JEFFERSON COUNTY MO HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Student INTERVIEWS of LONG TIME RESIDENTS - 1975
Transcribed by Blaine Olson
The following interview was from an assignment given to students at JEFFERSON COUNTY JUNIOR COLLEGE in Hillsboro, MO. They were to select a longtime resident of the county and ask them a prepared list of questions about their recollections of their family's experiences in the county.
S indicates student questioning A indicates Mr. Agers replies
(comments) by Blaine Olson
S This interview is with Mr. Howard Agers, age 61. He has lived in or outside of De Soto all his life. Mr. Agers, tell us a little bit about your family.
A Well, I was born on a farm about six miles west of De Soto on what is presently known as Highway “H”. We lived on that farm until was nine years old and then we moved into town. I attended grade schools both at Peter Moore and at Mammoth.
S Where was this Mammoth School?
A Mammoth School is a little hard to describe its location. (It is about 3 miles west of De Soto on Hwy H. You turn left ,South at Mammoth Road. About 1 mile you find the school, just before you cross the Mammoth Bridge, which crosses Big River.) There is a Mammoth Baptist Church at the intersection of Mammoth Road & Hwy H. The school and the church are within a mile of each other.
S What was your main source of transportation at this time?
A For short distances, we just walked. For longer distances you went by buggy or a farm wagon, or rode a horse. There only a few automobiles then. There was the old Model “T” Ford, but you never saw many of them. We walked to school practically all the time. The only times I can recall riding to school (riding on a mule) was when the weather was extremely bad—heavy rainfall or snow, or something of that nature. I can remember Dad going down through the woods and blazing trees. By blazing trees I mean he’d take an axe and skin off the bark , perhaps 10 to 12 inches, so we could easily see as we walked through the woods and not get lost. We would just follow that trail of blazed trees until we hit the Mammoth Road, then just follow the road on to school.
S What can you remember about your first trip to St. Louis?
A One of the first trips I made into the city of St. Louis was by automobile with a family by name of Hamel. Ward Hamel, as he was known. He was the owner of a local hardware store. Both he and his uncles and nephews had hardware stores. It was kind of a family tradition here - the name Hamel. They’ve branched out into other things now, but the old Hamel Store is still being operated in De Soto under the name of Hamel & Rowe Hardware. Lindell Rowe has now joined the firm, and is part owner.
S Can you remember any vacation trips, prior to the depression?
A Vacation trips were something that was beyond our financial means. The main source of entertainment when we lived in the country were local school and church functions. You had pie suppers and box suppers. We had Church Revivals ever so often, and would get together and one family would go home with another family for a Sunday Dinner. A lot of visiting and conversation took place at these times. The big event of the year as far as I was concerned was the COUNTY FAIR. It was held on the Fairgrounds (School property). This was always a well-attended affair. Part of the activities were horse racing, and sulky racing…….you know what a “sulky” is. It is a little two-wheeled cart, similar to the big Hamiltonian in Kentucky. Also, there was Mule racing. We had a big band stand and all the ladies would bring items that they excelled in. Things like cookies, desserts & canning. The menfolk also had livestock judging, poultry, lots of farm animals. They would bring them to exhibit and win a ribbon. They had Red, White & Blue ribbons. It was quite a “feather in one’s cap” to win a prize, especially the Blue Ribbon 1st prize.
S What kind of work did you do for a living?
A When I graduated from high school here in De Soto, it was during the Great Depression. It was extremely hard to get a job anywhere. I worked part time as a construction worker. I worked on the old theater building, that is now occupied by Zoll-Ray Furniture Co. The top wages on that job was 35 cents an hour for semi-skilled workers and 25 cents for common laborers. I remember also working at Wheeling Cement in St. Louis for $ 3.00 per day.
S Work was hard then?
A Work was extremely hard, and you worked hard or you didn’t have work at all, because there was always a person looking over your shoulder, for you to quit or be fired so someone would take your place.
