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Friday, March 27, 2009

Lewis County 1937-1938

“This town is getting so modern,” Clare wrote in her Journal in the summer of 1937. “They turned on the new street lights in July and it has been so exciting at the courthouse this month. We got the first phone in about two weeks ago. It is just like magic. I can call people instead of having to run to their houses to pass along information. That part of my job is so much fun.”
In 1935, at the age of twenty-two, Clare and her parents had moved to Monticello. Her father, Milton Lark, was preaching at the Methodist Church.
The entire country was still in the throes of the “Great Depression” and work was difficult to find. When Clare first arrived, she found employment caring for an elderly woman who was “very demanding.”

In the fall of 1936, Clare attempted to teach in a one-room schoolhouse at nearby Ten Mile. By late winter, she had injured her back carrying buckets of coal for the heating stove. Her mother, an experienced teacher of many years, finished the spring semester for her. Clare gave up on the idea of teaching school.
By 1937, she had landed an “as needed” part-time job at the Lewis County Courthouse. Most of her hours were taken up working for the County Superintendent of Schools, Merle Bradshaw. Clare also worked occasionally for the County Nurse, Miss Rauch.

The Lewis County Courthouse was built around 1875. At that time, it contained six offices and a large hall on the first floor. The courtroom was located on the second floor along with three offices, a jury room and a library.

Monticello is the County Seat for Lewis County. It is located approximately ten miles from Canton (also in Lewis County) home of Culver Stockton College, another important location in Clare’s life.

Those two towns and most of the outlying communities are surrounded by rolling farm land. The county is bounded on the east by the Mississippi River.
In the summer of 1937, dust blew in torrents that “whipped at my skirts and blinded and choked me at times,” Clare writes. “I need to remember to carry a handkerchief at all times.” The postmaster explained to her that the dust was blowing all the way north from Oklahoma.

For the most part, Clare enjoyed her job. However, her pay was based on the hours she worked and often there was no work for her to do. This became a major problem after her parents moved away.

The Methodist Church Conference had called her father to another church more than one hundred miles southwest. Jobs were too difficult to come by for her to move with her parents. Clare arranged to rent a room from a local woman with a large family so she could stay.

In her journal Clare records her dismay about her financial situation: “I never know how much money I will have from week to week. I am only paid when I work and Mrs. Bradshaw doesn’t need me all the time. Some weeks I only work a day or two. At the beginning of school I worked every day. And during elections we all work frantically.”

Clare typed postcards to patrons of the library about delinquent books. She graded examination papers. She typed reports for Miss Rauch and did other clerical chores. There were few breaks in the routine of her life. One day, someone brought in a dead coyote for the bounty. Another day she reports “big excitement.” She got to hold and pet a wolf cub a neighbor was raising.
By late fall, the charm of the new telephone had worn off. Clare found it difficult to work and keep answering the calls. To cheer herself up, she bought a mail-order dress for $1.98 out of the Montgomery Ward catalog. She struggled with the wood stove in her rented room, complaining she was either burning up or freezing by turns.

She noted that as winter approached, her courthouse room was becoming very chilly. And any time of the year it was difficult to get her typing done with so many people passing through and wanting to talk.

She listened to Mr. Roosevelt on the radio when she could. With all the problems she and her fellow townspeople were enduring, Europe’s troubles seemed far away. Clare did take time to ponder what the news meant and to wonder why that man Hitler was stirring up so much trouble. What little news the townspeople received came in from static-filled radios (often run on batteries) or from newspapers mailed in from other parts of the country.

At age twenty-three, Clare worried about being an old maid. That was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman, she had been told many times — unless she was a teacher. Of course women teachers were expected not to marry. They needed to be dedicated to their precious students. “So why was it acceptable for men teachers to marry?” she wondered.
Early winter brought a snow storm. Clare made snow cream.

Before Christmas, Clare and a friend drove across the Mississippi River bridge to Quincy, Illinois, to do some shopping. They ran into a young man Clare had met more than a year before. His name was Warren Mulch.

In the summer of 1936. Clare had been taking music lessons at Culver-Stockton College in Canton. She was waiting for a ride when Warren stopped to chat. He stopped to talk more than once that summer.

In January of 1938, a telegram arrived, telling Clare that her mother was ill. Clare hitched a ride to the nearest bus depot with the postman, then took a series of buses to Longwood, Missouri, and cared for her mother for a month. When she returned to Monticello, her job was waiting for her– but her rented room was not. The owner had stored her things in a shed and rented the room to someone else.

So now Clare found herself sharing a room with one of the older daughters of that house. The only plus side she could find was that the daughter tended the stove and rolled Clare’s hair in curlers for her.

Clare entertained herself during winter by reading books and playing duets with the current Methodist minister’s daughter, Margaret. She and Margaret went to see “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the movies. Clare finally got her Social Security Card on February 24th, 1938. She listened to “Fibber McGee” on the radio for the first time that month. The family also enjoyed listening to “Your Hit Parade.”

By March 23, Clare was worrying, “Only two hours of work this week.” But she was grateful even for that considering the alternative. “Gives me the blue devils not to have any work to do,” she told a friend.

