Medicine in a Rural Farming Community in 1920s Missouri

May 23, 2014

Separator
Separator by mallala museum on flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

by Crane-Station

This essay is a true story about medicine, childbirth and injuries in a rural farming community in Missouri in the 1920s as told by Letty Owings, age 89. I must note up front some information on how we compose these essays. Letty’s general health is in decline such that she can no longer write much, although she is a retired English teacher and one of the better writers I have ever known. She tells me her stories on the phone and I actually fact check with additional research to add context and history of events like the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed 25 million people in the first 25 weeks. She remembers much talk of this flu from her early childhood. To my amazement, her recall is not only 100 percent accurate, but it is also substantial in terms of piecing together the history. For example, she recalls cases of encephalitis. As recently as 2007, the flu pandemic was implicated in the outbreak of encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s, which makes her recall all the more interesting.

Her story coincides closely with the beginning of the keeping of vital statistics in Missouri. Record keeping began in 1911 and she was born in 1924 in what she describes over and over as an extremely rural area where there were no records kept. There was no geriatric specialty at that time, because there were no old people: life expectancy in 1911 at the beginning of record keeping was just 54 years of age. I will explain more in the essay, but before I do so I will express an opinion: there are excellent reasons for Federal agencies that keep vital statistics and epidemiological data, and efforts to do away with various Federal regulatory agencies is reckless on a good day. I strongly disagree with any political efforts to do away with health-related regulation.

Medicine in a Rural Farming Community in 1920s Missouri

Our farm house had been a log cabin and the plastered and crooked wooden walls made my perfectionist mother nuts. An artist at heart, my mother was papering these walls. She saved money for the paper and cooked her own glue. She had laid boards onto the base of the cream separator for a make-shift step ladder. The boards slipped and my mother fell onto the metal prong on the base of the cream separator, and the prong tore deeply into the flesh of her hip. My father found her.

Medicine in the 1920s was extremely crude, and death was always so close. In our fatalistic view, life and death were a lot closer than they are now. Infection from an injury like the one my mother suffered could kill as easily as not. The cure for everything at the time was gasoline. On the heels of war and a pandemic flu so severe that we still study it today, we were in a position at that time of being extremely poor combined with a lack of medicine. People never thought of death as a strangeness and the vital statistics from that time, even without figuring in the skew from lack of record keeping in rural areas, are truly shocking:

The overall improvement in the health of
Missouri women of childbearing age (15-44)
during the 20th century is exemplified by two
dramatic trends: (1) the maternal mortality rate
(MMR) declined by about 98 percent, from 770 per
100,000 live births in 1911 to 10 per 100,000 live
births in 2000; (2) female life expectancy increased
by more than 24 years (44 percent), from 54.5 years
in 1911 to 78.7 years in 2000.

We called old Doc Martin to come out and treat my mother. By this time, the doctor had switched from horse and buggy to car. When we didn’t have Doc Martin, the patent man occasionally came around, and sometimes my dad seemed to know the right kinds of weeds to cook for homemade remedies. We used Bag Balm, a horse salve (pink salve) product that is still available today, and we used Blackberry Balsam for diarrhea. Doc Martin sewed my mother’s wound and left with his chicken that we gave him for payment. Predictably, my mother developed a fever and became dangerously sick. She was in agony and she cried and it was upsetting for me as a small child to see my mother this way. She stayed in bed, as was the custom at the time, and there was great concern for her from the community. She survived her injury, but this was not always the case with accidents.

Much of what doctoring was like in the 1920s was simply hoping for the best but expecting death at any time, and this is difficult for us to understand today, where we take much for granted. Almost every family we knew had had some experience with the previous flu pandemic, for example, but we also had experiences with things like malaria, empyema, pneumonia, and a host of other deadly infectious illnesses. Early hospitals did not produce curative results because of nosocomial infections: “In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated roughly 1.7 million hospital-associated infections, from all types of microorganisms, including bacteria, combined, cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths each year.[2]”

Babies were born at home until the close of WWII in our area. There was no pregnancy test, no prenatal care, and although baby bottles were first patented in 1845 and are today regulated by the FDA (for the materials in both the teat and the bottle), in those days we did not have baby bottles available to supplement feeding. So, if a baby needed milk, one had to find someone who was nursing. The infant mortality rate was extremely high and this did not change until after the war. Both economic improvement and prenatal care including early recognition and treatment of complications contributed to the dramatic improvement in these mortality rates.


