Monday, March 7, 2022

Growing up in Turn-of-the-Century Mondovi, WI: Life in the City

Grace Reese Adkins
“Leaves from Childhood’s Diary,” Part 4

As I mentioned in the first post on growing up in turn-of-the-century Mondovi, the town was a small one with 503 residents in 1890 and 1,207 in 1900. It is in Buffalo County, which shares a border (the Mississippi River) with Minnesota. It is named after the Buffalo River, which cuts through the southern part of the county. The city of Eau Claire lies about twenty miles to the northeast, and Minneapolis is about 100 miles to the northwest. Of course, given its northern latitude, Mondovi has long, cold winters.

Map of Wisconsin,
Buffalo Co. in Red

In the following poem, Mrs. Adkins recalled those winters:

Winter (Published May 6, 1937)
When winter came
To our town,
All the men declared
That their families
Would starve to death
Before spring.
But if, by any chance,
They should survive,
They vowed that they would never
Spend another winter
In Wisconsin.

Uncle Walt [Lemke], the author and editor of the Ozark Moon column, who also grew up in Wisconsin, commented, “That’s winter in Wisconsin all right. Thirty-five and forty degrees below zero. Snow so deep in the cuts that trains didn’t run for days. And shoveling snow, a daily job for youngsters, snow shovels were made in various widths and designs and of various materials, wood, tin, and steel. Last winter a Fayetteville man tried to buy a snow shovel, but such an article was not to be had in this town.”  

1911 Map Showing Cities in
Buffalo Co., Wisconsin

In a letter to the editor published in the
Northwest Arkansas Times on May 6, 1969, Mrs. Adkins told of her family’s move to Washington County, Arkansas, in 1902, a few months after her mother’s death, to escape “the rigors of Wisconsin winters.”

 [I recall] when our family first came to this charming place, in 1902. There was my father, an older sister, myself, and seven young motherless stairsteps. We had long wanted to escape t h e rigors of Wisconsin winters, and our father came to Fayetteville on a homeseekers' excursion.

On his return he said, "Girls, I've found the garden spot of the world." In a month we were moved. We came in on a midnight train, and the air was redolent with apples, which were shipped in large quantities in those days. The picturesque courthouse stood in the middle of the Square, with a dog-trot running through it. Old men wore long white beards, and spoke courteously to all strangers, as was not customary in the north. My sister and I saw our first dogwood, lining a ravine of East Mountain (Mt. Sequoyah) and it took my breath away, as it does still. 

Before making the move south, Grace Reese had spent eighteen years of her youth in Mondovi, and she remembered some of the locals who made an impression her when she was growing up:

A Town Character (Published May 1, 1937)
He lived just up the block
From us,
And everybody said
He was the biggest liar
In the county.
It was his children,
Who broke our windows,
And quarreled with us,
And stole our hazelnuts.
They could not play at home
Because their mother
Had headaches.
They quoted their father
Even in the schoolroom,
But they always added,
“If you don’t believe papa,
Just ask Uncle Richie.”

The Amen Corner (Published, May 13, 1937)
The men who sat
In the Amen Comer
Had long beards,
And most of them
Were a little deaf.
One of them
Always stood on his toes
When he shouted.
Mondovi Congregational Church,
Built 1870, Now Demolished

Mrs. Adkins did not mention in her poems which church she attended as a child in Mondovi. Where did she encounter “the Amen Corner?” Most likely, her family belonged to the city’s Congregational Church.  After she moved to Washington County Arkansas, she joined the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and during the rest of her life, she was a zealous advocate of the American Restoration Movement.  In 1938, she started her own church, the Central Christian Church in Fayetteville, and was the pastor of that church for a decade. 

Thirty-five years after she left Mondovi, Grace Reese Adkins still remembered details of the places that were part of the city, including the school library and the city fairgrounds.  She wrote these poems about them:

The School Library (Published, May 4, 1937)
There weren’t many library books,
Because a mean boy
Had burned the schoolhouse down
At night.
The school, each year,
Gave a big entertainment
In Borst’s Hall.
To buy more books.
They had Lyceum Courses,
I liked to go,
But our family was large,
And we had to take turns about
Using the tickets

It is interesting to note that even though Mondovi was a small town, it was on the lyceum circuit. Thus, its residents had an opportunity to attend lectures, debates, class instruction, and dramatic performances.  Of course, Mrs. Adkins liked to attend them but had to take turns with other members of her family.

