Crunch! Crunch!

When Mrs. Crucis and I drove to Jeff City on Tuesday for the rally, I kept an eye out for changes. The last time I drove that route was several decades ago.  For the most part, the route has not changed since the late 1970s and early 1980s.  
Thirty years ago, I traveled across a number of states installing, maintaining and repairing computer systems.  Several of these systems were in Jeff City, operated by several state agencies. I drove that section of US-50 from Kansas City to Jeff City several times a month. One of those trips occurred during the annual Missouri Box Turtle migration.

One stretch of US-50, just east of Sedalia, was two-lane. It still is today and, if my memory is correct, virtually unchanged since the early 1980s. As we drove over those few miles of highway, I turned to my wife and said, “Crunch! Crunch!”

Three-toed Box Turtle

You see, on one of those trips to Jeff City way back then, coincided with the annual Box Turtle migration.  Most of the time, the number of turtles migrating is slight. You see a few here, a few there, no big deal.

On that day, back in the early 1980s, it was a big deal.  For a distance of a mile or more, the highway was covered, yes literally covered with box turtles attemping to cross the highway.  In my estimation, few turtles made it across that two-lane stretch of highway alive.

As far as the eye could see, in both directions, the carcasses of dead—mashed box turtles littered the highway. You have heard the expression, “Slicker than snot!”  Let me assure you, the innards of mashed box turtles are truly “slicker than snot!”

The highway could not have been more slick than if someone had dumped thousands of gallons of grease all over the pavement.  My first sight of that piece of highway were the emergency lights of police, ambulances, firetrucks, wreckers and more law-enforcement vehicles than I’d ever seen before in one spot.  Cars were off both sides of the highway. Some down in ditches, others upside down, on their sides, a tractor trailer rig was off into a small creek, all of the distruction caused by a small box turtle that rarely grew more than 6-7″ across.  Thousands of box turtles.  Maybe tens of thousands of dead, mashed box turtles.

I was stopped just short of the scene for a half-hour or so while wreckers pulled cars, trucks and tractors from the ditches and creeks along the highway.  Finally, a path was cleared and a few cars were allowed through.  A Highway Patrolman told me as he waved me forward, “No faster than 5 miles-per-hour!”

It was a wise order.

I slowly drove through and around the wrecked cars and trucks.  As I did, I drove over the remains of the box turtles, some still alive or only slightly injured but unable to move.

“Crunch! Crunch!”

I’m glad it was only a “Crunch!”  A pick-up ahead of me ran over an intact turtle.  It went, “Pop!”

I don’t think I drove over any living turtle.  I think.

Since that day, I can’t drive through that mile or so of highway without remembering, “Crunch! Crunch!”

Aunt Anna May

When the mail arrived yesterday, it contained a letter from my cousin Donald.  I didn’t need to open it to know its contents.  My Aunt Anna May had passed.  She died on Sunday, January 7, 2012, just a few months shy of her 99th birthday.  This last Christmas card from her son, Donald and his wife Faye, told us she had been placed in a nursing home.  She had been mentally sharp all her life…until the last few months.  I knew what was coming when I read their Christmas card. I just didn’t expect it so soon.

Aunt Anna May was the survivor of five siblings, my mother, Rosalind, the oldest, my aunt Clara, my uncle Bill, and her twin sister who died as a child during the Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919. Aunt Anna May also buried two husbands, Loy Light and Frances Lamastus.

I hadn’t intended for this post to be an obituary. I wanted to record some of my memories of her before those, in time, faded.  She lived a rough, tough life on a farm from the days before tractors until the death of her first Husband, Loy, in the 1970s. She lived near my Father’s farm in Franklin County when she married her second husband, Frances.  When Frances died unexpectedly a few years later, she returned to her family farm and lived near Donald and Faye.

My most vivid memory of her was from a visit made one weekday when I was in grade school. School had just ended. My Grandmother, who lived with us, wanted to go down to the Aunt Anna May’s family farm near Cairo, IL.