The Lavender Ribbon

May 22, 2014

by Crane-Station, with note- I am trying to gather these history posts all in one place here, so forgive me if you have seen them.

A one room schoolhouse in the forest.

Photo: James Davidson / Flickr

This is a story from the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a true account of country school and community.

In rural Missouri during the Great Depression of the 1930s, each elementary school was different. Rather than fit into any pattern, the one-house schools were community governed, and each community had a social stratification. Mine was a mining-farming community, and the farmers lorded it over the miners, even though, in some cases, the miners made more money.

There was supposed to be a county school superintendent, but there was never any factual supervision because the superintendent only visited maybe once a year. Each community had its own clerk, and the school board, which consisted of a half a dozen farmers, decided who was hired in the schools.

The school was supposed to be in session for eight months, but this never happened, because the kids were needed on the farm to work. Usually the school session ended in April, and kids would begin farm work at sunrise.

The school had no electricity, plumbing, or central heat. There was a coal stove in the floor, and if you got too close to it, you roasted. If you got too far, you froze. There were 42-46 kids in the class at any given time, often sharing seats. The room smelled. Impetigo and bronchitis were common and chronic. Kids had sores and coughed all the time. We all shared one dipper, in a cistern. The toilet was an outhouse that was built when the school was built. We sometimes had a Sears Catalog to use in the toilet, but often not. The toilet was never cleaned, because there was no real way to get water to it.

We were not grossly unhappy as school kids. We didn’t know anything else. We did not see ourselves as different compared to others. There was nothing to compare to. There was no radio, TV or newspaper. Nobody ever thought about poverty. It may seem unbelievable to us today, but back then, we never saw anything else. We were six miles from the closest paved road.

It was a stratified society with the miners at the bottom. The miners were often known to drink and beat their wives, but they went to work in what were nothing more than tunnels in the ground. There were no safety regulations, just tunnels. Kids were sent in, and injuries were common.

I rode with my dad, who was a farmer, on a horse, through the community, to record the names of kids who were supposed to be in school. Often, the miners took to the woods when we showed up, or claimed they did not have any children. We knew they did. Many of the homes had no flooring, and one family had buried their dead twins in the floor of the house. The level of humanity was beyond what we can imagine today. We did not think anything about it. Life and death was just all a part of life.

There was no playground at the school, but sometimes the kids had a rope to play with, or, if a kid got a set of jacks for Christmas, we shared those. Tablets cost a nickel and pencils were scarce, so most kids went without. When a pencil got down to the nub, we attached a stick to it. Lunch might be a syrup bucket or an occasional boiled egg and home made bread, but certainly no butter. Kids were often hungry.

The library was an old bookcase in the back, with mainly old agriculture books; the school board decided to have them instead of encyclopedias. Teachers were only required to have some kind of schooling for one year, it didn’t matter what kind of schooling, and there was no certification for teachers. When I was five, I started school, but, the teacher was mean, so I left school and returned in the second grade, which was okay because I could already read.

There were four of us in school who stayed together: Norman, Betty, Pete and I. School kids were constantly in and out of school, with the miners sort of in the shadows, but the four of us stuck together. Norman and I were related. We met when we were both five; his father had gone blind. Betty’s father was a mine superintendent and an alcoholic, and Pete’s mom and dad ran a store in a clapboard shack that they lived in back of. The four of us were inseparable.

The men in the community often went to the pasture to play baseball on Sundays during the Depression, and the kids would go to watch. One Sunday, one of the men hit a ball and then he threw the bat. The bat hit Pete. Pete developed meningitis, and we were never allowed to see him when he got sick. The men would ride on horses around the community to report on Pete’s condition, and we heard of the seizures that would twist his spine. Back then we called them “fits.” There was no medication.

Pete died in August. He was eight years old, and his death affected the whole community. It affected me because we had played together.We had lost somebody, and it was traumatic when there were so few people that we were close to.

I wanted so much to give a gift to Pete.

My mother gave me a nickel to buy a gift. I went to Hicks Store and bought a lavender ribbon. My sister and I picked some day lillies, and we tied the ribbon around them, real pretty.

