The Grass is Always Greener,

Down the Road Apiece

by Helen Erwin Campbell

 

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The Odes and Hazel Erwin story continues…

It was in 1929 that Herbert Hoover became the thirty-first President of the United States, the book All Quiet On The Western Front became a best seller, silent films gave way to talking pictures, popular songs were "Stardust" and "Singin' In The Rain," and October 28 was labeled "Black Friday." That was the day the United States Stock Exchange collapsed and a world economic crisis began.

The Great Depression was soon in full swing, and the unemployment rate rose almost everywhere. It was especially hard on folks in small towns and on rural farms. Dad often still worked away from home whenever he could get work. Sometimes he had trouble putting food on the table, but I don't remember ever going hungry. Dad often went hunting, and many times our main meal consisted of wild rabbits his rifle had brought down. Mom’s chickens produced eggs for our consumption and for sale to neighbors, and we also had a cow for milk, butter, and cottage cheese.

Goldie and John (my oldest sister and her husband) lived just a few blocks away from us on Standpipe Hill. John was working for the Madison Post Office. Goldie took her position of big sister seriously, and she often provided small things that made life bettera new book at Christmas time, occasional new dresses for Mary and me, and sometimes material for Mom to sew.

In a large family there is, of necessity, a lot of give and take. For the most part I liked being part of the group, but age and physical size did have a lot to do with the pecking order in our family, and I was number six child. Bub (Raymond Michael) was always quiet and easy going, and was a willing helper if Mom asked him to fetch fire wood or a pail of water, but Clifford was a tease. I can remember getting up early on Sunday morning and hurrying out to retrieve the Sunday paper so I could read the funnies. Clifford would come strolling into the kitchen and, by virtue of his superior size, take them away from me.

"But I got them first," I'd wail, not too loudly because Dad might be still asleep.

"Well, I got them last," and Clifford would calmly take them over.

Bud remembers Clifford sometimes used to hang him on a doorknob by the straps of his bib overalls. Clifford would loop the suspenders around the knob and walk away, leaving Buddy dangling with his feet a few inches off the floor. Sometimes Bud could get off by twisting around, but mostly he'd just holler. He decided it was easier to just yell real loud and someone would come. It earned him the nickname "Crybaby," but it was easier. That was something I'd learned a few years earlier: just cry for Mom. I was often called Crybaby too, but it sometimes stopped the teasing.

 

One Sunday in the summer of 1929 our family went to visit Grandpa and Grandma Erwin in Severy, Kansas. A nicely-dressed, attractive lady about Dad's age was there, and she and Dad greeted each other like old friends. They started reminiscing, and Dad asked her about "White Lightnin'." They talked of mountain trails, bucking horses, saddles and spurs, and fording a river.

Clifford remained quietly in the background for several minutes, but finally curiosity caused him to ask what the conversation was about. He was told the lady was Dad's cousin, and that they were talking about their families' move from Arkansas to Kansas in the summer of 1897 (Although Clifford knew the name of the cousin at the time he could not remember it when he told the story to me. In order to tell the story I’m going to call her Sarah).

The families lived in Carroll County, Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains, where both our father Odes and our grand­father Mike Erwin were born. The wagon trip started at Green Forest in Carroll County, and ended in Longton, Elk County, Kansas, where Levi Freeman, Grandma Erwin’s oldest brother, lived. The trip was in the planning stage for several weeks before they left.

As Dad told the story, he had a two-year old colt to ride, and they bought him a new saddle. Grandpa, at that time, had three sons: our father and his younger brothers, Dale and Tom. Dad was nine years old and, as the eldest son, was to help drive the cattle.

Cousin Sarah was eleven years old then, and she recalled that she listened with interest to the plans for the trip. She said that she was an incurable tomboy, had grown up around horses, and as a rider she considered herself equal, or superior, to any of the boys around.

The day before the trip was to start she finally asked which horse she was to ride. The men started to laugh at her. It was then she found she was not to ride at all. She was expected to walk alongside so as not to overload the horses pulling the wagons. After all, she was only a girl, and that's what girls did.

