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Russell Blaine Olson
March 2016 -
I recently received a request from the Jefferson County Historical Society asking me to consider writing down some of my life's history since my memory seems pretty good for a 92 year old man. I have done some research work on the computer for the society, sparking their interest and their request.
I was born July 4, 1923 in the area between Hematite and Victoria, MO. This is a rural area, and I was born into a very modest life style.
HIGH POINT FARM
My father worked as a fruit tree manager at High Point Farm. He had the oversee of 300 peach & apple trees; plus 1,100 laying hens. The owners were St. Louis men; one owning the Brown Hotel, and the other Speck Confectionary. They could therefore use their own produce in their places of business. Dad's responsibility was to care for, and with one hired man, pick, pack and ship all of these on the train that ran through Victoria, about 3 miles away.
This job proved to be just too much for my mother to deal with and she had some serious health problems, enough so that Dad though it necessary to resign and move. They decided to move closer into a town, and decided on De Soto. Still being interested in raising chickens, he located a small ten acre farm, at the edge of town---out west of town on Boyd street road.
This is where I come into the picture enough to have my first memories. I just turned 4 when we moved. It was a white frame house, just 4 rooms and 2 small porches. The porches were what I liked and I loved to spend time on the larger one. My mom would let me drag a couple of kitchen chairs, turn them on their front sides and form an imaginary "house" and cover them with an old worn out dark blanket. I had quite an active imagination, so I "played" house, cops & robbers, cowboys & Indians.
I had a brother 4 years older than me. While that doesn't sound like so much of a difference in age---it proved to be of consequence. He was a avid reader; and I was an active outdoor kid. We had few if any arguments; we just didn't do much playing together. This fact encouraged me to find a number of ways to fill my days.
By the time I was about 8, Dad & Mom had built two 30' x 30' chicken houses, each large enough to house 300 White Rock laying hens. They also built a small shed to store feed for the chickens. It was about 125 feet away, and it was a pain later to carry the feed to the chickens, and the coal for heating the iron stove that sat in the front room.
House on Boyd Street
Two 30' x 30' chicken houses
We had an old fashioned kitchen cook stove. It was similar to the one pictured here, except ours was black, with no chrome. It had 4 removable iron lids that held pots and pans to cook on. It had a modest sized oven with a thermometer inserted in the front opening door.
On the right hand side, there was a reservoir attached to the side of the oven. This held about 3 gallons of water so we could have hot water. The down side of this stove was that it would not hold fire over-night. This meant having to have old newspapers, wood kindling and sticks or blocks of wood to cook with. I was only 4 or 5 when that became my job. My brother split the kindling, and I carried it in small armloads and put it in a container that my Dad had built for just that purpose. Coal, being much heavier, was my brothers task until I got a bit older. Our kitchen windows and two doors fit poorly and allowed lots of cold air in during the winter, enough that as the fire died out through the night that it got cold enough to actually form a thin layer of ice on a large bowl of milk left setting on the kitchen table. There was no electric for the first two years we lived there. We had kerosene lamps in the house and a kerosene lantern to carry outside. While of course a fire hazard, many people had to make do with them. Dad talked our closest neighbor into going halves in purchasing electric to be run to our property.
Not having electric for those two years also meant no running water. At first the property that we bought had no spring or well. We just had what was called a cistern. This was simply a large hole dug near the house itself. It was hand dug, the walls limed with brick and then plastered with cement so the water would not leak away. Some way they managed to have a concrete slab over the top, with two spaces. One held the hand operated chain cup pump, the other a 3 ½ foot opening just large enough for a man to put a ladder down so as to clean the area from time to time. This was usually done in July or August when dry weather came, and the water all used up.
Within the first year Dad had a well dug with a pump about 5 ft. high and a long iron handle to pump the water. We carried water into the house with a 2 gallon metal bucket for drinking water, wash water, and water to bathe with. A #3 metal wash tub was the bath tub. Everyone used the same water, first the youngest member of the family and then on up. Dad was always the last. We simply added more hot water as needed. Only the youngest got "clean" water.
