across the street by Gus Mueller’s hardware store (that is where the spectators stood and sat), and we had a pretty fair turn-out. We had some cats and dogs in make shift wooden cages, and there was even an old cat that walked s suspended 2 x 4 with help and persuasion, of course. After we three had sung a few songs and Laura gave some sort of recitation (but not Madelyn), I passed the hat. The total came to $.51, and somehow, we divided it. Madelyn got the penny.
Living in this same building I remember watching my cousin, Harry Eck, two years older than I, walking down the street toward his home, two blocks east. He was barefoot, with overall legs rolled up to his knees, a floppy had and heavy coat on, in a downpour of rain, singing at the top of his voice, “I might be crazy, but I ain’t no fool”.
This was all about 1911.
I remember boys who were real good friends, but I have forgotten some of their names. However, some stick with me, like Harry Peters, Charley Schmidt, Late Weaver, Tag and Smoky Diepenbrock, Ervie Simon and especially, Newell Sage. He was about my age, and I always envied him because he could swim like a fish. I got to know the Sage family fairly well (Irving, Ted, Newell, Ada) and I recall pictures on the walls of big fish Mr. Sage had caught in Minnesota. Frank Sage was a printer and partner in Sage & Little, publishers of the Alma Enterprise. Newell became ill the summer of 1911, and died very suddenly. The current kid’s story was that he had been swimming in scummy, dog-days water, but of course it was actually a more orthodox disease (I do not remember what it was). It was my first sad experience with the death of a youthful friend.
I recall so many names of adults who impressed me very much. There was Jerry Fields, real estate, land and insurance; Ollie Little, crippled in one foot, co-owner and a good friend of Papa’s; Doc Glunz, one of the two dentists, who used to pay me to let him pull a tooth; Alf Umbehr, owner of the variety store, who had a sort of slot machine sitting beside the candy counter. When we kids went in we always had pennies, and dropped them into this gadget one by one. The coins dropped on and turned a wheel with numbers on it. Alf stood at our backs and called off the totals (some numbers paid double), and we usually bought jaw breakers or licorice whips.
Then there was Frank Cleland who had purchased the Uttermann livery stable. It was next door to the Brandt Hotel, where the American Legion hall is now. The livery stable was one of our loafing places later on. Mr. A.S. Allendorph was the biggest cattleman in the area and lived in a big square stone house a block and a half south of the school. His office was down town, next door to the Pries store. He was the Santa Fe’s biggest shipper out of Alma, and had a stock pens shipping point south of town named after him. Another big cattleman, and especially good friend of Mama and Papa’s, was Otto Hess, who lived about 8 miles southeast, at Halifax, later renamed Hessdale by the Santa Fe.
Our local telephone company was started as the McMahon Telephone Exchange, by J.H. “Johnnie Mac” McMahon, Dutch Copp, a couple of Nollers, and some others. Later on, Charley Henderson, a relative of Ferd Palenske thru the Thompsons, took over management of the company. The office was just a couple of doors south when we lived on the corner, and our back kitchen porch looked down on their back yard, which was their service area.
The only lineman and troubleshooter was a young man named Norlin (I believe his name was Manley). He was a big man, nearly 6 ½ feet tall and wide shoulders, and must have weighed at least 250 pounds. He drove the “service truck”, a small one-cylinder engine in the real, single-seater, wire wheeled vehicle. We always thought it could not carry much material, having to haul the driver around as well.
Being the county seat, Alma had several attorneys, 4, I believe. The most colorful was C.E. “Carey” Carroll. He lived right down town, and was facetiously called “The Great Defender”. He was a real scrapper in court, and very hot tempered. I recall, as a real small boy, watching he and a stranger engage in a fist fight in the street in front of Doc Meyer’s drug store, across from our corner home. He later bought the Alma Signal, and his son Edwin, also an attorney, took over when Carey died. Somewhere down the line they bought the Enterprise, and it is still published as the Signal-Enterprise by Bob Stuewe, a descendant of the Carroll’s thru Ed “Butch” Stuewe, an attorney, who had married Carey’s older daughter.
Carl Shubert, a nice little old man, had an office of some sort with living quarters in the rear, in a little frame building on the corner across the street to the west from the Brandt Hotel, now the Alma Hotel. I do not recall what his business was, but he seemed to do all right. He was extremely far-sighted, and he had to get his eyes very close to any reading or writing that he might be doing. The remarkable thing was his talent for beautiful Old English lettering, and he was engaged to print names and titles on maps and all sorts of documents that require embellishment. My high school diploma, which has long since been lost, had my name imprinted by Carl Shubert. He was kept quite busy for this type work, alone.
Other people that I remember with pleasure are Doc Meyer, our family doctor, even after Mama and Papa came back to live in Alma; Gus Mueller, owner of one of the hardware stores; George Sutherland, owner of the harness shop that had the big plaster horse for fitting purposes. Arch Robertson owned a men’s clothing store and was our perennial Mayor, or so it seemed. I have mentioned August Ohst, but must say again that he could paint really good pictures (in my poor opinion). We have his painting of Nixie, Bill Simpson’s son, currently on a wall in the basement. Oscar Deans was a very good friend of our family and lived with us for a while in his younger days. He was in the Alma National Bank, and his daughter, Mary Jane and husband, Bill Moore, have the First National Bank now. Louie Undorf owned a really first class meat market, and had his slaughter house in Ed Linss’ pasture west of town. An older relative of his, Heinrich Undorf, had married my Great Aunt Margaret, Grandpa Thoes’ younger sister in 1878.
Then there was Miss Etta Chillson, who lived across the street east of the school and taught 3rd and 4th grades for a number of years. She was a strict disciplinarian (more than once I sat for a session under her desk), but was an excellent teacher, and I really learned my lessons in those two grades. Miss Chillson was also a religious fanatic, and was the mainstay of the Free Methodist Church’s small congregation.
Jim Barger, whose wife was a Dieball, and Mama’s cousin, ran a pop bottling works in a small wooden building north of the school. I even worked there for a short time.
Mr. S. H. Fairfield was Alma’s only true aristocrat, or so I thought. He was formerly the Register of Deeds and County Clerk and was in the land and real estate business. A lot of Alma people never forgave him for engineering the land deal to get the Rock Island to establish the minor division point at a new town of McFarland, four miles northeast, instead of in Alma. He lived quite graciously for a small pioneer town. All of the family were intellectuals, or so we all thought, especially the daughter, Agnes, unmarried, I believe. It was the nearest Alma ever came to high society, excepting for Doctor Beverly, who was born and raised in England.
Jack Coyne was a tailor who had a small shop across the street north from the building presently housing the Museum. He was a bachelor, and some thought that he was quite a rounder, although I doubt it. He had a poorly fitting artificial leg that he had to sort of throw when he walked. It squeaked quite loudly when he put his weight on it. As I recall, everyone liked Jack.
Alma and surrounding area is quite will supplied with Palenskes, and it was true pretty much from the start. In addition to Papa’s family there were several other basic families who came over from Germany in the early days. I am sure that they were all related, but somehow we never thought of them as such.
Then there were the Stuewes. There were three brothers that owned the Bank of Alma, and were quite big in the cattle and creamery business. They were one of Alma’s leading families, but their glory has faded like the rest of us. They are fine people, but do not have the prominence of the older generation.
