LIFE IN A SMALL KANSAS TOWN
by Bethel Lawrence Simmons
A friend asked me to write the story of my parents, Clyde and Fern Lawrence, and our life in Elk City, Kansas where our family operated a local Creamery and the Lawrence Variety Store. My dad had a milk route and also had a shop in the back of the store where he did electrical repairs on small appliances, TV sets and radios. The business was located south of what used to be the Marr Drug Store, right on the “main drag” that was Montgomery Avenue in Elk City, Kansas.
I have often thought about writing such a story but always thought I would do that later and suddenly it is later. I never got around to actually interviewing my mother like I had planned in order to preserve some of her stories because I always thought there was time to do that later, but I was wrong. She died before I got to start her story.
Mother and Daddy’s story is unique in many ways because they were truly the small town, young mom/pop business operators. I say “young” for when we say “mom/pop”, sometimes we have a tendency to think of an older couple. My parents were a young married couple. My sister, Dianna and I were born after they started their business in Elk City, and Daddy died young. I feel like I grew up on the sidewalk in front of our store and the Drug Store and taking naps in the back room. It was truly a place where everyone knows your name as the song goes. Not only did they know our name, they knew everything we did and with whom. News often reached mother before we kids got home. I wouldn’t trade that childhood for anything. I think we were all richer, healthier and safer as a result of small-town 1iving. As Hillary Clinton commented, it really does “….take a village to raise a child”.
Growing up in a small town encompassed many things that most people may not experience in a lifetime, especially the children of today’s modern, electronic world with computers and cell phones. We walked or rode bikes every place, especially in the summer. We swam in near-by rivers and ponds and played at the neighborhood school yard for hours, or just sat around reading and gossiping about boys, movies and books. Life was good and we would be young forever, right?
Every Saturday night there was a free picture show and everyone came to town to watch the movie, do their weekly shopping and visit with friends and neighbors. Most of them turned up in my parents store for one thing or another. Mother and Daddy operated a local variety store and bought cream and eggs from local farmers, sold clothing and work boots, some groceries and ice cream, pop corn and cold pop in bottles from one of those old-fashioned coke machines with ice cold water in it. Everyone bought popcorn and/or ice cream before the movies. In the summertime the movie was shown outside on the side of the drug store building and traffic was blocked off in that block so people could back their cars up one side and park and most people, especially the kids, sat on the ground on blankets and quilts. It was great. That’s where we fell in love with the stories of the old west with movies starring Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry, Audie Murphy, Jimmie Stewart, Tyrone Power, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, and the Cisco Kid. There were even a few Al Jolson and Shirley Temple movies. All the movies in those days started with world news and a cartoon like Popeye and Olive Oil, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Wylie Coyote or Woody Woodpecker.
On Sunday nights our family usually gathered in the living room to watch the Ed Sullivan Show on a black and white TV set. My daddy used to really enjoy the Red Skelton Show and The Three Stooges and we would laugh so much it would bring tears to our eyes. Daddy loved that slapstick comedy as I always called it.
Because of the rheumatic fever, while in the Army, my father’s hair had mostly fallen out and all the years we knew him he was bald. As young girls, we would often massage his head in the hopes it would make his hair grow while we all watched TV. Of course this never worked but he got a good massage out of the deal and egged us on to keep trying. Looking back I can see it was a form of play and relaxation for him as well as for us. He would lean back in his recliner and we would stand behind him and towel his head off and then rub and rub to no avail because the hair just would not grow, but we never gave up hoping.
We probably had one of the first TV sets in town and long before other families even owned one at all, because daddy worked on TV sets and radios for people in a workshop in the back of the store. He loved tinkering with electrical gadgets and appliances, and was always trying to figure out how they worked. He even bought us boy-type toys so he could take them apart to see how they ran. He was always trying to fix everything and figure out what made it work or not work, teaching himself about new things that were rapidly coming onto the market in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s.
I have memories of Daddy teaching me lots of things as a youngster. Particularly, I remember learning to ride a bike on the bumpy alley back of the store and on the street near our house after the store was closed for the evening. Our house was located on a corner with a dirt street in front and on the west side. (This is the way most Elk City streets were in 1950 and 1960).) Dad would get me on the bike and run along beside me holding onto the seat. Then he would let go when I wasn’t watching and away I’d go by myself until I realized what he had done, and then I would fall over. After many attempts I finally had enough confidence to ride by myself. From then on it was pretty hard to get me off that bike for it was a real freeing experience.