In the 1930's, De Soto had what they called WARD schools. East Ward, North Ward, South Ward and Central. I went to North ward. I lived almost a mile from my first grade school. Those days no one even thought of a school bus, let alone ride one. Neither did anyone have concern for the safety of a small child walking anywhere alone. So I walked - in rain or shine or snow. I never gave it much thought either until a neighbor boy about 13 or 14 decided to have some "fun" at my expense. He only lived about ¼ mile from my house, so one winter afternoon as I was walking home, he came out to meet me and "do his thing." "It's really getting dark early tonight (school wasn't over until 4 p.m. so in Winter time it got dark early) "I think you better start running, or it's going to get dark before you can get home, and your mother won't know what happened to you" - "You better run as fast as you can.......RUN! Naturally, being that young and like most kids, afraid of the dark.......I took off - scared at first, then panic set in, then tears. By the time I reached my door I was almost in a state of shock. I threw open the door, screaming "It's going to get dark! It's going to get dark!" Mom grabbed me and held me tight, assuring me I was safe and it wasn't going to get dark that quick. She calmed me down, probably gave me a cookie and I was soon OK again.
This same kind of thing happened again in a very few days, with the same result. Me scared and running until out of breath.......same routine. Not wanting to have Dad get into a big scene with the neighbor, Mom solved the problem. She said, "Son, don't worry about it getting dark. If you're not home on time, I'll light the lantern and come meet you, and walk the rest of the way with you." Believe it or not, this did resolve the problem. I just told him he was lying to me and I would have plenty of time to get home.
Most of my days were fairly routine. I had my chores to do of course; carry feed and water to 600 chickens, and gather the eggs when I got home from school, leaving lots of free time to spend playing, climbing trees, and wading in the little creek running through the lower corner of our land.
By the time I was 12, in the summer when strawberries got ripe, my brother and I took jobs picking strawberries for Max Krodinger. (Carl, my brother was 16 and driving Dads car, so he took us.) He actually lived about 5 miles on the other side of town, and had a rather large field of berries. He needed lots of help for that short period, and let it be known in town that he needed boys. He was a very pleasant man to work for, but also all business. He told each boy that showed up for work "No foolishness while picking berries. This is tiring work. Only pick good berries, no rotten or mashed ones. Also, don't stuff leaves or trash in the bottom of the boxes. I'll be spot checking your trays. If you pick nice clean berries, I'll pay you more than I am offering. Regular pay is 2 cents a quart. It is quite easy to pick a tray ( 8 boxes) every day." It wasn't much pay, but it was good experience. I learned early in life to work. To be dependable. And this really paid off. I had a number of jobs, but never asked or applied for one. They always offered me the job. And I never asked for a "raise." I always got increases before I was even thinking about needing one.
There have been so many changes in today's world since I was a small boy. To name a few: There were almost no concrete streets, no blacktop, mostly just gravel. In rainy weather there were many "pot holes" and uneven surfaces. Of course there were also very few automobiles. Lots of farmers drove teams of horses and wagons. We did lots of walking those days.I was only about 8 when the first radios appeared. My uncle bought the first one that I saw. It was large in size - about 18" wide, 8" tall and that was just the radio itself. The speaker was separate - about 10" diameter. There were few stations available, lots of interference, all in all very poor quality, Today we have tiny ones to hang around our neck with ear plugs. The first TV was such an attraction that crowds of people would stand outside Lueking Radio & TV store and look at a sample that he had in the plate glass window. The small screen (10") was mounted in a sizeable wood cabinet, about 3 ½ feet high. It was several years before many people could afford to buy one. They cost $200, which is equal to about $1,000 now. Home computers became available to many people in 1980's.