There were still a lot more, but I am sure that this gives some idea of the make-up of Alma in those days.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Alma had its share of characters, so called, too. There was Sam Ogie, a Swiss carpenter, who was the first person that I heard do a good job of yodeling. Frenchie, the shoe shiner and handy man around town, lived alone in the old brewery west of town. He was not much larger than a dwarf. There was Floyd Rock, a teller of tall tales and considered by some to be the biggest liar in the county. C. P. and Skimp Simon, bachelor brothers of Charley and Boss, were always real busy doing nothing. Skimp was my friend for he would take me fishing in his boat. Joker Horne, owner, and Hickory Jones, were very much at home in Frozien Hall. Hickory had somehow put together one of the best semi-pro baseball teams in that part of the state. Most of the players were paid something and never did any known work, but a few played just for the fun of it, like my big brother Fritz and Butch Stuewe.
There were others, too, like John Krienitz, who lived west of the Rock Island bridge, and walked to town down the tracks. He always, in cool weather, wore a long black coat reaching almost to his ankles, a black wide-brimmed hat, and was seldom seen without a violin case. He was a musician and gave violin lessons.
Then there were the black ones. Howard “Rastus” Moore was a very likable old jobs man. C.O. Davis was quite argumentative, but no one paid too much attention to him. Bill Simpson hand were large, but somewhat on the light-fingered side. He was the father of Nixie, for whom we named our first Cocker Spaniel Dog. Bill used to walk off with our 16 gauge shotgun fairly regularly, but Papa always made him bring it back.
Quilly Davis, no relative of C.O., was a big black man. I remember seeing him bounce an open pocket knife, pointed end down, off his huge biceps. He was drafted early in World War I and stationed at nearby Camp Funston. One day he went over the hill and was never heard of again by anyone around Alma. Jake Ellis, another black draftee at Funston, received a medical discharge for some vague injury to his right leg. He came home with crutches at first and later a cane, and it was a town joke that when he quite often favored one leg and then the other. And, most people felt like running him out of town when he gave his cane a big heave-ho on Armistice day. They did not have to, for he left of his own accord soon afterward.
Whereas our family had been considered fairly well off, it all changed very suddenly. Papa, in the bank, had to foreclose on a note covering the flour mill property. He very unwisely, admitted later, decided to operate the mill, at a very high cost of restoring and remodeling the facilities. When it failed, he lost everything that he had, and was very deeply in debt. Of course, he had to leave the bank. He went through a very short period of heavy drinking, but then snapped out of it and returned to his first profession, photography. He started a gallery in McFarland, four miles away, and he also tried to sell made-to-measure men’s suits from big books of cloth material samples.
In the meantime, Mama, with Minnie and we three younger kids, moved to a small cottage down on the mill property, across the Rock Island tracks, south of town. It was just a mile to school from there, but only a stone’s throw from the depot. The bank, by the way, was reorganized and renamed the Farmers National Bank and moved across the street in what is now the Museum. At a considerably later date, all three banks merged to form the current First National Bank.
We were literally as poor as church mice, but we three kids, not knowing any better, did not seem to have minded too much. The burden fell on Mama and Minnie. It was fun playing around the closed mill, inside and out, and living so near the creek was handy for fishing, swimming and skating. We lived there for a couple of years, and in August of 1914, we moved to McFarland. That is, all but Minnie, who had a job in Alma and stayed with the Gus Meier’s. All of our belongings were easily loaded into a hay rack, and I rode to our new home with Hep Haller driving. He had worked at the mill, and later started the Chevrolet agency that is still there.
McFarland was not a real division point on the Rock Island, but a place where a branch line took off to the northwest, thru Manhattan, to connect with the Omaha-Denver line. However, train crews did change there and there was a round-house, car repair “rip” track, coal chute, water supply for the steam locomotives, and a very good railroad restaurant and hotel named the Modoc. There were no diners on trains that made local stops, so the restaurant did a real lively business when a train stopped for meals. The town had almost 400 people at its peak, mostly railroaders, and was probably typical of others like it scattered along the railroad tracks in those days.
The rent for our house was $12 a month, if memory serves me right, and we could hardly afford that. It had a big wire fenced-in yard, and Mama had a garden and chickens. She also grew horseradish, and was that something to have to grate through a grinder. The house was one-story, with a dirt floor basement, and a planked unfinished attic. This was a great place for play when it rained, but it was far too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. The kitchen had a wood or coal burning range. The only other heat was a Round Oak type stove in the dining room. The floor plan was quite similar to that of the house in Alma where the folks spent their last years. McFarland had no electricity, although the railroad made their own power, so our home light was provided by coal oil lamps and one Coleman mantle lamp. The privy was out near the chicken house about 75 feet from the house. Right outside the kitchen screen porch and beside the porch level doors to the basement was the well. It was an open dug well, about six-feet in diameter and about 35-feet deep. The water was raised by two oaken buckets on each end of a rope running over a well pulley. It had two hinged wooden covers that closed the top when the well was not in use. It was the best tasting water, but I am sure that the present-day health people would be horrified. I do not recall any of us being sick during our three year’s stay. We could not afford it.
Laura attended the eighth grade in McFarland, and then went to Alma for high school, also staying with Mary and Gus Meier. Florence and I were in the school for three years, mine the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I remember getting a 92 or 93 in the county final grade school examinations, so was really an honor student at McFarland.
We were still on Mill Creek and in the Flint Hills, so we had our fishing, swimming, skating, coasting, and all of the usual activities that I had enjoyed earlier in Alma. I remember the winter of 1916, I believe it was, when a very severe ice storm covered the whole area with several inches of ice. As they did not salt roads or clean off most sidewalks in those days, we were able to skate to school and about anywhere we wanted to go. I even skated to Alma, four-miles away. This heavy ice lasted for about three weeks and was a great thing for youngsters, but must have been really serious for adults, especially farmers.
We were living in McFarland at the time General Pershing’s invasion of Mexico trying to run down Poncho Villa, who had raided across the border. Troop trains, carrying most recently mobilized National Guard soldiers to the border stopped for lunch at the Modoc. All of the boys in town were at the depot when we heard that a troop train was due to come thru, and enjoyed the songs and horseplay of the so-called “week-end soldiers”. It was a big lark for them, and we kid sure envied them going off to the war like that. I recall the “horrible” agony of one of the men who had bought a ham sandwich, and just as the train was about to pull out, discovered that there was no meat between the slabs of bread. Also, I heard the finest rendition of the song “Mother” (Mis for the million things, etc.) that I had ever heard, sung by one of the uniformed men.
The first feeling of personal tragedy to really hit me was when my dog, Jack (the only dog that was ever completely mine) was ordered killed by a crippled, cantankerous old man, a neighbor named Henry Miller. Jack’s only offense that I knew about was that he ran through Miller’s alfalfa field chasing rabbits. Miller claimed that he was chasing chickens, but I was sure that it was not so. He never bothered any of our chickens. I did not know about it until it was all over, and it seemed like the end of the world. Jack had always been a real buddy to me.
