Archive for the ‘Grandma’s Journal’ Category

My paternal grandmother (Nana) initiated my interest in genealogy when I was ten years old. I had many family stories from her in writing over the years, but didn’t have anything recorded except names and dates from my mother’s side — even though a few stories had been shared orally.

For my maternal grandma’s 74th birthday, I gave her an empty journal and asked her to fill it when she felt like writing. I’m sure she took several weeks to fill it, but from the initial date and how it flows, it appears she began writing on her birthday and never stopped until she ran out of room. Too much for one blog post, I plan to break it into parts and eventually include it in its entirety.

She begins:

March 9, 1986
Age 74 years

My life began in one of the worst snow storms ever recorded in Iowa. It was March 9th, 1912, and Mother was to have a doctor from Kellerton, Iowa. That night when I decided to join the family, the snow was piled so high on the roads that there was no way for the Kellerton doctor to get there, so Mother’s brother, Fred Richardson, and Dad’s brother, Albert Stephens, went to Hatfield, Missouri and Doctor Dunkenson came back with them in a bobsled. After I was born, they took him back to Hatfield. On the way down and on the way back, they went across the fields and the snow was so hard and piled so high that they could go right over the fences.

Mother, Dad and Lola, my sister, 19 months old, accepted me into their home, located one and one-forth miles north of the Missouri-Iowa line at Lee, Iowa. Today the road is called P-64. At Lee, Iowa there was a large general store, etc., and north of the store close to the Missouri line on the west side of the road was the Lee school. After my mother graduated from there and went on to graduate from Kellerton High School, and also after going to Normal School in Mount Ayr, High School, she returned to the Lee School as its teacher. It was at one of the neighborhood gatherings that my dad and mother became friends. They later married in a home wedding in my grandparents’ home located one-half mile north and less than a mile west on the north side of the road from Lee School.

Dad and his brother Albert Stephens both graduated from Caledonia, Iowa school and also Auctioneer School in Davenport, Iowa. They followed this occupation along with farming and raising registered cattle and hogs. In their youth they followed the harvest in many states working north to the Dakotas. Their brother Roy was a school teacher and went on horseback several miles to his school, in all kinds of weather. He got tuberculosis of the lungs and back in those days, about the only thing to do for it was to go to a dry climate, so Dad and Albert took Roy in a covered wagon to Colorado for his health. He only got worse, so they came home where he died. Almost a year later, his younger brother died of the same thing. Roy was in his 20s and Earl was around 16 years old.

When I was one year old, my parents bought the place east of Caledonia and lived there the rest of their married life. Dad died January 13, 1970, and Mother died April 28, 1975. Her funeral was April 30, 1975. This would have been Mother’s 86th birthday. Dad lived to be 87 years old.

When I was four years old, the folks’ barn was built. There was almost a new house, cave, and chicken house on the farm when they moved there. They gave $100 an acre. We heated our house with wood that Dad and Albert cut from their farms. It was my job to bring in wood and pile it on the west side of the porch north of the kitchen after I got home from school.

Grandma and Lola

It was such a long trip to Mount Ayr over the dirt road that Mother didn’t go unless she had to get something. Lola and I didn’t get to go to Mount Ayr much until Lola went in town to stay at Mother’s aunt and uncle’s, the Dough Sullivan’s, when she went to High School. At 12 years old, Uncle Albert went to town every Saturday night when the roads were dry enough. By then he and Dad both had cars and they got a Tractor to farm with. Dad drove the tractor and Albert drove horses to farm. Albert asked us if we would like to go to town on Saturday night. This was in the summer before I was to go in town with Lola to go to High School. Lola was a senior and I was a freshman. We enjoyed the summer going with Albert. We went to the show and everyone walked around the square. All farmers and people in town went to town on Saturday night and the stores closed at one or one-thirty.

Lola graduated and I stayed in town at O.G. Spencer’s. Four of us girls lived upstairs there. High School years were good and I grew up a lot and learned a lot about boys. Some were nice and some not so nice. I had not had any playmates except in school when I was growing up, so I was quite shy, but in High School I learned how to get along with both girls and boys. There wasn’t much to do but go to the show and I didn’t have the money for that. The boys didn’t have money to spend on a girl, so all they could do was walk a girl home and carry her books after school. At night there was the library that was open until 9 PM. All the school kids would go there to get dates, but like I said before, there wasn’t anything to do but walk, for none of the High School kids could have a car then.