S What other sort of jobs have you done?
A Well, I worked at a service station after that and while I was still working in the service station, I belonged to the National Guard Unit and we were called into military service on December 23, 1940. I remained in service for some five years, and upon retiring from military service, I went to work for Missouri Pacific Railroad Shops here in De Soto as a laborer ad worked myself up into a supervisor’s status and I retired from there in 1973.
S Are there any businesses that have closed down in Jefferson County that were here at one time?
A Yes, there’s quite a number of them. At one time there was school desk factory here. There was also a saw mill and a marble works. It was owned and operated by a gentleman by the name of John Ruff. He lived to be in the excess of 100 years. He just died just recently. There was also a soda bottling works that was in business for several year, owned by a man named Burt Ewing. I think he may have also had a Public Notary business where he spent his daily routine. There were a number of blacksmith shops. Also a wagon shop where they built farm wagons. The main one was owned by Max Hacke, which came from another old family in De Soto. (A small blacksmith shop was run by a Mr. Ohlman. We also had a brick yard down in the north end of town, and a tan yard in the south end. It was located just a block from Hopson Lumber Company. There was a small creek, or drainage ditch running alongside of Hopson’s and under Main Street via a culvert. This is only a block from the Joachim Creek, where the tanning yard stood) This creek was called the Tan Yard Creek, and was derived from the actual operation of tannings animal hides, like cows and horses. The owner was from Germany, named Gust Hamel. Gust was a kin to the Ward Hamel family.
S Was a business difficult to operate then, or was that the reason many closed down?
A I think it probably was because of automation beginning to enter the market place. One thing though, businesses weren’t subject to the government restrictions. You didn’t have all these forms to fill out, as you do now. Everything was more simple. Starting from the paying income taxes on up to---every bit of the new government control. It was a more leisurely and simple life.
S Coming from a farm home yourself, can you remember if your family survived or maintained from what your father grew? Was his sole income from the farm?
A Yes. But farming then was pretty diversified. It had to be that way because you grew the crops that you needed—you would sell what you needed to in order to have this additional money to buy your taxes and maintain your families needs. The County Fair was an important affair for farmers. This was the only time you took off for pleasure each year. Remember, you didn’t just run over to the grocery store and buy a loaf of bread or a can of corn, or something like that. You baked your own bread and canned your own corn in Mason jars. You killed a hog for meat. You butchered a beef cow in the fall of the year. This was your source of food for the entire year. You raised chickens, turkeys, even ducks. You never went to a butcher shop for things. You grew them yourself.
S Can you remember any reason for your moving into town?
A We, were struggling to make ends meet. We were making a reasonably comfortable living, but there was a number of things needed. Schools for one thing. It was quite some distance for us to walk to school. We needed to be regular. We needed an education. While farming was a good life in some ways, it was a hard life. It was also a poor life. You could not do much better than survive.
S Was the Depression hard felt in this county?
A Of course. This county, I don’t suppose was any different than any other county. We had some people who received food from the government—now this was just an out-and-out handout; and was a necessary thing. In De Soto one of the big things was the WPA, (The Old Work Progress Administration.) This was instituted under Franklin D. Roosevelt and through the efforts of our mayor, who was at that time Doctor Walter Gibson. We had a lot of streets that needed repairs, or paved. I don’t think this would have been done, without federal assistance. I need to mention here that there was an old man by the name of Hearst, his first name escapes me right now, but he worked very closely with Dr. Gibson. They just did a real good job of getting these streets paved.
S Can you remember any industries in the county? Were the Railroad Shops the main industry?
A The shops and the shoe factory have always been the main industries in De Soto. Now the shops---well, they worked when they had contracts to build rail cars, but they needed orders before they could pay men. That’s about what it amounted to. They would offer employment during the Summer months, and they would start laying off again about November or the first of December. Just as sure as shoot’in they would be laid off until the next spring. During this lay-off period there were no sick benefits, no unemployment pay, there was just no money, period. During the time you were working you had to save enough money to tide you through the winter.