Sarah was hopping mad, and she protested. The men only laughed more, but she became louder and more insistent that she would not walk. She demanded her own horse to ride. She put up such a howl that one of her uncles said,

"Okay, there is another two-year-old colt and a small saddle and spurs. You can ride, too."

The next morning, the morning they were to leave, some­one saddled the colt for her. It was a bay pony, weighing about nine hundred pounds. She asked what the colt's name was and was told "White Lightnin'."

Sarah said, "When I heard that name White Lightnin', it was as if a light came on in my head. I knew something was not quite right. But I'd gotten this far, and I wasn't about to back down."

She continued the story, saying that when she started to get on the horse, it started bucking, and she hit the dirt. She climbed back on and was thrown again. She would not give up, and each time she was bucked off she immediately got back on the horse. She was thrown six times before they even got started, ten times the first day, and about twenty-five times in all on the trip.

After she had been unseated a few times, someone told her to pull the horse's head up and rake her with the spurs. Sarah found that if she didn't let White Lightnin' get her head down between her front legs, she couldn't buck off her rider. She thus began to learn all the horse's tricks and to use the spurs to her own advantage. After that she managed to stay in the saddle most of the time.

As the story went there were two covered wagons and ninety-nine head of cattle. They traveled west from Green Forest into Oklahoma Indian Territory, crossed the Grand River at about where Grand Lake is now (also called Lake of the Cherokee), and on west and north into Kansas. When their wagon train reached the river, the spring rains were over, at least temporarily, but the river level was still high.

It was a unanimous decision to wait for the water to go down enough to make the crossing less hazardous. The women, by that time, were very willing to stop for a day or two, and taking advantage of the warm sunny weather, they washed clothing and aired bedding. The men looked after the cattle and horses and checked the harness and wagons. All the children, including Odes and Sarah, had to help, but there was plenty of time for play too. In the evenings there was the gathering around the campfire and many stories to listen to. It was like a long picnic.

When it was decided the river was safe to ford, the men told Sarah to ride across in one of the wagons, and one of them would take her horse over. She looked at the water and watched some of the others plunge their horses into the river.

"No," she decided. "If they can ride their horses across that river, I can, too."

There was a lot of noisy activity, and everyone was very busy. The cattle were being herded into the water and the wagons being made ready for the crossing. No one was paying any attention to her.

She continued her story: "I'd made up my mind, so I jumped White Lightnin' into the water and we swam across with the cattle. The water was cold and it was scary, but I held on tight to White Lightnin'. When we got to the other bank I was soakin' wet, but was I pleased with myself!"

Clifford asked how long it took to make the trip and was told they traveled about fifteen miles a day, and that the trip took nineteen days, including the stop at the river.

"And," Sarah said, "when we reached Longton, White Lightnin' and I marched proudly down Main Street with our heads held high."

Grandma Erwin told a further story about White Lightnin' and her owner. She recalled that after the families reached Longton, she and Grandpa Erwin moved on a farm south of town close to Aunt Ellen and Uncle Tom Stilwell. Sarah and her family lived about a mile further south. When they had been there about a month, Sarah's mother happened to run short of milk. Sarah, riding White Lightnin', came over and asked Grandma if she could spare some. Grandma got her a pitcher of milk, and, after a short visit, Sarah got back on the horse with the milk.

The horse, having had a rest, was feeling frisky and started bucking, but Sarah, holding the reins in one hand and the pitcher of milk in the other, stayed in the saddle. Grandma said White Lightnin' was still bucking as far away as she could see her. Sarah reported later she got all the way home without being thrown and without spilling a drop of milk.

It was a year or two later when Sarah's family moved into Oklahoma and the families no longer had close contact.

Dad asked her, "What ever became of White Lightnin'?"

Sarah answered, "I had that horse until she died some twenty-five years later. White Lightnin' produced half a dozen colts, and she still had scars on her sides from those spurs of mine when she went to her grave on the ranch in Oklahoma."

