Part Six - Dust Bowl Days

We had three rabbit hounds. Their names were Jim, Speed and Brindle. Brindle had gotten her left rear leg cut by a mowing machine when she was a pup. But with just three legs she could usually outrun a jackrabbit if given a chance. Much of our spare time for several years was spent hunting on horseback with the dogs. Our hunts somewhat resembled an Eastern fox hunt, without the pomp and ceremony. We would simply mount the horses, call the dogs, ride across the country until we scared up a jack, and then try to keep close enough to see the chase.

     One time Brindle had pups. Being a little timid, she found a cave under a cut bank some distance from the house, where her pups were born and raised. There were only three pups in the litter, and two of them died soon after they were born. We paid very little attention to this pup. He grew up with very little association with people, so when he was grown he was very wild. One day, Charlie and Laurence caught him and put a collar on him. They fastened a piece of wire about six feet long to the collar and brought him to the house with the idea he would be kept tied until he became less wild and less afraid of people. Some of Charlie's friends drove into the yard, so Charlie gave me to the job of holding the dog while he visited. I stood there and held the dog for what seemed like a long time. I became really bored; it's not very exciting just standing around holding a dog. After several futile attempts to get Chuck to take the dog, I looked around for something to tie the wire to. I was standing near the yard fence, so I could have simply tied him to the fence post. I don't know why I didn't think of that then. There was a one-gallon rectangular can with a tin handle soldered to the top sitting by the fence. The can was about half full of something and sort of heavy, so I tied the wire onto the handle. As I walked away, the dog decided to make his bid for freedom. He tried to sneak off, but when he moved the can moved to follow him. I guess he decided he could outrun it, so he tried, but the can followed. When he came to the first fence, he jumped it. The can caught in the fence, and the handle came off. The dog crossed the creek into the cornfield and ran a half mile north to the line fence. By this time, he was too tired to try to jump the fence, so he turned around and came back almost the same way he went out.

     When the dog left with the can, Dad insisted he must be caught before he ran himself to death. He, Charlie and Kenneth all took off after the dog. I just stood there and watched. I knew a little boy couldn't outrun a greyhound. I had learned from past experience that I couldn't even outrun a chicken. By the time the dog reached the north fence and started back, the men had gotten a couple of hundred yards out into the field. When they saw him coming back, they decided to spread out and head him off. The dog, for some reason known only to himself, felt he had to go through the line formed by these three men. He picked the spot between Dad and Slim. Both dived at him and met each other. By the time they got themselves untangled, the dog was a considerable distance past them and still running “all out.” I realized he was headed for the cave where he had lived all his life. Since he had run a full mile as fast as he could, he had slowed down considerably. I reached the cave at about the same time he did. I removed the collar and wire from him and went back to the house. It is funny now when I think about it. But, when Dad got his breath back, it was not necessary for Mother to have Will “talk to” me. That time, he did it because we wanted to.

     One time when Grandma Sipe [23] was sick the folks left us kids with Charlie while they went to be with Grandma. She lived in Fairbury, Nebraska. We ran short on flour, so Chuck went to town to get some. It was late, around 9 p.m., when he got home, and we had not had supper, so he decided to make pancakes for supper. While he prepared and cooked the cakes, he sent us kids to the cellar for molasses. Mama kept the molasses in a ten-gallon stone jar in the storm cave covered with a cloth held by a large rubber band. The one who got molasses the last time had not put the cover back on the jar properly. We filled the pitcher with molasses and went back to eat our cakes. It was dark, and we had only one kerosene lamp lighted, and Charles had it by the stove, where he was cooking the cakes. Our city cousins, George and Clarence, were staying with us. We were all gathered around the table eating hot cakes and molasses as fast as Chuck could cook them. George finished his stack, and while waiting for more he said that the sorghum was the best he ever ate. He said it was real spicy. All the time, I was thinking that it had a rather unusual taste. About that time, Sis gave a war whoop and started crying, saying something had bit her lip. Chuck brought the light to the table to see what was causing her trouble and we discovered the molasses was full of big, black ants about one-half-inch long.

