Visiting Aunt Agnes
The House Out Back
The Old "Buggy"
The Wedding Dress
To get from Wichita to Grenola by car in the 1950's was a slow process sometimes called a "milk route". What that means is that one drove the approximately 80 miles on a two lane road through the heart of all the many little towns along the way, much as a milk delivery person might do. There weren't any Interstate highways or even real highways of any sort after leaving the city limits of Wichita. We went southeast out of Wichita toward Mulvane, through Udall and on to Winfield, my mother's birth place. Often in Winfield we stopped to visit with my parents dear friends, Les and Mickey Hedges and their daughter Kay, who was my sister's age. Many times in the early years Kay would go with us to see Aunt Agnes too. From Winfield we proceeded east through Burden and Cambridge and on to Grenola. Grenola sits just to the south of US Hwy. 160 in Elk County. It is about 37 or 38 miles from Winfield to Grenola. We knew where to turn off because the "Milk Lady" lived on the farm at the intersection. After making the right turn, we drove down that main road, the only paved road in town, past the home of Sylvia and Raymond, and turned right before getting "to town", the main part where the stores were in those days. In later years there were only remnants of shops that had once hustled and bustled with the business of the local farmers of the area. We then turned left at the Methodist church, which was kitty-corner to Aunt Agnes' house, and then right into her path of a driveway and parked under the giant Elm tree that shaded most of the east facing front yard.
To the north of Aunt Agnes' house was the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Kessinger and directly across the street from Agnes was Mrs. Eller. The railroad tracks were to the south and on the southeast "corner" lived a very old man who walked all stooped over. Aunt Agnes always pondered at how he could stay upright (later I understood that he probably had Parkinson's disease). At some point in time that old gentleman died and a family moved into that house and they had a phone a modern convenience that very few people in town had.
That old farm house of Aunt Agnes's was a sight to see. It was made of wood but hadn't been painted in many, many years and so was mostly bare wood with only traces of graying, once white paint. It was two stories high, with very high ceilings, probably twelve feet, so it appeared quite large. The porch across the front had wooden columns on each end and at each side of the two or three steps leading to it. The greatest thing for me as a child was the porch swing that hung on the north end of the porch. I have so many warm memories of sitting in that swing, sipping fruit punch, chatting with Aunt Agnes about trivial things, and enjoying the soft summer breeze. To the north side and in front of the house by the swing were giant lilac bushes which bloomed in the spring. Whenever I smell lilacs in bloom I am taken back to cool spring evenings on that porch. On the south end of the porch there were red roses and honeysuckle and I think of the bees buzzing around those blossoms in the summertime. That big old Elm tree in the front yard was home to several horny toads and, what seemed like thousands of singing locust in the summer, neither of which I cared to look at let alone touch! Those discarded, empty shells left all about by the locust crunched underfoot when we walked about the yard, sending chills up my spine. I generally made a wide path around that tree.
The front porch creaked as we walked across it. We entered the living room through the wooden screen door which was painted black and past the glass inset door which was always open when weather permitted. The door knob and hinges were old brass and very solid and heavy. Once in the living room, my eyes always went first to the two large oval shaped pictures on the wall to the left of the couch. The pictures were of the twin children that Aunt Agnes had lost many years before. One child had died after only a few days of life and the other a few months later. I never knew those babies, of course, but I always felt a sad longing for them. They were always there, those precious little babies wearing white gauzy dresses, in those pictures. Directly across the room from the front door was the couch. It was a large creature, covered in a well-worn floral print velvet-type fabric of dark brownish-red, with crocheted arm and back covers. In front of the couch was a small wooden table with a detachable glass top which could be lifted by it's little brass handles. I think it was a sort of "butler's table". It had belonged to my parents. I remember it being relegated to the basement in our house on South St. Francis Street in Wichita, but now resided in this warm, cozy living room. It later came into my possession and is part of my home and contains family pictures arranged lovingly under the glass top.
Except for the kitchen and enclosed porches, the floors throughout the house were hardwood with each room having it's own large area carpet, most of which were floral prints as I recall. The windows were very tall, covered with dark green pull shades and curtains. The curtains in the living room were gold in color. There was a window on the east, just to the south of the door, and a window on the south. Behind the couch was a glass insert door leading to the south porch, though it was always inaccessible due to the couch being there.