 

Editor’s note: We have not yet been able to identify “Cousin Sarah.” We believe that Cole Erwin, Grandpa Mike’s next-oldest brother, made the trip to Elk County. He didn’t stay, however, because his oldest child was born in 1888, and back in Carroll County, Arkansas. Sometime between 1901 and 1910 he moved his family to Dewey County, Oklahoma.

It is now theorized that one of Grandpa Mike’s three older sisters and her family was part of the wagon train, and lived for a time in Elk County before moving south into the Oklahoma Indian Territory near Tahlequah. It is known that Margaret, Laura and Hattie Erwin, and their families, lived in the Tahlequah area—now in Cherokee County—around 1900.

 

In 1930 Congress created the Veterans Administration, popular songs were "I Got Rhythm," "Three Little Words," and 'Walkin' My Baby Back Home," comic strips grew in popularity, the photoflash bulb came into use, and population in the United States reached 122 million. That year a Chevrolet Coupe sold for $625, a Swifts Premium ham cost twenty-nine cents a pound, Hills Brothers coffee went for forty-four cents a pound, and our family was living on a rented farm south and west of Madison, Kansas.

Everyone had to work on the farm. The boys in the fields, and the girls in the house and garden. Dad had a hay bailer for several years, bailing hay for his own use and for his neighbors for pay. Clifford and Bub would both work on the bailer in various jobs, and later even Buddy would help out driving the buckrake.

The buckrake was about ten feet wide, and a horse would be hitched to each side to pull it. In between there were long teeth, and this piece of equipment would be run down the windrows of hay. The hay would accumulate until there was a load. The buckrake would then be taken to the bailer and the hay pushed up against the side, where someone, usually Dad, but sometimes Bub, would pitch-fork the hay into the bailer.

The job of pitch-forking the hay into the maw of the machine was one of the hardest in the process of baling, and Dad was proud of his physical prowess. He used to brag about being able to put in a full day's work in this particular position and that it was more than most men could handle.

Sometimes Bub would volunteer to relieve Dad. Perhaps he was trying to prove his worth to Dad, but maybe he was just tired of hearing Dad go on about his physical prowess. Occasionally, however, Bub would take too much hay on the fork and as a result the pitchfork handle would break, much to Dad's disgust. After all, a new handle cost at least fifty cents.

I also worked on the hay bailer, although my career was very short-lived. It happened in my eleventh summer. Dad was short a hand; he had no one to poke wires. I heard him and my mother talking; they decided Mary at twelve and a half was at a delicate age and they didn't think it wise to have her do this particular job. They were even thinking of taking her to a doctor because some mysterious thing hadn't happened yet.

I felt really important to be allowed to work on the hay bailer. Dad promised me a wage—not much by today's standard, but any money at all was a lot tome. Later I was telling Bub how much I would get and trying to decide just what to spend it on.

"You won't get it, you know," Bub said. "Dad won't pay you."

"But of course he will," I insisted. "He said he would."

Bub was kind and gentle, not at all the tease that Clifford was, but I didn't want to believe him.

"Don't plan on it," Bub Warned. "He may say he will, but he never does."

But I went blithely on planning the spending of my money before I even earned it.

The morning of my entry into the workforce I went proud­ly out with the others to the field. The hay bailer is a long narrow implement. After the dried hay is brought to the bailer by the buckrake, someone, almost always Dad, would pitchfork the hay into the bailer near the front end. The hay was compacted by the machine and pushed down the bailer to where I was stationed. I was to poke wires through at designated spaces. Someone on the other side, usually Clifford, would tie the wires. Bub usually poked wires, but he had graduated to a different job. The bailer would then push the completed bails of hay out the back end, where someone else was responsible for moving them.

I was given instructions and a little help for a time, and my work day began. It wasn't very long, probably about thirty minutes or so, that I decided it wasn't much fun after all. It was noisy, dirty, and dusty, and I was breathing in the dust and getting bits of hay inside my clothes, where they scratched every time I moved. Besides I wasn't very fast, and Dad, from his position above me and to the front of the machine, kept glaring and frequently yelling at me for slowing up the procedure. I began to hate it, but I was trapped and had to work faster and faster to keep up. After what seemed an eternity it was noon, and we stopped for dinner. At the house I could hardly wait to take off that dirty, scratchy shirt and wash off the dirt and hay.