It was a warm, sunny morning when we pulled off the highway onto the gravel road that lead to the farm. It was a short drive, about a half-mile, past the Olive Branch Baptist Church and over a ridge.  When we topped the ridge, we could see the farm and a cloud of dust in the field on the opposite side of the road from the farm-house.

Uncle Loy and Aunt Anna May were planting beans.  Uncle Loy was driving the old, green, John Deere tractor. Behind the tractor was a modified horse-drawn planter.  Aunt Anna May sat on the planter to operate it and to raise the planter and guide arms at the end of each row.

She wore an old floppy straw hat, worn jeans with torn knees, and a long-sleeved blue work shirt.  Her ensemble was finished with a red bandanna tied around her face. When we met her, the dirt around her eyes were reminiscent of the face of a raccoon.

Anna May looked more like her father, tall and slender. She never had a weight problem. She did add a few pounds in the last decade or so but that was compensation for all the decades when she needed a few pounds and didn’t have them.

Another memory was a visit we made one weekend. There was a church reunion on Sunday. When we arrived, Aunt Anna May was in the back yard, standing over a stump with her hatchet, killing chickens for the Sunday dinner.  She’d grab a chicken, CHOP!, toss the chicken aside and grab another.  There were two-three chickens flopping, running around without heads and a few more in a small wire cage.  Next to her was a cauldron of boiling water over a fire.  The water was to scald the chickens and make plucking the feathers easier. It was a familiar scene.  At home, on similar occasions, Mom and Grandma would do the same. One difference was that Mom and Grandma preferred to wring the chicken’s neck instead of wielding a hatchet.

Aunt Anna May and Uncle Loy didn’t have much money. One Christmas they came up and brought me a present.  It was a hand-made bow and arrow set. Uncle Loy made the bow by hand from a limb off an Ash tree.  Aunt Anna May made the arrows using turkey feathers and Indian arrow heads they found on their farm.

In 2001, we visited her bringing our daughter Jennifer and our year-old grandson, Andrew.  We spend the day visiting with her, Donald and Faye, talking and watching  a dozen or more Hummingbirds flying around a trellis and an attached Hummingbird feeder.

She was my favorite. Oh, how I miss her.

Repost: New Year’s Traditions on the Farm

Growing up on the farm, we had a few traditions—mostly imported. New Years was a family holiday. Kith ‘n kin visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas. New Years, however, was just Mom, Dad, me and later Grandma.

The farm was located in the middle of coal country in southern Illinois. The population was mostly Scots/Irish/English who brought mining skills learned in the coal mines of England and Wales. During the Union/Mine Owner wars of the early 20th century, many East Europeans were brought in as strike breakers. After the strikes were resolved, the East Europeans—Poles, Hungarians and various Russians, became good union members and added their traditions to those of their predecessors. However, the new traditions were more aimed at religious holidays than of New Years.

One tradition that became almost universal was the tradition of the gift of coal. The tradition was that the home would have good luck if the first person to cross the threshold in the new year was a dark Englishman, Welshman, Scot, Irish (add other nationality here) wishing everyone within Happy New Year and bringing a gift of a bucket of coal to warm the hearth. My Dad fit that job description and since I was the next oldest (only) male in the house, I assisted with the tradition.

Come New Years, around 11PM, earlier in some locales, the men of the house would leave with a bucket of coal, their shotgun, and, for those who imbibed, a bottle or mason jar of holiday cheer. In town, they would usually head for the closest bar or other gathering place and wait for the mine whistle indicating midnight.

At the farm, we had three close neighbors; John Davis, our neighbor just across the road from the farm, Sy Malone, a friend of Dad’s who had a small farm a quarter-mile to our west, and Ken Shoemaker who lived a couple of hundred yards to the east. All were coal miners or had been. Ken Shoemaker was also a bus driver for the High School. John Davis’ place was the most central of us and he had a heated barn for his heifers. That was our gathering place.

Ken and Sy usually arrived early bringing some ‘shine that Sy made in the woods in back of his house. John would join next. By the time Dad and I arrived, they were sitting around a kerosene heater and usually well lubricated. The men talked and drank. Dad sipped tea from a thermos he had brought. I listened. I heard quite a bit of gossip, bragging and stories while waiting in that barn.

