Another Aspect of Midwestern Life

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Route 1, Box 63, Avoca, IA 51521

Steam engines, gas and kerosene tractors, and old gas engines were NOT all there was to farming in the Midwestern states. Although we now have a great fascination with these items, some attention should also be brought to the small town. Had it not been for the town of 600 to 1000 population, the farming industry could not have survived.

I was born near one of these small towns, Irving, Kansas. At the time I was growing up, it sported 640 people. Irving was comprised of a general store, two gas stations (as they were called back then), a post office, billiard parlor, and a parts place called Midland Parts and Bearings. Of course, there were other small businesses such as barber shop, blacksmith, tavern, etc. The parts house also sold International Harvester tractors. I recall those beautiful red Farmalls. It was substantiated that they sold bearings all across the U.S.A. and Canada.

The business that I was most attached to was the General Store, which was called, 'Thomson's Store'. A very simple name, but was indeed quite adequate. It had been started by Mr. Frank Thomson. At the time of my growing up, it was managed by his two sons, John and Reginald. Not only food stuffs were sold here, one could buy furniture and clothing. Of course I was more interested in the candy counter. These people had been friends of my family many, many years.

I recall Mr. John calling me the afternoon after my mother's funeral. He offered his sympathy and went on to reminisce. He said he could recall the day my parents had married. It seems they had taken 'the passenger train' to the county seat to be married. These were the good old days, both the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific's tracks were yet on each side of town (I remember the big steam trains, as well as 'the passenger', as a small boy.) He went on to say, after a day of shopping in the 'big city' (the county seat had probably a population of 1500 around 1910) they had again ridden the train to Irving. They ended up at Thomson's Store. 'Emil brought his young bride in and said to pick out what she needed. My, Lizzie was so young, she hardly knew what to buy in order to start housekeeping!' He went on to say: 'We fixed them up with a table, 6 chairs, a bed, dresser and a night stand, also a glass door kitchen cabinet. I believe the whole sum total was around $75.00!'

A business that farmers could not survive without was the grain elevator. I remember the 'Irving Elevator Company'. During my time it was managed by Paul Smercheck, who had been born and raised just across the road from our farm, 6 miles southwest of town.

As a lad it was my job to scoop back the wheat as it fell into my Dad's wagon, when we threshed. It was often a very dusty, dirty job but I knew if I could work 'real hard', I could also ride into town with a load when my Dad would haul the excess to the elevator.

We would leave early in the morning the day we hauled grain. Although it was not that far, the wagon load of wheat was heavy. My Dad never hurried the team of horses. When we arrived at the elevator it would be around 10 a.m. The manager would be very busy unloading grain and putting it into railroad cars. The chain and belt drives would be rattling and clattering all over the big building, grain dust flying in all directions. Dad would drive his wagon and team up the ramp onto the big Fairbanks Morse scales. The team of horses tolerated the noise of slapping belts from this distance. Paul would come running to the office. We could see him through the big window as he balanced the beam on the scales. Then, he would wave a hand for us to proceed up the slight incline and into the alleyway of the elevator. When the team reached the big double doors, they became alarmed. They would lay back their ears and snort. They began pulling sideways letting us know they didn't want to go in that narrow dark place even if they could see out the far side. My Dad began to talk softly to them and flap the lines on their backs. Even though they could feel his strong pull on the lines, they began a see-sawing motion. Dad continued to speak in soft even tones to me: 'Mr. Sonny, now you listen good. This is what I brought you for. Now you get down and go right over in front of them. I don't dare let go of the lines. Don't be scared. You'll be alright. You just get ahold of the bridle bit on the inside of each horse. You talk soft to them, till I can get up there.' When my father spoke in such a manner, I knew it was important. There was no holding back or arguing. When he got up front with me he tied his big red bandana over the eyes of one horse, then turned to me. 'Give me your handkerchief,' he said, which I did. He then tied it over the other horse's eyes. Then he led the team and wagon into the alleyway of the elevator.

In that day, there was a cradle affair lying on the floor. The front wheels of the wagon were placed in this. He then unhitched the team of horses and proceeded to lead them out the other side. He posted me to stay with the team. He released the check rein so they could lower their heads and nibble at the grass. This all taken care of, he returned to the wagon. Paul was lifting the front wheels higher and higher. The wheat was rolling out the tailgate of the wagon into an iron grated hole in the floor. When the wagon was empty, the wagon was lowered. Dad would be required to hold up on the wagon tongue lest it stick into the floor. The team was again hitched.

We drove down the main street to the store, gave the grocer Mother's list and joined the fellows out front on the 'spit and whittle benches'. Sometimes it makes me sad to think of the flourishing little towns that have dwindled completely away!