Jack was a pure-bred dog of some sort of hound variety. He was about the size of an Irish Setter, with long, sleek, jet-black hair, with a white blaze on his chest. He was given to me by my brother, Arnold, who in turn had received him as a small puppy from the manager of the Modoc. We were living in Alma in the corner stone building with the sheet metal addition in the rear. Arnold brought the pup home at night and tied him to a post on our first-floor porch. As the land sloped down there the east end of the porch was about four-feet above the ground. Arnold did not use a very long rope, but it was long enough that Jack’s hind feet could just barely reach the ground after he fell off the porch. That is the way Mama found him the next morning; alive, but might uncomfortable. Jack was about six or seven years old when he died.
One of the railroad facilities was named the sheep rest. It consisted of a number of pens and sheds where sheep or cattle could be unloaded, fed, watered, and rested before being sent to the Kansas City, St. Joe, or Chicago markets. Water was pumped out of the creek, but they depended on native hay for feed. The top of the high hills south of town, across the creek, had some flat area, free of rocks, and they made good meadows for cutting and baling hay. A wooden chute was built down the side of the steep slope to move the bales to the lower level, and it provided every boy in town with the fastest ride and most thrilling fun in the whole area. Riding a bale was too dangerous and was not allowed, but riding down on loose haw was plenty fast enough.
I tried helping out the best I could at home, and I became one of the two janitors at the grade school. There were four rooms for the eight grades, and I had the two downstairs. The floors had to be swept and the desks dusted, after a fashion. And, of course, the erasers had to be cleaned by slapping them together. Each room was heated by a fairly good size stove, which was encircled by a piece of sheet metal as high as the stove. Wet coats were hung near the stove on rainy or snowy days, and the odors were pretty ripe before the clothes dried out. The stoves were coal-fired, and the coal was stored in the basement. At least I got a break in carrying up the fuel, but the other janitor was bigger and stronger than me, so it was not too uneven. I cannot remember how much I earned by those great endeavors, but I am sure that it could not have been much. But, every little big helped then.
We kids were getting a little older, and it was here that we began to realize how very poor we really were. Our clothes were much mended and getting threadbare, and, although we did not face starvation, or food was mighty plain and of the cheapest variety. It was a regular chore for me to walk along the railroad tracks and in the switch yards with a little wagon and gunny sacks picking up coal that had fallen from the engines and coal cars in passing. It was a temptation to climb up and fill up from a coal car sitting on the siding, but I cannot remember ever doing it. There were no money allowances, and small bits of candy or other sweets were a real treat. It is still a mystery to me how the folks, mostly Mama, were able to provide food and some clothing, and still pay the rent. The photography business was a real loser in McFarland. Although it had to be a constant ordeal for Mama and Papa, it still did not bother us youngsters too much, for the other local kids did not have too much, either.
The one crowning blow was when we learned that my older brother, Max, had been convicted of embezzling funds from a Chicago bank, where he worked. He was sent to the Federal Prison in Leavenworth for a term of years, but was pardoned after a few years for good behavior. His wife, Florence divorced him, and took herself and their daughter Josephine out of our lives forever, excepting for the recent brief flyer with Josephine. We kids felt bad, and I know that it was a heart-breaker for the folks and Minnie. I visited Max at the prison once in the company of my brother, Fritz who was on his way back to Chicago. We took the interurban up from Kansas City. It was a dark and dreary day, and it is still a dark memory.
Papa had never owned a buggy or any kind of vehicle, but finally bought a used two-cylinder Reo touring car. It had to be mighty cheap. It was painted a flat, dark red, about like barn paint, with a brass radiator, and I do not recall it having a top. It cranked on the right side, with the steering wheel also on the right. The shift and hand brake levers were on the outside of the car, but this was easily done, there being no doors. The two font seats were divided, regular buckets, leaving a gap of about a foot or so between. This was a passageway to the one-piece back seat, which was a foot or so higher than the front. All of the seat upholstery was real leather, as was true of about all of the cars made in those days. The sound of the exhaust was a jerky hissing, and the car seemed to sort of lope, there being only two cylinders. I suppose that it could get up to a speed of 20-miles per hour going down a slight grade, and it was not good at climbing hills. It was a real hot-rodder, all right, and about the only one like it for many miles around.
Papa closed his gallery, packed what few belongings he had in the old Reo and started out to relocate. He was 59 years old at that time. He first went to Garnett, Kansas, a town south and west of Kansas City, but finally landed in Burlington, Kansas, southeast of Emporia on the Neosho River, where he took over a photo gallery there. Mama packed us up and returned to live in Alma, after an absence of there years. This was in August of 1917.
Before our leaving for Alma, I spent most of June and July of 1917 on my Uncle August Palenske’s farm, about four miles southeast of McFarland. I did a little work for my board and was even paid fifty cents per day for shocking wheat during the harvest. Uncle August and wife and younger girls had moved to Alma in a house a short block west of the school. The farm was being operated by five of his sons; Otto, Henry, Bob, Ed, and George in that age sequence. Also, three daughters, Rose, Mami, and Ida were there that summer. The family had 13 children. Two of the boys, Bob and Ed were in the first draft call for World War I, but Bob failed his physical. Ed, who had always been my favorite of the family, was the only one called, and he was in the first group to leave. He was in France in the minimum of time, and eventually saw plenty of service. There was a report that he had been gassed, but apparently, he recovered enough to return to the front. He was later reported “killed in action”, and it really hurt me. The American Legion Post at Alma is named the Ed Palenske Post, a fitting honor for an awful nice guy.
Our first home on our return to Alma was the old two-story house, across the street to the south from the Sage home. It was not a large house, and even with our few belongings, we felt somewhat crowded. Even so, Mama had to have roomers to make ends meet. Three Enlow girls from eight-miles north of town, lived in one room downstairs, across the stairway hall from the living room. It was about 14×20-feet in size and they did their own cooking as well as sleeping. Their brother, a shorty nicknamed “Inchey”, ate with the girls and slept with me in a little slant-sided room over the kitchen. There were two narrow casement windows at the far end of the room, and it required constant cutting to keep the openings clear of ivy vines. In spite of Inchey’s size he was the loudest snorer that I have ever heard, so that sleep became a real problem for me.
And, in addition, another high school student, Mabel Hankins, from Snokomo out east of town, slept in the northwest upstairs room. For the life of me, I cannot remember where Mama, Minnie, Laura and Florence slept, for there was just one more bedroom, the same size as the ones that the Enlow girls and Mabel Hankins used.
We lived only a couple hundred of feet from the Rock Island tracks, and the freight trains went roaring thru town with the whistle cord pulled down for all of the crossings. It was almost a case of “the train runs thru the middle of the house”. Surprisingly, we soon got used to it and hardly knew that they were passing.
Our neighbor to the east, Mr. Leonard, who was right against the railroad right-of-way, had a big garden in back of his house. In addition to the usual vegetables, he had a small patch of tobacco. I once pulled a few leaves and dried them in the loft of a stone barn in the rear of our place. I am sure that the leaves were not mature, but they dried up in good shape. I was doing some smoking then on the sly, mostly a small half-size pipe with a curved stem, that I hid in the ivy vines on the south side of the house when I went in. I tried my home-cured tobacco, and wowee, I almost gave up smoking. It would have been better if I had, I guess, although I must admit that I enjoy the cigarettes I consumed in later years.
