The Blue Taffeta Dress

May 25, 2014

by Crane-Station

Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934
Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934 photo by Smithsonian American Art Museum/flickr

note: I don’t have any money, but listening to this guy makes me want to find some. Check this out, great way to raise money BTW:

This is a story from the Great Depression as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a true account of three organized community activities in a small rural farming community in Missouri during the 1930s.

The Blue Taffeta Dress

While we worked hard on the farm during the drought years in the mid-1930s, we also set aside three days each year for entertainment. These days were community organized and structured fun that everyone looked forward to and talked about all year.

Each autumn we had a pie supper at the rural school that served as our community center. The idea was that a woman, or usually a girl baked a pie, and the pies were auctioned off. The auctioneer, who was sometimes my father, would hold up the pie and chant, “Now what am I to give for this pie, ten cents who’ll give me ten cents, ten, and raise it to fifteen, ah fifteen and twenty, twenty cents over here and thirty thirty do I hear forty…” A girl would want a good price for her pie, and she may say, “My, they paid a dollar for my pie!” Many of the pies were milk-based custards because mince was too expensive. Pumpkin, squash and apple pies were popular, and on occasion when someone could afford raisins, there was raisin pie.

The rule was that the man who bought the pie shared the pie with the girl who baked it. The quality of the pie didn’t have much to do with the price of eggs, it was the gathering and the fun that mattered. The people would gossip about the drought and gossip about their kids, and interject with who bought what pie for how much by saying things like, “Yeah, you know, he bought her pie.” Nobody ever kept any of the money for the pies. The funds went into the school.

On the last day of school, every woman in the community brought something to eat to the annual basket dinner at school. Women took a great deal of pride in what they brought, whether it was pickles, beans, apple butter or other dishes, so the basket dinner was both contest and entertainment. The women put the food out on the ground for all to enjoy, and we ate on the ground. Some of the coal miner kids were too poor to bring food, but the country people were very generous, so the kids all got to eat.

There was no separation of church and state back in those days, so the next big event, the Christmas program, was held either at the school or at the church, and everyone started planning for it in October. We had an old piano with missing keys and back then no one looked askance that we sang religious songs and Christmas carols. The kids gave speeches and participated in plays that were read from a Depression-era book with scripts. The dialogue was humorous or it delivered some sort of a lesson, but it was all copied, sometimes from Charles Dickens and often from other sources. The names of some of the plays were: Mr. Dash Goes Shopping, Tramp at the Picnic, Change of Heart, and Too Much Spending, but there were others.

I often had a part in the Christmas play, but I never had any decent clothes until 1932 when my Grandpa went blind. My dad took him to California on a train because it was better for my grandfather to be with kinfolks in California who had a little more money. My dad returned with two avocados. We had never seen an avocado and did not quite know what to do with them, so my mother cut them into pieces and put them in the flour bin. We would get a piece, shake the flour off and cut it into bites. My cousin in California with money gave my dad a blue taffeta dress for me, and this put me in a world of my own. It had a lace collar and lace cuffs and nobody that I knew ever had a blue taffeta dress with a lace collar and lace cuffs. My cousin did stage dancing, so she had plenty of access to nice clothes.

I decided to wear the dress for my part in the Christmas play.

The play said that I had to have chewing gum, so I got a stick of chewing gum, but I did not know what to do with chewing gum, so I rolled it on my fingers. The gum got stuck on the blue taffeta dress. I was frantic and nearly forgot my lines, the dress was not washable and I did not want my mother to know, but I had to tell her. My mother figured out that if we put ice on the dress it would freeze the gum so that I could pull it off. So, I am in the back yard with the blue dress in the snow because we did not have any ice to put on the dress.

I wore that blue taffeta dress until I could no longer squeeze myself into it, and years later, I visited my cousin in a nursing home, and told her how much that blue dress meant to me.


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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