Monday, February 21, 2022

Growing up in Turn-of-the-Century Mondovi, WI: Grace’s Pa

Grace Reese Adkins 
“Leaves from Childhood’s Diary,” Part 3

Mrs. Adkins's father, Edwin Frank Reese (1852–1924), was a stonemason but had interests far beyond his work. In her poems, Mrs. Adkins tells us about his love of books, providing some insight into her own bookish nature. She also lets us know that her pa played the fiddle, and she sometimes accompanied him on the organ. From the poems, we learn that Grace's pa at times got exasperated with the kids underfoot and could be a bit absent-minded.

"Ozark Moon," Fayetteville Daily Democrat,"
May 17, 1937, p.2
Books   (Published May 17, 1937)

Grandma said
That pa bought books
When there was danger of his children
Going hungry.
The books had titles
That were hard to read.
I like to dust
And arrange them.
And feel the texture
Of their bindings
Under my fingers.

Mrs. Adkins inherited her father’s love of books. I learned that when I was about eleven years old in 1958 and went for the first time to a Bible study class that Mrs. Adkins conducted in her home next to the Christ’s Church building on Rock Street in Fayetteville. I was astounded by the library/study where we assembled. The walls were lined with stuffed bookshelves and every flat surface in the room had piles of magazines, clippings, and newspapers. I had never seen such a room; my parents and relatives we often visited had no such bookshelves because they kept few books other than the Bible and those with recipes.  

Mrs. Adkins's parents grew up in Pennsylvania, but got married in Buffalo County, Wisconsin on September 20, 1879. They must have made many good friends in Mondovi. In one poem, we learn from Mrs. Adkins that friends who played the fiddle sometimes congregated in his home for an evening and her father joined them playing the instrument.

Evenings   (Published May 18, 1937)
Folks used to come
And spend the evening
With us –
Particularly folks
Who played the fiddle,
I often seconded
On the organ.
Pa’s fingers were stiff
From laying rock,
But mother liked
To have him play
As he used to do
Before they were married.
When the younger children
Got in the way of his arm,
He scowled
And tapped them on the head
With this fiddle bow
The pieces had queer names
Like Irish Washerwoman,
The Devils’ Dream,
And Sailor’s Joy.

Mrs. Adkins not only inherited a love of books and reading from her pa, but also must have acquired her love of music from him. She learned during her childhood how to play the organ and piano, and after she moved to Arkansas, she often composed music and wrote songs. During her life, she produced six songs that appeared in one or more of ten hymnals, the first published in 1914 and the last in 2011. One of her songs, “I’ll Wish I Had Given Him More,” is still sung. The most popular version of it is sung in an expansive Dutch cathedral, and it features soprano Maria Kemler backed by the huge Waddinxveen (Netherlands) men’s choir and accompanied by an ornate organ. As of February 2022, nearly 400,000 viewers had watched that performance, which can be viewed at this link: 

Once a week, Mrs. Adkins’ pa would shave, likely using a straight razor that would punish his face if he didn’t pay close attention to what he was doing. 

Walter Lemke, 
Fayetteville Daily Democrat,
April 9, 1935, p. 6.

Shaving   (Published May 5, 1937)
Pa shaved
On Sunday morning,
While we children
Dodged around
Under his elbow.
It made him cross
And nervous,
And when he cut himself,
Anything could happen.
Sometimes he only set us in a corner
Till we quieted down.

Lemke, the column editor, commented on this poem: “This leaf from Priscilla’s childhood diary calls attention to one of the most significant contrasts between then and now. Pa was the big boss. The razor strop was put to other uses than honing the razor. [Yikes]  Imagine pa trying to get into the bathroom to shave on a Sunday morning nowadays. Why there wouldn’t even be room for his old shaving mug among the creams, lotions, and other preparations that decorate the bathroom of today.”   

Lemke’s reference to “Priscilla’s childhood diary” reminds me that I have failed to mention that Mrs. Adkins’s poems in Ozark Moon were published under a pseudonym.  In fact, almost all poems in Lemke's column were signed with either pseudonyms or initials. Hers was Priscilla, a name drawn from the Bible. Even Lemke used a pseudonym, calling himself "Uncle Walt."  

One of Mrs. Adkins’ memories of her father was the time he absentmindedly stole a dinner napkin from a preacher’s house. It was probably a family joke for the years that followed.

