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"Growing up in Kansas"


Return to the Jewell Myers Bissell Collection.

"GROWING UP IN KANSAS"

A Memoir of the Life of Jewell Myers Bissell (1901-1948)

Chapter Ten

"Spring River"

Transcribed from the original manuscript located in the Jewell Myers Bissell, Collection, at Leonard H. Axe Library, Pittsburg State University. Used with permission.

Our nearest big stream was Spring River. Its head waters were up near The-Holes-In-The-Prairie, some forty-five miles to the northeast of our farm, and it flowed down through the western edge of Missouri, finally crossing into Kansas a few miles north of the Oklahoma line. There, the first big "grove," or picnic ground on the Kansas side was known as Stump Ford. Stump Ford was the most popular place on the River when my parents were young.

There was a grist mill on the river about a mile south of Waco, Missouri. It was always called the "little mill," because farther down, a few miles, near Carl Junction, there was "Big Mill." But, the little mill was our closest. It was only about a mile across the Missouri line. A little south of us, it was seven miles from home. From before the time I was born, everyone from our Community took their grain to the little mill below Waco, to be ground.

At the time when I first remember the mill, there was only the mill, and the big mill yard. No other buildings at all. There was a great deal of timber along the river, but it had been cleared out in front of the mill, leaving only some giant Oaks for shade. There was a great, circular roadway, that came right up to the mill porch. The porch was just the height of a wagon box, for easy loading and unloading. Up-stream a few hundred feet was a deep, cool well, with a bucket and stone curb. A great Oak shaded the well, and from one of its mighty branches hung the biggest rope swing I have ever seen.

There were several choice spots for picnics, because there might often be several wagons in at a time. Our favorite one, for years, was on the right hand, or down stream side of the big circle of the driveway. Two Oaks stood there, about a hundred feet apart, with smooth blue grass between them. There was a good place across the roadway to drive the wagon into short grass, and tie the team to the tail gate, where they could eat their oats from a box in the wagon.

Dad seldom went to mill alone, because it was an all day trip and a picnic to go to the River. At the very least it was that. And from my earliest memory, we always "camped out" at least one night at the mill, during the summer. Many times, several nights.

Sometimes my Aunt Dilly (Dad's sister) and Uncle Lon, and their children would go too. I remember this one time - I was about nine or ten - when we were all there.

We slept on the ground, on hay and quilts and blankets with plenty of cover, because the nights are chill out under the open sky. One night at bedtime, a storm cloud showed in the west. With much merriment, Mamma and Dad, Aunt Dilly and Uncle Lon, broke up all the beds we had been using. They kept us trotting fast. All the hay and straw was piled in one great long bed, and covered with quilts. Then, the blankets were laid on top of that. Both families had wagon sheets, of course, so these were folded and laid on top of the blankets. Then they began to put us to bed. They arranged us according to ages, except that on our side of the bed Anne slept on the far end to keep me from rolling out. Then there was next to me on the other side, Clara, then Leone, Bertha and Ethel. Working in from the other end of the bed there was George, Aunt Dilly's grown-up son, then Paul, Merle and Howard, my cousin Harry's boys. Then, Harry and his wife Gertie. Smack in the middle of the bed was Dad on our side with Mamma beside him next to us and Uncle Lon with Aunt Dilly beside him, next to Gertie. Before we were all into bed, it began to sprinkle. They had folded the wagon sheets so there was a flap to cover our heads, and the whole bed slanted downward a little bit toward our feet. It really poured for a few minutes, with thunder and lightning that made me try to climb all over Anne. Then it settled down to a steady drizzel, which lasted a good share of the night.

As the noisy part of the storm went away, I started to go to sleep, but every few minutes I'd be waked up by the unbrideled [sic] merriment that was taking place in the middle of the bed. There would be low voiced conversation, whisperings, Uncle Lon's high pitched chuckle, Dad's snort, Aunt Dilly's violent but controlled contralto giggle, and then, like a child let out of school, Mamma's bouncing laugh that made everyone within ear-shot laugh too. How much any of us slept I'll never know, but it was a merry night none of us ever forgot. No one got wet, and the next day's sunshine dried the wagon sheets again.


Later on, when I was thirteen or so, we used to stand a set of coil, springs into the wagon box, with a side board on like a corn-shucking bang board, for support, and take them along for Mamma and Dad. They said the ground was getting too hard.

Even after we had the car, so it made coming home to chore much easier (someone had always done it, on horse or in a buggy, before) Mamma and Dad would still stay all night at the River, when they could have gone home and slept in their beds.

It was on Spring River that I learned to row a boat. I was about four, I think. We had been camping out, there. The older girls were getting breakfast, and Dad took Mamma and me for a boat ride. We went up stream, above the dam that had been built to furnish power for the mill. We went quite a way up the River, then turned around. I had been sitting on the seat beside Mamma, in the back end of the boat. As he turned the boat around, Dad told me to come to him. I went, on hands and feet, because the boat felt tippety, [sic] and he moved back, and sat me between his knees on the seat. Then he had me put my hands under his, on the end of the oars. And we rowed along. Then he took away his hands, and I rowed along. We were going down stream, of course, and maybe I didn't do very good, but I felt like I was doing it all. I can see the lovely yellow-green light of early morning, and the leaning Sycamores over the brown water. I was always turned around at the River. It flowed west, at the mill, but to me it did, and always will, flow south. And the different sun angle, in that early morning light, made me feel I was in some enchanted spot, and flying with my own wings.