On the north wall stood an old wood or coal burning stove which had been converted to natural gas. It was a very large imposing thing, black in color with a stove pipe through the ceiling, which went through a closet in the upstairs and out the roof. I only remember being there a few times when it was in heating mode, so I really don't remember a lot about how it worked. In the early 60's, in the southeast corner of the room stood the large "blonde" wood cabinet that Aunt Agnes treasured. It was the first television that my parents had purchased back in the early 50's, but which had been replaced with an entertainment unit television and record player. The cabinet was very large while the screen very small. In those days the tubes in a TV were a constant problem so daddy worked on it every time we visited. Aunt Agnes had a passion for one thing on TV wrestling which was about the only thing on the one station she could get in those days. I believe prior to the arrival of the television in her house, a large radio dominated that corner ah, technology. On top of the radio, and later the TV, was a "radio lamp" of art deco-style, with a green globe. That radio lamp came into my possession after the death of Aunt Agnes, along with that glass top table. It was always something of hers I treasured. I keep it on top of our television to this day.
Around the room were several wooden rocking chairs. In addition to the couch, they provided the seating. One of the rockers was of dark mahogany, with a fabric seat and low back, floral fabric, in gold and brown tones. When we sat in that rocker our bottoms sank down deep into it and it leaned way far back. It was so very comfortable and was my favorite. I could really get that old rocker moving about the room if I had a mind to. One of the rockers was next to a little dark wooden table that contained a compartment. On top sat a white china dog (Cocker Spaniel I believe). Inside that little cabinet Aunt Agnes kept her writing paper and her most recent diaries. For most of the years of her life she had kept a diary. Each day she recorded the weather and the significant events of the day. I loved it when she would get out the diary that contained May 3, 1945 and told about the day I was born. I don't really remember what it said except that I was named Carol Jean and my birth statistics and that I was a blessing. When I was visiting with her she always asked my input as to what important things had happened that day. Most of the days in her diaries probably contained rather mundane entries, but how I would love to have those diaries now. Another rocker that I remember in particular was all wood, a medium oak color, with a seat of green velvet material. It had wide wooden arms and a high back. It is the rocker in the picture of Aunt Agnes and my daughter Jacque taken in the summer of 1969. It is the rocker Aunt Agnes most often sat in.
There were many pictures on the walls in the living room. I remember a picture of her brother, Ransom, and one of her sister, Pearl, though both were pictures taken in their youths. I do remember Pearl being just an aged version of the beautiful young woman in that picture. There were mostly landscape pictures on the other walls. Upon coming in the front door, we could turn to the right and enter Aunt Agnes' bedroom. There was a window on the east, looking out at the porch swing, and one on the north, looking toward the Kessinger's place. These too had the dark green shades and sheer white curtains. The standard size bed backed to the north wall. Above the bed I remember a wonderful reading light with a gold fabric, fringed shade that hooked over the center of the headboard. When I stayed with Aunt Agnes I always shared her bed, being terrified to be upstairs at night alone, and we always read by that light. Actually, I'm not sure what the other lighting was, probably a floor lamp.
On the south wall, next to the door, was her large dressing table. It was one of those surround-type things, with a low center shelf and drawer space on each side, sitting higher than the center shelf. It had a huge mirror at the back and a stool to sit on in front. I remember her pin cushion, a pretty ceramic lady's head and torso in the middle of a pink, lace fabric skirt. She had a silver colored hand mirror and brush, and her loose powder container, her only makeup other than lipstick, was on the dressing table as well.
On the west wall of the bedroom was a door leading out into the landing of the stairway and on into the dining room. Turning left from that door took you back into the living room, so there was a circular pattern to that area of the house. To the right of the door was the chest of drawers that matched the headboard and dressing table. On top of that dresser Aunt Agnes kept her jewelry box. I don't remember her having, or rather wearing, much jewelry. She wore her plain gold wedding band, which I never saw her remove, another simple ring on her right ring finger (it may have been her mother's wedding ring), ruby or diamond stud earrings and her watch. She had round "granny" glasses of gold tone. This makes me think of her watch trick. Normally Aunt Agnes wore her watch with the face on the outside of her wrist. Whenever she had something she needed to remember, she would turn the watch face to the inside of her wrist as a reminder, until she took care of whatever it was she needed to remember. It is a trick that has worked well for me many times over the years.