All of the kids played lots of outside games and almost every kid took part. Counting everyone in the neighborhood, we usually bad between six and ten boys and girls playing until dark or whenever the first ones got called inside for bedtime. Our games usually included hide and seek, Red Rover, Red Rover, kick the can, all kinds of tag, hide and seek and catching lightening bugs. We had jars with holes punched in the lids to save the lightening bugs in and sometimes the girls pretended to make “shiny” rings from the “lights”.
Some people might think we girls were spoiled growing up in town, downtown would be more like it because we actually went to work with Mother most days. There was a room in the back of the store where we could take naps and play, and lots of room outside behind the store for playing and riding bikes. We knew everyone in town and everyone knew us, and consequently, they knew everything about us too. We could walk to the store each day after school, check in with Mother, maybe get cherry limeade or a soda at the drug store, read their comic books and visit with friends. Often Mother would give me a grocery list and I would go buy something for supper. As soon as I got old enough I would go on home to start cooking while she closed up the store. I remember she always polished our saddle oxfords early in the morning and put them in the kitchen window to dry in the morning sun. She was always up early doing laundry in an old wringer machine and hanging it outside to dry. She always made breakfast for Daddy before he left on his milk route to pick up milk from local dairies and farmers in southeast Kansas before delivering it to Glencliff Creamery in Independence and later to Page Milk Co. in Coffeyville.
Daddy hauled milk in that big truck, faithful in all kinds of weather, not missing a day. Dressed in olive green khaki’s and a matching cap, sometimes he would have to park at the end of a long country lane or road and walk to the farm barn and milking parlor to get the cans of milk because of the mud. Once he got there he would carry one and sometimes two ten-gallon cans of milk back to the truck. I used to help him paint the route/customer numbers on the cans in the summertime. I would even ride my bike several miles out into the country to meet him at a farm on his way hack from the creamery in Independence. By the time he started delivering the milk to Coffeyville, it was done in a tank truck and we no longer had to paint cans. I also remember his letting me ride with him on the milk route sometimes. Occasionally, he would let me and my sister, Dianna, off as he went through Independence on his way to Coffeyville and we would walk to our grandmother’s house. It wasn’t all that far, but I doubt that young children would try a trip like that these days. Grandma always had chocolate cake with white powered sugar icing and it was the best. She would tell funny stories and sing crazy songs for us. She died the summer between my junior and senior years in high school.
When I was a baby my uncle, Earl Hankins, came to live with us to finish high school in Elk City. He used to ride with Daddy on the milk route. He didn’t so much ride as he ran. Daddy made him run in front of the truck, wearing heavy boots, from one farm to the next. You see, my uncle was on the basketball team and Daddy wanted him to stay in good shape for the games.
Basketball wasn’t the only sport in Elk City. There were many sports programs connected with the school system in Elk City and athletic programs in the Black Jack League they participated in with surrounding schools. The football field was just two blocks from our house and every Friday night we walked over to the game. My dad got all dressed up. I think men even wore dress hats to the games in those days, and he would move up and down the sidelines with other men beside the chain gang, always cheering on the team. Later when I was in the band, he was there for me too.
During the years that Mother and Daddy had the store, several different high school girls worked in the store for Mother. We always loved those girls and they often were responsible for baby sitting me and my sister. We learned lots from those girls and they served as great role models and mentors to young, impressionable girls in the fifties. We watched them with their “boyfriends” and envied their clothes, all those full skirts and can-cans under them. Some of the girls were twirlers with the band and we even attended weddings for some of them once they were grown. It was like having big sisters but they just didn’t live at our house.
Then of course there was the skating rink and drive-in movies in Independence. We could roller skate on the sidewalks in Elk City, but to really enjoy skating at a skating rink, we had to load up and go to Independence. We would do the Hokey-Pokey on skates which was great fun. Sometimes we would go to drive-in movies, either as a family or with a car load of kids. Before we were old enough to drive, Mother was good to take a car load of us to the movies or skating. I remember she would even take us to the movies downtown in Independence and that’s where we saw such movies as ‘Where the Boys Are”, “Tammy and the Bachelor”, and lots of westerns and war movies. It was good, clean fun and great entertainment for kids of all ages. We always listened to the radio programs such as “The Shadow” and “Buster Brown”.
