By William F. McDermott
Rambling over my radio dial the other night, I caught a couple of vaguely familiar notes. I paused to listen. A “hot” band was swinging a tune I knew I had heard somewhere. It was a little too speedy, perhaps, for one past the half-century mark to enjoy. But the suggestion of an old melody haunted me. Finally I managed to extricate enough of it to establish its identity. It set ringing in my mind once more those lines we used to know as well as we knew the catechism. “How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood, when fond recollection presents them to view.”
Alone in a big house that evening, with children scattered, I followed the trail of memory back to the white cottage with a whole block of ground for a yard; to the family carriage, an Old Nell, the faithful horse; to the hammock swinging beneath the apple trees; to neighbors exchanging jams and jellies and tidbits of news; and to the leisure and serenity of living at the turn of the century.
Few there are who spend their youth in the open spaces and then migrated to the city to live who do not grow misty eyed at the thought of those less troubled days. Yet, I fear, fancy too often gets the upper hand as we ruminate. “The old home town was a good place to live,” we say. But let’s dispel the glamorous mist of memory and reconstruct some of the facts of life in the old home town. Mine was a good town by the standards of the time, because it won a $1,000 prize, given by a State university professor, for being “the model community of Kansas in which to rear children.”
What happened later to some of these children? Well, two of the gang I used to run with as a shaver in short pants became bums in St. Louis and Chicago. Three others, two of them deacon’s sons, went to the penitentiary. One more would have, but he had a clever lawyer. The rest turned out to be good, bad, and indifferent.
We supplemented our juvenile income – allowances were unknown in those days – from peddling handbills, running cows to pasture, cleaning out stables, and
rolling cigars, by sneaking into the back door of illegal saloons and selling for 2 cents each the empty whisky and beer bottles we found tossed out on the parkways.
The State had had constitutional prohibition for 15 years, but the politicians got around that with a “fix”; the first day of each month the joint keepers were arrested and fined $100 apiece for “disorderly conduct,” I remember well the mahogany bar and gilded back mirrors, the white-aproned bartenders and the line of customers all of them best citizens, of course, in the saloon adjoining the St. James Hotel. It passed out only when Carrie Nation’s cohorts descended on it a la Stuka bomber and left it like London’s Guildhall.
Our mischief consisted in toppling over outhouses on Halloween night, and in putting an acid concoction we called holy-poky on dogs’ tails and hearing them howl as they ran away in a frenzy of pain. Or we would loosen the nut on a wagon wheel and then hide near-by, watching with glee as the farmer drove off down the street. When the wheel came off, the wagon toppled half over. A runaway sometimes resulted.
For variety, we would unsnap the lines from the bridle of driving horse; crisscross them so a pull by the driver would turn the horse in the wrong direction. Unhitching the tugs so the horse would pull away and leave the buggy and occupants standing were another trick. These were favorite “jokes” on youthful swains going to take their girls for a buggy ride. On the Fourth of July, of course, it was great sport to throw cannon crackers beneath jittery horses.
The average celebration of the Fourth in those days was heavy in casualties. Blacksmiths’ anvils, surcharged with gunpowder, produced the loudest explosions – and often shattered arms and skulls. Four to eight-inch firecrackers were available to any children who had the money to pay for them. There were no restrictions on fireworks anywhere and the death toll throughout the nation ran into the hundreds, injured into thousands. Tetanus was frequent, and lockjaw defied the doctors.
By way of getting a thrill, we used to have “chariot races” with the family vehicles, each consisting usually of an old driving horse and an open buggy, called a runabout. Meeting at an agreed rendezvous on a country road wide enough for two or three buggies to be driven abreast, we would mark off a race course. Then, whooping and yelling and laying on the whip, we worked those staid animals into a dead run, buggies clattering dangerously close to each other. Other times we would play runaway, one driving the horse a gallop, seesawing on the reins and making the vehicle swerve crazily, and the other, posted 100 yards or so ahead, making a dive to catch the horse by the bit and nose to stop him.