Grandma Main

These were the Depression years and times were hard. Our parents did pretty well to get our clothes, school things and feed us. When we stayed in town, we did our own cooking, most of the time from what we could bring from home. Many times, by the end of the week, we went to bed hungry because we didn’t have any money to go to town and get food when we ran out. We knew we could not go to Wilson’s Grocery Store and run up a big bill for Dad to pay, but we could go if it rained and we could not get home on the dirt roads. When we did charge food, we were to get bread, a little meat, potatoes, and things like that. No extras, but once in a while we slipped in some cookies or fruit. The milk was taken with us from home and soon soured, as there was no ice box. Few had electric refrigerators.

When Patty was born we had to keep her milk in the ice box. The ice man came and delivered ice from Jesse Anderson’s Feed Store.1 We could go there and buy ice for cold drinks and to make ice cream. Before Barbara was born, we got a used refrigerator with a round thing up on the top where some of the cooling parts were. Much later, we got a new one and a nice electric stove. Up until then, my stove was an oil stove. There were three burners and the oven was like a metal box that I put over the burners to bake cakes and oven dishes. I hated this green stove, for when I used it, the house smelled of the oil fumes. Most of the stoves were oil then. I also had a range stove in two houses. Before oil stoves, people cooked in coal and wood ranges. I remember Mother’s with the warming oven on top and a place to keep water hot on the side of it. The oven was between the fire box and water tank. We had a range stove to heat bath water.


1Jesse married my paternal great aunt, Edna Tennant.

Happy birthday, Grandma.

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As mentioned previously (and made obvious by recent posts), my family has many February birthdays. Going through the list in my head, I recall that the 19th was my maternal grandfather’s birthday. I’m also reminded that several months ago, as I was rummaging through an old box of photos and memorabilia, I came across a newspaper clipping that inspired me to jot down memories of my grandparents and their home.

Newspaper Article
(Click to read)

The Main Family Homestead — This is the house at 201 Dunning Avenue in Mount Ayr, Iowa that my grandparents Weldon and Elma Main purchased in 1948, and in which they resided until their deaths – a much-loved home with much history, often filled with much-loved people. Shortly after my grandparents moved to this home with the skeleton key locks, the Ringgold County Hospital was built across the street. It was an improved, paved street that I remember once being canopied with elm trees, and filled with the sound of singing birds. The trees submitted to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s and the house to fire in 2003.

In its day, it must have been quite an elegant home, which was apparent still in my childhood with its lovely painted porches complete with hanging swings. Built-in “fancy colonnades” with paneled oak columns and etched glass cabinets filled with personal treasures and model replicas of the cars Granddad sold at his dealership divided the living room and front parlor – or “Front Room” and “East Living Room,” as Grandma called them.

The “East Living Room” housed Grandma’s ornate, cherry spinet piano, Uncle John’s chair, a short sofa where I sometimes slept, and the tall Zenith console TV they seldom watched, but John always did – even during mealtime. The TV was a lot like ours at home, with 13-channel VHF and 33-channel UHF dials, but if we could tune in more than a handful of stations and all three major networks we were lucky. Personally, I was happy with any station that showed I Love Lucy, Here’s Lucy, The Lucy and Desi Comedy Comedy Hour, or the Lucy Show, and as far as I was concerned, these could be shown twenty-four hours a day and it would not be too much.

In the “Front Room” were my grandparents’ favorite chairs, a footstool, a large picture of Christ, a wall mirror, end tables, a sofa, my Granddad’s pipe and cigarette stand, and a varying speed stool-shaped-drum-fan-we-could-never-touch-for-fear-of-death whirring quietly near the center of the room. My heavy-set Grandma sat in her chair every morning to roll on her nylons and put on her polished, low-heeled pumps that always matched her purse. Above her hung the little knick-knack shelf filled with inexpensive figurines her grandchildren walked uptown to buy for her at the drug store, and the sofa where my lanky grandfather napped very still with his ankles crossed and his hands crossed on his chest during noontime breaks from work was along the front window. If we were visiting, he made it a special delight to wake him when his meat and potato lunch was ready. As Grandma directed, “Just touch him with one finger in the middle of his chest.” I knew what was coming. I’d tip-toe in, touch his chest, he’d make the expected startled jump, and I’d break into a mischievous giggle of anticipation. “What are you doing?” he’d jokingly bellow, but one of those times his startled reaction made me swallow a starlight mint I had in my mouth, it stuck in my throat choking me, and he had to reach into my mouth, dislodge the mint and save my life!