Mother was hospitalized a lot when we were growing up with an ulcer and finally she had to have surgery the summer before I started to school. I was selling garden and flower seeds to desperately try and earn a Cinderella wrist watch from the proceeds of the sales. I worked hard selling seeds all summer while Mother recovered. She always said her main goal for getting well was to see me start school. Whether it was that or good medical care or all the tapioca pudding neighbors kept bringing her to eat, she did survive and I did get the Cinderella watch.
Whenever somebody got sick the first person to call was Lulu White at the phone company because we had to “ring” her up and have her call a doctor in Independence. We had no direct dial or cell phones, and a real person actually answered the phone wearing a headset and “plugged” into your lighted number on the switchboard to see what yon needed. I still remember our number was “10”. It may sound corny and old-fashioned, but it worked. I could call Lulu and all I had to say was, “Lulu, get Dr. Gollier, Mama is sick.”
We enjoyed the Bible Schools and many youth activities at the churches of Elk City. Although Mother was reared a Baptist, there was no Baptist Church in Elk City when we first started attending, so we usually went to the First Christian Church. Later a Baptist Church was started in the big old sandstone Presbyterian Church that is now torn down, There were five churches in town then, the Nazarene, Methodist, Fire Baptized Holiness, First Christian, and the Baptist. All of them had good youth programs and many children and young families attending regularly. Children did lots of memorization in those days. At Church we learned the books of the Bible, the Christmas Story, The Night Before Christmas and many Bible verses. In school we had multiplication tables, spelling words and many other things to memorize.
Growing up and in school I loved to memorize various poetry, lines from Shakespearean plays and The Gettysburg Address. It ended up that those who planned the memorial services at Oak Hill Cemetery asked me to recite The Gettysburg Address at the Memorial Day Services during those years as part of their program.
We tried to think of good community projects we could do for the betterment of the community. One of the ones I chose (as part of my State Degree for Future Homemakers of America) was to raise funds for street signs for Elk City and put them up. Up until that time, Elk City had no street signs and they did look impressive, thanks to the towns people that contributed to help my project.
When I was a little girl and in the years of growing up, Elk City’s summer streets were busy and noisy. Starting in June and through the summer months big trucks were lined up all the way up and down that main drag and Montgomery Avenue after the harvest of wheat and then soy beans, then maize, then corn. We were in the middle of wheat-growing country and wheat was the biggest harvest, with trucks coming in from all directions waiting to have their wheat weighed on the scales at the feed store across the street from my parents’ store. It was truly a busy time for everyone
In July Mother sold fireworks and I always helped. My first order of business was to wash the store front windows with a bucket of water and squeegee and sweep the sidewalk. Then we displayed fireworks in the windows and proceeded to try out a few of them in front of the store. Mother loved the fireworks and always used the money from those sales for something special. Every Fourth that I can remember we took a picnic to Independence Riverside Park and sat on the ground where we had a good view of the city fireworks display. Daddy would stop at a little ice house just outside the park to get a cold watermelon. He would thump several until he knew by the sound that he had the best one picked out for our picnic. Mother made fried chicken, potato salad and deviled eggs. What great memories these are, what great food that was.
It wasn’t always fun and games and movies though. A concern of the 1950’s included the need for bomb shelters and fear that the “Russians were coming”, which was frequently stated by adults in and around the country. People everywhere were building bomb shelters in anticipation of an attack from Russia or other communists. When Cuba was taken by Castro about 1960, families stored extra food and water, fearful of what might come about in our country. We didn’t have a shelter but I remember Mother and Daddy saying that the steel vault in the store, left there by the bank that was in the building before my parents turned it into the Variety Store, might be protection if we really needed it.
Elk City was noted for its flooding history when we had too much rain in a single night. I especially remember the flood of 1951. I have a picture of mother and me in front of the store and the water was everywhere. There was ten inches of water in the store and you couldn’t see the curbs on the streets outside. Our house was surrounded by water. Water was right up to the back step. I remember mother said it was more than ten inches deep on the floor of the furnace under the house and it cost $28.00 to get the furnace cleaned when the water receded. Everyone in town had to have typhoid shots.
During the fifties we were all concerned about Polio and a few people in Elk City were even stricken with the dreaded disease. I remember being lined up for the first oral vaccine for polio. It was really hard to believe that what looked like a drop of red food coloring on a sugar cube could really prevent us from getting the disease.
In about 1961 the Elk River was finally dammed and a dike was built around Elk City to prevent future flooding of the town.