We hung around the livery stable where I am sure started all the obscenity in the world. We sneaked regularly into ball games, following a beaten path below the bank of the river skirting the fairgrounds. We went swimming naked in the muck of dead-end ponds, in rivers and creeks wherever the water was deep enough. Once my head got stuck in the mud at the bottom of a swimming hole. I signaled my distress with my feet and other kids pulled me out. We stole watermelons and fruit, milked farmers’ cows, broke gas lights occasionally, and played hooky from school.
But if we were mischievous, even destructive, remember we were left mostly to our own devices. Like Topsy, we just grew. Often that meant we grew wild. Boy Scouts and 4-H Clubs and Rotary Clubs to sponsor them were unknown in those days. Supervised playgrounds would have been laughed at. Summer camps had hardly been heard of. Camping was a matter of borrowing an army tent and pitching it beside a creek in which we fished and from which we drank. We did have our chores, which had a steadying effect, and parents with a puritanical slant restricted us with plenty of “No’s.” But if we had had the organized school sports of today, the boys’ and girls’ clubs, the competitions, the equipment and trained leadership available to cities and town, we wouldn’t have perpetrated the deviltry that we did.
I’ve lived in Chicago for 30 years, but the model little town gave more bloody thrillers in my youth than I’ve seen since – and I’m a newspaper reporter, which means I go into all sorts of places and dangers. I was held up twice there and saw a man shot to death by a policeman. I helped a coroner break into a near-by country hotel where a jealous husband had shot his pretty young wife to death and had killed himself.
On Saturday night in summer I witnessed a shooting by a crazed man who turned the main business corner into a shambles. The usual band concert was underway, with crowds milling all about, when a madman, jealous of the players because he had been rejected by the band, crept out of an alley half a block away, armed with two shotguns and a revolver. Hiding behind a shoe-repair sign, he opened fire on the band and the crowd. Nine were slain.
We buried babies in those days almost by battalions. Sanitation was a misnomer. Only the hardiest survived. Raw river water was pumped into a reservoir, filtered through a brick wall, and piped into the homes. Once a year the reservoir was drained and cleaned. Dead animals were nearly always to be found, a cat or a dog, maybe a rabbit. Many of the homes had wells – also each home had its outdoor privy and barn yard, all on the same lot. Most everyone kept a horse and a cow. A well was used until the water tasted or smelled bad.
Outhouses were cleaned by a city “scavenger” who worked by night. His implements were a covered wagon, a muck fork, a barrel of lime, and a lantern. The dump was the river bank below where the town water supply was secured, but only 12 miles above the water intake of another town. No wonder that typhoid fever was common.
It was a disease to strike terror to many hearts. Several of my playmates, including my high school sweetheart, die of it. Few indeed were the communities that were exempt; it was not unusual for a village to lay away a dozen of its people in a single summer from typhoid. Big cities suffered too. Fifty years or more ago, Chicago often buried 5,000 a year from typhoid. Last year it had not a single death from it. Typhoid, a scourge of my generation, is seldom even heard of now.
Flies came in droves. The best barometer of a storm was when a screen door was black with files. Every home had its homemade device: strips of paper nailed on the end of a stick , which was swished through the air to keep the flies out of the food. Mosquitoes, too, made their home among us. I well remember my mother taking the coal-oil lamp nightly in summer and going on a hunt for mosquitoes high up on bedroom walls. When she located one, she held the lamp directly under it. Singed by the heat, it tumbled in a second or two into the blaze.
A kid’s job was to keep the flies off the cow while his dad milked. It was to keep the cow quiet, so she wouldn’t send paterfamilias sprawling with a kick or lash his countenance with her tail, rather than to protect the milk supply. Milk was strained through a cloth to get rid of drowned files and dirt which dropped off the cow’s udder.
Anybody could run a dairy. Raw milk in huge cans was toted about in spring wagons. A quart cup was used to measure the milk drained through a faucet, and the fluid was placed in any container, such as a crock or a dish, the housewife might put on the porch. If she didn’t take it in quickly, the cat might help itself. There was no inspection of cows, no tuberculin tests, non compulsory cleanliness.
Food was kept in open containers in stores. Flour, crackers, and horse feed might be kept in adjoining barrels. Careless clerks didn’t worry about covering edibles when sweeping.