Back to my early age
In winter time, we had lots of snow. It would often start by Thanksgiving day and the ground was covered most of the time until the last of February. Since there weren't very many cars, the city never thought of plowing the snow. This meant that we kids could use our sleds for weeks at a time. I even took mine to school, to save 75% of the walking. I could start at the top of Boyd Street hill and slide to the bottom of 3rd street, and just walk up the hill to school. By the time I was 12, 4th street was the "sledding hill" for the town. As many as 40 or more people, (kids and adults alike) would use that long, high hill for fun. Jerry Taylor's (Taylors Store) 18 yr old son built a large bob sled. We could squeeze 4 or 5 boys behind Jerry the driver and speed down the hill, I suspect reaching speeds of 15 miles of hour. At the bottom of the hill at Boyd Street, where the old Baptist church was, it would " bounce" as it hit the flat street, then go maybe 15 feet up the other sides steep hill. Then we would turn around and pull the sled back up the hill to do it over and over again. Most children headed home about 9 p.m. For safety, we kept a watch guard on Boyd Street and stop cars, while each group came flying down.
I recall one tragic accident that happened one night. One girl about 8 years old was riding her sled, lost control and ran under the back of a truck parked at the curb, and it killed her. That stopped the sledding for that night.
The winters were cold. The Joachim Creek, though having much deeper water than today, would freeze over and kids especially would pack the nice long open space under the bridge. We would get an old 50 gallon metal barrel, cut the top out of it, and build a fire, to keep warm. I am sure many nights it would be only 10 degrees, but we skated anyway. If it warmed for a few days and the ice began to thaw, it would get "rotten" and somebody (actually several kids) fell through the ice into the water, arm pit deep or more. I remember one night a neighborhood boy about 12 years old sneaked out of his house (his Dad said he couldn't come) but he came anyway. Unfortunately the ice was bad, and he fell through. It was a cold night and he was afraid to go home soaking wet. His house was a block away, so we guys had him slip out of his clothes, gathered around him to help protect him from the freezing temperatures and held his clothes close to the hot fire in the barrel and dried them out. He then put his clothes back on, and headed for home to get warm again. Sometimes the ice lasted so long that the creek would freeze over, and we could skate ¼ mile down to Mooney's Bridge, where we had another barrel with fire to warm up, before starting back.
One experience I remember especially well !!!! I was 13 and the local clothing store (Gillman's Men's Clothing) also sold Peter Weatherbird shoes. They were having a big advertising event, and had made arrangements to bring the Alton Giant for us to see, and meet. The ads ran in the paper for a couple weeks, so the whole town knew he was coming. I am sure it was on Saturday, else I could not have been there. I worked my way right up near him. In fact when the photographer took the picture----there I am. (The boy with the hat on.)
Ralph Waldo, "The Alton Giant"
Standing under him are:
Mayor Dr. W. E. Gibson,
Gillman's owner, Dave Gillman,
and Ray Williams, Chief of Police.
Note: The 10 year old boy with hat, lower right is me, Blaine Olson. I was overwhelmed at his size. They had to remove half the front seat of the Ford car to give room for his legs and feet under the dash board while he sat in the back seat.
Back To Early Days
Foot Bridge Joachim Creek
Delivery Wagons 1920
Note early radios and stove
The delivery wagon reminds me of the SPROSS BAKERY & the small buggy he drove over town each afternoon, selling bakery goods, door to door. We kids would follow him near the end of his route, and beg for donuts, etc... because they would be stale next day.
This footbridge & Joachim Creek is where I spent lots of my time. In the summer I went fishing very often in the creek. This always meant a considerable lot of walking, as it would be about 1 ½ miles away. One day turned out to be a very tragic day. A couple friends (brothers) met me at the creek. We liked to fish off the concrete piers of the Mooney Bridge. The fish weren't biting well that day, but we could catch some of the large Crayfish that were in plenty supply always. We simply tied a piece of bacon to the hook, and let it down into the bottom of the water. It wasn't long until we would have one on the line, so we just pulled it up (they would hold on nearly always) and just dropped them into a gallon size can that we brought.
About 2 p.m. it began to look like a thunder storm was forming rather quickly, so we folded up our things, and headed for home. My younger friend and I started on ahead, perhaps 100 feet or so, walking down the middle of the railroad tracks. The older boy was slower, because he was trying his ability to walk on the rails, themselves. Boys often did that. Suddenly there was a big strike of lightning, right behind us. It scared us, so we started running to beat the rain. We never even thought of looking back-----we just hurried home.
