Sunday, October 23, 2016

Small town

The entire third grade class of the Auxvasse School, 1959-60.
That's yours truly, third from left in the middle row

People who don’t know better think John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town” is an accurate portrayal of life in a rural town. While it is accurate to some extent, it all depends on how one defines "small" because, when it comes to little towns, "small" is a relative term.

When Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Ind., in October 1951, his small town had a population of 9,629 according to the 1950 census. When, a month later, I made my grand entrance, my hometown, Auxvasse, Mo., had a population of 507, one-nineteenth the size of his. I wasn’t even born in my small town; it didn’t have a hospital.

Just how small is a town of 507? Perhaps the easiest way to put things into context for those who can’t begin to imagine a town that small is to start with the school. And no, I don't mean the schools. I mean the one and only school.

Last weekend while staying at my sister’s, I ran across the Auxvasse School yearbook from 1959-60, the year she graduated from high school and I was in the third grade.

The yearbook covered grades 1-12, which were housed in the same building. There were 20 high school graduates that year. The entire student body – I counted – consisted of 292 students. Most didn’t live in town; they lived on the farms that surrounded it.

The Auxvasse School had 13 teachers – seven for students in grades seven through 12. Going through the yearbook, I was amazed at how many teaching hats they wore.

Doyle Wood taught American problems, world history, as well as English and PE to seventh and eighth graders. Elizabeth Novinger taught journalism, speech, and English 1,2 and 3. (There was no English 4.) Don Foster taught citizenship, American history, physiology, health, high school PE and coached the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. Agnes Ferguson taught algebra, geometry, general math, seventh grade math, and eighth grade math. Bessie Gottschalk taught seventh and eighth grade science, biology, home ec 1, and home ec 2. Virginia Carter taught typing, bookkeeping, seventh and eighth grade chorus, high school boys’ and girls’ chorus, high school band and elementary band. James Breen taught seventh and eighth grade social studies, general shop, advanced woodworking, mechanical drawing and driver’s education.

There were six elementary teachers, one for each grade. According to the yearbook, five graduated from Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville and one from the University of Missouri.  

The year before, Auxvasse School had undergone a growth spurt in terms of enrollment. Up until then, African-American elementary pupils attended a one-room school on the west side of the GM&O tracks that separated the black part of town from the white. Black high school students were bussed 35 miles to Jefferson City to a school run by Lincoln University, a teacher’s college for African-Americans. The year I started second grade, the schools were integrated. Of the 20 pupils in my third grade class, five were African-American. 

The 1959-60 yearbook was made possible by local businesses whose ads appeared on the final pages. Most were purchased by businesses in nearby Mexico and Fulton, the county seat. The only ads from Auxvasse merchants were placed by the Security Bank (“Capital & Surplus of $75,000 and Undivided Profits of $450,000”), Divers Food Store & Elevator, the Chalet (“Your Favorite Eating Spot”), Dryden’s General Merchandise, Hunt & Moser Chrysler-Plymouth, LaCrosse Lumber Co., Maupin Funeral Home, Welch’s Tavern, Wilbur Foster Trucking & Ice, the Kingdom Telephone Co., Hape’s Locker (“Custom Slaughtering & Meat Processing”), Baumgartner’s Furniture & Appliances, the Auxvasse Review, Andy Briggs Real Estate, Bill’s Garage and Dr. A.H. Domann. There were a handful of other businesses – three gas stations, a cafĂ©, hardware store, drug store, grocery store and a lawyer that, for some reason – probably economic – didn’t buy ads.

Auxvasse was so small it didn’t even have a conventional traffic signal. There was a blinking red light suspended above the intersection of U.S. 54 and the farm-to-market road, to keep travelers from speeding through the mile-long town in under a minute.

The Auxvasse I grew up in had no movie theater – it still doesn’t – though my brother and sister remember one that lasted a short time in the late 1940s. There was no bowling alley, community pool or skating rink either. Kids’ activities consisted of Girl and Boy Scout troops and two 4-H clubs, the Advancers and Crusaders. Most of the churches had youth groups. My church was so small that its youth fellowship group had to join up with two other Methodist churches from neighboring communities even smaller than Auxvasse.

Athletics were a big – make that huge – part of life in our small town. There was Little League in summer (I was relegated to right field and missed both pop flies that came my way during my short career), high school basketball in winter, and baseball and track in spring, even through the school didn’t have a track. Heck, the school didn’t even have a gymnasium until 1954. Before then, basketball games were played outside and there were no physical education classes.

There were no police in Auxvasse, but there was a night watchman who rode through town in his own vehicle, keeping an eye out for crime, but there rarely was any to be found.