April Fool’s Day, someone brought in a chocolate covered onion to the courthouse. On Tuesday, April 4th Clare was so busy at work that she forgot to vote–after urging so many others to do so.
In late April, Warren Mulch had finished teaching the spring semester at Meyer Number 2–a one-room schoolhouse set in a cornfield just across the river from Canton — near Meyer, Illinois. Soon, the ferry began running a regular service from Canton to Meyer. That made seeing Clare easier.

He immediately began to seriously court Clare. He quoted poetry and sang to her. He bought her ice cream cones. He took her places in his automobile. They double-dated with friends. These short trips were sometimes interrupted while he fixed something on the car or changed a tire. “It seems something is always going wrong or breaking down,” she noted.
With the school term over, Clare was not getting many hours of work. She applied to do secretarial work for a doctor at the hospital in Canton and was accepted. She rented a room in Canton from Miss Rose. Warren rented a room from Mrs. Porter and settled in for yet another round of summer school course work at Culver-Stockton.
On June 7th, Warren and Clare became engaged to be married. They set the date for August. This presented a serious problem since her parents had never met the young man and her mother was sure (by mail) that she would not like him.

“Strange how much more interesting life is this summer,” Clare notes in her journal.
Clare got paid a bit extra one week. “I’m rich,” she declared. She and Warren celebrated by going to a dime (movie) show. Additional entertainment that summer was provided by evening band concerts. (Fans and lemonade made the heat bearable.) Once a street carnival came to town. The young couple also enjoyed the college dance orchestra.
Beating down on the rich, deep soil of Lewis County, a heavy rain could always present problems. One Saturday the couple went to Keokuk, Iowa, with friends. It had rained most of the day and the creeks were high and impassable. Her friend Margaret spent the night because they could not get her home.
On Sunday the three of them “went all around Robinhood’s barn” trying to take Margaret back home to Monticello. They managed to do so, but then she and Warren got stuck in the mud on the way back. Clare had to help “steer the car out while Warren pushed.”
In July, Clare broke the news at work that she was getting married on August 5th. “Nobody made much of a fuss,” she commented. Mrs. Bradshaw might have, since that date was just three days after the school board election.

Clare found plenty of work to do while waiting. “Ran 400 pages off on a stencil. Had good luck with it,” she reported. Another day she “Ran off another 800 pages on the mimeograph.”
Still, her friends found time to give her a wedding shower. Presents were modest and many were handmade including embroidered tea towels and a quilted spread.
Tuesday, August 2nd was election day. Clare worked at the court house. The next day, she worried about the outcome–that all the “old faithfuls” got voted out. She also worried that their marriage license had not yet arrived.

Clare and Warren were married on August 5, 1938 by her father at Longwood. Then the couple left on their honeymoon. Their ambitious scheme was to visit a brother of Warren’s who lived in Sacramento, California. Into Warren’s small automobile they packed themselves and their gear along with Warren’s mother, sister and the sister’s ten-year-old son. They also brought along Mr. Plank, the friend of Warren’s whom the couple had double dated with during the courtship. They hung part of their luggage outside the windows tying the bags onto the door openers.
The group managed to complete the 4,000 plus mile trip. They experienced extremes of heat and cold, the radiator boiling over many times and a breakdown in the desert. They held their breath going up precipitous mountainous slopes. Her entry of August 6th tells a great deal: “Started at 6:30. Hot as blazes and Lizzy boiled over about every ten miles. Lots of stops, but made around 360 miles. Stopped in Harp, Kansas, Saw Kansas City, Salina, and lots of other towns. Saw our first tumbleweed. Saw hills, prairies, and oil derricks.”

Clare and Warren are my parents. I visited Monticello in 2004. The two-story brick building with a patterned mansard roof, so familiar to my mother, was still being used. I was told that the courthouse has not changed much during the ensuing years.
A kind clerk checked to see where mother had worked, then showed me the front room. I mentioned to the present clerk in that room how mother had complained about the chill and the traffic. She grinned and suggested that things had not changed much since then.
Canton has not changed much either. The college (which I’ve visited on several occasions) has expanded and modernized. A recent tornado knocked down many of the ancient trees. The river still floods. New homes and businesses have been built on the outskirts, but the older parts retain their small-town charm.
A flood “took out” Warren’s schoolhouse many years ago. It also took out the “two rooms and a path” house they lived in until 1941.
The ferry still runs. And it is still fun to watch the barges ply the river.
It is not difficult to imagine my mother walking to the school library to help Dad write a paper or how they stood in line for a dime show or perhaps held hands as they listened to the Culver-Stockton orchestra.

The couple would spend the next three summers in Canton, living in a rented room while Dad completed his Bachelors Degree in Education at summer school.
Winters, they would live across the river outside of Meyer while Dad taught. Occasionally, Mother would be called to work in Monticello. Dad would drive her to the dam early in the morning and she would walk across it to the Canton side on the perilously narrow walkway of the dam. (One day she accomplished the trip in the middle of an ice storm.) Then she would meet Mrs. Bradshaw who would drive her to work at the courthouse in Monticello.
Though they were poor in those late Depression years, they knew much joy. And as mother always said, “Everyone else was poor too, so we didn’t pay much attention to it.”
They never forgot those years in Lewis County and returned to Homecoming at Culver-Stockton whenever they could. They valued old friends and stopped to visit with them.
Life was hard. Life was also good in Lewis County during the later years of the Great Depression. – Peggy Koch

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