The Old Fairground (Published, April 21, 1937)

It wasn’t much of a fairground,
And the buildings were strewn around
Location of the
Mondovi Flats
Almost at random.
The chewing gum man
Was the main attraction,
For he had plush albums
Displayed as prizes –
Although most of those who bought
Got needle cases.
One year the merry-go-round
Was operated by manpower,
But after that they had an old horse
To turn it.
There was a phonograph
That you could hear
By paying a dime
And putting tubes in your ears.
In the exhibits
Were flowers made of feathers,
Seeds and hair,
Pieced quilts, handwoven rugs,
And fancy work galore.
The morning after the fair,
We children hunted
Underneath the grandstand
And where the chewing gum man had been
And sometimes found a nickel or a dime.

Uncle Walt [Lemke] commented on this poem, “We recall the … fairground thrills that Pricilla mentions, especially poking around among the litter under the grandstands and finding nickel or a dime. But the best place to find coins was in the cracks of the board sidewalks. It required two sticks expertly manipulated to draw out the coin. And when workmen replaced the rotten boards in the sidewalk, we kids were there to pounce on any coin or other valuables that might be revealed.”

“The Old Fairground” was in an area known as the Mondovi flats, in the southwest part of the town (bounded by Alma Ave, Water St., and State St.), not far from the Buffalo River. In the 1890s, it was replaced by a new fairground located north of the old one. The Buffalo County Fair is still held there on land with a Harrison Street address. The city’s middle school is not far to the east of the fairgrounds with a good view of it. Likely that spot is where Grace Reese’s high school was located. 

The New Fairground (Published on June 2, 1937)
They abandoned the old fairground
Down on the river road,
And acquired a new one
Adjoining the school grounds.
There weren’t many trees,
And it was dusty
At fair time,
But the legless Hokey Pokey
Chewing Gum Man
Was still on hand,
Barking his wares.
Our high school windows
Opened toward the fairground
And meadowlarks sang
In the clove field
Inside the racetrack
On May mornings,
While I was studying
The Present-Day "New Fairground" in Mondovi

My geometry.

It’s a relief to know that the “legless Hokey Pokey Chewing Gum Man” survived the move to the new fairground. For more on the history of Buffalo County fairs, go to this website:

This poem, “The New Fairground,” was the final one in Mrs. Adkins's series titled “Leaves from Childhood’s Diary.” Uncle Walt wrote about those poems:

We hope our readers have enjoyed today’s column. Priscilla has the trick of making half-forgotten events live again. The younger generation, of course, won’t know what it’s all about. They’re too sophisticated. They can’t imagine paying a dime to hear one of the crude first gramophones play. Or playing tag in a yard surrounded by a picket fence. Or swimming in a quarry hole Those were thrills that only the initiated can understand. And they can’t be matched by such modern thrillers as hitting 40 in a streamlined car or listening to Kenny Baker on the radio. They were the good old days.

 Anyone who would like to read more of the “Leaves from Childhood’s Diary” poems can find them in the Fayetteville Daily Democrat, whose name changed to the Northwest Arkansas Times on July 8, 1937. These papers can be accessed in the database, which requires a paid annual subscription. Most are also available in the database, available through or through a separate subscription.  The following list includes the titles of the poems and their dates of publication:

Theme: Leaves from Childhood’s Diary. Thirty-one poems: The Aspen (Apr 3), The Alder Slough (Apr 6), The River (Apr 8), Flowering (Apr 13), Our Front Yard (Apr 21), The Old Fairground (Apr 21), The Quarry (Apr 21), Home Theatricals (Apr 21), Hazelnutting (Apr 26), Memorial Day (Apr 28), A Town Character, (May 1), The Party (May 3), The School Library (May 4), Shaving (May 5), Winter (May 6), Going After the Cows (May 6), Company (May 6), Playing School (May 6),  My Room (May 6), Sunday School (May 11), Amen Corner (May 13), Books (May 17), Evenings (May 18), Patchwork (May 20), Echoes of ’98 (May 21), Cowslips (May 22), The Burr Oak (May 24), An Embarrassing Incident (May 25), Violets (May 27), Childhood Grief (May 29) The New Fairground (Jun 2).