Memories of Yesteryear: The typical rural community
Oct 07, 2012 | 687 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Editor’s note: Alexander W. Delk, 90, is a retired school teacher/administrator, who served 57 years in education. He is retired from the Illinois public schools and for the past 21 years has taught public speaking at Cleveland State Community College. He is a frequent speaker for local groups, Gideon’s International, the United Club and at his churches. He may be reached at 472-2664.

By Alexander W. Delk

The communities in which people lived in the years between the two Great Wars — World War I and World War II — were quite different from communities of the present time. In a sense, they were somewhat “self-contained” inasmuch as many of the activities of daily life took place within a rather small geographical area.

This was not long after the advent of the automobile, the invention of which and its subsequent development made travel much easier than in previous times. This was at the end of the “horse and buggy” era of transportation, which had for decades been the main means of transportation.

Let us look at the “self-contained” community. By the term itself we mean a geographical area of only a few miles in each dimension. Over the way would be another community, sometimes somewhat overlapping each other.

The typical community was rural in nature, although a small village or two might be somewhat farther away. The village would offer more stores or other facilities than did the community. Trips into the village would occur as the need arose, either by the old “T-Model” or the horse and buggy. The larger cities were usually too far away to make regular trips into them.

What did the typical community offer? There usually would be a school, perhaps one room or two in size. This school would usually go only through the eighth grade. The high school (if any) would be in the village nearby.

There would also be a church, or perhaps two churches in the community. These could be of various denominations and often they seemed to sort of compete against one another. Churches were usually rather small in size.

The community might also have a general store. This would be run by one of the citizens of the community and would serve the people by providing groceries and many other needed smaller items.

In separate “Memories of Yesteryear” we look at the country schools and the country church. Now, let us look at the country store. Usually there was only one such store in a community so there was no competition between stores.

The community store stocked the staple grocery needs of the people. There were no fancy pre-prepared items of this or that. Most stores had no means of freezing food (that would come later on). This meant that there could be little, if any, meat available at the store. A bread truck would come by early in the day and leave loaves of fresh bread. Some other bread items might also be available. One could buy such items as sugar, coffee, salt, and other staples at this store. Soft drinks had not come around much then, so there would not be much in that way to purchase. “Bottled water,” as we see so common today, did not exist at all.

The proprietor of the store would get goods off of the shelves for the customer. No shopping carts and self-service existed then. What grocer wanted to trust people rolling a cart around his store? Not hardly. He would get items himself, sometimes from a list of needs the customer would provide.

The community store might also have a small supply of needed farm items, tools and other goods. It might also carry some cloth piece goods for women to buy and make dresses or other items.

After getting all the customer wanted from the shelf, the grocer would with a pencil and paper total all of the items and take the pay for them. No adding machines or calculators back then. Sometimes the customer would ask to double-check the math if he/she thought it too much.

Many community groceries operated to some degree on credit. If the customer was a reputable citizen of the community, the grocer might let them have groceries “on credit” until the crops were sold and the bill paid. A crop failure could put both the grocer and the farmer in a bind until other arrangements could be made.

The country grocer also served another purpose. It was a central meeting place for the farmers to gather and exchange conversation, such talk being about the weather, politics, or whatever was on their minds. Many of these men chewed tobacco, so they would sit around a table playing checkers and trying to hit the nearby spittoon with their tobacco juice. Checkers was a popular game for the men, though some other games were also played.

If there was a porch on the store, the men would gather there in warm weather. In cold weather, they would sit around a heater in the back of the store. Usually they would sit on nail kegs, stools, or whatever the store owner could provide. Many stories are told of the exchange of jokes, and the like from those days.

The ladies had their own way of entertainment when time was available. It was common for a lady to go and “spend the day” with other ladies. Usually the man would drive them in the car, drop them off, then return later for them. Women of that era often did not drive — that was considered a “man’s thing.”

Evenings could often be spent visiting other families of the nearby area. Rook was a most popular evening game. Other games also would be played or perhaps the time would be spent catching up on the news of the community, or of the world if a radio was available.

Sundays were special days. No store owner would have even remotely considered being open on Sunday. Church on Sundays took up the mornings (if that is when services were held). After “dinner” (lunch) games might be played if parents allowed. Nothing other than necessary work would be done — milking, feeding the animals, and such necessary things.

What did people do for entertainment? Aside from visiting with one another, the churches and the school would from time to time offer forms of entertainment. Churches often had various types of fundraising events such as dinners, ice cream socials, and other activities. Bingo and other types of chance games were frowned upon because they were considered gambling games. While games such as rook were popular, games involving “spot cards” (as they were called) and “dice” were often looked upon as wrong.

Marriage often took place within the community. There was little opportunity for a young person to become acquainted with a possible mate from far away. Travel was too limited for that. So, often neighbor boys and girls would marry. And, since many people in a community would be related — called “kin-folks” — (distant) kin, cousins often married one another. No one seemed to look down on such marriages because they were so commonly accepted.

Many fun activities took place in these communities. There would often be house parties with various party games and other activities. Alcoholic beverages were almost never present, for these were Depression days and also Prohibition days. Too, most church people of that time looked askance at any type of alcoholic beverages. Tea, coffee, or other drinks would be served along with some foods.

Churches or the school frequently held ice cream socials. The ice cream was home made in the old “turn the crank” freezers. Cakes and pies would be sold along with ice cream.

Church “suppers” would often be held. Much fried chicken and other meats would be served, and usually it was sold for fundraising. A common means of moneymaking would be the “box supper.” A young lady would fix her box of food and it would be put up for bids, sort of an auction. Her suitor would pay “big money” for it, maybe several dollars, in order to get to eat with her. Some other young fellow would deliberately run the price up just to make him pay more for it. Occasionally, he would get to eat with her instead of the one she wanted to get it. How disappointed the young lady was!

Square dancing was another form of entertainment. Square dances were often held on Saturday evenings at the school or other larger place — never in the church unless the church had a facility other than the sanctuary. “Skip to My Lou” and other such square dances were very popular with the younger folk and even with some of the older people.

The old swimming hole was another place of merriment. Most larger creeks had various deeper holes in them, frequently just off of a bluff. Many times sizeable groups of people would gather on the gravel banks of the old swimming hole. Some would swim in generally modest (compared to today) bathing suits or older clothes. Often cook-outs around a fire occurred on the creek banks.

The old swimming hole had another purpose. It was the commonplace for water immersion baptizing to be held. It was not at all unusual for such baptizings to include 10 or 20 candidates for immersion. There would be singing by those in attendance, with such songs as “Shall We Gather At The River?” and others.

Life was not dull in those days. The movies were coming, though during Depression days many could not afford admission. Life was busy for all. Work on the farm kept the men and boys busy. Work at home kept the women and girls busy. Fun activities would be put on hold during the busy farm seasons. But have fun people did. A different sort of life from today indeed.