S Let me ask you, what was your military service like? Where were you stationed?
A I had five years of state wide service. We trained in California. I was stationed at a number of posts. We trained personnel for shipment to both areas of operation.
S Another question. Has there been a great change in medicine since you first moved into town, or were younger?
A Well, of course there has been a lot of medical advances, and probably the period during World War II, most of the advances were made. It just seemed that maybe there was more money funded for these things at that time. My impression back in those days was the old country doctors didn’t just treat you at their office. You didn’t make an appointment, you just waited your turn for the doctor to see you. One thing different than today....the doctor would just hitch up his horse and surrey and come to treat you at your home. They took care of you as best they could because there were no hospitals close. St. Louis was the nearest.
S What was the cost of a doctor back then?
A Well, maybe a dollar or two dollars a visit. A lot of times out in the country, if you didn’t have money, you’d give him a couple of chickens or exchange food stuff or something like that. Maybe you would even do a little work for him. Having money, or not having money---you needed help when you were sick.
S Let me ask you something about your County Fairs. Was that the biggest social affair in the community? What were some of the other things?
A Well, of course they went to church and the schools. They’d have public dances from time to time. Up the Joachim Creek there was a dance pavilion known as the Summer Garden. In fact, there were several of these places. There was also the occasional trip to St. Louis to the ball games, at Sportsman Park (that was the old ball park) back in the 40’s. They also went to Forest Park, the zoo, it was very enjoyable. Then across the street on Oakland Avenue there was a big amusement park. (It had the second largest Ferrell Wheel in the U.S. It was called Highland Park. Unfortunately it partly burned, and had to be torn down. That was in mid-forties or early fifties) We also had a swimming pool over on the east side of town. It was a part of the Arlington Hotel. It is still there today, but hasn’t been in operation for many years.
S Did you do a lot of swimming there?
A Yes, we’d do quite a bit of swimming there. We would go over to the Joachim Creek and do lots of swimming. Or we would occasionally go out to Big River at Mammoth. (There was a large Sycamore tree that leaned out over the river. Kids climbed the tree, brought a heavy rope, and tied it way out near the end of a big branch. That way us kids could swing out over the river for perhaps 15 or more feet, then turn loose and drop 10 feet or more, into the water. We had many hours out there.)
S Do you think the land is used any different today, than in earlier days?
A I guess so, probably. There isn’t as much grain raised, like wheat and corn. For one thing, it’s hard to compete with the farmers with lots of land, like over in Illinois and Kansas. We probably raise more livestock, and use a lot more land to just graze our cattle.
S What about the great increase in population? How has that changed your life?
A Well, presently of course, I am retired, so it doesn’t have much impact on me. Otherwise, of course, there is more competition for jobs. Especially in city and small town governments. A large part of the population in the north end of the county, Arnold, etc. has really expanded in numbers. I think this has caused a great increase in the crime rate. This has caused problems for our Sherriff’s Department and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
S Mr. Agers, what would you say is the greatest difference between now and ten years ago?
A That’s difficult. Probably the greatest differences are transportation, our dress mode, the way in which work is performed, automation at the grocery store. Talking about grocery stores, the time was when you wanted something at the grocery store, and a clerk would get it off the shelf. Now everything is self-service and it’s becoming more self-service because of the increased cost of labor.
S What would you say is the most important need in Jefferson County, resulting from the population increase?
A Well, to me one of the most important would be the planning and zoning issue. We’re getting more and more undesirable structures being built that don’t conform to regulation instructions. It isn’t right or fair for a person to have a $30,000 home, and next to him, somebody can come in and set up a trailer or a dwelling that in no way conforms to any regulations.
S In the name of the History Department of Jefferson College, I’d like to thank you for this time I have shared with you.