Unfortunately, the older boy actually got struck and killed by that hit. It was so severe it welded the nails in the heel of his shoe to the tracks. He was only 14 yrs. old. It was so shocking to the two of us that we never would go to that spot in the creek again.
I guess I was 10 or 11 when I began what turned out to be a life time hobby; building model airplanes. The local druggist at Fitzgibbons Drug (Harry Fitzgibbon owned it and everybody just called him "Harry", kids and adults alike) realized in our small town that there weren't lots of things for kids to occupy their time, so he came up with the idea of stocking model plane supplies. He actually carried quite a large supply; model kits, tissue paper to cover the models, glue, little jars of paint, and assorted sizes of balsa wood if you needed it. After about 3 months, to encourage several kids to get involved, he offered a FLYING CONTEST. It was to be held at the school football field where there was lots of open space.
I took it seriously and spent every bit of spare time, trying to build one that would fly the best and the farthest. Balsa wood is very light and breaks easy. Building one has moments of frustration......you try holding one for a few moments while the glue dries.....your hands and arms get a little tired and you forget and press too hard on the frame.....and bam. You break something. You must begin again, or re-glue if you can.
The day of the contest the weather was perfect. Only a slight breeze, sunny, everything looked ideal. I think it was about 10:00 or 11:00 When things got started.
There were about ten of us competing. I asked Harry if I could be LAST. I really wanted to see what my competition was able to build. A few wouldn't even fly more that 10 or 15 yards. Then one boy would have a better one, that flew maybe 50 yards. I already knew what mine would do because I had a nice hay field to test mine on. Then a couple boys had some nice flights a good 50 or 60 yards. I began to worry. Would mine hold up......Finally it was my turn. We stood between the goal posts which is 100 yards.
The airplanes were powered with long strips of rubber bands. I knew the danger of winding too tight and breaking the rubber, ripping your model completely apart. I gave it my best try, and off it went. It looked as good as I had ever seen mine doing. On, On, On it went. I couldn't believe my eyes. The boys began to yell and clap as it continued on. It started off almost straight as an arrow, keeping plenty of height. Finally the rubber band completely unwound, the propeller stopped, and it began to glide to earth, finally stopping just a few feet short of the 100 yard posts. I HAD WON !!! The prize was a ten dollar bill. Kids never had that kind of money.....we had nickels and dimes, maybe a quarter occasionally.
I have continued my model airplane interest all these years. I am now 92 and I have built 5 this year. I have no idea how many I have built. But once, the A&P Grocery Store owner's son and I built one with a 6 ft. wing spread. It had a tiny gasoline powered COX engine.
My most successful flight was when I was about 17. By now I had moved up to using these gas engines. One Sunday afternoon, I decided to fly it at my friend's farm who lived 4 miles from De Soto. His father had a nice big field perhaps 3 or 4 aces, with tall grass or hay. The light wind was just right for flying small models. I carried my plane & supplies out near the center of the field so it would have a nice soft area to land. I filled the tiny tank with fuel and prepared to crank the propeller with my finger. I forgot one thing however...I had not set the timer to limit the time of flight.
Let me explain here, I built the plane with the rudder slightly curved to the left, so it would just fly in a nice big circle, limiting the distance for me to go pick it back up when the flight was over. I was a bit too excited about the flight, and forgot this important step. Anyway, I started the engine, gave it a throw to launch it, and away it went......beautiful. It began to circle around and around overhead and I was ecstatic. This was going to be the best I had ever done. While I waited for the engine to stop and for it to land again, I could see it climbing higher and higher. It had caught a thermal in the wind, and the engine was still running, pulling it farther and farther from view. Suddenly I realized what I had done....rather what I had NOT DONE. I panicked. What could I do?? I ran to the car, and began to try to catch up with it. It was actually heading in the direction of town, but I could see I was losing sight of it. Then reality set in...my plane was gone. Dejected, I drove home...disgusted with myself, and angry inside. I had spent perhaps 40 hours building that plane. I had about $30 invested in it, a lot of money for a teenager. Gone!
