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-


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