It was always exciting, getting ready to go to mill. Someone of us would hold the gunny sacks for Dad while he shoveled in the grain. So many sacks of wheat, so many of corn; tho sometimes he took the corn just loose in a box; but not too often. Then, there were the clean sacks to be got ready for the corn meal; for the white flour; for the shorts; the pancake flour or middlins; the graham flour. One clean sack for bran, and the rest of it would go in gunny sacks for the stock. All this was done, and the wagon loaded the evening before.

If we were all going, and only for one day, much of the food would have been fixed the day before, too. Jars of pickled beets, and hard boiled eggs. Tomatoes gathered in a basket, a watermelon, and a Shumway giant muskmelon, cooling in the well over night. Potatoes and eggs boiled for salad. Chicken, fried and put to cool on the separator house table. Cottage cheese, in balls like the blossoms of a "snow ball" bush, to be broken and creamed when we were ready to use them. Pies and cakes baked.

Then, as soon as the chores were done, and breakfast over, we could go. The big white dish pan and the little blue dish pan, loaded with food. Some boxes besides. The dishes and cups and glasses in the bread pan. Tuck it all in, among the bags of grain! Wedge the bathing suits around the dishes! A blanket or two over the grain bags. Mamma lifted up onto the spring seat, adjusting the old quilt that served as a cushion. Dad, stepping up easily, by hub and wheel, to sit beside her. Anywhere from three to seven of us, sitting, or rolling about, upon the grain sacks. More often that not, a colt, trotting beside the team. One time, I remember, two colts, scampering and playing. When we were tired of sitting we would get out and run with them, or even ride them, as we always did when we were small enough.

Arrived at the River, we stopped first at the picnic spot, took out the food and other extraneous equipment. Then the wagon was driven over to the porch of the mill. We all went along, if we could. Dad and the miller would unload the bags of grain. The clean sacks would be put on a shelf, in the room where the finished milling came out. Sometimes there would be people ahead of us, so our grist couldn't go in till afternoon. If the miller was working on a "contract job," and there was no one ahead of us, he would not put in any more of the contract grain, and as soon as the hoppers were cleared, he could put ours in.

Meantime, ours was stacked in rows on the porch. Dad would take the team around, unhitch them, drive them down to the River, to drink, then tie them to the hind wagon wheels so they could get at their grub box inside the tail gate.

We kids would run to the mill race - creep gingerly across the plank that bridged it - and walk along the top of the dam. "Walking across the Dam" was a thrilling and fearful experience. Behind was the deep, swift, silent water of the mill race. Down, beside us, was the rock face and rockier buttress of the dam. The water covered only about a third of the dam in normal times, the far end, about thirty feet, being the natural rocky falls that had determined this as a mill site. For a long time no one ever ventured into the water above dam, because we all thought it was too deep. Later on, tho, when I was in my teens, it became the most popular bathing spot for miles around. You had to walk at least fifty yards upstream before it was deep enough that you had to swim.

After we had walked across the dam, and back again, we would take a boat ride, if we had time, before dinner, or before our grain started through. We always felt we had to run along with at least part of the grain. We would watch it poured into the hopper. Then belts and wheels would catch it; it would be crushed and pummelled and blown. We would run upstairs, to see the bran being sorted out into a bin. We would run up and down, looking, listening and shouting - "Here come the shorts - here's the graham. The white flour's coming out now."

But, after a while we'd go away, and take a walk down the bank, or maybe swim. And sometime, we'd eat. I can remember running down to the River, one time, and getting into the little seat in the peak of a boat, with four of the other girls in it. I had a chicken leg in one hand, a piece of cake in the other, and an apple in my apron pocket.

After we had cars, we used to have Church picnics at the River. The mill didn't operate on Sundays, but the miller had built a bath house by then - ten little rooms on a side - one side for ladies, one side for gents. He was on hand, on Sundays, to rent the boats and the bath house dressing rooms.

The August after I was fifteen, four of us went to mill with Dad. We had a car then, but we went in the wagon anyway, because of the grain.

There were my sisters, Leone and Bertha, and a friend of theirs, Florence, from Omaha, and me.

We got to mill about ten o'clock. We took Florence for a ride above the Dam. Then we followed the grain a while. After dinner, we took Florence for a ride below the dam. When we came back, the grist still wasn't done, so we hung around. There wasn't anyone else there.

Then a little burro, belonging to the miller, showed up. He was a tired looking beast. He had carried so many loads of one kind or another on his back, that he was rubbed bare just aft of his waist line. He was lonesome and friendly. We petted him, and then we rode him, and he seemed to have a lovely time. We got some sugar out of the lunch and fed him, and he loved it.

The miller had been painting his mill. It was all white, except for the trim, which was green. Whenever he wasn't busy inside, he would come out and paint some. His bucket of green paint sat on the porch of the mill, with the brush in. We looked at the bare boards of the mill, which were being covered with green paint. We looked at the bare back of the donkey----.

So the next time the miller went inside, we covered the bare back with green paint too (I was fifteen-the others, older, had all been teaching school for years).

It was only as we were about to leave that the miller saw what we had done. Oh! The language that man used!!! Dad was torn between amusement and anger, but there was nothing he could do, then.

A month or so later, when we were all safely back in school, Dad took another grist to mill. As soon as he arrived, the miller said, "Say, tell yer [sic] girls I sure am glad they painted that donkey! I'd been a tryin' everythin' I knowed to make hair grow on that spot. An' when that paint peeled off, there was a thick stand uh hair underneath it!"

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