A little sidelight on that curved-stem pipe. Some time during the summer I had changed over to cigarettes, and forgot all about the pipe stuck in the vines. Come fall, and with the ivy leaves falling, the pipe was fully exposed. Laura found it one Saturday afternoon and brought it in to Mama, who was upstairs. I was slouched down in our old Morris chair, reading, and was not observed. Mama accepted the fact that the pipe was mine, and told Laura that, as my older brothers all smoked, I probably would, too, and if that were true, she would just as soon I smoked at home. That about floored Laura, but as I had overheard it all, it as a great triumph for me, and the beginning of a new era.
As mentioned earlier, America had entered World War I in April, 1917, and the draftees were starting to leave by early fall. I was a Freshman in high school, and joined all of the other students of all grades in parades down to the depot to see the boys off for Camp Funston. This was adjoining Fort Riley, only about 35-miles away by highway. We made quite a number of trips to the depot that fall.
That winter of 1917-1918 was a horrible one, for we were hit by an epidemic of a disease called the Spanish Influenza. It was a new virus, and before a vaccine could be developed, many deaths occurred. Our schools were closed for several weeks until the sickness subsided, and recoveries were slow in most cases. Our family was one of the lucky ones, as none of us were victims of the dreaded Spanish Flu. This epidemic was almost nationwide.
The Spanish Flu was especially bad in the Army training camps where the men were living so close together. Alma had its share of returned dead, and almost unbelievable stories were told (they were true, too) of the daily piles of rough boxes on the depot platform at Camp Funston. The flu killed a lot more service men that winter during World War I than died in battle or from any other causes.
I seem to have an immunity so far as disease was concerned, for I managed to miss the bug in several local epidemics during my earlier years. I cannot recall our house ever being quarantined, as was the custom in those days. The only so-called kid’s diseases I had were chicken pox and measles, and both were so light that I was not even in bed, just lying on the sofa for a day or so.
My work in the four years of high school was passably good, tho’ I certainly did not overexert myself and never seemed to have any homework. The town hang-out for high school boys was Rongisch’s bakery and restaurant, and I put in my share of time there. Also, we did some loafing at Frank Cleland’s livery stable.
In our day, boys wore short pants until they “grew up” and graduated to long pants. The shorties had some sort of fastening device at the knees, and the stockings were the heavy black ribbed sort that fastened above the knees inside the pants with a loop elastic garter. As we all wore long underwear in the winter, one can easily visualize how lumpy the legs were. Usually a boy changed over to long pants after the eighth grade, but I wanted until the spring of 19198, the end of my Freshman year. We could not afford it sooner, I guess.
Small town boys with time on their hand sometimes get into some sort of mischief. Although it was not violent or vicious as it often is today, and we did not have any drug or alcohol problems, we did have what we called fun. Tick-taking was a hit and run game. One was with a bent pin hooked into a screen on an open window. This was tied to a thin string long enough to provide, hopefully, ample safety. A piece of rosin rubbed back and forth on the far end of the string could create rather awful sound inside the house. The other method was used when the screens were off and the windows closed. A notched wooden spool, with a long nail loosely thru the hole and a couple of feet of string wrapped around it, cold make a loud and very annoying noise when the string was pulled fast with the spool held against the glass. The only real fun in the game was to be chased, and even tho’ it was always done after dark, occasionally someone got caught. It was not a jail sentence, but could be a bit uncomfortable.
Halloween, of course, was generally accepted as a night of mischief. The real young kids did real young tricks, and “Trick or Treat” had never been heard of. For boys of high school age, the sole function seemed to be tipping over privies. Although on a couple of occasions we had shotgun blasts let go over our heads, only once was there an occupant of a privy involved. It was the wife of one of our colored preachers, the one on the northwest side of town. Unfortunately, it fell with the door side down, and it may have gotten a bit complicated before it was over. We did not stick around to find out.
My summer job in 1918 was with John Noller, who had married my cousin, Rosa Eck. He was a blacksmith by trade and continued to work at it off and on. His main business was a garage for car repair, with two gas pumps in front. He later had a Plymouth agency. I as the sweep-up flunky, the grease monkey, the gas pumper (literally, for the gas was pumped into a glass tank on top, with the measuring marks, and then drained down thru the hose), and although I learned nothing about repairing card, which were relatively simple in those days, I did enjoy the summer.
My first close-up experience with unnatural death occurred that summer. A group of us went swimming at Stuewe’s hole, a mine and a half east of town. The creek, just below a riffle, was fairly wide and quite deep. One of the group, Bill Cleland, who had enlisted and was about to leave for the Navy, could not swim very well. He became separated from the gang and drowned, after saying in a rather matter of fact voice, “I can’t make it, fellows”. One of the swimmers had a chance to save him and made a grab for his hair. It could have worked except for Bill’s butch cut. It shook us very much, especially since he was very well-liked by all of us.
My high school years were rather uneventful, with a few exceptions. I recall the false armistice announcement in early November, 1918. School was dismissed, and we did a lot of whooping it up in some fashion or another. Then came the big let-down, but it was a real big celebration around town when the real armistice was announced, to be effective at 11:00 am on November 11, 1918. Again, school was let out, but we really did not do much but ride around in a friend’s car. It was a mighty good feeling to have the war over.
The first celebrated Armistice Day on November 11, 1919 was quite a day when almost everyone felt like letting down their hair in their joy of peaceful times and having the boys back; that is, the ones that came back. Almost every family was affected in some way or other. There was a parade, with the veterans still able to wear their uniforms, a town team football game in the afternoon, and a dance at night in the Workman’s hall over Umbehr’s store. Although Prohibition had already set in, especially in Kansas, the streets were filled with alcoholic inspired celebrations. Drinking from whiskey and wine bottles was wide open and no one even thought of doing anything about it. The weather was mild and many slept in the street that night, but I cannot recall any property damage, like broken windows. There probably were some broken bottles scattered about. It would have been quite different today.
Laura had graduated from high school in May of 1919 and went to Manhattan to work. She stayed with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Emil Thoes. He worked at the Manhattan State Bank. She met and later married a soldier stationed at Camp Funston, an Italian named Basil Stella. He was a mechanic and serviced motorcycles. They used a lot of them in World War I, before the day of the Jeep. After his discharge they went to Omaha, Basil’s home before the war, and he went back to work for Swift & Company, repairing the wheels and trucks of refrigerator cars. They roomed with a Bohemian family named Frank Doksansky (I hope that I spelled it correctly) at 49th and W Streets in South Omaha, in a pretty poor neighborhood known as Homestead.
The second summer of my high school years was spent in St. Joseph, Michigan in 1919. Brother Fred had helped start a rubber manufacturing plant in February of that year, and I worked there for the three summer months. The plant was in the basement of a one-story building on East Broad Street. A machine shop was on the main floor (Lessing’s I believe), and anointed a frame building housing a fruit spray plant on the east side. It was right next door to the east of Williams Brothers Box plan. Mr. J.W. Tiscornia was one of the original founders, and about the only product manufactured that first year were the rubber strips for cushions for the Baer top holders made by Auto Specialties. There were only eight or ten employees, and I worked on a tubing machine with Louis Sleeper, father of John Platts’ and Dinty Storms’ wives. The first plant burned out on October 26, 1921 (Maud’s birthday) after it had expanded to take over the main floor. The fire had started in the chemical plant next door.
