Archive for Thursday, March 22, 2007

Childhood memories

March 22, 2007

Alice Smith Dow, 1854-1943, was one of De Soto's early residents, moving to what she described as a village in 1860 when her father, the Rev. W.H. Smith, became the town's first minister. He was later responsible for the construction of Stone Church at 84th and Peoria streets. The family lived a quarter-mile west of homes and businesses hugging the Kansas River at what is now 85th Street and Penner Avenue.

In conjunction with the De Soto sesquicentennial, this is the fourth installment of Dow's 1940 recollections to appear in The Explorer.

I wonder what people in 1942 would think if they had to live as we did in 1860, and seeing the worst drought the country ever had. It was mostly unbroken prairie with a few patches of corn, a few thin pigs and cows. We had no milk in the winter, dry hay being the only hay for the cows. We had a neighbor who occasionally spared us a little skim milk. That was a treat. In the spring, when the first green began to show along the creek, the cattle would wander off searching for a bite. The mud along the banks was very dangerous for them. Our cow Flower almost lost her life that way and had to be pulled to safety with a team of horses. There were no fences, and the cows wandered where they would. They were wearing bells, of course, so they could be heard if not seen.

There was a hollow or ravine at the back of our house, a short distance away, that was our playground. A small creek ran through it. We built dams and bridges and fished, but no fish rewarded us. None there. Some small trees and stumps of larger ones were in this hollow. We made Indians and various animals out of mud, and placed them on these stumps. We found feathers from a bluebird's wing or other ornament and used them to ornament the war bonnets. Hawthorne and black Haws grew there. And the wild grape in the spring gave a most delicious fragrance.

On the opposite side of the hollow was a rocky hill down which ran the narrow trail made by the Indians as they traveled to the agency in De Soto. It was just wide enough for a single footprint or pony's feet. Over on the hillside, there were one or two graves, marked with stone picked up on the spot. But, as the years went by, the stones were displaced and all traces of the graves were lost.

Ah, me! How many unmarked graves were lost in this old world, lying hidden from all human sight? Only the eyes of the Infinite can mark them.

My first recollection of my home in Missouri, where I was born, is vague. But I do remember riding over the prairie with my father when he drove his horse and buggy to pick up the coal that lay on the ground in many places.

All of our neighbors were slave owners and they would send their women to help my mother in times of sickness or extra work. There was a Negro by the name of Dave Palmer -- Palmer being his master's name -- who used to pass our house on Saturday night going to visit his wife who was owned by another family. These weekly meetings were the only times they saw each other.

In my father's church, the gallery was given over to the Negro members of the church, as they were not allowed to sit on the main floor with the white people.

The great dread of this race and the greatest punishment was to be sold South, down the river, to the cotton fields. It was against the law for them to be taught to read, and if a Negro hired out to do work of any kind, his master collected the pay for his labor.

Of course, there were many kinds of masters -- some of them allowing their slaves to earn for themselves and buy their freedom.

In a way, slavery caused the whites and blacks to be dependent on one another; the master dependent on the Negro for labor.

Those vast cotton fields could never have been harvested without their help. The master would have to provide for them.

It has often been said that the Southern mistress had nothing to do. But I think they were among the busiest of women on a plantation, with 50 or a hundred Negroes. She must look after their welfare in every way. Clothing must be bought and often cut and made by her hands. In sickness, they were nursed and doctored. In fact, every plantation was a sort of community ground and administered by the master and mistress.

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