The new lake was supposed to make Elk City grow and prosper with the new recreation available so close by. But it eventually had the opposite effect and slowly the town became like so many other small towns on the prairie. Sunflowers and weeds grew where once there were vegetable gardens and rose bushes. Many of the young people moved away and the old timers started to die off leaving empty houses and boarded up buildings. The school district was even closed down in about 1975 and all the students were bused in various directions to finish their schooling someplace else. The old high school building is still standing, barely, and in disrepair and surrounded by weeds. The older, big brick school building where most of us went to grade school was torn down. The old spiral slide swings, teeter-totters and play ground we loved are gone and that is now a vacant lot.
Main Street, including Montgomery Avenue and where the old highway used to come through the middle of town, is not as busy as it used to be on weekends in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Cars no longer cruise from the high school on the hill to the beer joint on the north end of town as teenagers with cars used to do. Teenagers no longer stop at the Laundromat to get a coke from the pop machine inside and sit on the laundry tables to visit and joke around to kill time.
The only thing left where my parents; store used to be are some scraps of bricks and the steel vault that was there only because it used be a bank before it was the Variety Store. The wheat trucks are gone and they no longer show movies in town. All the things we knew have changed. So many of our parents and oldest friends have passed on. The whole town is changing and renewing in a different way. There are many young people starting to stay around and it looks like enough children to have a school there, but so far they are still bussed to other towns. Most of the locally owned businesses are gone and families go other places to shop, but Elk City is a still a very, very good place to live and raise a family. It is a community where children and families can thrive.
As learning to ride a bike was a “freeing experience” to get places we wanted to go, earning a driver’s license at sixteen and driving a car was even more so. Of course, my daddy was largely responsible for teaching me to drive a car too. He would take me out in the country and let me drive. It wasn’t all laughs and fun though. I wasn’t allowed to drive in rain or snow or if it was getting dark, or if it was a holiday, and the list went on. I always asked him how I was going to learn to drive in the rain or at night if I never got to practice under those conditions. I don’t remember a single good answer to that question, but somehow I did learn and eventually had drivers’ education classes in school and obtained that driver’s license.
One night some friends and I drove our car up on the Elk City dike north of town near Duck Creek. The car got hung up on a rock and hump in the dike. The oil pan got punctured and the car wouldn’t run. I had to walk home and wake up my dad to go get it. Boy was that a stressful experience. Like I said earlier, he was a big man, and he worked long hours and did not appreciate being awakened in the middle of the night. I had to agree with him because I didn’t like doing it any better than he did. A word of advice to young drivers, keep off the Elk City dike!
My Daddy, Clyde Lawrence, died in January of 1967 of polycystic kidney disease and urernic poisoning, just six months before I was married and five months before Dianna had his first grandchild. He was a truly wonderful man; large in stature and large of heart. He had never let on that he was ill a day in his life that I could remember until his illness that brought about his death. Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) was a little known genetic disease. In Kansas in 1967 the average man with a kidney disease could not afford the newly invented dialysis machines. It broke my heart and made me furious when the doctors tried to put what I thought to be a price tag on my father’s life by saying we could a never afford what it would cost to use one. (Thanks to medical technology this is no longer a problem, but being on dialysis is no fun. It is painful. My sister, Dianna, and I both have this genetic disease of the kidneys. Dianna is now on dialysis and I have had a kidney transplant with a kidney donated by my daughter.)
Daddy was only age 50 at the time of his death on January 21, 1967. The day he died we had left the hospital and gone home, 12 miles away, to rest and clean up. We were about two miles out of Elk City on our way back to the hospital when my nose started to bleed and we had to return home to stop it and clean up again. Daddy died just a few minutes before we returned to the hospital. We knew something was wrong when our uncle met us at the door to the hospital. I couldn’t listen to him or wait for an elevator; instead I bolted up the stairs to my father’s room. It was white, empty, and sterile, all the machines and tubes had been removed. Daddy was in the bed with the sheet pulled up to his neck, eyes closed, and so cold, so very, very cold and quiet, as I bent to kiss him one last time. The day of the funeral was cold and it snowed so hard that all the beautiful flowers at the cemetery were soon covered with a blanket of white.
After our mother retired from her business in Elk City in December of 1971, where she had owned and operated the Lawrence Variety Store for forty years or so, she moved to Independence where she worked a few years in a local department store until her health failed and she could no longer work.
Mother died on the same day in January as Daddy died, only 29 years later. They are both buried in Oakhill Cemetery east of Elk City.