After the noon break Dad went on back to the field. After a few minutes Bub said, "Come on. It's time to go back."

"Oh, I'm not going." I was very matter of fact about it. "I don't like to poke wires. It's too dirty."

"You'd better come. Dad will be awful mad."

"No, I'm not going," and I wiped the whole thing from my mind and started playing with my paper dolls.

About fifteen minutes later—while I was in the midst of my quiet fantasiesDad suddenly appeared like a violent storm cloud. He was furious! He grabbed his razor strap, the closest thing at hand, and proceeded to give me the only whipping I remember receiving from him, although there must have been others. He yanked me out the door toward the truck.

I put in the afternoon, sobbing much of the time, but I was there, and in the same dust and noise and flying hay. Periodically I'd look up at Dad, who seemed to be constantly glowering at me. I was always a little afraid of him, but that afternoon from his position above me and with his angry face, he seemed particularly menacing.

I did get through the day, and I don't remember being made to go out the next day. Dad hired a neighbor boy who was a year ahead of me in school. He had to pay him. I never got my wage for that day, just as Bub told me I wouldn't. But then I didn't have nerve enough to ask Dad for it either.

Bud's first memory of the hay bailer was that it had a very noisy old gasoline one-cylinder engine on it. The horses pulled the bailer from place to place, and the buckrake delivered the hay to it. More modern hay bailers are pulled by a tractor down the windrows, and the bailer is always moving.

Dad later got an old Fordson tractor. He removed the old worn-out one-cylinder engine from the bailer and used the tractor to move the bailer. When it was in position he would turn the tractor around and run the bailer by a means of a twelve-inch by thirty-foot belt from the tractor power-takeoff to a pulley on the bailer.

Every winter Dad would have to renew the bearings in the bailer. He’d melt Babbitt metal and pour it into the bearing sleeves. Bud was very inquisitive, and once when they were pouring the melted Babbitt he had his face up close to watch the procedure. There was a slight wind, and a sudden small gust caught a bit of the hot metal and deposited it on Buddy's eyelash. It hardened quickly, and there he was with a small ball of lead stuck on one eyelash. The metal ball held his eye closed by virtue of its weight.

Buddy wouldn't let anyone touch it for a day or two. He was afraid it would hurt if the ball was pulled off. Finally Mom persuaded him to let her cut off his lash with its offend­ing burden, and he could again open and close his eyes. Bud the adult considers himself lucky that only his eyelash was affected.

Mom almost always kept chickens, and that year was no exception. She had purchased fertilized eggs and hatched them in her own incubator, which she kept in her bedroom. The eggs had to be turned daily, and though I watched her, she preferred to do the task herself without help. It was most interesting when the eggs started to hatch to see the tiny damp chicks peck their way out through the egg shells, then turn into soft yellow balls with legs as they dried off.

That year Mom also had several geese. They were per­fectly adorable as fluffy yellow goslings, but they grew up into ill-tempered attack birds. There was one in particular who seemed to have declared war on me. Often when I went outside and wasn't expecting it, I'd hear it and quickly look around. That old goose would be running towards me, neck extended, and hissing as she came. I'd run for the porch. Sometimes I'd escape her, and sometimes I'd get a painful nip from her strong beak.

At Mom's suggestion I finally got smart. I found myself a good-sized stick which I kept on the back porch, and whenever I left the safety of the high porch, the stick went with me. When that goose advanced towards me, making her warning hiss, I stood my ground, waving my stick. Finally she'd retreat and I'd go on my way, though warily, still carrying my weapon.

Mom sold some of the geese, and we ate one for Thanks­giving dinner. I enjoyed that dinner. I even went back for seconds.

"So much for you," I said silently to my late adversary, as I took another bite of the tasty goose and dressing.