Remembering those times, I’m amazed that with all the drinking that occurred, there was never a firearm accident. I think folks were more used to guns in those times. Many were WW2 veterans such as Ken and Sy Malone. John Davis added to his mine income as a trapper and occasional commercial meat hunter. Dad was a long-time hunter as well. They were experienced folks who acquired gun-handling habits that just weren’t broken even when one has consumed large amounts of alcohol.

In coal country, the time standard was the mine whistle. The whistle blew at shift change each day, at noon, and on New Years Eve, at midnight. The closest mine to the farm was about five miles away. That mine, Orient #2, was on the north edge of West Frankfort. Dad, John and Sy worked there. Ken worked occasionally at Orient #3.

When midnight neared, everyone loaded their shotguns—usually with #6 or #7 1/2 shot, and went outside to listen for the whistle. At the stroke of midnight, delayed only by distance, we heard the mine whistles; Orient #2 to the south, followed by Old Ben #9 to the south-east. Another whistle arrived from the west, followed slightly late by Orient #3 from the north. The men raised their shotguns and in turn fired three times into the air. Nine shots in all. 

As the sound of their shots faded away, I could hear the patter of falling shot and the echoes of other shotguns rolling in from surrounding points. In the far distance, I could hear the Sheriff let loose with his Thompson sub-machine gun that he had confiscated from Charlie Birger just before Charlie was tried for murder and later hung—the last public hanging in Illinois.

As the gunfire died away, each man picked up his bucket of coal, his shotgun and began the trek home to be the first dark-headed man to cross the home’s threshold. In lieu of hair, John Davis wore a dark hat.

It was a short walk for Dad and me, just across the road and up the drive. Dad walked up to our front door and knocked. Mom would answer and Dad would exclaim, “Happy New Year!” and we’d go inside to the warmth. Mom would have coffee or more tea for Dad, a glass of milk for me and either cake, sweet rolls or home-made doughnuts depending on what she and Grandma had made that day.

New Years was a family celebration, but New Years Eve was one for males. A celebration in the cold or in a warm barn; a gathering of men, boys, talk, drink and memories. A communal celebration of the coming year.

Repost: A Gathering of the Clan

When my Grandmother lived with us on the farm, Thanksgiving and Christmas was always a big deal. Many of our relatives lived at both ends of the state.

My Aunt Anna May (note: My Aunt Anna May, at age 99, is still with us,) and a bunch of cousins lived near Cairo (rhymes with Aero. Kayro is a syrup. K-Eye-ro, another incorrect pronunciation is a city in Egypt,) Illinois. Mom’s other two siblings, Aunt Clara and Uncle Bill, lived near Chicago along with their batch of kids and cousins. We lived betwixt them with a local batch of cousins and therefore often hosted the gathering of the Clan at the holidays.

In the late 1950s, most of the cakes and pies were hand-made including pie crust. Betty Crocker was expensive and not to be trusted according to Mom and Grandma. A week or so before the guests arrived, Mom and Grandma started making pie dough. They would make it in small batches, enough for a couple of pies and then store it on the porch. The porch was unheated and was used as a large refrigerator during the colder months.

Mom and Grandma collected pie fillings most of the year. When cherries were in season, they canned cherries. When blackberries and raspberries were in season, they canned the berries—along with making a large batch of berry jelly and jam. When apples were in season, they canned and dried apples. When the holidays arrived, they were ready.

About the only things they didn’t can was pumpkins. Mom and Grandma purposely planted late to harvest late. I don’t remember a year that we didn’t have pumpkins or sweet-potatoes for pie filling.

The count-down started with the pie dough. When the dough was ready, Mom began baking pies. When a pie was finished, it’d go out to the porch covered with a cloth. The division of labor was that Mom would make pies, Grandma would make cakes.