There was no funeral and the kids were not allowed near the grave. We gave the lillies with the lavender ribbon to somebody to put on the grave, and we stood on the hillside to watch. They were the only flowers Pete had.

Now there were three of us.


The Shivaree and Farming Community Wedding Customs Prior to WWII

May 20, 2014

FDR Profile
photo: dctourism/flickr

by Crane-Station

This is a true account of wedding customs in a rural Missouri farming community prior to WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. The account is limited to the small geographical area. Customs may have been different, twenty miles down the road.

The Shivaree and Farming Community Wedding Customs Prior to WWII

Most country weddings in our community took place in the home. The bride and groom dressed nicely, but there were no bridal shops or wedding dress makers. A preacher would come to the home to perform the wedding. Even if people were not churchgoers, the preacher would “marry and bury.” At the wedding ceremony, someone, usually a couple, would stand up as witnesses for the couple being married.

The usual refreshments and a small reception followed the wedding ceremony. A few days after the couple got settled, the community held a shivaree. The shivaree was a post-wedding noisy party for the community where the newlyweds were pressed into service as hosts. In short, the shivaree was a mock serenade and a roast of the newlyweds. People brought all sorts of noisemakers and pots and pans to bang on, and they sang songs and enjoyed refreshments, compliments of the newlyweds. Adding to the atmosphere of friendly ribbing and polite mockery, nobody bothered to dress up. Supposedly, the shivaree was spontaneous and clandestine. However, it was an organized spontaneous that wasn’t really a secret. Since the newlyweds were expected to provide the refreshments for their own roast, they had to know where to be and what time to be there. Community members organized the shivaree by word-of-mouth instructions. Everyone in the community had plenty of advance notice for this ‘spontaneous’ post-wedding party, and looked forward to the fun. Newlyweds looked forward to the noisy event as well, and they would have been insulted at not being forced to host the shivaree.

The marriage rate in the community was nearly 100 percent in those days. Not getting married was almost unheard of, and for the most part, people married their neighbors. Courtships lasted 1 1/2 to 2 years, and people rarely waited past age 22 to marry. Women were younger than men in almost all cases, so you might typically see a 19-year-old woman marry a 21-year-old man, give or take. During the courtship, the woman never, ever called or contacted the man to ask the man out on a date. Men initiated all the courtship contact.

There came a time when a lot of social customs were clouded by the war overseas. Word trickled in that there was a war raging in Europe. One must bear in mind that we had no television or organized press in our community at the time. We only got our first wind charger radio in 1938. Rumors spread, conversations ensued and people exchanged opinions. Some people took the position that the war raging in Europe was none of our concern. It was Europe’s war and Europe’s problem, not ours. After all, WWI had been a bunch of foolishness that we had no business getting involved in, and there was no need to repeat the foolishness. People voiced this opinion even as Churchill was down on his knees begging Roosevelt for help. Others countered this view with, “Yes, but there’s a crazy man Hitler and listen, this man is a maniac, the rumors are true, he’s killing Jews and he is a madman.” During this time there was a pall hanging over America and it extended to social functions in our small farming community.

No one ever came out and said, “There is a pall hanging over our social functions.” However, it was apparent. For one thing, people had a sense of unease about enjoying themselves at social functions while there was so much suffering going on in Europe, and the conversations often turned to that subject, even at the likes of a shivaree. Also, people began to be self-conscious about speaking German out and about. My father’s side of the family included ancestral illegal immigrants from Germany who did not care for German militarism of the time, so they bribed a ship captain and came to this country to escape it. They brought the language with them and the language sifted down through the generations, even to me as a young child. In one case, a boy’s folks did not want him going out with me, because of the German. We spoke Low German in the home when I was a child. It was lost on some folks that descendants of German people from generations past were a peaceful lot. The remnants of the language became associated with the current doings of a madman in Europe.

Everything changed on a Sunday. I had come home briefly from college where I was enrolled in a nature class. I wanted to collect some puffballs from the woods for my class. My father knew where to find these things so we went to the woods where they were, collected some samples, and returned home. I sat in a room with the sample collection, and my father went to the other room to listen to the wind charger radio.

He returned a few moments later and he said to me, word-for-word, “Honey, we’re in a war.”