Great Grandma Addie died before I was born, but I was told that everyone in town called her Grandma, and she often treated her grandchildren and great-grandchildren with bottles of 7-Up soda and lumps of brown sugar. I don’t recall seeing Great Granddad Dwight except in his own home, but if my Grandma’s parents visited, they’d occupy the favorite chairs and sometimes Great Granddad John would entertain us with auctioneer spiel and bribe us with candied orange slices. With lots of grandchildren around, the “Front Room” often had a card table set up for Monopoly, Chinese checkers, card games, or a large, interlocking puzzle. Granddad always finished most of the puzzles.

My mother lived in the house only a few years during her late childhood, but I often visited this home as a child. Before my grandparents owned it, it had been occupied by a doctor, who had purchased it from the original owners. The doctor’s office entrance was at the rear of the house, which Granddad sealed off from the outside, but the concrete steps leading to the old entrance remained. That portion of the house was used by them as utility and storage space and was off limits to me as a child, so I attributed much mystery to this forbidden area, especially the “secret” room behind the freezer, as well as the cellar down the dusty, creaky stairs. Even though I often played on the outside steps to the long-abandoned entrance, the inside door to the closed off portion of the house was out of view, so in later years I forgot the room was even there. As an adult I was reminded in recurring dreams and mentioned once to my brother Tim how odd it was that I kept dreaming of finding secret rooms in Grandma’s house. At first he thought of the upstairs storage room and all the closets, but I’d been in all those many times. “In my dream, there’s a hidden door,” I said, and to my surprise he replied, “Well, there is one!” However, my excitement was dampened when he added, “but there was just a bunch of old junk and it was never as fascinating as you imagined.”

I have always been directionally challenged and was even more so as a child, so Grandma’s names for the rooms frustrated and confused me for some time, as did her directions to someplace in town when I was finally old enough to drive. “Turn south a mile before you get to the old Leason place,” or something similarly nonsensical to me. How on earth was I to know when I was a mile before I got someplace I’d never heard of in a town I wasn’t too familiar with, which way was south, who were these people that didn’t even live there anymore, and why were total strangers waving their index fingers and nodding to me as I passed? In addition to that, I was puzzled by the one-way sign on the town square that pointed both left and right and the dead end sign at the cemetery. The people in this town surely had a way of life foreign to me.

Grandma was forever sending me on a mission to retrieve something from the “South Room,” and I don’t really remember at what age I finally figured out which room that was! The “South Room” upstairs had been my mother’s bedroom. During my childhood this room and its large walk-in closet was also used primarily for storage of family heirlooms like beautiful hurricane lamps, music boxes, old blue glass bottles, and the many games and puzzles the family enjoyed. The closet was oddly shaped because it surrounded what must have been the furnace chimney. Inside was a very old and very large portrait in a wooden frame. Bowed glass encased the sepia-toned head and bust of a young girl with an unsettling gaze. She was most likely a relative. I don’t recall who she was, but I was convinced for a time she haunted that closet. After their marriage, my parents also lived in this “South Room” for about two months until Dad went into the Navy the following March. Mom often expressed how she hated the home’s wallpaper because it reminded her of when she had been ill with scarlet fever during her eighth grade year of school and the large, overwhelming patterns of the paper in her home at that time made her dizzy. (The old house was just south of the town square, probably a block or so before you get to the old whatchamacallit.) Grandma, of course, loved the designs and told of Granddad’s mother, Great Grandma Addie doing most of the papering.

The “North Room” was originally Aunt Barb’s bedroom, but before I was born it had become Uncle John’s room. However, when Aunt Barb and her husband were first married, they lived in a make-shift three-room apartment that included that room. The connected walk-in closet had been converted into a kitchenette large enough for a small table, wall cabinets and a sink. The kitchenette opened on the other side into the room they used as a living room. Later, they lived several years in another large home next door on the same street.

Except for the time it was used as my aunt’s apartment living room, my grandparents’ bedroom was the upstairs “East Room,” which had another huge walk-in closet with a window. While Uncle John was young, his bedroom was a twin bed in their closet and then later in the downstairs room off the kitchen that I only knew as the off-limits “Utility Room,” where Grandma did the laundry and ironing, and behind one of two upright freezers lurked the “hidden door.” Along the hall from the formal rooms to the kitchen was the oak-paneled staircase lined with coat hooks, various coats, off-season garments, and newly sewn creations fresh from my Grandma’s sewing machine. Once upon a time, my mother’s wedding gown probably hung there as this was the staircase my mom descended in her wedding gown to marry my father, January 6, 1951. Later, all the bridesmaids’ dresses for my brother’s wedding were completed and hung there, and for years Grandma’s wind chimes hung in the door frame at the entrance to the stairs and tinkled in the breeze wafting in from the porches and windows.

