by Flossie Erwin Austin
Recently, during a particularly low period of my life, a daughter said to me, “Mother, I think it is time you got started on that book you were always going to write.”
Becoming widowed, after more than fifty years of marriage, had left me vulnerable and in need of a new purpose or interest in life; or so my children thought.
“But what could I write about that anyone could think worth printing,” I asked. And daughter was quick with the answer, “Write about your life. After all, more than seventy years of living should provide plenty of material. As to the printing, I've always wanted to publish a book, (I think she really meant, since she had married and her husband was in that field) so you just write the book and leave the rest to us.”
And so the seed was sown, and as the weeks and months went by it began to take root. My mind became more and more absorbed with flights into the past—not a healthy sign ‘tis said, but in this case I called it “research.” I was in search of material about the “good old days.”
As time passed and the phone calls began to change from “Are you O.K. Mom?” or “How are you doing, Mother?” to “Say, how is the book coming along?” I felt they were really saying, “Our therapy for Mother is working.” The seed continued to grow, nurtured by the continued interest of family and friends; and so, one dream, I think, has a chance of becoming a reality.
The one rule I've tried to go by is not to mention the name of a living person in the stories I've related here. Many will see themselves, I am sure, as all are a part of my life. I did depart a few times from this rule, but I felt it was for the good of the story. Hopefully, however, no feelings will be hurt as a result.
All the different stories added together have truly become: My Garden of Memories
Chapter 1—In the Beginning
Since all stories must have a “beginning,” and as this is to be “my story,” it seems only fitting and proper that it should begin with the date of my birth. According to my birth certificate, this event took place January 16, 1910. It states—a second child was born to Odes Erwin and Hazel (Hayworth) Erwin and was given the name—Flossie Minnie—the place, near Fargo, Oklahoma.
These are “facts” of the story as taken from a legal document; other stories or events related here will probably be a combination of “fact and fantasy.” Family histories or legends that owe their existence and continued life to word-of-mouth telling, tend to lose or gain through the years, depending on the fluency of the different storytellers. Memories, I think, can be about as unreliable; at least mine seem to be hard to catch as I try to pen them down on paper. They seem to want to take wing and fly away.
My father and mother, so I was told, met when they were children. When my father was about nine, he moved with his family from near Green Forest, Arkansas, where he was born, to a farm near Longton, Kansas. It seems they arrived in Longton with ninety-nine head of cattle and two covered wagons. They settled on a farm just across the road from a farm owned by my Tom and Ella Stillwell, my mother's aunt and uncle, who had given her a home after she lost her own mother when she was about nine.
Because of this proximity, I suppose it was only natural my father and mother should become friends and later marry, which they did when my mother was seventeen and my father nineteen.
The first two or three years of their married life were spent in or near Longton, Kansas where my father farmed and also ran a dray; delivering freight from the railroad depot to local merchants, to help with family expenses.
But this quiet life was soon to change. While my sister, who was the oldest in the family of eight, was born in Longton, I, only two years younger, was born near Fargo, Oklahoma at the home of my maternal grandfather, Charles Hayworth. So had begun the gypsy-like existence that was to be our way of life for the next few years. The reason—oil was discovered in Oklahoma, and the high-paying jobs, together with my father's natural wanderlust, caused him to pull up stakes and follow the crowd.
The term “Black Gold” was coined to describe the reactions of people to the news that a “gusher” had come in. The resulting hysteria was similar to the gold rushes in the west. Dwellings, consisting mostly of flat-roofed, tar paper covered “oil field shacks,” sprang up overnight. Besides the relatively high-paying jobs for drillers and tool dressers, etc., teams and wagons were needed to haul the heavy pipe and other materials from well to well. This was where my father, and others like him, came in.
My grandfather Mike Erwin was already established near Cushing and Drumright, Oklahoma, with his own livery barn, when my father decided to join him. How long we lived in this area I am not sure, but as I was born near Fargo, Oklahoma and my brother, only two years younger, was born near the Oklahoma/Kansas border, where my father worked for a short time on the railroad, we couldn't have lived in any one place very long.
Dad had his own team and heavy wagon, called an “oil field” wagon to differentiate it from the higher-wheeled, lighter-built farm wagons. When traveling from job to job, the wagon became our home, and carried all our possessions. It was then known as a “covered wagon.”
Memories of one such trip seem to be pretty clear, although I couldn't have been very old. I think there were only my folks, older sister and younger brother, besides myself, of course. It seems we were traveling through the Oklahoma Indian Territory, and as night approached I can vividly remember both my mother and father becoming uneasy, and disliking the thought of stopping to camp. Although the Indians were not considered hostile, they would slip up on sleeping travelers and steal their horses. My father always said this particular team could smell the Indians. I remember that the horses were very restless and that my father spent the entire night outside the wagon to guard them. Next morning, needless to say, we were on our way at daylight. We hadn't gone far when we came to an Indian encampment. I think my parents were greatly relieved when we had passed without incident.