Well, not exactly. I always pasted my name and address on the underside of the wing, so the locals would know it was mine. About 3 months later, there was a knock at the door. When I opened it, there stood a wood cutter, holding my undamaged plane. I couldn't believe it. He then explained he saw it caught up in the top of a tree he was about to cut down, so he climbed up and retrieved my trophy. The wing was separate from the body. I always built them to be separate and held in place with heavy rubber bands. If it crashed, the wing would snap off, and not do so much damage. I learned a lesson, and never tried to fly it again. I still had it when I got married, and moved it to the basement, thinking it was a safe place. Unfortunately it was too near the washing machine and my wife didn't realize just how fragile model planes are and just threw it out of the way. I held my temper, but was heart sick. That's the end of this story.
When I was a kid there were a number of artesian wells in De Soto. There were four in the block where the public library is now. The one with the largest flow was on Fletcher Street & Main. It flowed such a heavy stream of water that the owner actually capped it off with a concrete platform, leaving a 2" steel pipe sticking out for people to use. Farmers would come from miles around and fill their 50 gallon barrels. It was such a great flow of water, the city had to put a 10" metal tile under the street and railroad tracks to allow the water to flow into the Joachim Creek. That's no longer flowing. The water table must have lowered until it no longer flows.
The year I graduated from High School (1940) my Dad decided to change jobs. He had been manager of the Dixie Feed Store at Main & Miller streets for about eight years. He had worked hard to build up the business and be of service to the farmers around the area, especially those whose chickens had diseases. He even earned the title of "Dr. Olson" by some of the folk. He sold 100 pound sacks of flour to the house wives who made their own bread and biscuits. They needed larger quantities of flour instead of the 5 pound bags of today. To please the ladies, the flour sacks were made of broadcloth with various colors and patterns. To get enough of one pattern, Dad would allow them to bring their empty sacks, and "trade" for one out of the stack he kept just for that purpose. Lots of farm ladies wore dresses made from flour sacks. The company offered him an incentive of giving him bonuses every month sales were up. He built up sales, and this lasted for about a year when they suddenly withdrew these payments. Dad had really put his heart into this sales increase, and now it would be no more. Dad really felt cheated. It was at this point when the owner of the chicken hatchery, Dr. E. M. Funk Head of the poultry department at Columbia, MO, came by to see Dad about the possibility of him being interested in running the chicken hatchery. (Funk's Hatchery) Dr. Funks brother was managing it at that time, but was unhappy doing so. He wanted to go back to the family farm in Ellington, MO and raise beef cattle. Chickens weren't for him. I guess this offer was at the "right time" for Dad to make his change. He enjoyed working with chickens, so why not give it a go? I would be graduating that May, so Dad, Mom and I could take the hatchery over. (My older brother Carl, was away at college in Indiana.) We did not realize that the Funk's Hatchery had lost so much business else we would never have attempted it.
The hatchery had a house next to it for the caretakers, so we moved to town. I wish I could remember what month this was. All I remember is the "mess" we found the buildings in. Things weren't just dirty....they were filthy. They had allowed so many mice to infest the place, Mom and I had to take buckets of hot soapy water and get down on our hands and knees and scrub the office floors. Even the baseboards were sticky with mouse droppings. Ugly, but we did it.
It would be far too lengthy to try and explain the changes and work we had to do to make a success of the chicken business. Let me just say that within 3 years working for Dr. Funk, we bought the business, renamed it to "OLSON'S CHIPPER CHICKS" and in a couple more years to OLSONS POULTRY, INC.
We owned this business from 1944 thru 1975. Sales were slim the first couple of years, only 12,000 to 15,000 chicks hatched per year. After advertising and much effort, by 1968 we were even delivering chicks to Arkansas by truck. We made a contract with Jeff Brown Company to deliver 5,000 chicks per week, year round. This boosted our total number of chicks hatched to 100,000 those years.