Down each side of Main Street and Ninth Avenue was a continuous hitching rack or a string of hitching posts. A businessman would drive to work in the morning, hitch the horse out in front all day, and drive home at night. Manure would pile up, dry out in the summer winds, and go sweeping down the street in blinding dust, which the flies spread to the grocery store.
There was a lot of town pride, but it took varied forms. The village was proud of its churches, but every year they went into their annual battle over doctrine, and each one claimed a monopoly on the Lord. When a devout Methodist woman marries a Baptist w i d o w e r and joined his church, it set bigoted tongues wagging furiously. The stores were lovely, but little attention was paid to the $6-a-week wages to women clerks who stood from 8 A.M. until 6 P.M. at their counters, and until 10 on Saturdays.
The town was without a hospital. Once, when I was 8 years old, a growth in my throat shut off my breath. I was blue from strangulation and apparently had only a few minutes to live. The old family doctor laid me out on the kitchen table, took the instruments he carried in the false bottom of his medicine case, cut in beneath the obstruction, put in a silver tube, and I breathed easily again. He had never performed or seen the operation done. He had only read about it, but took a chance.
We didn’t have a gymnasium or a game room in the town. Schools had playgrounds, but no equipment. Athletics were confined to football and baseball, and recreation to parties, dances, and church sociables. A revivalist held a meeting and raised $12,000 for a Y.M.C.A. building. It had a gymnasium, a library, a parlor, and baths. The novelty of anything but a washtub bath caused the townsmen to work those facilities nearly to death.
Most of the children those days went only to the eighth grade. The high school occupied four rooms on the second floor of an all-service building. Every pupil went through the same mill of Latin, history, mathematics, English, and civics. In my graduation class were four boys and 17 girls. Now 200 youths will graduate in a year.
We were well intentioned, but smug at that. We sang the sentimental old songs and ditties, and were shocked – and intrigued! – when ragtime came in. We didn’t even know the meaning of a symphony orchestra or of an oratorio, and didn’t care. We had a town band that really was good, but we thought anything above that was only the foible of the high-brows. How we would have considered as sissy the great high-school chorus of today as it stages masterpieces of music. The coming of the phonograph began to break the back of our scoffing. We paid $6 apiece for Caruso records which we learned to like. Radio made universal the classics. Hearing spread to doing and nowadays youngsters unaffectedly like music as well as art and literature.
Public transportation was a matter of mule-drawn streetcars, with overalled Negroes and whites for drives. Between collecting fares, the drivers would use blacksnake whips on the mules to get up speed. Or downhill they would let the car run onto their heels to make them move. At that they were accommodating to their patrons, stopping anywhere to pick up or let off a rider.
Hacks met the trains. Some of the drivers were disreputable characters, and they beat their horses mercilessly. It was considered anyone’s inherent right to beat his horse, his dog, or his children as he saw fit. One of the nightmares of my memory is the appearance of those half-starved, listless hack horses whose ribs stuck out like sores, and of the way their drivers kicked, yanked, and tortured them. It’s years since I have seen the sadistic cruelty that we accepted as commonplace.
I haven’t named my old home town until now, because I want you to see it as it is instead of as it was. It’s Winfield, Kansas, as fine in a home community of 10,000 people as you can find anywhere. Streets are paved, homes are lovely, and every conceivable convenience is available. Two fine hospitals serve the sick for hundreds of miles around. Schools are well equipped, playgrounds are numerous, and gymnasiums are plentiful. The college gym will accommodate 4,000 spectators at a basketball game or 5,000 for any meeting or concert by a noted artist that requires it.
There is a community spirit which is a revelation to one who has been away for nearly a third of a century. There has been no municipal operation tax in Winfield for 20 years – the electric light plant pays all city expenses except schools and library, hospital and band, and provides enough money to build parks, a city hall, a stadium, a war memorial, a $300,000 dike to prevent floods, and to have a nest egg of $100,000 in the bank.
The churches work together instead of scrapping. Bickering over doctrine has disappeared. Yearly the leading churches join in a union meeting of spiritual instruction and inspiration. They support community funds for relief, work together for the Red Cross, advance religious education, have drama clubs for youth, and their leaders are active in Rotary Club and chamber of Commerce projects for supervised recreation, community betterment, and tie-up between town and country. Rotary, for instance, has a loan fund which has aided scores of needy students and a flourishing junior baseball league of 120 boys. The churches preach religion still, but work for heaven here as well as hereafter.
