On The Cusp: Hometown Memories

hometownby Cathy Ricketts

This is insert season at the Record, when almost every week we have fliers to place in the newspaper before mailing and delivering to newsstands. This Thanksgiving week we have one from Hometown Memories LLC. The company has had several inserts over the last year soliciting stories and photographs from people who were willing to share their memories of “days long gone.” The stories submitted from the upper Texas Panhandle have been assembled into the book, Keep the Hoe Sharp and the Shotgun Loaded. It includes 173 of them in 300 pages and the insert is an order form for copies.

The company’s goal is for people to relate their experiences from another time before the sweeping changes that created our modern life. Old-timers will find it enjoyable in its familiarity and young people can read accounts of explanations about the use of “two-holers,” the castor oil cure, party lines and—yes—dust storms.

My aunt, Norma Litchfield Brooks, of Amarillo contributed a story from her hometown of Higgins. Hers recounted the experience of being a senior in high school and working nights and weekends at the telephone office, “going home only for breakfast and supper.” The switchboard was the old kind with plugs. An operator who came to town from East Texas told Norma about her foster brother, a 15-year-old boy whose father had left the family and his mother died. His name was Audie Murphy and he was in the Army fighting overseas. Norma was encouraged to write him. She said many local girls had pen pals in military service. After being one of the most decorated soldiers in history, Audie became a movie star, a writer, poet and songwriter. Norma treasured his letters and stored them in the hope chest her father made for her. Unfortunately, all those letters were destroyed in the Higgins tornado of April 9, 1947. So she is left with only the memories of her pen pal.

Cheta Stephenson McLanahan of Canadian had some terrific family stories in her segment. She told of the struggle her father, Ed Stephenson, had after the cattle market tanked and the government bought the animals, after which officials came to dig trenches and shoot them. My father-in-law had spoken often of how hard that was for his family who lived in the Hereford area. What I’d never thought of was that the ranchers’ wives were allowed to butcher some of the cows, and cook and can the meat on-site. They placed it in metal cream cans, covered it with the melted lard, and when they used it, they’d dig it out, clean the grease off and warm it up.

Cheta also told a story about an encounter she and her sister Carm had with a rattlesnake on their way to hang clean diapers on the “bob” wire fence. Her mother came to their rescue and shot it with her .22 pistol. Cheta figured her mother had perfected her aim earlier when the family had lived in a dugout built in the side of a hill. She would lie on the bed and shoot the mice that ran across the beam over the door.

A bull snake figured prominently in Sydna Hamilton’s account of her life on a farm south of Canadian. It dropped out of the Venetian blinds in the living room and really scared her sister. Opal Boydston of Allison, a 103-year-old, talked about she and her husband living in a tent for a year after they married in Arkansas and moved to the Panhandle. “It had dirt floors, a bed, a cook stove, and my mama’s old organ.”

Howard Sanders of Amarillo wrote about his elementary school days at the Blue Ridge School, 20 miles southeast of Canadian. There was no indoor plumbing and he tells of strict protocol around the two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys, stationed 100 yards apart, about 100 yards from the school. “Mrs. [Lucile] Etheredge had a rule called the ‘four square rule.’ The girls were told to use no more than four squares of paper at any one time … I have heard some of the girls don’t follow this rule now that they no longer go to Blue Ridge.” And, by the way, the outhouses were for serious business only—never for playing or as a place to hide.

When the new school was built in 1958, with running water, indoor restrooms and a cafeteria, it seemed “luxurious.” One of the privileges students could earn was to burn the trash. This created all sorts of opportunities to “melt crayons and generally play with the fire.” They did start a few fires that required help from passers-by to extinguish.

I was amused by his account of a field trip the students, the teacher, and a few parents took in 1967 to Pampa—on a passenger train, embarking from Canadian. Howard said they studied trains and railroads for a few days prior to the excursion. In Pampa, they toured a meat packing house, starting with the front office and proceeding to the area where they killed the cattle. He said they didn’t see any cattle being killed. “We did see the next step where …well, let’s just say it was not pleasant where they butchered the cattle.” Toward the end of the tour, they saw the parts used to make wieners. “We witnessed the grey wiener meat being put in the small red sacs that we see in the grocery store. Then they gave everyone a wiener. No one was able to eat it and could not eat one for a long time.”

“My Round Window Reflections” was written by Theresa Manno of Amarillo. Her childhood memory of a round window on the second story of her grandparents’ house in New Mexico was a portal to her imagination and became her friend. Years later when she moved to Canadian, she met and married YC Lopez, a hometown boy. They purchased a small home. In the late ‘60s, the railroad left town, leaving many empty homes. Some were bought by Frank McMordie who sold them to people on a rent-to-buy basis. Theresa and YC lived close to one of the houses that his son, Hobart McMordie, remodeled. As she watched progress, she realized the house had a round window upstairs. “This was my window! I begged Hobart to sell it to us.”

They moved in and found they were startled by strange noises occasionally. Sometimes Theresa would walk down a hall and feel she had bumped into someone. Windows were opened and shut and there were flushing sounds through the night. They finally gave the ghost a name, Arthur. Through a chance meeting with a woman who knew the history of the house, Theresa found that during a long-ago flu epidemic, an adult and child died in the house. After consulting her spiritual director, Theresa was advised to have the house blessed. “We still had the noises but it seemed like our hearts rested better as we continued to live among all the noises as a natural thing.” One evening she was crossing her neighbor’s yard and she saw a streaming light in the round window. Theresa bought colored contact paper and “stained the window.” Then by sharing memories with her grandchildren who had stories of their own—like a musical toilet tissue holder that would start playing in the night and a musical clown collection that would spontaneously play in unison—and by writing down the story, she feels that in some way she had set the wandering soul free; although she knows that after they sold the house, “I understand Arthur remains as their guest.”

Other area people who submitted stories included Cheryl Boone, Tom Freeman and Dorothy Mercer of Follett, Roy W. Hutchinson, Dale Scarth and Otis Claude Shearer III of Booker, and Wilma Low Nelson of Miami.

Hometown Memories has created 102 books of memories from people all over the county, sharing more than 25,000 stories and 13,000 photos. I like their titles: Squirrel Gravy and Feed Sack Underwear, Tales from the Tennessee Mountains; Frozen Laundry and Depression Soup, Tales from Upstate New York; Outhouse Spiders and Tin Tub Baths, Tales from the Blue Ridge Mountains; It Always Rains When Old Folks Die and other Tales from Davidson and Randolph County; Cow Chips in the Cook Stove, Tales from the Lower Panhandle of Texas; and (an earlier version) Dust Storms and Half Dugouts, Tales from the Upper Panhandle of Texas.

If you somehow miss the insert, you can call 877.491.8802 or download the pdf version here. I haven’t read the whole book, but what I have read was a treat. The stories were as unique as the people who shared their memories.

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