In 1942 I left for college in Anderson, Indiana. I had laid out a year, working to get sufficient money to pay tuition fees. I left in July to take a job at the East Side Jersey Dairy Co in Indiana. This was a better paying job, so it helped my income. College started Sept 1. I was a bit too anxious, and elected to take too heavy a load....12 hrs per semester. I still kept my job dipping ice cream at the counter, working most evenings until 11:00. This didn't leave me enough time to sleep and study. To put even more stress on my body, I was just getting my teen growth spurt. In 1940, at graduation time, I was 5 ft. 3 inches, and weighed only 98 lbs. By college, I was 6 ft. 1 inch, and weighed 150 lbs. The work load and lack of rest was too much for my body to handle, resulting in a "physical-emotional" break down. As a result, I had to return home and spend 9 months recuperating.
Time passed slowly, but I was able to work at the hatchery, part time at first, and then finally back to pretty much normal. At this time I decided to visit my sister-in-law who was attending the college at this same time. I thought I would spend a weekend visiting some friends. Also, I had so enjoyed my work at the Jersey Dairy, and the owner Bud Hardacre was so good to me....I just wanted to say "Hello."
By now I owned my own car, a 1939 Ford Coupe. It was a classy little car, white wall tires, and all. I was proud of it. It was a beautiful morning the day I started, and driving was a pleasure. Everything went like clockwork until midway through Indiana I saw a hitch-hiker walking along the road. Those were common those days. He had on an Army uniform and a duffle bag, so I thought he was just going to Fort Harrison, a few miles ahead.
Once he got aboard, he soon commented about my nice car. In fact he said he was looking for a car and offered to buy mine. I told him it wasn't for sale, but he was quite insistent he wanted it. Reaching in his duffle bag he pulled out several 100 dollar bills, laid them on the dash board" saying "There, that should cover it." I told him I really didn't want to sell, that I didn't even have the title with me. This didn't stop him. "He said, you sell me the car, I'll worry about a title." This began to disturb me, so I changed the subject, asking him if he was stationed at Fort Harrison. Then things really turned awkward. He said he wasn't a soldier, this is just how he dressed to get easy rides. He said he was on his way to visit his mother. Now I realized my situation. He wanted me to pull over, take the money, and I could be the hitch-hiker. I quickly put two and two together, and surmised that he would just put me out, grab his money back and leave me standing with nothing. What was I to do now? My car actually got good mileage but I was getting low on gas. I was not used to lying, so I began to look for a gas station. Fortunately, only a couple miles I saw one ahead. I never slowed down until I got almost at the station. Then, I jammed on the brakes and wheeled into the station. I said "I better get some gas here." By then I was stopped and the attendant was standing ready to fill my tank. (in those day you didn't pump your own.) Once he started filling my tank, I just turned to my hitch-hiker, and said "Buddy, this is as far as you go with me. Out !!!!!!" He had no choice. The attendant was right there to witness things, so, reluctantly, he exited. What a relief. I never picked up another hiker again.
When I arrived at the college, I waited outside for Mary (that's my sister-in-law) to come out. She worked just across the street from the college at a Religious publishing company. By then it was almost 4 p.m ....she got off at that time. Soon I saw her and a few other girls coming down the steps, so I got out to meet them. I had already made plans with her to go over to the rec room and play ping-pong, and then take her out to supper. She introduced me to a couple of her friends, one of them actually her roommate. Her apartment was only three doors away, upstairs. Before we left, she said: "Blaine, could we by-pass the ping-pong? Art Coberly has phoned me asking to take me out tonight, and I have been wanting him to ask me out for a long time. I've got an idea. There is a Rodeo in town, why don't you take my roommate for the evening, it would be a fun time....she's a cute girl." (Let me interrupt my story right here. I had already had an experience with a " blind date" that turned out terrible, so I wasn't sure I wanted another of those.) Anyway, it was a bit too early for a meal, so I just went with her up to her apartment. While she began to get dressed for her date, I sat on the couch, looking at a magazine. About that time, this pretty girl comes out across the room. She was going over to the window sill where she had left her saddle oxford shoes to dry in the sun. She just quickly grabbed them, and hurried back to her room. When Mary came back out, ready to go, I said "Where did that girl come from?" Mary said, "Dummy, I introduced you to her back on the sidewalk."
"Oh, No" I said, "If I had met her, I would have remembered." And this is how I met my wife.
There's much too more to give you the details, other than to say it was a wonderful meeting, and she has been my wife now for 69 years.