Grandma liked sheet cakes. I rarely saw a round, frosted cake unless it was someone’s birthday. Grandma’s cakes were 12″ by 24″. Icing was usually Cream Cheese or Chocolate. Sometimes, when Grandma make a German Chocolate cake, she’d make a brown-sugar/coconut/hickory nut icing. The baking was done right up until it was time stick the turkeys, hams or geese in the oven.

The last item Grandma would make was a apple-cinnamon coffee-cake that was an inherited recipe from her mother. It was common-place that when everyone arrived, we’d have a dozen pies and another dozen cakes ready. That was our contribution. The guests brought stuff as well.

The holiday gathering wasn’t just a single day, it was several. Thanksgiving, for instance, lasted through Sunday. A Christmas gathering lasted through New Years. We weren’t the only relatives in the central part of the state, but we were the gathering place. Come bedtime, the visitors left with some of the local cousins and would gather again the next day at another home and the visiting continued.

It was not unusual for us to have twenty or thirty folks at the house at one time. Our barn was heated for the livestock, so the men and boys—and some girls, gathered there. Dad would turn a blind eye to the cigarettes, cigars and bottles—as long as no one started a fire. Grandma’s jugs of Applejack appeared as well.

The women would gather in one of our side bedrooms where Grandma’s quilt frame was set up. They would sit, talk, quilt and plan future family affairs. A number of weddings were planned in those sessions. Sometimes before the bridegroom was aware of his upcoming fate.

Come Christmas Eve, the women, along with a number of kids, put up the tree and decorations. At 11PM, those who wished went off to midnight services. There were a number of preachers in the Clan and those who didn’t want to drive to a service and were also still awake attended a Clan service in the barn. That was the only building able to house everyone at the same time.

On Christmas, the Clan dispersed to their more immediate relatives. Mom, Dad, Grandma, my Aunts and Uncles, my sister Mary Ellen, her husband Dick and their two kids arrived. Sometimes my Aunt Emily and Cousins Richard and Dorothy (Dad’s niece and nephew) from Dad’s side would come down from Mt. Vernon, IL for Christmas.

More often than not, Dad, Dick, my Uncles and I would go goose or duck hunting early on Christmas morning. The Muddy River was only a few miles away and if we arrived right at dawn, we were likely to find some Canadian Geese or Mallards sitting out of the wind on the river. We rarely spent more than three hours hunting before we’d return home, wet, cold and tired ready for breakfast.

We would have a large breakfast around 9AM and afterwards while Mom and Grandma started on dinner, we’d open presents next to the tree. I remember once that Mom hide a pair of snow tires for Dad’s pickup behind the couch. I really have a hard time believing Dad wasn’t aware of them.
Over the years, the Clan has dispersed. Most moving to locations where jobs were available. The elders have passed on and with them the traditions. Cousins have lost touch and few live on the old homesteads.

It was a different time, another era. Some families still maintain the old traditions. They are the fortunate ones.


When the end of the year approaches, it seems that time compresses.  My wife and I have been running around to attend to some chores…Christmas gifts for the grandkids, buying new fixtures for the outside of our house when the siding project is finished, and a multitude of other tasks.  When we’re finished for the day, supper, more often than not, is a sandwich, soup or something else that can be prepared quickly and easily.

Sometimes, we skip lunch and in mid-afternoon, we’re looking for something for a snack.  Usually for me, that’s nibbling on cheese. For Mrs. Crucis, it’s chips.  We’re both burned out.  In one of our conversations, I remembered that my grandmother liked to snack too.  However, this was before the days of fast food and chips were still a novelty.

After my grandfather died, Grandma came to live with us.  Dad still worked in the mines, Mom was teaching 5th and 6th grades in a school some miles away and I was in school.

Grandma would rise early to fix breakfast for us, and would have supper ready when we all got home around 5pm. She spent much of her day cooking.  She liked to cook. She liked to bake.  She wasn’t much on baking bread, although at times she did. Grandma preferred to bake pies and cakes.  Large sheet cakes.

