My parents both grew up in small towns. Well, Mom’s was smallish (10,000 people) but Dad’s was tiny. In fact the unofficial motto for Adair, Iowa was “600 friendly people and Rolly Thomas.” Small town folk have a way of telling the truth and getting to the point, usually with a finely sharpened sense of humor.
I reveled in my parents’ stories of small town life, but Dad was much more the storyteller than Mom, so most vignettes are based in Adair. I especially enjoyed the “calls ‘um like I sees ‘um” nature and practicality of these small town people. Adair town elders once decided the city park needed a gathering place, a “pavilion” if you will for the community to congregate. The planners kept calling it “The Pavilion,” while Adair residents called it “the concrete slab.” I think it is still “the concrete slab” to this day.
Of course, like any community, there were problems. My dad grew up in the depression, and money was almost non-existent. Adair became a barter and trade society. My grandfather had the farm, his brother-in-law was the butcher, things were bought and sold with eggs, chickens, flour or “don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.” Struggling families were cared for, but no one would give or receive hand-outs. My grandmother kept wood in her backyard, and often had people come cut it into firewood in exchange for food or other goods. Dad said by the end of the depression, they didn’t need firewood again until about 1960.
Big city issues would sometimes creep in, as well. For many months there was an ongoing theft problem. Farm equipment, goods and livestock began to disappear. This being a small town, with the almost fool-proof and lightening quick communication network of vigilant mothers, everyone soon knew the identity of the thief. Rather than arrest, trial and jail, the citizens came up with the ideal solution: make the thief the sheriff. This young man was so proud of his position, and wanted to do such a good job that all criminal activity ceased under his vigilant patrol.
Cousin Dale was the town drunk, and was quickly shuttled into back alleyways and various relatives’ houses to keep him out of sight of newcomers and/or potential mates of Adair citizens. He may have been an embarrassment, but he was fed, clothed, housed and loved.
The biggest party of the year was “Jesse James Chuck Wagon Days” celebrating Adair’s claim to fame: it is located very near the sight of a Jesse James train robbery, contradictorily and nebulously touted as either the first train robbery in the West, the first robbery of a moving train or Jesse James’ first train robbery, depending on the storyteller.
Chuck Wagon Days was a multi-day celebration (meticulously planned around the weather predicted in the Farmer’s Almanac) with food, more food, pies; cake, pie and jam judging; food and games. Everyone turned out, and everyone contributed, well, food. Visiting Adair and attending Chuck Wagon Days were some of the happiest times in my childhood.
My Dad grew up with aunts, uncles and cousins galore, and everyone gathered together on Sundays after church for a huge family dinner. Sports and games entertained the children, while gentle family ribbing entertained the adults. One of my favorite stories, true or not, is how my grandmother got her first name, Zura (which she never used… she went by her middle name, Grace… wouldn’t you?). Her older siblings told this story:
The Harry family lived in Kansas, and believed there would be better opportunity and better farmland in Iowa, so they packed their covered wagon with all their belongings and moved to Adair, Iowa. The mom had just recently given birth, and due to so many children already in existence, had not the energy or inclination to name said baby. As they were driving through “Missourah,” the other children thought “Zura” would make a great name, and it stuck, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. Now the only thing I know for sure is that my grandmother’s true first name was Zura, the trip did take place, and it was in a covered wagon. My Dad kept the wagon stays for the canvas roof in our garage (to remind him of our family’s humble beginnings, he jokingly told us). Everything else might be slightly distorted or changed a bit for humor.
Growing up in St. Louis and spending quality time in Adair, I longed for that small-town feel. I was always envious of my friends living in Kirkwood. It seemed to me to have the small-town feel, the quaint downtown area, the train station, ice cream shop, park, skating rink, events, the high school bonfires, all the cool stuff I wanted to experience. When I decided to stay in St. Louis, I chose Kirkwood. Who could not love a place that insists though a road goes through almost all of St. Louis County north to south, and is known everywhere as Lindbergh, when it goes through Kirkwood, it is Kirkwood Road.
Suffice to say Kirkwood has its share of real world problems, and my experience living here has certainly had bumps in the road. I hope when my children become parents and grandparents, they will have inherited their grandfather’s gift of slightly revisionist storytelling and portray their childhood experiences in Kirkwood through the small town, rose tinted glasses my dad employed.
I do, however, recommend Kirkwood decorate its water towers just as Adair’s, to remind everyone to be kind to one another.