Clawfoot bathtubs adorned both the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, but the one upstairs had been enclosed and surrounded by a tile ledge. The downstairs bathroom with the tall, old-fashioned commode (almost too high for a child to reach) was where I’d sit and watch Grandma apply her powder and rouge, and then she’d let me sample her makeup and Evening in Paris perfume. This room also stored supplies for making towel dolls and all their washcloth clothes, and the bathroom door was the door to which she once tied my loose tooth with a string and then closed it to yank it out when I hadn’t gotten the tooth pulled out on my own in the allotted time. I remember stories of how the large downstairs bathroom also served for a time as a home brewery when Granddad decided to try his hand at making his own beer, but he wasn’t very accomplished at it, added too much yeast, and greatly embarrassed my grandmother during a visit from her church pastor when all the corks loudly popped off and beer started spewing. Grandma wasn’t fond of smoking or drinking, but she would chuckle and say she did like a thimble full of homemade rhubarb wine now and then. She ruined Granddad’s tobacco pipes when she decided to wash “those nasty things,” and if he’d drink too much for her liking around Easter time back in his heyday, she’d make him a special breakfast of scrambled colored eggs bought from my Dad’s family’s egg hatchery.

Granddad installed all the modern conveniences of the time in their enormous kitchen, including a GE front-loading electric dishwasher, Youngstown steel cupboards, slate counter tops, and a horseshoe shaped booth and table. With all that, there was still room enough for another dining table when the family added generations. At some point, the front-loading dishwasher was replaced with a top-loading one that was so awkward to use that Grandma preferred washing and “scalding” the dishes by hand. She also decided that dishwasher was only good for storing seldom-used dishes, but it stayed in the kitchen for years before they finally got another good one. I remember Grandma fixing bacon and egg breakfasts with instructions not to put the potato bread into the toaster until I saw the whites of Granddad’s eyes. He’d then come into the room with his eyes exaggeratedly open just to be funny. I still shudder at the thought of him smearing his eggs with mustard before eating them. Next to the toaster, a Little Red Riding Hood cookie jar stood for years and years, usually filled with tempting homemade cookies. If it was a Saturday, it was cleaning day before playtime and my cousins and I would argue over who got to dust the piano. Somehow Grandma made cleaning day fun and I remember also occasionally tying rags to our feet to polish the upstairs hardwood floors.

The main floor also included yet another bedroom and a formal dining room. The dining room was only used for special occasions because most of the time the large table was covered with one of my grandma’s numerous sewing projects, as this room with its view to the massive side yard, capped off water well, peony bushes and side porch doubled as her sewing room. This room also housed one of two wall-mounted rotary-dial telephones, the other being in the upstairs hallway, and when I was a child, four digits were all that had to be dialed in Mount Ayr for local calls. In larger Iowa towns like Ottumwa, we dialed five. It hadn’t been long before when the phones there had no dial at all – one just simply lifted the receiver and waited for the operator to ask whom you wished to call. Since it was a small town and everyone knew everyone else (or was related to them) telling them “I want to talk to Grandma” usually sufficed. That was before my time, but I often played with the disconnected old dial-less phone Grandma kept stored in the “South Room.”

When the house was originally built, electricity was a new convenience. This was evident by oddly placed light switches and outlets. In the downstairs bedroom, which was most often used by company instead of immediate family, the light switch was across the room in the middle of a side wall. During my childhood, my grandparents furthered its inconvenience by placing bookshelves around it so finding it in a darkened room was always a challenge.

In later years, the house, and especially that room was associated more and more with convalescence and sadness. Following Great Granddad John’s death at their family home in rural Caledonia, and Great Grandma Pearl’s broken hip, Grandma Pearl moved to town with my grandparents and used the downstairs bedroom until her own death from ovarian cancer. Uncle John passed away in this room in his late twenties after a short teaching career, a brief marriage, and a painful battle with lymphoma. When they were older and Grandma had trouble using the stairs, the room then became my grandparents’ bedroom. Granddad was a hard worker up until the day he suddenly died in the living room, succumbing to a heart attack brought on by heat stroke while shingling the roof of their old garage earlier that same hot day in 1980.