I still remember coming home late one school day. It was cold. Though the bus dropped me off at the end of our driveway, the short walk to the house still chilled me. I entered the house and found grandma finishing a large sheet cake—one of my favorites, blackberry jam cake with cream cheese icing. She had a piece waiting for me and a large glass of milk.  The cake was still warm.

It wasn’t always a cake.  Just as often it could be an apple, cherry or some other fruit pie. We had a one acre apple orchard on the farm, several cherry trees around the house, a dozen or so rows of strawberries in one garden and yards upon yards of blackberries and raspberries along our fence rows. We always had a supply of canned fruits and berries that Mom and Grandma canned every year.

But pies and cakes weren’t the only thing that grandma liked. She, like me, liked things that were salty. Things like cheese, nuts still in the shell and roasted, salted nuts. More often, she was seen nibbling on those more than sitting down to a piece of cake or a piece of pie.

Although we butchered every year, a hog or two, we didn’t butcher any of the cattle.  For one, we didn’t have that many, and two, the cattle produced more income when taken to market than a hog.  We raised more hogs and hogs had a quicker “turn-around” or reproduction cycle that cattle.  We also raised chickens and for a while, several hundred turkeys for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year tables.  In short, we weren’t starving. No, far from it. We lived “high on the hog” in more ways than one.

The usual evening meal was potatoes in some form, corn or some vegetable from our garden, a meat dish, and pie or cake for dessert.  It wasn’t until a few years later, after Grandma was gone, that, on retrospect, I discovered Grandma’s favorite snack food.

I had never noticed that when Grandma laid out the meat dish, more often Fried Chicken, Pork Chops, a roast, or a turkey, she always seemed to fix too much.  There was always left-overs.  We didn’t mind. Dad always had a nice big lunch at the mine. Mom would sometimes take something to school depending on what was on the school menu. 

I also noticed that chickens always seemed to have four legs and wings. When we had pork chops, Grandma made about half again as much as we could eat in one meal.  When we raised turkeys, we had a roast turkey about one a month.

But the leftovers seemed to be gone quickly. The leftover turkey seemed to disappear quickly too.

One day I did discover Grandma’s favorite snack. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

Grandma was a small, slight woman, barely five foot tall and sopping wet, maybe a hundred pounds. No, she wasn’t a large woman. In fact, she looked remarkedly like Grannie on the old Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

I came home from school and entered through the back door. Most folks in our area at that time entered through the back door.  The front door was reserved for “company.” 

When you entered our back door, you can either go straight down the stairs to our basement, or turn right and walk up a few steps into our kitchen.  When I walked through the door into our kitchen, I found Grandma sitting at the kitchen table…with a pork chop in her hand.

She held the chop by the bone and had just taken a bite off the chop. She liked cold pork chops…and chicken legs and wings…and turkey legs and wings…and turkey sandwiches.  Grandma liked just about anything cold that had once ran or had wings.

I remembered later how often I’d come home, at bit hungry, thinking of that leftover pork chop from the night before, or of a chicken leg, or some sliced turkey for a sandwich only to discover they were gone.  I’d always thought they went with Dad for his lunch at the mines.  They did.  But not all of them.  No, Grandma carefully planned Dad’s lunches…and her snacks. After fixing Dad’s lunch, there was always enough for Grandma’s lunch and mid-afternoon snack.

During the week, I was the first one home. Dad arrived next and Mom usually arriving around 5pm.  I caught Grandma snackin’ a few times but never thought much about it. Grandma could really put the food away but she never seemed to gain any weight. She was a hard worker and put those calories to work.

After she was gone, I remarked once at supper that the meals seemed smaller.  Mom smiled.  She knew.  Dad just said we didn’t need as much for three as for four.  I don’t think he ever noticed or if he did, he didn’t ever mention Grandma’s snacking.

Yep.  Grandma was a snacker.  No fast food or unhealthy chips for her.  Nope. Grandma snacked high on the hog…or low as the case may be.           

A Thanksgiving Story

I’m being lazy this Thanksgiving . This is a repost from a couple of years ago about a cousin of my mother, Heinie Muller.  It’s a story about Heinie, but it’s also a story about Thanksgiving and the years I spent growing up on the farm.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do remembering the occasion.
Heinie (Henry) Mueller was Grandma’s nephew. He served in the US Army during WW1 through most of the battles on the western front. He was gassed twice, received two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star plus some French medals.