My third summer, in 1920, was spent in Omaha. I roomed at the same house as Laura and basil, the Doksanskys. I was employed by Swift & Company, and I worked on refrigerator cars, too, but on the top sides. I repaired the wooden, hair insulated, and canvas edged plugs for the ice tanks, two at each end of the car. Nothing too much happened that summer, either, but I did learn in a very rough way how to play the Italian form of bowling on the green. It is pronounced something like Boccia (Boshie), but I cannot find the spelling in any dictionaries around the house.
I suppose that my four years of high school can be considered pretty ordinary, and probably typical of that size of school. I went out for sports my last three years, lettering in football and track the last two. We did not have a gymnasium so did not play basketball. There was very little basketball played in the are in those days. There were not enough boys available for both track and baseball, although we did play ball on the side. My best achievement of any consequence was placing third in the pole fault in a state meet in Emporia my senior year.
I always had some sort of a job while in high school. I was the janitor at the Masonic Lodge hall for a couple of years, sweeping the floor once a week, and oftener when the Eastern Star met. I also kept the heating stove cleaned out and a fire set, with wood provided for the next meeting. My main job, however, was that of shoeshine boy and general handyman deluxe for Harley Hughes’ barber shop. The shop needed a constant sweeping because of the heavy cuts of hair, and as there was no city water, I had to keep the open heater tank filled with soft water, carried from a private cistern a half-block away. It kept me pretty busy, but I do not think that I minded too much.
An event that came along with the barber shop job was a fight that I had with a boy my age named Edward Johnson, while on the way home one night. I do not remember any reason for the fisticuffs, but I am sure that there was one. It was a stand-up fight, without very many blows struck. One of the barbers was with me and stopped the fight, which was definitely a draw, before it really got a good start. I did bloody his nose, but I got my first and only black eye. It took some explaining, and I recall it being pretty embarrassing.
During the heyday of the local cattle herds, especially pure-bred Herefords, and before World War I, much of the marketing of high-grade cattle was done thru local sales. Alma interests built a sales pavilion east of the Rock Island tracks and near the Santa Fe depot, and it was used quite a lot. The sales arena consisted of a square “ring” with bleacher-type seats rising on three sides. The auctioneer’s podium was behind the “ring” on the fourth side. The barn to house the animals was attached, and extended back to the north. Alma was considered a livestock marketing center at this time, but the pavilion was used less and ales with the post-war decline of pure-bred cattle breeding. Shipping was directly to the Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri markets.
The pavilion was locally and quite naturally called the “Cow Barn”, and was later used for functions other than cattle sales. The “ring” part was floored over nearly as high as the railing around it, and it became Alma’s civic auditorium, there being no other place after the opera house was torn down. Our senior play was held there, as were probably others before and after it, and our high school graduation exercises were also there. It is my guess that it might have been one of the early “Theaters in the Round” in the country. I believe that it is part of the Alma Cheese Factory at the present time.
I did very little dating in high school, although we went to a lot of dances. There were a few dates, but as a rule it was both boys’ and girls’ stags, piled into the few available cars for the out of town affairs. We did have our good times, even though it does not sound very thrilling by modern standards.
During my last two years of high school we lived in the two-story frame house, catty-corner from our old stone house and west of the Sage home. We had two students rooming and boarding with my senior year, a sister and brother named Allwardt from McFarland. I cannot remember her name, but I think that his was Vernon, nicknamed Bud. She slept across the hall upstairs, and Bud with me. They were real nice kids, and we got along in fine shape. My clearest memory of Bud was watching him, with genuine fascination, eat 12 large bananas within twenty minutes, a fellow buying them if he could do it. And right after supper, yet.
I graduated from Alma High School in the class of 1921.
My first move after high school was to St. Joseph, Michigan, about the fist of June, 1921. I had a big molar pulled the day before I left on the train, and I arrived early in the morning in Chicago without having had any sleep. After spending all day in Chicago (I cannot recall what Fred and I did) we left for St. Joe on the night train. I must have fallen asleep right away and had some really way-out dreams. At any rate, I provided a good show for all of the passengers by trying to climb into the overhead luggage rack at my seat. Fred and a friend, Doc Witt, brought me down and back to wakefulness safely, so I did arrive in one piece.
There was a recession in 1921, and there was no job for me at Industrial Rubber, then located on East Broad street, near Williams Brothers. I started working for Auto Specialties. It was a fill-in sort of job in several departments and was pretty dull, so I decided to return home to Alma in August. Maud and Fed lived on Michigan Avenue that year, so I got plenty of walking that summer.
After returning to Alma I worked at odd jobs around town, such as candling eggs in a wholesale produce house, and part time road work. While working west of town at a place where the road was to be straightened, I was cutting brush to help clear the land to permit relatively low-powered machinery to move in. I wore a huge blister on my right thumb, which soon broke and the skin peeled off. Then I scratched the tinder new skin, apparently by a poisonous thorn. In two days’ time the end of the thumb ballooned to about triple in size. Doc Meyer lanced it, and in a few days, it had healed, or apparently so. It should have drained more, I guess, for I went thru an extremely painful experience during the next three or four months.
A man in Alma named August Thowe, pronounced Toby, had purchased one of the wooden barracks for the good lumber in it. Camp Funston, adjoining Fort Riley, was being dismantled, as an aftermath of World War I. He hired a work crew for the demolition work, even down to a cook, and there were cots for sleeping. I was hired, and rode to the site with the gang of about twenty in a big truck. After working five or six days, I started getting boils. They were small at first and concentrated on my left side; arm, buttock, leg. I had to leave the job, and I returned to Alma by way of the interurban to Manhattan, and the Rock Island railroad the rest of the way, changing trains in McFarland. I had several hours of lay-over in Manhattan, so I went to a movie in the old Marshall Theater to try to distract from the unpleasant pain of the boils. Because of my left side affliction, I sat pretty much all alone in the top of the balcony, so that I could sort of half lay on my right side on the benches up there. When I got home Doc Meyer counted 52 of the nasty little things.
As the days passed the boils opened and disappeared as new ones came on, and the siege finally climaxed with three huge ones on my neck, one on each side and the final one in back. In the meantime, I had been eating a cake of Fleischman’s yeast every day. I forgot who recommended this practice, but I believe it was the ads in the newspapers. The stuff is hard to eat, as it sticks to the roof of the mouth, even worse than peanut butter. It has a bland yeasty taste that is not too unpleasant, but is a long way from being delectable. I ate it faithfully for over three months, and finally, while skating one night in late December, the last boil popped open on the back of my neck. The heavy pain left immediately, and that was the end of the battle of the boils. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, and thank goodness, other than a few blackheads, I have not had even a pimple since that time.
During the late fall of 1921, even while still under the cloud of boils, I ventured on a trapping project with Ted Sage, who lived across the street and was unemployed that winter. I do not remember where we borrowed the steel traps or how many there were (about 35, I would guess), but we were determined to catch muskrats. Or would it be more appropriate at this time to call them mushrats? Ted had trapped before, so I was really just the helper. A boat was available east of the Santa Fe bridge, so the traps were set, by Ted, in the many muskrat holes along the creek bank. It was a freezing cold day, with lowering clouds threatening snow, and that water was might frigid. The traps had to be set bare-handed. We got all of the traps in place, but before we got home, the snow started. It lasted several days and the temperature dropped enough to partially freeze over the creek, so that it was over a week before we could run the traps. We had an excellent catch of well-over half of the traps, so we pulled them all out and called it a season on the creek. It was fortunate that we did, for the water froze over solidly and stayed that way for most of the winter. Getting back to the business at hand, the muskrats were skinned and the pelts stretched over boards, which had to be cut to the right size. The skins were tacked on the boards inside-out to permit proper drying. Furs had a ready sale in those days, and I recall that we netted between $30.00 and $35.00 apiece. That was not bad when lots of men were earning just a couple of dollars a day.