An Embarrassing Incident  (Published May 25, 1937)
Pa liked to visit
With preachers;
And after he
Had dined
With the Congregationalist minister
Ma found
A dinner napkin
In his pocket.

Uncle Walt offered his irreverent comment on this poem: “And of course pa said, ‘Now how do you suppose that got there?’” You didn’t have any Pullman towels or Delmonico silver around your house, did you Priscilla? And another thing – what was ma looking for in pa’s pocket.”

Priscilla may have been amused by Lemke’s comments, but she was not known for her sense of humor.  

Growing up in Turn-of-the-Century Mondovi, WI: Play Time

Grace Reese Adkins, 
Leaves from Childhood’s Diary, Part 2

In the poem “Our Front Yard” (see part 1), Mrs. Adkins recalled four games that she, her siblings, and neighborhood kids had played in turn-of-the-century Mondovi. Of course, such physical games were not enough to fill up a weekend or whole summer.  So, in addition to those games, the kids found other ways to engage their imaginations and fill up their days. In two of her poems, she recalled such activities, playing school and putting on shows.   

Grace Reese Adkin
Northwest Ark. Times, Nov. 6, 1948

Playing School (Published May 6, 1937)
We played school
In the back yard,
And I was the teacher,
But my brothers
And Cousin Ray,
And the neighbor children
Often made trouble
So that mother
Had to call the boys in,
And sometimes send
The neighbor children

Home Theatricals (Published April 21, 1937)
Every summer vacation
We had home theatricals.
I was master of ceremonies
Mother was patient
And let us string sheets
Across the living room,
And decorate
We invited our grandparents,
And all the neighbors,
And when our uncle was home from college
He liked to come.
We spoke pieces
With much gesturing
And staged impressive tableaux.
It was hard work
Cleaning up the living room

Note that when playing school, Grace Reese was the teacher and when putting on shows, she was the master of ceremony. That she took on those roles provides a good clue about what she was like in her childhood: She was clearly a “take charge” girl. Playing school was probably fun for Grace Reese, but quickly became boring for her “students.”

 Nevertheless, the game was good preparation for Grace’s first job. After she arrived in Arkansas in the middle of 1902, she began teaching schools in rural Washington County schools. She taught a couple of years in Prairie Grove and later two more years in Oak Grove, near Winslow.   

 The “home theatricals” were no doubt more fun than playing school. Much effort was spent in preparing for the production, and the audience was appreciative. Later in her life, Mrs. Adkins wrote and directed various programs, plays, and celebrations for her churches, including the one she founded in 1938.  She orchestrated Mother’s Day, Easter, and Christmas shows featuring young folks singing, reading verses, and reciting poetry. 

Fun was not only to be had in games and play but also could be found in celebrating special occasions. Grace Reese recalled one “nice” birthday party where the birthday boy found a way to impress all the girls in attendance.              

The Party (Published on May 3, 1937)
One of the boys
Had a nice birthday party in his front yard.
We wore our best clothes.
He got lots of presents,
But he drank one of the bottles
Of perfumery –
An act which profoundly impressed
Us girls.
Proposed Logos for the Ozark Moon Column

Lemke was not impressed with the boy who drank perfume. He commented on the poem, recalling:  “We didn’t do anything sissyish like that. Up in Wausau when we wanted to impress the girls we bit off a big chew of Mail Pouch. Or maybe it was Battle Ax. Perfume – pooh!"

More serious and educational fun was to be had in exploring nature around Mondovi.  Mrs. Adkins recalled an annual event that took her into the nearby wilds to find spring plants.

Flowering (Published April 13, 1937)
In early spring
We went flowering –
An oft-repeated pilgrimage,
Fondly anticipated
During the winter.
Disagreeable winds
Blew sand in our eyes,
But we trudged down the road
That paralleled the river.
Our first objective was a low fill
Where something we called nervine grew.
The green leaves carpeted the ground,
And dainty, bell-like flowers
Peeped out.
Then there was a wind-swept pasture
Where, springing at our feet,
We would find the pasque-flower.
There were patches of buttercups
By the roadside,
And deep in the woods
Beside a creek
A spot where bloodroot grew.
And Dutchman’s breeches,
Snowy white.
We picked the flowers,
Because we did not know
They should be left
To bloom for others.