Heinie was a character. He walked with a slight limp and cussed every third word. He didn’t care who he was with nor who heard him. If somebody didn’t like his language it was just too bad. Heinie would send them on their way with a few choice words and phrases.

After the war, Heinie married a lady named Irene and moved to Woodriver, IL. They would drive down to visit us every few months—more often after we moved to the farm. Heinie liked to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and geese and he would frequently appear during hunting season. He, Dad and I would go hunting while the women-folk visited.

I don’t remember Heinie ever shooting much. He seemed more to just like to get outdoors and walk in the woods. When we flushed some game, he would more than likely let Dad or me have the shot.

One year, Heinie and Irene came down for Thanksgiving. They arrived on Wednesday and Irene had bought the makings for oyster dressing. She and Grandma would fix Thanksgiving dinner the next day while Mom went to pick up my sister who was attending college at SIU at Carbondale, IL. Heine, Dad and I planned our hunt. We got up early Thanksgiving morning and went goose hunting.

Early Thanksgiving morning, about an hour before sunup, we left the house and drove down to the Muddy River bottoms. Dan share-cropped corn on a ten-acre field. When Heinie announced he was coming, Dad built some blinds along the edge of the field. The blinds were along a tree line with an open view across the corn field. The field had been picked late and there was a lot of spillage to attract geese and an occasional deer.

It was cold. Ice had formed on the surface of the field and we crunched across it as we walked towards the blind. The blind had been built out of salvaged two-by-fours and scrap sheet-metal for the roof with a covering of corn stalks for camouflage. Across the front was a tarp that would be dropped to allow us to step forward to shoot.

For whatever reason, the wind, or low hanging gray clouds or just general cussedness, the geese didn’t show up that day. Heinie had brought a hip-flask and would take a nip every so often. Dad was a Baptist and didn’t drink, but Heinie didn’t care.

By 11 o’clock, we decided that we’d give up hunting for the day and Dad started a fire to make some coffee to sober Heinie up a bit before we went back to the house. The fire also gave us an opportunity to fix a quick lunch. Heinie had been nipping fairly steady since we arrived and was feeling good. While the coffee was brewing, Heinie started talking about when he was in the Army. He had joined the US Cavalry in 1912 at the age of 17 and had gone down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing after Pancho Villa. Coincidentally, so had my Uncle Johnny.  The two never met during their years in the Army; not until decades later when Dad and Mom were married.

After a bit, he talked about going to France to fight the Germans. Heinie was a Corporal by that time and had transferred from the Cavalry to the Infantry. After Mexico, he said, he didn’t want to ride or see another horse for the rest of his life. He was promoted to Sargent on arriving in France and later took over a rifle platoon.

He fought in a few battles and managed to survive with only some minor wounds. Once, he was lightly gassed with chlorine when his British-made gas mask leaked. After we had finished our coffee and the fried egg and bacon sandwiches, Heinie was silent for awhile. Then he began to talk about the Second Battle of the Marne and tears started flowing.

Heinie had been in charge of a rifle squad when they had left the US, first as a Corporal and then as a Sargent. Not long after arriving in France, he was made a Platoon Sargent and Company interpreter. His grandparents had immigrated from Hesse, German in the early 1880s. They spoke both German and French. Heinie, born in Illinois didn’t speak English until he went to school and he retained a slight German accent the rest of his life. 

Heinie had known many of the men in the platoon for several years, some from the excursion into Mexico. His company was in the front line trenches and preparing for battle. The Battle of the Marne had been going on for some time and the allies were preparing counter-attacks.

An hour before the company was to counter attack, Heinie was sent back to the battalion headquarters. It had been decided that all interpreters would be held back.  They would not attack with their troops because they would be needed to help translate for all the prisoners that would be captured—so they assumed.

