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Goin' to town


By Ken Root

I grew up as a farm kid. We lived on a dirt road, a couple of miles from the small town of Luther, Okla. Our work was on the farm every day, but on Saturday afternoon, my parents usually went to town to buy groceries and to visit. It was an exciting place for me, as it combined the economic and social aspects of the community and was a break from the routine of farm life.

My parents were frugal, particularly my mother. She never shopped without a grocery list that was already totaled to the bottom. Her strict spending was enforced on all of us, Dad included. She was not unkind, as I would get a nickel to buy candy at the front counter of Melvin’s Grocery Store where they had a box to stand on so you could see the small candies lined up on top along with the candy bars in the glass case underneath. I would usually buy penny items: from bazooka bubble gum, to banana chewies, to wax lips that were sweet and could be eaten after showing off with them for a few minutes.

My parents had the need for “staples” when they shopped. They always bought bread, coffee, sugar, salt and flour. Dad bought Prince Albert tobacco and they occasionally purchased canned mackerel and bologna. Melvin would slice the “baloney” for Mom and she would fry it and put on sandwiches.

This was post war (WWII) so farmers no longer were rationed on items like tires and sugar. The consumer age was creeping in, so it was a lot easier to buy bread than to make it. But indulgences were few; when the total budget for the week was reached, the cart was pushed to the front and the amount was put on a bill that she paid on the first Saturday of the following month.

Out on the street, was a sidewalk full of farmers. Dad was actually young compared to most and he would move from man to man to talk about crops, weather and news of the day. Our farm was called “The Huntington Place,” recognizing the first family that owned it after settlement. A son of the original owner was still living and he would talk to Dad about the farm we had bought just a few years earlier. “There is a tile line on the north side of your place in the black dirt of that field sitting on the back side,” according to Mr. Huntingon. “I helped put that in as a boy.” Dad would quiz him on the outlet to the creek as it was well over a quarter mile away. He never remembered but just assured Dad there was tile under that wet ground.

Several years later, as I was old enough to help plow, we had two tractors running at the same time. I was on the MT John Deere that had a belly mounted plow and Dad was driving the old B John Deere with a two bottom, pull plow from the 1930s. I recalled seeing him look at a puddle of water where bubbles were coming up and then jump off and head to the house. He returned quickly with a shovel and abandoned the tractor that stayed there popping while he dug. An hour later he whooped and waved the shovel in the air as he had found the end of the tile line about 4 feet deep and 40 feet from the current path of the creek. The hole began to fill with water and the next week we got a backhoe in to dig out a trench so we could extend it to drainage. The line began to run in wet weather and the small field, way up on the other end of the farm, dried appreciably. Mr. Huntington had died by that time, as I remember, but he passed on useful information on those Saturday visits on Main Street.

The merchants realized their big day to get farmers to shop was Saturday, so they would have a drawing from tickets given out for each dollar purchased in the past week at stores on the one-block run that extended on both sides of the street. The $5 drawing was the first ticket out of the box that was claimed with the matching copy. They drew until there was a winner. The $20 ticket was only drawn once. If there was no winner, it went to $40 the next week. This caused a lot of excitement as the number would sometimes get to $100 of store credit, which was a lot of money at that time. My mother won it once at the $20 level and took her script into the grocery store the next week, paid for her normal groceries, and then asked for the rest in cash.

We had a racial division of the town. Washington School sat on the southeast side and was “separate but equal” for blacks, and Luther School, up the hill on the east side, was for whites. There were a few stores and shops that catered to the colored population for haircuts, shoe repair and dry goods. The other stores were integrated but there were social lines that blacks did not cross and a certain demeanor that they maintained. As the 1950s unfolded, the schools began a long and painful integration process. Rights for black people slowly improved and opportunities expanded, allowing many to leave the farming community. There were some interesting and colorful members of the African-American community that I regret that I did not get to know except for their names and stations in life.

We were not frozen in time. Each year, divisions of the community faded from stark black and white to softer shades of gray. Farmers took jobs in construction and at Tinker Air Force Base. Blacks also found jobs in Oklahoma City and departed. The schools moved a few more grades together and they began to close down Washington School. Roads improved and more people had cars. Television sets became common and our horizon expanded. Many who took off farm jobs found their original home town turning into a place where they lived on weekends but they had been to town every day so Saturday was no longer special.

The resulting homogeneous mixture really tasted no better to anyone. But economic conditions improved for most and the 1930s Depression and 1940s war were clearly over. We integrated more than our racial divide, we laid down the cultural diversity that had defined us since statehood and we haltingly, reluctantly moved into the modern age.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.

Date: 4/7/2014



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