Chapter 4: Iowa in the 80s and 90s

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Transcribed by Michael A. O’Neill in Mar/Apr 2014

Transcribers note: This is a transcription of Mabel’s book, not an upload of the original of the document she created. It was transcribed using Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, which will result in capitalization errors; misspellings of proper names; odd usage of prepositions or common words; and incorrect homophones. For true fidelity, you can request the book via Interlibrary Loan from the Greenville College or Azusa Pacific University libraries.

When Belle and Worth were growing up in southwestern Iowa, the country was still young. The last quarter of the nineteenth century was the time of the great immigration of millions from Europe and also the Westward movement of population. The labor force and farm labor were expanding rapidly, and the eastern cities were booming. But Iowa didn’t feel too much of that. Southwest Iowa was pretty well settled before that, and most families were established on good farms. Travel in the country was by horse and buggy or by wagons and teams. People visited friends and relatives a few miles away or went to the nearby school house for entertainment or church services. Social life was limited to their immediate neighborhood.

Life was simple. Motion pictures, radio, television, airplanes were all in the future. Even telephones were not yet in general use. Entertainment had to be of the home-made variety. Parties, singing, and dancing were popular. It was indeed a fertile field for the evangelists who came through the country preaching the gospel of Christ, often making their own interpretations of the rules for Christian living. As I look back on my childhood, and compared with 1988, the difference is unbelievable. I dealt the greater changes have taken place in any comparable time in history. The changes in finance are staggering when I was a little girl, I remember bread costing five cents a loaf and milk five cents a quart. On the other hand, a man would work hard all day for one dollar. In those days, people would make things last longer and the women would make over clothes instead of buying new.

Materials were precious. A good dress made by a dressmaker would last for many years. It will be lined, and sewed by hand, trimmed with braid or laces, all put on by hand. Most women would wear a good dress only on Sunday or a special occasions like weddings are funerals.

Housekeeping wasn’t exactly easy at the turn-of-the-century. We had no running water in the house, and there was very little in the way of built in cupboards, shelves or even closets. I remember that houses, especially in the country, were built by the owner himself, perhaps with the help of neighbors or possibly with the help of a hired carpenter. In our kitchen, we had a fairly large square kitchen table, upon which sat a tin bucket filled with water. We had a big iron cookstove with the tank in the back that held water that was always warm when the stove had a fire in it. We burned coal or wood in the stove, even in the hot weather since it was the only way to cook.

My grandfather, Curthbert Vinson, lived with us for about ten years, and our father would always pump water from the well and carry it in for use in the kitchen. It was a good well in the water was clear and cold. As far back as I can remember, we had a washing machine, but it was not electric. I never remember my mother doing her washing on a washboard, though I saw other women who washed everything that way. It was father who ran the washer with his strong right arm.

Sunday was always the busiest day of the week for a minister’s family, but that didn’t keep father and mother from rising early, and getting out the wash on Monday. Every Monday morning, early, I would wake up to the sound of that machine. A big oval-shaped metal tub was put on the two front burners of the cook stove in the water brought to a boil. Clothes were soaked ahead of time, and all white clothes were put in the tub and boiled. Mother used big bars of white soap which he shaved off into the tub. Since Grandfather lived with us, the washing for a family of five or six was indeed a real task.

Mother grew up on a farm and belong to a family of good cooks. Her mother (Grandma Slough) was noted in her neighborhood for her good cooking. Mother’s three sisters were also good cooks. One hears a lot about the wonderful Southern cooking. I have traveled in the South and, in fact, all over the United States, and in my opinion, the farm women of the Middle West turnout the most delicious meals of all. Mother used to say that to have good food you must have the very freshest and best ingredients: mainly eggs, cream, butter, etc. Of course at that time, we hadn’t heard of cholesterol and the dangers of too much fat. I don’t know what the answer was, but all of us were thin and slender, even growing up. We lived in town and didn’t have all the cream and butter they did on the farm.

When the folks went as a bride and groom to their first appointment, the people in the church collected some money to buy mother a cookbook. A big book: The White House Cook Book. Mother said she could cook if they would just give her the wear-with-all. I still have that cookbook; it gives instructions for complicated recipes and elegant seven-course dinners. Mother cooked with a little of this and a little of that, with a pinch of something else. I didn’t learn to cook them; it was always my job to wash the dishes and I got pretty tired of it. I was always going to school or teaching school for so many years that I didn’t really cook much until I was married.

Seldom had I heard my parents, Worth and Belle Vinson, called by their first names. In the family, it was always Papa and Mama; they even called each other Papa and Mama. Our lives were completely devoted to the church, and in the church everyone was Brother ______ or Sister _____. Even to this day, I can sell them remember the first names of my parents’ friends or of the parents of my friends. On rare occasions when my mother’s brothers or sisters visited her, they, of course talk to them or about them as Belle and Worth. That seemed a little strange to me.

My very earliest recollections were about the Sunday School and the continuous meetings on Sunday. There were Camp meetings in the summer and in the winter they were revival meetings for weeks, every night, seven nights a week. Not only were people invited to come forward, but they were expected to kneel at the altar and confess forgiveness. The brothers and sisters would, Neil about the sinners and pray earnestly for God to forgive them. Sometimes those altar services lasted long into the night. Then, even now, I never question the sincerity of the people at those revival meetings. Most of those people lived godly lives during their entire lifetime.