In the spring of 1922 I spent about a week in Kansas City looking for a job. Papa supplied the money for this move out of his scanty horde. The recession was still on, and I was inexperienced, so that I had no luck at all. Max was remarried to Lina, and was working in the office of a wholesale electric supply company there in Kansas City. I did not stay with them, but at a rooming house on Cherry Street.
My next move was to Omaha, staying with Laura and Basil and their twin girls, Marie and Margaret, at 56th and U Streets, a home that they had built there. I again worked for Swift & Company for a couple of months, repairing refrigerator cars’ safety items, such as hand holds and foot brackets, brake wheels, and chains, and other items. It was not to bad a job, but I was lured away by the sure promises of becoming a millionaire in a remarkably short time.
The glowing offer was, of course, selling magazine subscriptions for the Crowell Company. Doesn’t this sound familiar? It seemed to me that just about everyone was breathlessly waiting to order Colliers, Woman’s Home Companion, or whatever was offered by Crowell. I worked about ten days in such varied neighborhoods as near downtown Council Bluffs and the general area of the north part of South Omaha, very poor places to see anything. Of course, there was no money coming in, so I quit while I still had streetcar fare.
At that time, the union called a strike at the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, covering their shop and maintenance employees. The trainmen were willing to work, so in order to keep things moving, strike breakers were hired. To avoid picket line trouble these men were bunked in a boxcar sleeping quarters in the yards in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha. It was necessary to feed them, so I hired on as a waiter, at pretty good pay, as I recall. The kitchen and dining room were in boxcars, and we slept in boxcar bunks, too. The strike lasted only about two weeks after I started, so I was out of a job, again.
And I again returned to Alma that fall of 1922.
In the meantime, Mama and Florence had moved to Burlington to be with Papa. I went on down, too, and pent most of the winter. We lived in a small cottage at the west end of a small park on the west side of town. Florence finished her last two years of high school there and went to Topeka to work. Mama and Papa then moved into rooms behind his photo gallery, and that little cottage was the last house that they would live in until they moved back to Alma when Papa sold out and retired. Their home in Osage City was in rooms behind the gallery, also.
I had returned to Alma early in the spring of 1923, staying with Aunt Bertha Eck. Other boarders were Uncle Dick Thoes, August Ohst, the artist, and usually another man or two who worked in business places in town. I apparently did not think much about it at the time, but later I marveled at how Aunt Bertha could do it, being as handicapped as she was.
Aunt Bertha was really a remarkable person. She had been struck by lightning around the turn of the century, and was afflicted by a near loss of hearing. She developed a bad curvature of the spine, and it became progressively worse as time went on. She was pregnant with Harry at the time of the lightning accident, and he was born slightly deformed and a little odd, but he was very loyal and caring for his mother. Aunt Bertha lived in a fairly large square two-story house that had been built by Uncle Joe Eck in the 1890s. It had a full attic and partial basement (pretty much all fruit cellar, as there was no central heating). It is obvious that it was a real chore to take care of it. She had another roomer besides me, and the boarders, no one can understand what was required to just keep even with the work. She had a wonderful sense of humor and always greeted me with a warm smile, even after her health was failing badly. She survived a fall from a second story window, and other accidents that could have been extremely serious, and were serious, but physically she was apparently as tough as nails. I paid her the magnificent sum of $5.00 a week for board and room all of the time that I stayed there.
Aunt Bertha was a second mother to me while I roomed there, even during the summers of my college years. I remember very well the red fig wine that she made every year. It had a very pleasant taste, a bit on the sweet side, and was right potent. She gave me a water glass almost three-quarters full on a cold winter night while I was sitting behind a hot Round Oak stove in the dining room (the parlor was not heated, therefore not used). When I started to get up from the little stool that I was sitting on I discovered for the first time in my life what rubber legs are like. I just cold not move for a while. Aunt Bertha was Mama’s older sister, and a grand, grand person.
That spring of 1923, I worked a short time for the contractor who was putting in the water and sewer system in Alma. Then I went to work for the County Engineer and the Wabaunsee County Highway Department. I was just a common laborer, doing such jobs as bending reinforcing steel for concrete culverts, or any other odds and ends chores that needing doing. Finally, I became a truck driver, using the old surplus World War I Liberty trucks, with wide solid tires and governed to 30-miles per hour.
Roads were all dirt then, and rocky and flinty in many places out there, so that truck driving consisted of a lot more than just hauling things from place to place. There was pulling a smoothing-out drag over a section of 10 or 15 miles of county road, or pulling a grader for straightening roads, cleaning ditches, and building up shoulders. A grader crew was made up of two men, in the truck drive and grader man. We would be gone out in various parts of the county for several weeks at a time, going out early Monday morning and coming into Alma Saturday night. We worked six days a week, and there was no overtime pay, either. While we were out we boarded and roomed with nearby and willing neighbors along the stretch of road that we happened to be working. I well remember one family that served fried chicken six days a week, and maybe on Sunday. We were there about two weeks, and I don’t recall every getting tired of chicken.
It is pretty obvious that I was living mostly from day to day, with not much concern for the future or in any way improving myself. I am sure that I was an agnostic as I had no thoughts of church or religion. I apparently did not care that my life was pretty bleak, and there did not seem to be any ambitions to do anything about getting out of the dismal rut that I was traveling it. I did no dating whatever, and many Saturday nights were spent in all-night, low-stakes poker games. I did not drink much, if any, but I was leading a pretty useless life. There was no shining light at the end of the tunnel, and I could honestly be called a first-class bum, with a job.
We did not think much about taking vacations in those days. We had no excess money or a car, so we just drifted along taking our time off, without pay, when the weather forced us to shut down. However, I took one trip, in July or August of 1924. I went to Colorado Springs with two fellows in a stripped-down Model T. The fact that we got there and back again got me to believing in miracles.
Bill “Juten” Stuewe had cut down a Model T (I think that it is called customizing today). There were no fenders, no top, and only half a windshield. An oval gas tank was set vertically behind the seat for the driver and one passenger, who sat on the floor with legs straight out. There was a wooden platform on the back. The license plate was nailed to the rear cross member 2 x 4, and there was no tail light. Later during the trip, the 2 x 4 came loose and was lost, so we were without a license plate, as there was none in front then or now either, in Kansas.
We nailed an old-fashioned high trunk to the wooden platform in the back for carrying our clothes and supplies (we did our own cooking part of the time). Our tent was folded and tied on top of the trunk. The tent poles tied along the side. The third passenger sat on top of the tent-covered trunk, so it is easy to understand why we rotated positions during each day of the trip.