Life in the oil towns was rough for everyone, but it was especially hard on the women and children. The promise of quick money always seemed to draw the tougher element. There were always saloons filled with gamblers and dance hall girls to collect all the loose money floating around. Much of this was explained to me years later by Grandmother Erwin as she reminisced about the hard life they lived as they traveled from one “boom town” to another.
Chapter 2—Life on a Dead End Street
We had reached Augusta, Kansas by the time I was old enough to begin school. I can remember a small, three-room house at the edge of town that was to be our home for a year or two. Although small, it still seemed large after so much time spent in a covered wagon.
Looking back now, it seems my memories of life spent on this dead end street were the first to really take on substance, in comparison with the fleeting“bits and pieces” I am able to remember, heretofore. I recall the wide, dusty street. It was a perfect place to play with the numerous other kids whose families lived there for the same reason we did: It was a cheap place to live.
At one end was a railroad track that one had to cross to reach town and school, but at the other end of the street was a farm field. In the summer when tall corn grew there, it became a magic place where all of the neighborhood kids could play. I hope the farmer wasn't too annoyed when he saw the many tunnels at our end of the field when it came harvest time, because the memories, of at least one summer of playing hide-and-seek, follow the leader and other such games, with friends in that tall corn, have endured for more than sixty-five years.
Few who lived on this street at the time had cars, and all of the children usually walked to town or to school, just as we did. Our only other means of getting around was my father's team and wagon, which was also his means of making a living for his family.
As usual, my grandparents had already arrived and settled not far from our street. Grandad was still engaged in hauling for the oil fields. I can remember there were two or three small buildings at the back of their yard, called “bunk houses,” to house the single “skinners” that my grandfather hired to drive his teams and wagons.
My father, as well as a Uncle Dale Erwin, had their own teams and equipment, but joined with my grandfather on hauling jobs. I remember what a sight it was when all of the teams were lined out ready to start on a long trip; at least, it seemed like a long trip at the speed the teams and wagons could move. During this period of time they were traveling down to the Oklahoma oil fields to bring back the pipe needed for the new wells in our area. They would be gone days at a time.
My father, as well as my grandfather and uncles, took great pride in the appearance of their teams and outfits; the horses were kept groomed to perfection, and the harness was adorned with long strings of celluloid rings and bright tassels. The men themselves were always well dressed; that is, in keeping with their jobs. Khaki pants and shirts, with heavy, high-top brown shoes and a good felt hat, was what my father wore most of the time.
This was my life when it was time for me to start school. I was thankful that my older sister was already experienced in the mysteries of school. She had gone two years, and was helpful in easing my anxiety about being suddenly thrust out into the world. Even though she had only attended a small country school near Longton she was, nonetheless, always ready to tackle any problems that might arise in the larger city school, as well as being a buffer for a much less confident younger sister.
I can't remember any happy memories connected with school that first year or two. I do remember being cold many times in the wintertime after what seemed like a long walk to school. I was subject to earache, and an understanding teacher would have me stand with my ear near the hot air pipes that were used for heating, until the pain stopped and the tears were wiped away. Happier were the memories of play, after reaching the security of home, when school was out.
But life wasn't all play, even then. I was pretty young when it became my job to clean the kerosene lamp chimneys. The reason was practical—my hand was small enough to reach into the chimney with the polishing cloth, after my sister's hand grew too large. Besides, there were other, more grownup jobs for my sister to do. Another job I fell heir to along about this time, was that of washing fruit jars at canning time; not because I wanted the job, but, again, because my hand would fit inside the jar.
In these early days of my life, my father's family seemed to be always close by, or at least, pretty much involved in our life. My earliest recollection of Minnie Erwin, my grandmother, was of a very thin and wiry lady with a caustic tongue. She was well known for her quick and seemingly ungovernable temper. Although small in size, I remember that she could really throw a lot of weight around when things didn't go her way. During these times the various family members would make themselves scarce until the storm, as some of them laughingly called it, blew over. I was always a little in awe of my grandmother, because, like an active volcano, one never knew when she might erupt.
On the other hand Mike Erwin, my grandfather, was more even tempered and fun to be with. I can remember that if one was lucky enough to be around in the evening when he was at rest, how nice it was to crawl up on his lap and rock with him in his favorite rocking chair. I also recall him calling me “Flotty,” which must have been his own pet name for me, as I can't recall anyone else calling me that. On the other hand, I was given the name, “Toots” by my uncles, and it stuck with me for quite a few years.
As I grew older, and became more understanding, I was able to appreciate my grandmother for a lot of things. My most outstanding memory was of her table laden with good things to eat when we went to visit. She was a good cook, but in her house children always waited for second table—the men folks always came first. I can’t help but wonder if that has had anything to do with children always going first at my table.