Nor was there a fire department but there was a fire truck, a vintage model from the late twenties or early thirties that had been purchased third-hand from another small town. It had wooden-spoke wheels. Whenever there was fire in or around town, the siren went off and all the able-bodied men within earshot were expected to show up at the firehouse and follow the truck to the fire to fight it. One day when the alarm sounded, the men of Auxvasse rushed to the firehouse and found that someone had stolen the battery from the truck. Needless to say, the house they had hoped to save burned to the ground and the thief was never caught by the police because there weren’t any police.

The unequivocal highlight of my childhood was the day the Presbyterian Church at the end of our street burned down despite the best efforts of amateur firefighters from Auxvasse and the professionals from Mexico and Fulton. There were no fire hydrants, so the firemen quickly used up the water they had brought to the scene on their trucks.

Sometime around 1960, Tippy Cowan, the wife of the local hardware store owner, decided Auxvasse needed some culture and started a town library in a 10’ x 10’ room in the concrete block structure where the fire truck was garaged. My mother and Mrs. Cowan donated most of the books, the majority of which were from the Reader’s Digest Condensed series. The library was open one afternoon a week and I rarely encountered anyone other than Mrs. Cowan when I went to check out one of mom’s condensed books. Every two weeks the bookmobile from the Daniel Boone Library in Columbia came to town for an hour or so, but few people took advantage of it.

Auxvasse had five churches – the aforementioned Methodist, one Disciples of Christ, one Presbyterian and two Baptist, one for whites, one for blacks. The ladies of the African-American Second Baptist Church served a fund-raising lunch one Saturday every month and my father always bought plates of fried chicken, vinegary greens and slices of meringue-topped pies and brought them back to his store. The Disciples of Christ ladies were famous for the chicken potpie they served with raspberry Jell-O salad every Halloween.

The morning after Halloween, Auxvasse residents invariably woke up to find half a dozen or so outhouses – not everyone had indoor plumbing even in the 1960s – pranksters had hoisted onto pick-up flatbeds, brought to Main Street and set afire.

The highlight of Auxvasse’s social calendar year was the Lion’s Club Fair held in July. A carnival set up five or six rusty rides in the town park which wasn’t really a park – it was nothing more than a couple of acres of vacant land next to a smelly feed lot. Members of Callaway County’s many 4-H clubs brought cows, horses and hogs (which were always referred to as “swine”) to the fair for judging. Those deemed “best of show” were sold to the local slaughterhouse and the kids who raised them posed proudly for pictures that would appear in the Auxvasse Review just before the animal was led away to its doom. Woodworking, home canning and baking projects completed by 4-H members were displayed on the bleachers of the gym for all to admire and for judges to award ribbons of merit. The window box I made during my brief stint as a Crusader -- I’ll come clean here, my dad built it in about five minutes and he, if possible, was even worse at carpentry than I am today -- won a white ribbon, the lowest possible award.

The fair culminated on Saturday night with a dance at which some folks drank too much, wound up dancing with people who weren’t their significant others and/or got into fistfights, providing gossip fodder for months afterward.

My sister and I drove through Auxvasse last weekend. The only businesses remaining on the town’s block and a half business district are the bank, tavern and phone company. The rest of Main Street’s buildings are empty. Even though it was a Saturday afternoon which, when I was a kid, was the day farmers and their families came to town to stock up on provisions for the coming week, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. As we were looking into the window of what was once our father’s store, a car stopped at the stop light and the driver waved but we didn’t know him and he didn't he know us. That’s just the way folks are in small towns.

Wal-Mart pretty much destroyed businesses in Auxvasse and other small towns throughout rural America. There are Wal-Marts in both Fulton and Mexico, which, like Auxvasse, once had thriving commercial districts, businesses run by local merchants that provided good jobs for residents. Those businesses have shuttered their doors in large part due to the chain founded by Sam Walton who grew up in Shelbina, another small town about sixty miles north of Auxvasse. Most small town Missourians are proud one of their own founded Wal-Mart. I am not among them because Wal-Mart, more than anything, is the reason so many small towns in the Midwest and south have fallen on hard times. 

I spent 30 years in Wilton, Conn., a leafy, affluent, stuffy suburb of 17,000 an hour northeast of Manhattan. Its residents like to claim in letters to the editor of the local paper that they live in a small town, something this guy from an honest-to-God small town always found hilarious. Wilton has some of the highest-rated public schools in the United States and almost every student not only goes on to college but to graduate school. Whereas the bank in my small town had capital of $75,000, the town my kids grew up in was home of AIG Financial Products whose greed-induced downfall  – the US government had to put up $180 billion to enable the company to unwind its positions -- contributed mightily to the 2008 global financial crash.