Mrs. Adkins loved flowers, both wild and the ones she grew, and she became quite knowledgeable about them. In 1936, she submitted seventeen short poems to Ozark Moon on the theme ofBotanical Notes.” The poems had the following titles: Houstonia Minima (March 12), Anemone Patens (March 12), Ranunculus Fascicularis (March 12), Amelanchier Botryaplum (March 12), Quercus Alba (March 12), Pyrus Malus (March 12), Trillium Grandiflorum (March 18), Aquilegia Canadensis (March 20), Draha Verna (March 23), Sanguinaria Canadensis (March 24), Viola Blanda (March 26), Thalictrum Anemonoldes (March 27), Anemone Nemorosa (March 30), Caltha Palustris (April 13), Taraxacum Bens-leonis (April 15), Anemone Nemorosa (April 16), Hepatica Triloba (April 17).

Growing up in Turn-of-the-Century Mondovi, WI: "It was a Great Life"

Grace Reese Adkins,
Leaves from Childhood’s Diary, Part 1

Grace Reese, born in 1884, spent the first eighteen years of her life in Mondovi, Wisconsin, a town with 503 residents in 1890 and 1,207 in 1900. It is in Buffalo County, which shares a border with Minnesota, about 100 miles southeast of Minneapolis and 20 or so miles southwest of Eau Claire.

Photo Published in the
Christian Standard, June 4, 1921

Grace was a precocious child (“Before I started to school I had learned to read, though no one knew how or when”). As a teenager, she enjoyed writing poems and songs, and she kept a diary, which she took with her when she moved in 1902 to Washington County, Arkansas with her father and eight siblings. (The move came soon after her mother passed away.) Thirty-five years later, Grace Reese Adkins (she married Ary Adkins in 1909) consulted her diary to recall important aspects of her Mondovi childhood. The memories were written as poems published in 1937 in the Fayetteville Daily Democrat. In one poem she remembered her bedroom in Mondovi.

My Room (Published May 6, 1937)
My bedroom was upstairs,
Overlooking the river
And the alder slough.
I liked to sit at the window
In April dark
And listen to the frogs sing.
I had a dry goods box desk
In the corner
Draped with bleached and embroidered
Flour sacks.
Hidden in the desk
Was a cigar box
Containing my first poems –
Effusions about spring
Such as are still being
Above the desk was a shelf
With a few battered books
And an early edition of Riley
Which my uncle sent me from college.
The window curtains
Were made from a dress
Of my great-aunt’s.
But mother said
I must not explain that
To anyone.

The river mentioned in this poem was the meandering Buffalo River, which forms the southern border of Buffalo County. This river is fed by a couple of creeks that flow south through the county, and its shifting channel has over the years left behind several sloughs. The river, the two creeks that flow into it, and the sloughs created a habitat for diverse flora and birds that inspired many of Mrs. Adkins's poems.

Grace Reese shared her house with two older sisters and seven younger siblings, four boys and three girls. The house had a big front yard that, she reports, was a popular place for the youngsters and neighborhood kids to play games. She recalled the yard in this poem:

Our Front Yard  (Published April 21, 1937)
It was the gathering place
For all the neighbors’ children.
Box elders managed to grow
Around it
And morning glories
At the windows,
But the grass
Had a hard time.
For there were games to play
Pom pom pull away,
Pussy wants a corner,
One ole cat,
And town ball.
Sometimes the windows got broken
And dad sent the neighbor children
But it was a great life.

The Adkins kids and the neighborhood kids played games with names that we no longer recognize: pom pom pull away, pussy wants a corner, and one ole cat. I can guess what “town ball” was. Probably that game was the one that most often resulted in a broken window. 

The man who edited the column in which Mrs. Adkins's poems appeared also grew up in Wisconsin. His name was Walter J. Lemke and he was just a few years younger than Grace Reese, born in 1891 in Wausau. He had moved to Fayetteville in 1928 to start a journalism program at the University of Arkansas, and his column “Ozark Moon” was one of his many extracurricular journalistic activities. His column appeared in the Fayetteville Daily Democrat starting in January 1935, and he had issued an open call to his readers to send him their poems. 

Fayetteville Daily Democrat, Jan. 1, 1935
Often Lemke commented on the poems in his column, and he did so on this one, noting that he and his friends in Wisconsin had played “pump pump pull away,” not “pom pom pull away.” He also wrote that when windows got broken at his house, his father – a German immigrant – not only sent the neighborhood kids home but also “gave us a touch of that torture instrument of his own invention – seven leather thongs attached to a handle grip.” Yikes! Nevertheless, Lemke agreed, “It was a great life.”