Chapter 3—Early Dreams and Ambitions
Ah, those impossible dreams, but the world of fantasy is as necessary and normal for a child as the hard reality is later when they become adults. I was always rather quiet and bashful, and perhaps this is the reason that I was more inclined to indulge in daydreams than my sister; she was two years older and much more aggressive and adventuresome.
I remember my mother telling us that when she took the two of us out in public she would have trouble keeping up with my sister, but that she always knew where I was, as I held fast to her skirt tail. Skirts, in those days, were the long full variety. They offered imagined security to a timid little girl, and were a perfect screen to hide behind. But, as the number of offspring increased from two to eight, I was forced to find other “security blankets” to cling to, in place of my mother's skirts.
Rather early in life, at least in my early school life, a pencil and tablet or notepad became necessary to my lifestyle. All those exciting things that never seemed to happen to me in real life, I could create on paper for my dream characters. I had a favorite “hideaway” at one place where we lived for a few years; it was on a farm near Madison, Kansas. There was a cellar under the house where canned foods and root vegetables were stored. It was always a little damp and musty smelling, as such places usually are, but it was also cool in the hot summertime. Near one wall was a small window that let in enough light to read by and to write down my stories. It was about this time that my dream of becoming an author, and some day writing a “best seller,” developed. But, alas, like so many dreams, it remained only that—a dream.
An ambition, or hope, that persisted, at least all through my high school years, was of being able to go to college and become a teacher. Graduating in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, didn't help this ambition. My folks were never very well off, and weren't inclined to put down roots in any one place. My father, who was definitely the head of our family, always believed things would be better just over the hill. Consequently, we moved around a lot, and as the rolling stone doesn't gather moss, so our way of life didn't allow the accumulation of wealth or worldly goods.
Teacher's college, my first choice of further education, seemed out of the question at this time. Dad decided that business college was the place for me to go; at least he decided this with the encouragement of a representative from the Wichita Business College. As it would take only a few months to complete the course, as against two years of teacher's college, naturally there would be less money involved. So an agreement was signed for me to enroll in business college in the Fall; Dad paid the representative $10, which was the fee required. I have often wondered if the college used my $10 wisely, for before the Fall session came around I was married, and never did get to attend the school.
I remember boasting that when I finished school I was going to marry a college professor. This was a statement that I regretted many times. It soon became a joke with my family members, and I got pretty tired of hearing about “Flossie and her Professor.” The moral of this story could be—don't brag unless you are prepared to back it up. What my family didn't know, and I was careful not to mention, was that the boy I went with for awhile (I think he was a senior when I was in one of the lower classes) went on—in fact—to become a professor in college.
The love of dancing and the pleasure of walking are responsible for many pleasant memories. I think I must have inherited these two favorite pastimes from my father. My mother once told me, when she was reminiscing, that my father was quite fond of dancing, much more so than she was. She said that he would insist on attending all of the local country dances. They went often during their early married life...that is until the chore of dragging two or three babies along (no babysitting in those days) caused it to lose its appeal.
Walking was always a favorite form of relaxation for my father as well, and it was a common sight to see him striding across a field or meadow, both hands in his back pockets, and chewing tobacco as fast as he walked. As I think back, I feel he must have settled a lot of problems on those solitary walks. I, too, enjoyed my walks over the years, both as a child and through my later life. A walk was always my favorite way of dealing with tensions and frustrations, as well as just a pleasant way of passing the time.
An old record player—the type with a hand-crank—and a few records provided many happy hours of pleasure as well. There was never a talent scout around to observe my attempts at interpretive dancing, but in my daydreams I received great applause as I danced on stage.
No, none of these dreams became a reality, but first there must be the dream. As I review the lives of my children and grandchildren, I don't believe my dreams were in vain; it just takes a generation or two for a dream to develop into a reality.
Already the teaching profession and business world are well represented, and the talent for writing is becoming apparent as well. Three granddaughters show a lot of potential for dancing, and others enjoy walking and jogging. Who knows, maybe one of them will even marry a college professor.
Maybe this is what life is all about.
Reprinted by permission—to be continued...
Flossie Erwin Austin’s book, My Garden of Memories, was published in 1982 by The Typesetter, Inc. of Wichita, Kansas. Drawings were done by Karen Alexander and son Joseph Austin, and daughter Doris Austin Anton did the editing.
Her dedication read:
“To my children and grandchildren, without whose encouragement this probably would not have been written.
I would wish for all of you only happy memories, but knowing this is unrealistic, I would wish you the courage to handle the difficult times so that in looking back, you will have no regrets.
Don’t be afraid to dream, but keep a clear understanding of what is ‘fact and what is fancy.’ ”
Flossie Erwin Austin was the second child of Odes H. Erwin and Hazel Dell Hayworth. She was a well-read and gifted individual in many ways, and although she often said that she had experienced a full and bountiful life, and had no regrets, it was, nonetheless, a tragedy that she was not able to experience her dream of attending a college or university. -Ed.