Juten, Art “Monk” Johnson, and I made the two-week trip. As we had no top or fenders, and the roads were all dirt, another miracle was that we had no rain in that two weeks. We left on an afternoon and stayed the first night in Junction City, about 35-miles away. Later, somewhere along the line, we broke our crank, so had to push the car to start it. That meant that we could not park facing into a curb, but had to have the open country ahead of the front of the car. On that Sunday morning, coming into Oakley, Kansas we burned out a connecting rod bearing. We finally found a garage open and bought a new rod, and were given permission to work on the car in the back lot. While Juten, our mechanic, replaced the rod and bearing, a quite regular and common thing in those days, Monk, and I prowled around among the old car wrecks scattered in the back lot. We found and managed to appropriated a crank to fit our car, so we were back in business again.
Our next problem arose when we arrived at an auto camp in Manitou Springs, a suburb of Colorado Springs. WE had to register the car, and discovered the loss of the license plate. Fortunately, Colorado issued visitors’ plates in those days. We knew of a former Alma man, Ed Bohn, living in Colorado Springs, who helped us get a visitor’s plate. Somehow it got us back home without being stopped by the law.
This first trip to Colorado took us on a narrow-gauge train ride from Manitou Springs to Cripple Creek, a high-speed cage ride down into a deep gold mine, the Mary McKinney at over 5,000 feet and a good look at the rugged mountains in that area. We visited the Garden of the Gods, the Seven Falls, and other places that did not require any steep climbing (a Model T engine would burn out the end bearings in case of prolonged tilts of the car). We went as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, and on our way south again we were kicked out of an auto camp in Loveland, Colorado for accidently spilling some gasoline on the grass. It was certainly a trip that only youths who had a few of the good things in life could enjoy. And enjoy it, we did. It provided plenty of conversation for months to come.
I realize that I have omitted an important bit of family history, and I would like to break in on my story in this chapter. I wish to go back to the winter and early spring of 1922, the time that I spent a month or more in Burlington with Mama, Papa, and Florence. It was during this time that I worked, without pay, on Papa’s electric power line.
In order to get down to the real beginning of this story, I will have to reverse the time machine, again, back to World War I. Before our entry into the war, Papa was very decidedly pro-German, as was our whole family. We all changed when America took the other side, but Papa may not have swung over. I don’t know. In alma it would not have made any difference, as the town was practically filled with Germans, but Burlington people immediately suspected anyone with a German name. They practically forced him to buy Liberty bonds, which he could not afford, and automatically placed him in the class of undesirable aliens who would poison wells and commit other acts of bestial atrocity. In this horde of persecutors were at least two loyal friends; Mr. Ackerman, owner of a bakery and a man whose name I cannot recall, who owned the local electrical power plant.
To the west of Burlington, about 20 miles or so, is the town of Gridley. Soon after the war it was a boom town, being a part of the oil field around Madison, just south of Emporia. Gridley grew from a small village to a town of a couple of thousand people almost overnight, and found itself with inadequate schools, water, sewer, and electric power. I do not remember how the first three problems were solved, but the power contract went to Papa.
Fortunately, Burlington had enough excess power to supply Gridley with what they needed. Papa conceived the plan to build the connecting power line, and was given the necessary credit by his good friend, the Burlington plant owner. There was no direct highway, so the line was built along, but just outside of, the right-of-way of a branch line of the Missouri Pacific. Gridley had a big civic celebration when the lights were first turned on, and I am sure that Papa was lionized as the hero of the hour.
Papa had one employee who kept the line in shape. He was called Duke and his last name may have been Snyder, but definitely not the ball player. He was an expert pole man, and could descend from the top of a tall power pole to the ground in three flying leaps, with his climbing spurs or irons contacting the pole. I really enjoyed the several times that I helped him. As there were no roads it was necessary to walk along the track to inspect the poles and lines. At least we were able to ride the caboose of a freight train back to Burlington.
We have all been proud of Papa for his work and foresight in organizing this company to build the line and selling power to Gridley. The company was later dissolved, after selling the assets to the Burlington plant. Papa was able to recoup a part of his lost fortune. At least enough to permit he and Mama to finally retire to Alma with enough security to feel independent of any major outside support. He had come a long way from the dark depths of the post-mill collapse and his life in McFarland. He was about 63-years old at the time he formed the company.
The Wabaunsee County Engineer, my boss, was named Felix Itz. He was a good man to work for, as I found him to always be fear in dealing with the men. Later on, he needed some help in the office (I was about the only one available with a high school diploma), so I got a promotion with no raise in pay. You can see that I was fond of Felix, and was forever grateful to him for urging me to enroll in Civil Engineering at Kansas State. I have occasionally kidded about the red-headed girl who was supposed to have sparked my sudden desire for college, but it was Felix that I can thank.
[I thought that I could earn more money “following the wheat harvest”. The idea was to start in southwestern Kansas and work on north thru Nebraska, or even South Dakota. I quit my job with Felix’s blessing, and prepared to set out. Three of us, Mars “Witchie” Wertzberger, Albert Hitzemann, and I bought an old Model T roadster for $25.00, converted it to carry some luggage, and started out. We worked about ten days for a German farmer just outside of Ellinwood, just east of Great Bend, Kansas. After we had finished there we drove north, arriving in Imperial, Nebraska, in time to take part in a Fourth of July celebration. The next day we drove on to Venago, a small town just a half-mile from the Colorado line. The best job that we could find was cultivating corn for a man named Olson, who had three sons of his own who were old enough to do the work. Anyone who has been to that part of the country knows that it does not take six men, in addition to Mr. Olson, to take care of a corn farm near the western Nebraska sand hills. We heard not-so-good news about prospects further north in the wheat fields, so decided to end our harvesting adventure after about ten more days.
We drove back across Nebraska, heading east on Highway U.S. 20, and, with the roads like they were (mostly dirt and gravel), and the car that we had, we did not break any speed limits. We drove all night, taking turns, and had a sort’a strange experience. The sky was clear with a bright, almost full moon and this old moon played some tricks on us. We were telling Laura, when we saw her the next day, that we observed a phenomenon almost equal to the Christmas star; we saw the moon change thru its quarters and back to full again. We looked and felt pretty silly when she told us that there had been an almost total eclipse. We got to the Stella home at 56th & U Streets, in the extreme southwestern edge of Omaha, about noon of the second day. Somehow, we managed to stay the night, for I still wonder how and where we all slept. With plenty of Basil’s home brew, drank in loving cup fashion from a kitchen pan, and lots of laughing and good spirits, we had ourselves a mighty good time. Florence was there, too, so it was a family reunion of sorts. The next day, probably with varying degrees of hang-over, we drove the 200 miles to the south to Alma. We sold the old Model T for $25.00, the same as we paid for it, so we ended that episode a little bit wiser but certainly no richer. I helped out at Felix’s office for five or six weeks to finish out the summer.
My high school grades had been sent to Kansas State, and I had been accepted. Early in September of 1925, I rode to Manhattan, about 28 miles to the northwest, with Jim Schwanke in his old Model T. Jim lived on a farm five or six miles south of Alma. We roomed together, along with three other Freshmen and a graduate student, on Vattier Street, east of the campus, with a family named Telford. They were real nice people, and we did not mind the several inconveniences we had to contend with.
In order to finance my college, I had arranged a loan from Minnie, who was working at the Alma National Bank with Oscar Deans. My living was very frugal, even to the extent of sometimes a quart of milk for lunch and a hamburger for dinner. I often wore my R.O.T.C. pants and wrapped leggings (horrible wooly, scratchy things) to class. My grades were good, a 2.8 average in a 3-point system (I almost flunked forging, as I couldn’t keep from burning the steel rods when trying to weld together). The second semester was about as good.