Heinie paused several times to blow his nose and wipe his eyes before continuing. The whistles blew and the troops attacked. After several hours, survivors began filtering back through the battalion headquarters area. It was later determined that out of Heinie’s company, he and seven others were the only survivors. None from Heinie’s platoon.

Later, Dad told me that every year, Heinie would get a bit liquored up and start talking and remembering. Usually Dad wasn’t too tolerant of drunkedness but Heinie was different. Dad said it was a small thing to give Heinie an audience. It quieted his ghosts.

Heinie is long gone now. But every Thanksgiving, I remember him.

My old school.

A bunch of friends and I were discussing school food last week in an e-mail list.  As expected there were a number of horror stories about school food and how it was served.  Not where I went to grade school. No horror stories there!

I went to a country school.  It was not the oft-maligned one-room-school although the school did start as a one-roomer.  The property, about 20 acres, had been bequeathed early in the 20th Century for the school .  I remember seeing class photos in the school hallway going back to the 1920s.

At one time, the school was a brick, one-roomer.  There were still a couple of out-houses on the property made of concrete and long abandoned.  Over the years the school expanded. First another room was added during the 1940s. In the early 1950s, a third class room, indoor restrooms, an office, basement, gym and a coal-fired furnace were added. When I was in the third grade or thereabouts, the school expanded the gym by adding bleachers and two locker-rooms with showers underneath the bleachers.

How could this small country school afford all this?  We had an oil well on the school property about 100 yards away from the school.  We were NOT strapped for cash. In addition, a twelve acre field was leased to a neighboring farmer who share-cropped it. The remaining eight acres, including a three acre woodlot, was reserved for the school, a play area and a ball field.

Most of the mineral rights in that part of southern Illinois were owned by the coal mines.  The mines bought up mineral rights throughout the southern part of Illinois in the early decades of the 20th Century.  The school property pre-dated the coal mines, at least the ones that could reach the school’s property line.  For some reason, the mines never acquired the mineral rights from the school.  When oil was discovered in our county in the 1930s and a well was drilled, mistakenly so I was told, on school property, the money started flowing in.  It also lowered the school taxes to just the bare minimum required by law.

My family had a direct affect on that school beyond my attendance.  At one time or another, my Mother was a teacher and later the Principal.  My older sister was a part-time music teacher, splitting her time between mine and two other small schools in the county.  Finally, my Father was on the school board and was the board president during his last term.

I had no privacy at school.  Everyone knew me. There was no escape.  Later, when I was in high school, it was the same.  Every teacher and administrator in the entire county knew me, my mother, my sister and my father.  I was on a tight leash.

Getting back to the original subject—school lunches, ours was great.  The two school cooks were elderly widows who lived in the school district.  Both had children and grandchildren attending the school.  

They cooked home style.

I don’t remember the entire menu, but it was different from school menus I’ve seen today.  Yeah, there may have been days when hot-dogs or ‘burgers were on the menu, but those were rare, maybe once in three or four weeks.  What I do remember was “meatballs.”  Think of a meatball about the size of a baseball, some were bigger. Think of the cooked meat balls simmering in spaghetti sauce.  This was served with mashed potatoes, a vegetable, corn or peas, I think. Included were a side dish of fruit, apple-sauce, sliced peaches, a peeled half of a pear, or fruit cocktail.

Then there was dessert.  Pies, cakes, puddings, all made from scratch. And, once a week, ice cream. 

The typical menu included a meat dish, a choice of two or three vegetables (and you had to take at least two of the three choices,) fruit, dessert and milk, either white or chocolate and twice a week fruit juices.  On rare occasions, very rare, there may have been kool-aid.  I don’t ever remember being served pizza, PBJ or some of the current quick-fix food substitutes I’ve seen on modern school menus.

One reason that we ate as we did is that every food item was from a can.  The meats were canned. The vegetables and fruits were canned. Even the ice cream was served in individual servings, not scooped from a larger can.  The school had one freezer and two refrigerators. They didn’t have much room for anything that wasn’t canned.