And how about youth? Well, they are thrill seekers just like my generation and every other generation that went before. They get into a “jam” for speeding and have to be straightened out occasionally. But they have aspirations and ambition, go to college in large numbers, prepare for vocations and citizenship, marry and have children, and are headed for a steady middle age.
The only distressing thing about them is their intellectual cynicism, their perverse pessimism. They’ve grown up to doubt or even deny that there’s any progress in the world. If I could only make them realize what progress there has been just in my generation! Maybe they’d see then that there is a march of civilization worth preserving, and even worth fighting for. How can I prove it to them that, with incomparably better environment, with a franker view on life, and with ideals that a turbulent decade has not destroyed, they run rings around anything we had in my generation?
Doubtless they’ll discover that in time. Meanwhile, I note that the good old days are gone forever – and I see no cause for tears.
They gay young blade about to make a wicket may not be
Author McDermott, but he did furnish this snapshot. Today,
with far less hair, but just as much energy as he had when
he disturbed the tranquility of Winfield, Kansas, 40 or
more years ago, he is a star staffman and religious editor
of the Chicago Daily News. His articles on a wide variety of
subjects appear in leading American journals.
Attached is the corrected version of McDermott's "Merrily We Roll Along" from The Rotarian, May 1941. I think we got all the errors or most of them anyway. Nonetheless, before putting the article up on your site, you might want to check it for any problems that we missed….If you want to use it, below is a short introduction for article. I have also written a biographical sketch of McDermott. For a man of his prominence, I was surprised by the lack of solid detailed information on him. For instance, I could not discover if he was married or had a family, nor could I ascertain the date of his death (which I believe was in the mid 1960s). Nonetheless, I was able to pull together a far amount of information on him. He was a capable, good man from a distinguished family. Jerry
"Merrily We Roll Along" is a wonderful article, one that pulls back the curtain on the past. McDermott's goal was to show us the other side of the "good old days" in Winfield, Kansas, at the end of the XIXth Century. He succeeded. I am sure folks will find his account fascinating and come away with a better perspective on our history. His article first appeared in The Rotarian in May 1941. It was then reprinted in a condensed form in The Reader's Digest.
Dorothy Flottman secured for me this copy of the complete article from the Rotary International library. My wife, Delia E. Wallace, typed it for the website.
Biographical Sketch of William Fee McDermott
WILLIAM FEE MCDERMOTT was born in 1888 in Winfield, Kansas. His parents were James McDermott, a Civil War veteran and prominent lawyer, and Tirzah Ann Henderson, the daughter of Joseph Henderson. They had been married in July 1884 in Dexter, Kansas, a town that James himself had founded on his own land. About two years later, the McDermotts moved to Winfield. Young William was educated in the Winfield public schools. He later attended Southwestern College, receiving an A.B. degree in the spring of 1909. He began his journalism career by working on local newspapers. Around 1911, he joined the staff of the Kansas City Star, where he continued to develop his journalistic skills. Later, seeking greater opportunities, he located in Chicago. While there, he came under the influence of the Reverend Harry A. Rogers and became a member of the Presbyterian church. In 1915, he received a B.D. degree from the McCormick Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. During World War I, the twenty-nine year old McDermott served as the civilian camp pastor for the 33rd Division at Camp Logan in Texas. At War's end, he returned to Chicago, where began his long association with the Chicago Daily News. Over the years, William McDermott successfully blended a career in journalism and the ministry. He became noted as the religious editor of the Daily News, holding that position from 1928 until his retirement from the paper in 1945. He also was a frequent contributor to national and religious magazines and engaged in publicity writing. While doing all this, he was also much involved in the activities of Chicago-area churches. A primary interest of his was in helping underprivileged youth. In this regard, he actively promoted boys' clubs in the Chicago slums. It should be noted that his brother was George T. McDermott, a distinguish jurist who was appointed to the Federal bench by President Calvin Coolidge.