End note:

After retiring from teaching English at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Letty co-founded a residential treatment home for women and children in Portland, with Nancy Anderson. Letty speaks in this video-


Hometown- The Cafe in Louisiana, Missouri 1934

May 15, 2014


This video shows bootleg whiskey and liquor being seized and dumped during prohibition in the United States…HD Stock Footage

IMG_1791
Owings Cafe, as it looked in 2007, Louisiana, Missouri

In today’s post, Ray Owings, age 91, recalls the early years of what some call the American Dream. Wikipedia defines the American Dream as “a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.”

Ray shares:

What took place over my lifetime is what some now call the American Dream. We hear it, but no one gets to the nitty gritty of how it was obtained.

I was born in Bates City, Missouri south of Oak Grove, in 1923, to parents who worked on a farm. My father had attended a one-room country school with eight grades and one teacher. He was an outstanding pool player as an adult. His hands and forearms were muscular, and I always thought this was a result of milking cows.

We moved to Oak Grove when I was five. My dad ran an elevator in town. One day, in the post office, my dad asked a man if I could start school early, at age five. I walked to school. My first teacher was Katy Gibson. She taught the first and second grades and knew the family. After that, we moved to Lebanon, Missouri, where my dad was a flour and feed salesman for the Kansas City Flour Mills (KCFM)- in 1928 to 1929. In 1929, the depression hit, KCFM folded up, and he lost his job.

He went to work for Standard Oil, running a bulk truck in Macon, Missouri. We lived in a house next to the jail and across from the courthouse in Macon, during prohibition. Every once in a while, the sheriff would run into the country and bring in a still, more to give the appearance of enforcement than anything. He’d place all of the accoutrements of the still on the sidewalk outside the jail. I liked that, because the dried fruit was always good. My dad knew the sheriff, and since my dad also sold kerosene and gasoline, he could pinpoint the stills by noting high kerosene sales, but he never told the sheriff, and the sheriff never asked.

I went to school in Macon up to the middle of the sixth grade, and in 1934, Dad quit Standard Oil and bought a small restaurant in Louisiana Missouri for six hundred dollars. In February 1934, we all piled into a chevy sedan for the move, and a young woman joined us. She was 13, and the people she lived with were hard on her and mean to her, so we took her in because she was so badly treated. All of us piled into that car, and moved.

Louisiana, Missouri was on the Mississippi River and it had some damn good businesses: a button factory that made buttons out of shells from the river; a tool factory; a glove factory; a basket factory. Pipeline workers moved into the town, which also featured Stark’s Nursery. The nursery provided good stock and it had orchards, during the height of the depression. Lloyd Stark became the governor of Missouri. If you really want to shake it down, there was money in bootleg whiskey, and during the Pendergast Machine years there was a monopoly on jobs and also there were certain stores where you had to trade. Anyway, Stark had a falling out with Kansas City Boss Tom Pendergast following the 1936 election, and turned against the Pendergast machine.

I worked in our restaurant, washing dishes, learning how to cook, and learning how to run the restaurant. I started school in the sixth grade, and there were two schools, one for the lower income element and another for the rest of them. The school was a two-story brick building with a tube-slide fire escape, and it was run by an old maid who was big and tough. The sixth grade teacher wore high neck dresses all the way to the floor.

Kids would come to school, 16 and 17-year-olds in the eighth grade. The PTA during the depression would take turns cooking meals, because many kids showed up at school to eat during the noon meal. Our restaurant would contribute- a big pot of chili (high-octane fuel) or macaroni and cheese. They’d get a little bottle of milk from the local dairy, and the local bakery would contribute bread and rolls.The older kids ran things and they sometimes ran the little kids home.

Our restaurant served hometown fare- meatloaf, ham, potatoes, vegetables in season- but people especially enjoyed my mother’s home-baked pies. My dad was on good terms with everybody, even the lowest of the low, and people knew this, so one day a wino came in, belly hanging out, and he siad, “Where’s Upton? I’m sick.” Upton was my dad, but he wasn’t around, so the man was left to the mercy of my mother, who threw him out. Harold, the man on the stool at the counter said, “Now Pearl, do you always treat people that way?”

to be continued…

Gramp with mosaics
Ray Owings visiting Pearl Harbor, March 10, 2013


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