At lunch time we marched down to the cafeteria by grades. Each grade had a particular section to be seated. The next higher grade would be seated next, elbow to elbow on long trestle style tables lined in four or five rows from one end of the lunch room to the other.  The room could seat around eighty kids in one session.  During the eight years I attended, I don’t think the entire school population, including the adults, ever exceeded seventy people.

After everyone had been served, adults too, we could have seconds.  And we did!  The meat balls were my favorite. I’d ask the serving cook, one of the two widows, to put the meat ball on my plate first, then put the mashed potatoes on top,ladle some spaghetti sauce on top of that with peas or corn on the side.

We were a bit strange about food mixtures.  To this day, I like peas mixed in with my spaghetti. My wife and daughter still think that’s strange.

With the exception of the ice cream, all the desserts were made from scratch.  The cakes were baked late in the previous afternoon in large sheet cakes.  The pies too.  If my mother hadn’t made pies in circular pans at home, I’d never know that a pie was served in a wedge.  One pie that I loved was apple-sauce pie.  Somehow they were able to make a pie from apple sauce that stayed within the crust when it was served, like a custard.  My wife tried to make it for me once and when it was cut and served, all the apple sauce ran out leaving just the crust.

We did eat a lot of beans. Usually navy beans that we’d see soaking in large five gallon pots the day before they were cooked.  When the beans were cooked, they would put an entire ham into the pot to be cooked with the beans.  Late in the process the ham was removed, cubed and put back into the pot.  We loved those navy beans.

When, one time, the two cooks were both out sick, a substitute cook was brought in to fill-in.  Big mistake.  She served butter-beans.

No one, not even the adults, liked them.  I think most of the students and faculty went vegetarian that day.  When the two original cooks returned, we bid the temporary to never return.

In the 1960s, there was a big push to consolidate all the smaller school districts into one larger unified district.  Our school was included and was particularly sought after because of the oil revenue.  They were a bit surprised to later discover a codicil on the original will that created the school.  The property would revert to the original family if the school was ever closed.  No school, no oil well.  Long story made short, the new unified school district did not get the oil money. I’m fairly sure if they’d realized that in the beginning they wouldn’t have annexed my country school into their larger district that covered almost half the county.

In the end, the Hill City School District ceased to exist.  The school building, an all-brick and steel construction reverted to its original owners.  Shortly thereafter it was sold, minus the mineral rights, to the county.  For awhile it was converted into apartments. A few years later, if I remember correctly, it morphed into a youth center.

As I wrote this post, I did a Google search on my school.  I’m dismayed how much the record is wrong.  In the official history of Franklin County, they say that Hill City had a West Frankfort, IL address.  Not when I still lived in the county. Our mailing address, at the farm and at the school was Rural Route 1, Benton, IL.  The record also says the school was organized in 1946.  That, too, is misleading. The school was “consolidated” in 1946 when the state made school districts more formal.  The school existed for over two decades before that “consolidation.”  I guess it was too much effort to get the facts accurate when that county history was written.

I haven’t been by the school in several decades now.  I think the actual school building has been torn down. Our family farm was sold after my father died in the early 1980s—sold to one of my Hill City school mates in fact.

At its heyday, Hill City School held almost a hundred students in eight grades in three rooms.  The first through third grades were located in the original brick building, the fourth and fifth grades were in a room in the 1940s add-on, and sixth through eighth grades were in the last room added in the early 1950.  As time went on, the classes grew smaller. The district aged, passed on, and moved away with the closings of the coal mines.

My eighth grade class contained eight students.  To the best of my knowledge, only one of my classmates still lives in the old Hill City school district, the boy who decades later bought my father’s farm.  All the rest of us have moved on.  The other boys, including me, went into various branches of the armed services and wherever we left the services is where we remained.  For me that was Kansas City.

I still think of them from time to time…my cousin Donna who died recently, Mary Ann and Silas, who grew up as neighbors and later married, Paul who bought our farm.  Mary Ann went to SIU as I did.  Silas joined the Marines after graduating high school and he and Mary Ann were married a couple of years later.  

I lost track of the others. But, for a time, we were all family.