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Welived closer to the schoolhouse than anyone, and because of this I got the job of janitor at the school. My responsibilities were mainly to wash the blackboard, dust the erasers, sweep the floor, get in coal, keep the fire, pick up the trash in the yard, empty the wastepaper basket and do anything the teacher asked me to. I would get up in the morning about 6 and walk to the schoolhouse and build a fire. When the fire was going good, I would close the drafts so the fire would not burn too fast. Then I would walk home to my morning chores there and eat breakfast. By then, it was time for me to get back to the schoolhouse so I could unlock for the day and stoke the fire up so the room would be warm when school opened at 9 a.m. Then, after school, it usually took about two hours to clean up and get the fuel in for morning. I would usually get home about dark. I was required to clean the school barn, and I usually did this on Saturday once each month. But, as janitor, I received a check each month for three dollars.

     We always had chores to do. I guess I hated milking more than anything. When it was cold your fingers froze, and when it was warm the flies ate you and the cow switched and kicked at the flies. You wouldn't believe how it hurts to get hit in the face by a cow's tail. We always milked five or more cows, as about the only grocery money came from selling cream and eggs. Some of the older boys said “every time Dad got another kid, he got another cow or two.”

     We had an eighty-acre field where we planted corn. In the fall, when Dad and the older boys started shucking the corn, Willis and I would have to herd the cows in the part of the field where the corn had been gathered. So each evening and on Saturday and Sunday from the middle of September until snow covered the ground, we would herd cattle. As the season wore on and the shucked area became larger, the herding became easier. Herding under these conditions soon became very boring. We would amuse ourselves by building log farmsteads out of cornstalks. I recall one time when we built one of these buildings large enough we could crawl into it. We played in it until snow came and we quit herding cattle. It was still standing the next spring at planting time.

     One evening, we kids were playing in the granary when the sky started to get cloudy. The clouds were very dark and appeared to be solid and rolling on the ground as they approached from the southwest. Mother called Sis to come to the house and sent Willis and I to the woodpile to get the wood before the storm struck. The wood pile was about fifty yards from the kitchen door. By the time we got our arms full of wood, the clouds had completely blocked out the sun, and it was very dark and eerie. As we started to the house a few large drops of muddy rain fell, and then the dust and wind reached us. Before we got to the house, the air was so full of dust we could not open our eyes and could hardly breathe. Mother wet cloths and tied them over nose and mouth as the dust was so thick, even in the house, that you could not breathe. The storm lasted all night, and when we got up the next morning there was about an inch of fine, red dust on everything in the house. As the soil in Kansas is black, we wondered where the red dust came from. People finally figured it came from Oklahoma and Texas. The dust drifted like snow. It was drifted about eighteen inches deep on the northeast side of all the buildings, and every fence post, tree and weed had a long, pointed drift on its northeast side. Most farmsteads had a grove to the north and west of the buildings for a wind break. This grove was actually a thicket of wild plums and box elder with a few larger cottonwoods or ash trees. Most farmers parked their farm machinery in the grove. Thus the grove became a sort of machinery graveyard as the years passed. During the dust storms period, the dust drifted in these groves and covered much of the old, worn-out machinery. The old steam tractor and separator used in the Halloween prank were moved across the creek north of Ionia and parked in the fence corner. When the dust storm came, it caused a large drift there which nearly covered both machines.

     There was an abandoned farmstead on the Ionia-to-Mankato road, where all of the buildings except the storm cave had been moved. It was on top of a knoll. During the dust storms the ground around it was blown away, leaving the cement cave completely exposed above the ground.

     During these years, very little moisture fell in Kansas. All the crops failed. It was so dry that even the sunflowers and Russian thistles dried up and died before they could make seed. Dad sold some of his stock cows and bought cottonseed cake to feed his milch cows. During the second and third years of the drought, thousands of head of stock were starving to death. There was no way to sell the stock and nothing to feed it. We were fortunate enough to have some “low ground” on our place, where we managed to raise some garden truck, which Mother carefully rationed during the summer months so she could preserve some for winter. Each year, Dad managed to have a cow in reasonable shape to make meat. With this and rabbits hunted during the winter we managed to have enough to eat. I remember many meals of cornbread and milk. Nearly every breakfast during this period was fatback gravy and bread.

     Dad was operating the sorghum mill during the depression years. People would bring their cane to the mill, and he would make it into sorghum for a share, which he packed into gallon and half-gallon cans. He traded much of this to grocery stores in the area for necessities which he could not raise, such as sugar, coffee, flour and tobacco. When he was able to sell the sorghum, he got twenty-five cents per gallon for it.