To the right of the tall dresser was the closet. It was very small and had a gathered fabric curtain for a door. It contained her "granny" type shoes in brown and black and her many "house dresses". These dresses were all cut from one or two patterns I think. I don't know for sure if she made her dresses or had them made by someone else. For the most part they were all made of "flour sack" material. In the "old days" flour was in fifty or one hundred pound-type sizes and the sacks they were in were of a stiff cotton fabric. These sacks were of bright colorful flower prints. The ladies saved the sacks to use for fabric for "house dresses." The dresses she had were loosely straight skirted, round necked without a collar, cap sleeves, and buttoned up the front from the waist. The belt was of the same fabric. Occasionally they would have a bit of lace at the neck or on the patch pocket on the front. She always had a neatly ironed cotton or linen handkerchief in the pocket. Aunt Agnes wore a "house dress" everyday, and as I remember, when laundered, they were starched and, of course, ironed. When she "went to town" she would change out of her "house dress" and put on a dressier dress, though I remember those being rather simple too. The dressier dresses were made out of "piece goods" from a fabric store though. When we "went to town" she would always put on a straw hat with a wide brim to shade her face. When she worked in the yard at home she wore bright colored fabric sun bonnets, probably also made of the sack cloth, which looked like the bonnets seen in pioneer pictures. She had big old high topped black galoshes by the back porch door which she wore out back to do chores. What a sight!
As mentioned above, the door on the west wall of her bedroom lead through the stairway landing and on into the dining room. This room was very large and contained a hugh, imposing dark wooden table and chairs. That dining set had lived in that room for many, many years and was used only for special dinners. The dining set was to the right of the entry door (north) and beyond it was a window facing north. To the left, at the southeast wall, was a large shallow closet that served as a pantry for the many canned foods she prepared green beans, beets, corn, tomatoes, rhubarb, peaches, pears, cherries, jams and jellies and many other fruits and vegetables. Next to that was the mirror-backed buffet containing her red antique dinnerware and good silver. I don't remember a lot of meals in that imposing room, though I know when all of us were there, that is where we ate. I most remember the times when I stayed with her by myself and the meals we had in her cozy kitchen.
A door at the far end of the south wall lead to the enclosed "side porch". This porch, as well as the "back porch" on the west, was wooden about three feet up and then screened to almost the top. It was a large porch that lead out to the south yard of the house where the cistern was. For those too young to know, a cistern was a storage tank for water, usually filled by rain water. There is a hand pump on top. A bucket was placed on the spout and the water pumped into it. I remember as a small child going out with Aunt Agnes to pump water, but I know I didn't have the strength to pump or to carry the bucket, so I guess I was "moral support." The water for drinking and use in cooking was boiled first. A water jug of cold water was always in the refrigerator ready for drinking. On that porch was the little black wrought iron canning stove. It was hooked up to natural gas. It had two burners and sat low enough so two large pots of cooking food could be placed on it and handled. My mother had one of these canning stoves too at one time. I remember hot autumn days watching my mother and Aunt Agnes "putting up" fruits and vegetables for the winter ahead. Aunt Agnes did her machine washing on the porch as well. The wringer washer stood in the corner in front of the door which led to the living room. Doing washing in that old washer was a major task so much of the laundry was done by hand in the wash basin.
Also on that porch were the feeding and watering dishes for Aunt Agnes' cats. She started feeding two wild field kittens, one black and one yellow, and they became her pets. She named them "Blackie" and "Blondie". By the time her days in Grenola came to an end, she was feeding and watering many, many wild cats (too many to count). In the later years, after my folks had installed a telephone in her house so they could check on her, whenever they called to say they were coming to visit, she would say, "I'll kill the old black cat" (for dinner). There was a point in time when my dad became a bit skittish of having dinner there, and he always looked to see if that old black cat was around. Those cats never made friends with anyone other than Aunt Agnes, though it wasn't for lack of my trying to be friends. I remember chasing Blackie and Blondie around trying to catch them but never with a bit of luck.