Real small towns don’t have companies like that, nor do their residents work for hedge funds or investment banks as many folks in Wilton do. Real small towners don’t sip coffee at Starbucks, dine in Japanese restaurants, or hang out at wine bars eating tapas. Real small towners don’t have to visit a town-owned “farm” to see pigs and cows that are brought in for kids to pet once a year; they raise their own. Real small town high schools don't have ski teams or lacrosse teams nor will you ever sit next to anyone famous at your kid's school concert, sporting event or theater production.

Wilton is by no stretch of the imagination a small town – at least not to me. But, I suppose, to someone who grew up in Brooklyn or Long Island, as many of its residents did, it might be.

Like I said, small is a relative term when it comes to towns.


  1. Excellent description of our SMALL town of Auxvasse. Current and past residents can purchase a T-shirt from one other business on Main Street (old Hwy.54). I have one a friend ordered afterBI gave a tour of every street in Auxvasse that took about 10 minutes due to describing many of the things Tom wrote about. T-shirt reads."I'm from AUXVASSE (OF-OZ) It's not that hard!"

  2. There is a TShirt shop, Brenda's hairstylist, and a doctor's office still in the original "downtown area." other business are scattered at different ends of the town.

    1. Didn't see them but I'll take your word for it Anonymous! Thanks for reading

  3. I now live in the metropolis f Mexico, but having been born in Auxvasse, and having grandparents that lived there till they passsed, this is so familiar. My gradnparents lived just behind the old water tower. I remember the men sitting at the gas station talking all day. I'm sure they were farmers and retired workers, but they seemed to have nothing to do all day. Memories. Kelli Dutton Buffington

    1. Kelli, something else about a small town is that everyone knows damn near everything about everyone else. You are too young to remember but your grandparents lived in a brick house to the left of ours (we moved to a different house in 1959 when I was 7) that my mom had purchased, renovated and sold to them. It had been owned by an old maid named Miss Lou – I barely remember Miss Lou and can't remember her last name but my brother and sister would. I used go over to sit with them on their front porch. I remember your grandma Florence’s husky voice and how your grandpa always wore a straw hat. Your brother Eddie is two years older than I, your brother Jesse is (I believe) two years younger and you were quite a bit younger. I recall how excited your grandparents were when you were born. A girl! I remember your dad, of course, and your red-headed mother Alice from “Ba Ha Ba.” (Did she ever lose that Down East accent she had in her early years in Missouri? I hope not.) My mom always told a great story about your grandma. One day one of her nephews or great-nephews, Ralph Pickerell, was getting married. Mom asked Florence if she was going to the wedding. She said, “No, weddings always end in tears.” Not exactly an upbeat statement but a true one. Glad you enjoyed the column!

  4. Tom
    Miss Lou was Lou Henderson, I remember, as she was distant kin to me. Presbyterian Church didn't burn down, just damaged, as it sits there today much like in the 1940s when I attended Sunday School in it. It has new annex and basement, and now only one front door, whereas then there were two, one for the men and one for the women, I was told, but by the '40 it did not seem to matter.
    Do you remember Jack Holt and Louise Varvel and her daughter Shirley who lived in the apartment above your folks store? My cousins, whom I visited every week when mom and dad came to town to shop. Joe Holt

  5. Of course -- Henderson! Miss Lou always wore a sun bonnet. Do you remember Alice Scott, the only African-American member of the Presbyterian Church? I'm going to write a post about her one of these days. She lived next door to us and was a huge presence in our family. Don't remember your cousins, but I've heard of them ... and I certainly remember your parents. Thanks for reading and to taking the time to comment!

    1. Tom, thanks for Miss Alice's name! I could not remember it. Yes! She sat in the rear, on the preacher's right side, same seat always. Seemed strange to me at the time, but that was before I attended any intergrated church or other group! How times changed during our lives. Do post on her as I know little else.

  6. Enjoyed reading other posts and replies.

  7. Tom, have you written about Miss Alice? If so, I need to go out and find. If Barb, my sister,and/or I walked by we always stopped to visit if she was on her porch. Same with Mrs. Neff and Mrs. Palmer,(always stated in reverse order of this) who Mom called Parmer and I didn't know wasn't correct until your Mom, Ruby, gave me an antique bowl for my college graduation and she had tape on the bottom saying she had bought at sale when they closed out their house. Kids today miss out on so much because only walk if have to and then have a device looking at and don't visit. Small towns aren't even the same. Oh, the booming metropolis Auxvasse population now about 1,000 as grew to South and East and annexed Burt addition and other areas to West and Norrh.