     Hope springs eternal. During the drought years, hope was about all that sprung in the spring on a Kansas farm. We kept planting and tending, even if the corn only came up and died before it tasseled out.

     The summer before Willis graduated from high school, we were cultivating corn, each of us using identical Deering cultivators. Willis' team was Coley and Diamond. Coley was a big, docile horse; Diamond was high-strung and flighty. My team was Babe and Nellie. Nellie was very quiet and easy-going; Babe would often go into a kicking fit when startled. Willis was “breaking ridges,” which meant he was only plowing alternate rows. I was “following up,” that is, plowing the rows between. Thus when we met in the middle of each row the inside wheels of our cultivators were on adjoining ridges and would pass within inches of each other. On one such passing, Willis threw a small clod against Babe's flank. She threw a fit and started kicking. I finally got her under control and looked back to see Willis stopped and off his cultivator, laughing himself sick at my distress. We continued to plow corn without further incident until I thought he was not expecting retaliation. As we met, I threw my hat under Diamond. My timing was off, as Babe and Diamond were side by side, headed in opposite directions. The hat scared Babe as much as Diamond. They both jumped at the same time and jerked the cultivators together so that the wheel on his cultivator caught in the shovels on mine, causing both cultivators to tip towards each other, dumping us both in the center row on top of each other. All that saved us from serious consequences was that Coley and Nellie stopped and Diamond and Nellie [24] could neither pull the other backwards. We finally got the teams calmed down and the cultivators untangled and set aright. After we had taken a few minutes to enjoy the incident, we went back to the boring task of plowing corn.

     One time Dad was repairing a wagon wheel. He had the wagon sitting on a block with one wheel removed. He had been using a small ball-peen hammer and had laid it on the side of the wagon and leaned against the wagon to roll a cigarette. I was sitting on the back of the wagon, so for a short time both of us were very still. A neighbor's dog came up and sniffed around Dad's feet, then raised his leg to squirt on Dad's shoe. Dad dropped his cigarette, grabbed the hammer and hit the dog right under the base of his tail with the ball peen on the hammer. The dog clamped down on the hammer, gave a couple of yelps and took off for home, taking the hammer with him. He still had the hammer when he went out of sight behind the barn. I don't think Dad ever found that hammer. That was one of the few times I ever saw Dad laugh out loud.

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Inthe fall of 1934 I started to high school in Burr Oak. We lived three miles north and three miles east of Burr Oak. I rode a horse named Pal to school. This was the time of W.P.A., N.Y.A., C.C.C. and N.R.A. [25] and issue of government commodities. It was a time when everyone was at least a little hungry and ragged, a time when cattle were bought, slaughtered and buried by the government to reduce the supply. I had saved some of my money from my janitor job, so sometimes bought my lunch, but usually I carried it from home. When Mother thought we could spare a dime, I would get a pint of milk and a jelly cinnamon roll for a nickel each, then go out back to the hardware store and sit on the seat of the farm machinery displayed there to eat lunch. Since my horse also had to be fed and watered at lunch time, the lunch time was busy for me.

     Dad's lease on the place where we lived expired March 1, and he had decided not to renew it. He and Mother decided to quit the farm for all time. He sold the stock and equipment a piece at a time for what he could get for it. When he decided to move the last part of February, he had sold everything but one team of horses, two milch cows and some chickens, which he intended to keep in town. By this time, Charlie, Laurence and Willis had all left home, so Mama, Dad and Sis moved into the new house and left Slim and I on the farm to look after the stock until arrangements could be made for them in town. We batched for three days after the family left before we took the stock to Mankato. The last night we stayed in that house was the last big dust storm in that part of the country. It snowed all night, and the dust and snow rolled the next day before a strong, cold north wind. It took all day to drive the stock to Mankato.

     We moved into a small house in the southeast part of Mankato. The house was four rooms with an outdoor john and a well on the back lot. The house was in fairly good repair, but it was very small for five grown people. I started school at Mankato High to finish my freshman year. The remainder of that year of school was held in the old high school building in the northeast section of Mankato. The new high school was at that time under construction. It was completed that summer. I started my second year in the new building before I graduated in 1938.

     Soon after we moved to Mankato, it was determined that Mother had breast cancer. The first summer after we moved to Mankato, Mother went to Kansas City for an operation to remove the cancer. Dad went with her and stayed in Kansas City until she recovered enough to return home. Slim was working out of town at that time, so Sis and I spent most of that summer batching. It was a very lonely and anxious time for us.