Off the side porch, to the west, was a room which was off the kitchen, and served as the pantry. That room had shallow shelves built onto the walls, with flowered curtains to cover them. The "everyday" dishes and glasses were stored here, along with more food items. Many of the glasses were charming "jelly glasses". The refrigerator was also in the room. In later years, when my folks renovated their bathroom, their old toilet found a home in the southwest corner of that room, behind another flowered curtain. Though Aunt Agnes and many of her fellow Grenolaites protested, plumbing came to town and the cisterns eventually were filled with rock. Water was piped into the side porch but never made it all the way into the house while she was living there. I'm not sure she ever entirely gave up the "outhouse" and "slop jars" either. She still kept a rain barrel outside the side porch under the downspout. The rain water was especially wonderful to use when shampooing hair.
From this small room, the kitchen was entered to the right (north door), or from the dining room the kitchen was to the west. This part of the house was another circular pattern. I especially loved that kitchen. It was decorated in bright baby blue and yellow. It was a basic empty room, as all rooms were, with the appliances and cupboards being added pieces of furniture. On the east wall, to the left after entering from the dining room, was the massive stove. It was a gas stove I believe. We did lots of cooking together there. On the south wall was a bright baby blue wash stand and washbasin (a large white enamel bowl), a pitcher of cold water, soap in a dish and embroidered hand towels. A mirror was on the wall behind it. To the right of the wash stand was the doorway to that small pantry room. The first thing on the west wall was the door to the "back porch" and to the right of that was the hugh cupboard which had dispenser bins containing flour and sugar. Also on the upper back area were stored the spices etc. needed in cooking. The counter top where food was prepared was part of this piece of furniture and in the lower area were cabinets where pots and pans could be stored. It was painted the bright blue color with yellow trim. To the right of the storage cupboard was the wooden table, also bright blue, and chairs. There was a wooden shelf on the north wall which held a clock that "tick-tocked" loudly. The sound of that loud ticking clock, the smell of cherry pie baking, the warmth of the kitchen, crusty toasted homemade bread with homemade strawberry preserves, and the bright eyes and loving smile of my Aunt Agnes those are memories to treasure for a lifetime.
Besides my mother, Aunt Agnes was the woman who taught me most how to cook. Her number one specialty was pie baking. She created a rhubarb/cherry pie that was "to die for". I remember too, being there one time making pumpkin pie. We cooked and scraped the pumpkin from its shell; mashed it and seasoned it with just the right blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger; sweetened it just right with sugar and then mixed in the perfect amount of cream, skimmed from the top of the milk plus some extra we got from the "Milk Lady". We took that pie to a Canasta game get-together the next day and, topped with a fluffy pile of real whipped cream, it was a great hit.
The "back porch" on the west side of the house had a wooden work table and various large pots and pans hung on the back wall. The household cleaning equipment was stored there as well. The metal tub that was used for bathing was kept on this porch, handy to the kitchen. Once a week when I stayed with Aunt Agnes I got to have a bath in that old tub (otherwise bathing was of the "spit" variety at the wash basin). She would bring the tub in from the porch and place it in the center of the linoleum kitchen floor. We would pump a full bucket of water and bring it in to heat on the stove. While that water was heating, we would get more water pumped and brought in ready to be mixed with the boiling water. Aunt Agnes always had some sweet smelling bath salts that would make bubbles for my bath. When the hot water was ready she would make the tub just the right temperature, quite warm for me, and get the bubbles all fluffy. I could hardly wait to get in that tub. I could hang onto the sides and slosh around back and forth and in circles. What fun for a little kid who was used to regular old bathtubs. During my time with Weight Watchers, I figured out that the best cure for a pie craving was a long hot bubble bath and memories of those days in the quaint country kitchen.