When I was five years old, father was assigned to the small church at Early, Iowa. I clearly remember my fifth birthday. I didn’t have a party, but somehow I was impressed that this was a special time I was beginning to grow up. That morning, I stood at the door of the barn when Popa was currying the beautiful bay mare that drew our buggy. We only use the buggy when we went farther than it was practical to walk. “Papa”, I asked, “How old are you?” He smiled and said, “Twenty-eight.” I consider that for a moment and then thought to myself, “How did anyone ever get to be spell out twenty-eight?”

That year I was enrolled in the first grade of the Early schools. Learning to read was a serious and difficult process. I remember I just about memorized the first pages of that little primer. The teacher, Ms. Jones, have the unusual habit of writing either on the board or on paper with her forefinger on her right hand sticking straight out. I really think we do not appreciate the influence of early teachers on little children.

Our home was one of Christian piety and devotion. My parents were young and certainly took their duties to the church and to the family seriously. Since I was the first child, and for several years the only one, they disciplined me strictly and dutifully. In our house we had family prayers and grace of every meal. I can’t remember learning to pray, I always did, and I felt it a serious supplication to ask God to make me a good girl. I can’t remember that I was ever a very bad girl, but they were occasions when I strayed a bit from the strict rules of our home.

In those days, the preachers in father’s church were appointed or reappointed to a pastorate. Most of the time, their term of pastorate was only one, or perhaps two years. It made for an impermanent or transitory kind of life. Children were often at a disadvantage being moved from one school to another so frequently. But those young preachers were so dedicated that they took every hardship and shock as the will of the Lord.

Many times the new parsonage to which they were assigned was in a deplorable state of disrepair. Often before moving in, father and mother went to a new parsonage and scrubbed and painted and papered for days. Sometimes they just camped there while they were doing it or stayed at the home of one of the members while they worked. Sometimes a member of two would help.

Even if we didn’t have to move, there was the spring and fall housecleaning that was almost as bad. For winter heat we burned: stove. People with more elegant homes had a hard coal burner: a tall elegant stove that showed the hot coals through glass in a warm and friendly glow. But we burn soft coal and by the time the cold winters of Iowa were over, the housekeeping cleaning.

Mama was almost as much involved in the work of the church as Papa. She was always leading and singing, or teaching an adult Sunday School class, or holding a missionary meeting or preparing a dinner party before the 9:30 AM Sunday school. Frequently, she entrusted me to the care of older girls of the church. On one such Sunday morning, I slipped away from them and went back to our home; the parsonage was near the church. I went to the desk, where I knew missionary money was in a little tin box. I think it was a tobacco box, but I can’t imagine why mother would ever bring herself to put missionary money in a tobacco box. She had a great aversion to the use of tobacco in any form. At any rate, to the dollar of that money and walked down the street to the stores. The stores were, of course, closed on Sunday, but the owner and a friend were sitting on the steps of the entrance to the dry-good store. I walked up to them and said I would like to buy a little parasol. It was my greatest desire. He smiled and said the store wasn’t open and advised me to go back home. On the way back, I stopped at the home of Sr. Smith who hadn’t yet gone to church. She was horrified. She told me to hold that dollar tight my hand and go straight back to Mama.

I started home but by that time the girls entrusted with my care were looking for me. My parents took this seriously. Not only had a run away from home, which I had done on two or three previous occasions, but I had taken money that didn’t belong to me. Father talked to me seriously, he spanked me a little (the only time I remember such a punishment), and then he told me that if I would promise never, never, never to run away, he would bring me a little parasol when he went to Chicago the following week. I never did run away again, and he kept his promise. I kept that little red parasol for several years until some visiting child broke it, but I never forgot the lesson.

About the time I finished the first grade at Early, father was sent to another small-town church at Kingsley, Iowa. There I expected to be put in the second grade, but I was disappointed. The second grade was overcrowded. The teacher told my parents that they used a different method of teaching reading so be better if I begin all over again in the first grade. That was a blow. I really didn’t like school for some time after that.

It was while we lived at Kingsley, that one day Papa called me to see the flags flying. He held me up on his shoulders that I could see the flags downtown. He said he wanted me to remember that, and I did. It meant that our country had declared war on Spain over Cuba. In those days, the little towns in Iowa pleasant places mostly with tree-line streets. We walked to school and we walked downtown to shop people seldom locked their doors. I really don’t remember any crime; perhaps there was, but I just didn’t know about it.

Mother wasn’t too happy in those little town; she felt far away from her family. She used to talk about going down South, which meant the southwestern part of Iowa: Shenandoah and Clarinda. In fact, the climate was quite different. There was little fruit grown in the northern part of Iowa, the touted page County in Fremont County cherries, apples, plums, peaches, and grapes were abundant. Her people were all farm people and sometimes she went down there for a visit in the early fall or late summer. Mother was always a frail, slight woman. She never weighed hundred pounds until after I was teaching school. She always gained weight on those visits. I think it was because she got so many vitamins from all the fresh fruit, but nobody had heard of vitamins that.

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