During Grandma’s remaining years, Aunt Barb, who was by then a grandmother herself, took up residence in the family home and Grandma consolidated most of her things into her sewing room. Dining room furniture and her much-used sewing machine were replaced by a bed, chair and color television. Grandma lived for some time in the company of her daughter and an almost constant flow of local and visiting family members before placing herself in a nursing home. She died there shortly after in 1993 of ovarian cancer as her mother had years before, but prior to her death, she was privileged to enjoy a family reunion in her home the summer of 1992, which included all of her living descendants. Looking about at this great group gathered about her, she remarked with a chuckle, “Granddad and I sure did start something!”

When it was my grandparents’ residence, the property also included several out-buildings, a mink house, and fenced-in pasture from the time Granddad raised and showed ponies. Training show ponies was his passion and hitching them up for a fancy turnout or a sleigh ride with grandchildren was also one of his greatest joys. One of my funniest memories involves the mink house. One afternoon while visiting, Grandma went down to the mink house for something, possibly to care for the mink if they still had them at that time, but I don’t remember ever seeing mink so I think by then they may have been long gone and it was basically used as a tool shed. She hurriedly entered the house looking pale and frightened. “Andy! Tim! Go down to the mink house and kill that snake!” she cried. My brother and cousin, about 10 and 11 at the time ran to the mink house, but quickly returned saying, “Grandma, you already killed it. It was just a king snake, but you chopped it into about a hundred pieces already.” Grandma replied, “Make sure it’s dead. Go back and chop it up some more!”

When my aunt’s oldest daughter’s family began to grow, my cousin Brenda Grose bought the home from my aunt, and Aunt Barb moved to a smaller home on the family property. Brenda’s family turned the closet at the head of the staircase into a second, smaller staircase and was in the process of finishing off the attic for more bedrooms, when on March 5, 2003, the house caught fire and suffered severe damage. Unfortunately, the cost for restoring the home was prohibitive and it was eventually demolished. Although many of my cousin’s family and some of their children’s friends were home asleep at the time, thankfully there was no loss of life and their family rebuilt the smaller home that is there today at the same location.

This house and family homestead held lots of wonderful memories for our family. Mom and Dad were married there, my cousin Brenda was born there, and many happy family gatherings were held there. I don’t know what became of the many mementos the family treasured or never bothered to sort through. Did most of it pass from one generation to the next with the ownership of the house? Was much of it lost in the fire or was most dispersed to various family members over the years? What I know is that we each have a few things Grandma and Granddad wanted us to have because they knew they’d be important to us. For me, the most important thing was Grandma’s journal of memories she made especially for me, some old family photos thoughtfully marked with notes, and the candlesticks Granddad gave to her when they were married. I have a few other things I never expected to have, like her wedding ring and watch, and some seemingly insignificant things like a lion-head glass container and a cowbell that had been passed down from even earlier generations in Grandma’s family. There are other things I would have liked, but they were important to others as well and we had to share. The Main family homestead and the many family members who crossed its thresholds before passing from the earth before us, as well as all the love and treasures the house held through the years will be greatly missed by those of us who experienced it and remember – and by those of us who’ve learned of them from others.

At my grandmother’s funeral, her grandchildren paid her the following tribute: “We remember Grandma as a woman whose family meant more to her than anything else on the earth. In her journal, she left us many words of wisdom about family life and life in general. She had a keen sense of humor, especially about herself. Without her wonderful story telling ability, we would not have known about her interesting life, or about the lives of her ancestors. Because of her attention to detail, we will be able to recognize our ancestors immediately when they come to greet us in the hereafter.” I think I’ll first hear a chuckle and notice Grandma’s sparkling blue eyes. She will be wearing her recognizable grin, a blue, silky dress – and most undoubtedly fitting will be the beloved red hat she lost as a child, but remembered affectionately in a poem written by her in her later years. Granddad, with his warm brown eyes, will be smartly dressed wearing polished shoes and a snap-brim fedora hat. He’ll look at us with an exaggerated expression and ask with jovial force, “What are you doing?” Then he’ll probably offer us a thick chocolate malt, a maple crème, or a piece of Grandma’s Applesauce Cake – and of course a ride in a dapper buggy pulled by his favorite trotter.


Happy birthday, Granddad.

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