Something I remember about that back porch was the plucking of chickens now and then for a Sunday dinner. The screen door from that porch lead to the back yard. The clothes line was to the back south side, between the corner of the house and the free- standing garage. Aunt Agnes didn't raise chickens but bought one from the Kessingers whenever chicken was to be had for dinner. I doubt that any store within many miles had dressed chickens for sale. Aunt Agnes put on her sunbonnet and rubber galoshes and went out to get the chicken, who was tied at the neck with a light rope to the wooden clothes line pole. I hid out for the next part which was the beheading. I only remember one time seeing the beheaded chicken body flopping around the yard and watching the plucking of feathers, following dunking in boiling hot water, apparently to loosen the feathers that was enough for me. That and the pet chicken sold to my Grandpa (another story) for dinner about did me in for fowl! But, at some point in time, I guess I must have been lead to believe that the chicken we ate for dinner was different than what I had seen and that it had come already fried, because fried chicken became one of my favorite meals. Maybe the succulent taste of real southern fried chicken served with mashed potatoes and gravy just took away the bad taste I had from the gory details of the chicken's demise.
To get from the ground level of the house to the upstairs was a climb up a number of dark wooden stairs. They went straight up from the bottom landing to the top landing so they were quite steep. There was a curtain hanging a little ways up the stairway, you guessed it, it was floral fabric, which helped keep the warm air from rising in the winter. The curtain was slid to the side in the summer, so the warm air would rise. At the top of the stairs was a small room. I only remember it containing a twin size bed, and there was a closet in the corner. This room adjoined the larger main bedroom. I remember sleeping in that twin bed a time or two, with my parents in the big room next to it. I really didn't like to be upstairs, especially in the dark, unless someone else was there. I got spooked easily as a child. I just usually slept with my Aunt Agnes in her big bed downstairs. I think there may have been a time or two that Linda and I fought over who got to sleep with Aunt Agnes.
Oh, but that big room had some interesting things in it. Being on the northwest side, and having those tall, floor to ceiling windows on the north and west, it was a bright enough room. It was fun to stand at those windows because they were so tall. They too had the dark green shades and the curtains were sheer white. There was a big double bed on the north wall and in the very northwest corner, sitting kitty-corner, was a hugh bureau. It was made of dark wood and had three very large drawers in the base with a wood edged mirror attached at the back. The real highlight of that room though was the Victrola sitting just inside the door to the right. A Victrola was a large wooden cabinet containing a phonograph. The old Victrolas played thick 78 speed records. Holding the needle was a big silver arm that was moved into place on the record. Sorry, only one record could be set at a time. Aunt Agnes had some wonderful old records from gentle old waltzes to ragtime. Linda, Kay, Raymond and I used to like to go upstairs and listen to those funny old records on that old Victrola. Boy, I'd sure like to know whatever happened to that wonderful old music machine. I hope Raymond hung onto it. I think he loved it most of all.
The drawers and closet in that big room were filled with projects that Aunt Agnes was working on. She did a lot of embroidering and she made wonderful "rag rugs". To make the rugs she used scrap pieces of many different fabrics. She got pieces from other ladies who sewed, I think they traded fabric pieces, and when she came to Wichita she would pick up remnant pieces at the fabric store, she called them "piece goods." Mother always saved fabrics for her too. The fabrics were cut into narrow strips, sewn in very long lengths, and then braided together. After the strips were braided, they were coiled round and round and stitched together to make various sizes. Most of the ones Aunt Agnes made were probably about three and a half feet long, in an oval shape. She had them throughout her house and we had many too. They wore and wore extremely well. Another thing she made was little footstools from juice cans. They were the large size cans, turned with the open side down. A center can was surrounded by however many cans it took to surround it. Each can was covered with a little batting and some bright fabric. The cans were secured together in the circular shape, so they looked like a flower. A contrasting fabric was used to make a padded top and the bottom was based with heavy cardboard and a dark, sturdy fabric. They really made great little footstools. I still have a cute little round back chair Aunt Agnes made for me which opens on the seat and is a little sewing box inside.
When I visited her in the summers I always had an embroidery project to work on, often pillow cases. We sat on the porch in the late afternoon and did our sewing and visited with anyone who happened down the road. Aunt Agnes saved all the juice from the canned fruits that we ate and, adding various ones to a lemonade or Koolade base, made interesting fruit punch drinks, served over a tall glass of ice, which we sipped as we sewed and visited. Peaceful and serene are mere words to barely describe the delicious atmosphere produced in that small charming farm community of about 300 people, mostly elders and, it seemed, mostly women.
My life was greatly blessed by the love of my great-aunt and the fellowship of those many dear old friends I made in Grenola, Kansas.
Carol J. Swander Clark
(These are my memories - accurate to my way of thinking.)
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