     Dad took Mother to Kansas City on the train. They left one evening on the Rock Island Rocket, which was a new ultra-deluxe passenger train. It normally didn't stop in Mankato, but it could be flagged down when there was a passenger to board there. It stopped for only three minutes, so by the time I realized it was there the good-byes were said and the folks were on board and the train was leaving. There was a road crossing about one-half mile east of the depot. As soon as the train started moving, the whistle blew for that road crossing. The train's taillight was a large red disk with the words “R.I. Rocket” in black across it. The remembrance of that whistle sound and that disk will still cause a knot in my stomach. That was a very lonely summer.

     Mother and Dad were away most of the summer. Sis and I were very happy when they finally came home. Mother was bedfast and remained so until her death. I can recall only one time when she was able to sit up long enough to eat a meal at the table. She died just after Sis graduated and Laurence's first child was born. She lived to know her youngest child graduated from high school in 1939.

     A short time after we moved to Mankato, Slim went to work for Earl Bassert, who ran the junkyard.

     Japan was buying all the scrap metal they could get, so there was a ready market for used cars. I wanted a car. There were many used cars for sale for twenty-five dollars and up, but many grown men were working seventy hours a week for seven dollars, so I had no hope of buying a car. I made a deal with Bassert to take the junk cars apart and separate the different metals. In return, I was allowed to take any parts I could carry home with me each evening. Our house was more than a mile from the junkyard. I carried a Model T Ford home with me a piece at a time and re- assembled it. During my junior and senior years, I had a Model T roadster that was envied by most of my peers. In 1937, at harvest time, wheat went up to a dollar per bushel. I worked for Morris Gish for twenty days during harvest and drew five dollars per day. I traded the Model T for a 1929 model Whippet and paid the difference. The remaining money I spent for school clothes for Sis and myself.

     Dad was working W.P.A. and cutting rock for the new courthouse. I was working a few hours each week at the library (dusting books) for twenty-five cents per hour and at Gimple's Filling Station, so I had a little spending money.

     Slim, Blanche, Dad, Mother and I were living at home. Dad had an account at Perry Kier's Grocery, which he paid monthly. We bought groceries, socks, gloves, tobacco and drugs on this account. I remember one evening the last day of the month when Dad came home from work he called us all together and gave us a lecture on frugality. He ended by saying that we had charged thirty dollars worth at the store that month, and he made the point that twenty dollars would be the limit in the future.

     When Sis was a junior and I was a senior in high school (I had failed two years in school, so Sis was only one year behind me), we started going to dances. Nearly every week we went to a dance at the American Legion Hall in Superior, Nebraska, on Friday night and to Bostwick on Saturday night. Usually, after the dance in Superior we would go to a place called Hill’s Terminal for a sandwich and to be with the crowd. Sis was good at starting arguments and then calling on Big Brother to finish them. One night she had been to the dance and to Hill’s with a big bruiser named Bob. They were sitting in a booth across the room from me, when they started arguing. The argument kept getting louder and more intense until everyone in the room was listening. Then Sis stood up and called to me, “Wint, are you going to let that big s.o.b. talk to me like that?” Now, under these circumstances, what could I do but wake up Saturday morning with sore fists, arms, face, ribs, black eyes, torn clothes and a resolve to never attend another dance with Sis? I was also banned from Hills Terminal permanently. My resolve and the ban both lasted until the next Friday night. Sis and I were very close; we were nearly always together. Nearly always, we double-dated. The only time I can remember her going on dates without me she met Chester Nelson, [26] whom she eventually married.

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23. Mary Esther Brown Sipe (1854-1943) born April 11, 1854, in Noble County, Ind., the daughter of Henry Kirkum Brown and Elizabeth Hull; died July 22, 1943, in Hebron, Neb.; buried in Ionia cemetery, Jewell County, Kan. Return
24. The horse referred to here was probably Babe. Return
25. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs were W.P.A., Works Progress Administration; N.Y.A., National Youth Administration; C.C.C., Civilian Conservation Corps; and N.R.A., National Recovery Administration. Return
26. Chester El Reno Nelson (1914-1981) born Oct. 3, 1914, in Kansas; died March 1981 in Courtland, Republic County, Kan. Return

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