In the late winter of 1926 I worked for Felix in the office. I helped with the surveying, even heading up the crew most of the time. Another chore was making tracings for small concrete culverts and other county highway structures. That summer I stayed with Aunt Bertha.
My sophomore year, in the fall of 1926, started out about where I had left off in the spring. My grades continued on the high side, and I began to feel that I was starting in a small way, to get the feeling and sense of civil engineering. However, two things made this semester different. I got a job in the fraternity house doing the janitor work, and later, when the opening came up, waiting on tables and washing dishes. These jobs earned my meals, and I continued holding the waiter job throughout the rest of my college years. The second thing, and of much more importance, I met a girl. Alfa Theta Chi, a local sorority down the street a block or so, held a short open house dance one Friday night for our men. Although I did not dance with her or even meet her that night, I managed a blind date the next night for a movie, dance or something. Her name was Irene Rogler, whose home was a farm near Matfield Green in Chase County.
I had a few dates before meeting her, but they were the usual casual affairs that someone in the house gets for you for a double date. For some reason this Irene affair was different, and I dated her steady, with some few exceptions, for the balance of our three more years of school
The summer of 1927 found me working for Felix again, with a slight raise in pay and much more responsibility, with I wanted and liked. Also, again, I stayed with Aunt Bertha.
My Junior year, starting in September of 1927, was of more seeming importance than the previous tow. I was elected to Sigma Tau, an engineering honorary; elected an officer in the Civil Engineering Society; was made a charter member of the newly organized “Steel Ring”, another engineering honorary; and in the second semester was elected Junior Class President. I was also the President of the house the second semester and the first semester of my senior year. There were a few other things, and with me dating steady, my high grade-point average of the first two years started a slow but steady deterioration. However, I still finished the year in good shape scholastically.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot. One of my functions of “great” importance during my third year was being a member of the Wampas Cats. It is a pep organization made up of one man from each fraternity, and its purpose is, or was, to assist the cheer leaders and help wherever needed at football games. They put on some of the silly stunts that seemed to be a necessary part of the home games in those days, even in spite of the snide remarks and the hoots and jeers of the needling skeptics. We did go to the K.U. game in Lawrence in all of our regalia, so we did reap at least one dividend. Kansas State had a pretty fair team that year, beating K.U. and most of the other conference teams (I think we lost to Nebraska and possibly Missouri). It was the Big Six then, before Colorado and Oklahoma State came in. It was fun, probably more so for the younger men, but I sure took plenty of ribbing form the gals who did not appreciate the great good that we did. I always thought that we looked right smart in our outfits of white canvas pants, white sneakers, and a white slip-over sweater with a narrow purple band around the neck and the head of a purple wildcat on the front. After the reception of excessive laughter, I decided not to take part in my senior year.
My final school summer work in 1928 was divided between Wabaunsee County and the State Highway Department. The state was putting in a number of bridges and culverts and widening the state rods, so I worked only half time for Felix. The State Engineer was named Quantz, a Canadian, and I enjoyed my association with him very much.
Fred had given me the money, $35.00, I believe, to take the work of the Blue Lodge of Freemasonry. The Alma Lodge had agreed to give me the first two degrees in special sessions during the summer, although they normally do not put on degree work from May through September. It was just too hot, I guess. Uncle Dick Thoes knew the rituals forward and back, and was a very thorough coach. Many of the evenings that summer were spent on his back porch learning all of the proper replies in the rituals for the three degrees. I had to come back from school to be raised a Master Mason in the Third Degree at a special Saturday night initiation. I have never been back to sit in my own lodge as a member, which is a rather unusual and deplorable record. Irene accompanied me to Alma that weekend and managed to get in on an open-air dance in McFarland with Minnie and Martin.
I might add here that Minnie had married Martin Zwanziger in 1927, and they lived for a while in Uncle Dick’s home. Later they rented a nice little bungalow on the east side of town, and finally bought the home in the northwest section of Alma that Marin still lives in.
The first semester of my senior year was a busy one. I carried a full 17-hours schedule of work and in addition had a number of extracurricular activities. Being selected for Scarab, a sort of senior honorary for fraternity men, took no time, but I had been elected president of Sigma Tau. This included a trip as a delegate to the national convention on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. It was a new experience for me, but I did not get too much out of it. While there I saw Maud and Fred, who drove down to Urbana to take me back to St. Joseph, Michigan. I spent a Saturday night there, and Fred got me back to Chicago the next day to catch a train back to Kansas City and Manhattan. My tickets were on the Union Pacific to Kansas City, and the Chicago & Alton to Champaign, and then back, again. The C. & A. is now part of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, or whatever road may now own it, such as possibly the Illinois Central.
My second semester was a bit on the boring side. I was elected senior class secretary in the spring election, but there was not much else doing in the political or activities field. I had taken five house of correspondence courses the previous summer, which made it possible to elect three hours of Historical Geology this last semester. It turned out to be the most interesting class of my whole college curriculum. Even thin I did not have a full assignment, and was getting pretty anxious to get out and get started at a job. I was fully aware of the fact that I was four years older than most of my classmates. Irene was carrying a full schedule, so it did create a few minor problems, but we did finally graduate in the class of 1929.
Earlier in the spring I had applied for and been accepted for a civil engineering job with the Kansas Power and Light Company of Wichita, Kansas. Some time in early May, Fred made a trip out to ask me to come with him at Industrial Rubber in St. Joseph. I accepted his offer and resigned from the other job, and that is how a graduate civil engineer became a rubber man, about a far from civil engineering as one can get.
I roomed in a house in the 700 block of State Street in St. Joe my first year. I had no car, and it was a cold and snowy winter, so getting to work and around town was a bit on the rough side. Things went pretty good during the summer, but that fall in October, the stock market took its big historic nose-dive. This triggered the start of the deepest depression that the country had ever experienced, and set the pattern of austerity for the next ten or twelve years.
The first of two big events of that first year was a trip to Kansas to visit Irene over Labor Day weekend. I went to the Rogler home in Matfield Green, borrowed their car, and drove out to Hutchinson, Kansas where Irene was in charge of the dining room at a golf club owned by the Carey Salt Company. The second red letter event was Irene’s visit to St. Joe around Christmas time.
We both managed to live through that year, and we were married at her home on her folks’ 29th anniversary, on July 21, 1930. We spent our honeymoon on White Lake, staying a week at a very cheap resort near Whitehall, Michigan. It was a cheap place, but the depression had really set in hard, and we could not afford any better. Irene got a severe sunburn on her upper back and really suffered on the long bus trip home to St. Joe. Our first apartment was one that I had rented furnished from Grace Pauley, who had a women’s dress shop downtown, where it still is under another owner. The apartment was on the northeast corner of Lake Boulevard and Broad Street. The site is a parking lot now.
And so ends a brief account of the first 26 ¾ years of my life.
Categories: Biographies, Early History, Wabaunsee Stories
Wow– Thank you, Greg, for recovering this great account of early Alma, and for enhancing it even more with your added photos. The surnames certainly brought back some pleasant memories of associations with a later generation of Alma friends.