We saw very little of Grandpa Hayworth as we were grow­ing up, but we heard about him. He was a more exciting and colorful character than we were usually associated with. He was a musician, and he had run a saloon in Oklahoma, and had even been jailed for selling  whiskey to Indians. He also had a moving picture theater in Kansas.

I have only two memories, however, of being in his presence. It was this year that Grandpa Hayworth made one of his rare visits to our family. He was to stay four or five days. Mary remembers that Mom was happy and excited beforehand as she anticipated her "Papa's" visit. After two days Grandpa decided to leave. I was staying with Goldie then, and Mom sent word to Goldie for us to come say goodbye to him.  She and I drove out, accompanied by my friend Alene Cummins, who was also Goldie’s sister-in-law.

Goldie went into the living room, and Grandpa stood and embraced her. They talked for a few moments, saying the usual things people say at those times. Then Goldie stepped into the kitchen to talk to Mom. Grandpa Hayworth, ignoring me, looked over at Alene and said goodbye to her.

I waited a bit and said to him, "Good­bye, Grandpa."

He looked at me and then looked back at Alene. Alene said to him, "I'm not your, granddaughter. She is."

He looked at me. "Oh, I thought you were the neighbor child."

And that was it. My own grandfather didn't know who I was. That incident certainly did nothing for my sense of importance.

Mary believes that Dad and Grandpa had some sort of dis­agreement which caused Grandpa to leave earlier than he planned. After he left Mom was not very happy and she cried about it.

There was a banker in Madison, Kansas, named Ollie Weymeyer of the First National Bank, and Dad seemed always to owe money to him. Then, as now, small farmers often operated more on the bank's money then their own, and Dad was probably less solvent than most. He was always just a little bit behind in his payments to Ollie's bank. Every year he'd borrow money from the bank and, of course, the bank held a lien on almost everything Dad had: livestock, farm machinery, even his truck. Sometimes he paid some on the loan, but when things got too bad, he'd try to borrow more.

Often Ollie was less than agreeable to Dad's demands, and Dad's remarks about Ollie were disparaging and ridiculing. Over the years Dad had probably called old Ollie Weymeyer every derogatory word he could think of. Sometimes he'd tell the following story about how he got Ollie to lend him more money:

Dad would go into the bank and approach Ollie' s desk. On Ollie's invitation he'd sit down. They'd spend a few mo­ments in polite conversation on the usual topics, the crops, the weather, the need for rain, and then Dad would state his situation and ask for money.

Ollie would get out the file, study it silently for a few moments, and say no, Dad owed too much already. Dad would argue for the loan; Ollie would refuse. Dad would jump out of the chair, pace a few steps back and forth, curse and stomp his foot. Ollie would glance quickly at the other customers in the bank, who were by now watching with undisguised interest, and would try to shush him, "Quiet down, quiet down. You shouldn't be talking that way."

Then Ollie, probably in desperation, would finally agree to lend Dad the money just to get him out of the bank. Dad would sign the necessary papers, pocket his portion of the paperwork and the money, and in a quiet, dignified manner, walk out of the bank, his mission accomplished.

In 1936, during some of the worst times of the Great Depression, Dad decided to join the migration to California. Times were indeed tough, chronicled so well by John Steinbeck in his book The Grapes of Wrath. As usual Dad owed money to The First National Bank. The family left for California without notifying Ollie, and without paying off the bank note of some three hundred dollars.

My youngest brother Don remembers years later—after my parents were in California—my father railing on about “…that damned Ollie Weymeyer at the bank.” Nevertheless, Dad was an honest man, and although he felt that he had done what he had to do at the time, he steadfastly maintained that he would someday pay off the note, with interest.

In 1948 my parents sold their dairy farm in California and moved back to Kansas. One of the first things my father did was attempt to pay off the old debt. Alas, however, First National—like many other small banks during the 1930s—had gone bankrupt, and Ollie had long since passed on. Don recalls that Dad rationalized that his responsibility for the debt had been resolved. He probably had no remorse for the bank, but I think that he probably had a guilty conscience where Ollie Weymeyer was concerned. As far as anyone remembers, Dad never mentioned poor old Ollie again.

                                                                                                                         To be continued...

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