Howell's Praire, Mechanicsville, Howell

The Childhood Memories of MaryDean Carter Alsworth
Written May 4, 2010, at Rancho Cordova, California

            They are all the same place, and it was the area of Missouri my ancestors settled in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  As a young child I spent my summers with my grandparents John Will and Viola (Ollie) Silvey Callison.  Many memories of those days are very vivid.
            I can close my eyes and still hear the beautiful sound of the Methodist Church bell ringing to call the members to Sunday church service.  For a funeral, it tolled one time for each year of the deceased person’s life.  Sunday church service was a must.  I can remember stopping at the top of the church steps to take my handkerchief and wipe the dust from my “Mary Jane” shoes.  In addition to the sermon, the church meeting was an opportunity to see your friends and neighbors and catch up on the local news, and yes, gossip.  I have often wondered what happened to the beautiful chandeliers that hung from the high ceiling, the tall windows (I think they were stained glass), and the bell, when the church was razed by the government.  I think I heard that the bell went to the church in Cottleville, and the chandeliers are now in the church at Dardenne.  I would like to think that some other little girl is enjoying looking at them, as I did.
            The women of the Methodist Church Ladies Aid Society met to spend the day quilting.  The best part of the day for me was the potluck luncheon.  Those women sure knew how to prepare tasty food.  The second Mrs. Nell Muschany (Did you know there were two?  There is a tombstone in the Thomas Howell Cemetery that bears the name Muschany and below that are the names Nell, Morris, Nell.  Morris is buried between his two wives.)  Mrs. Nell always brought potato salad, and to this day, I think it was the best I have ever eaten.  When she knew that I would be there, she made a little extra for me.  She knew she would not take any home, for I would clean the bowl.  She always called me “MaryDean, the Potato Salad Queen.”  Often my grandmother would bake one of her angel food cakes for the luncheon.  She was well known in the area for her light, high angel food cakes.  She baked cakes for many of the area brides to serve at their weddings. I can still see hear breaking and separating a dozen eggs and hear her firmly saying, “John Will, don’t you come stomping into this kitchen.  I have a cake in the oven.”  She baked her cakes from scratch.  Boxed cakes were unheard of at that time.  She used the oven in a wood burning stove.  I’m not sure they even had electric or gas stoves at that time, but even so, Grandma could not have afforded one.
            I loved walking down Main Street, past the two-story building that housed the Muschany Brothers’ General Store on the ground floor and the Masonic Lodge on the second floor.  The Muschany Funeral Home was in the house next door.  That house had been built by my Great-Grandfather Elias Preston Silvey and his wife Jessie Ann Howell Silvey.  Since there wasn’t any store closer than Wentzville or St. Charles, Muschany Brothers’ tried to stock a variety of items.  You could buy a dress or the fabric, needles and thread to make one.  The store had a hardware section and a meat and fresh vegetable section.  There was shelf after shelf of canned goods, but the best of all was the glass case of penny candy.  Grandma always managed to give me a penny, as I gazed into the candy case.  She did her shopping while I tried to decide which candy would be the best buy for my penny.  There was a large assortment to choose from, including red and black licorice twists, lollipops, a variety of hard candies, and my favorite, bacon strips.  These were flat strips of three flavors, strawberry, licorice, and vanilla.  There were times when Grandma would have completed her shopping and I still had not made my decision, but I never left the store without some candy.
            It was also a custom at a funeral to have the younger members of the family carry in the flowers that had been gathered from the yards of the neighborhood.  They would carry them in the church and place them near the casket.  This was done for the funeral of my Great-Grandmother Callison.  The flowers were carried down the aisle by her great-grandchildren.  Doris Primeau Bernat still loves to tease me about my giggling as I walked down the aisle.  I think I was about four years old at the time.
            Behind the Silvey home was the home of my grandparents.  Although it was before my time, I have heard many stories of that period.  In the fall, and before the first frost, they not only crushed their cane, but also the cane of many other people of the area.  The cane was placed in piles near the fence, awaiting a turn for the press.  The press consisted of three vertical rollers around an axle.  One end of a long pole was fastened to one end of the axle.  The other end of the pole was attached by a singletree to one of the Callison horses.  It was my Aunt Ival’s job to ride the horse as it walked round and round the press.  The stalks of cane were fed by hand between the rollers, and the juice was squeezed out and caught in a barrel.  The juice was carried to the galvanized pan which was approximately three feet wide, eight feet long, and six or eight inches deep.  Under this pan a fire was built and used to boil the cane juice to the wanted consistency.  During the entire cooking period, the juice was stirred with a long-handled paddle.  My grandparents had a reputation for knowing just when to take the syrup off the fire.  Their sorghum molasses always had the most beautiful amber color.
            Continuing my walk down Main Street, I would pass the home of Earl and Edna Sutton.  It was not unusual to hear wonderful piano music filling the air.  Their son, Ralph Earl, was at the piano again.  He became a well known musician.  My husband and I belonged to the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  At one of our meetings, Ralph Earl was the featured artist.  At a break in the music, I went up and said, “Ralph Earl, do you remember me?’  He replied, “I don’t remember you, but I know you are from Howell, for they are the only people that call me Ralph Earl.”  We chatted for a few minutes.
            Grandma’s sister Aunt Susie Silvey Portwood and her husband Charlie had a large two-story log house with a tin roof.  I loved to visit them, especially when it rained.  The best cure for insomnia is the rain pelting on a tin roof.
            One holiday most of the residents of Howell observed was Decoration Day, now called Memorial Day.  There were three cemeteries in the Howell area, the Thomas Howell Cemetery, the Francis Howell Cemetery, and the old Dardenne Church Cemetery. Most of the people of Howell are buried in one of these three cemeteries.  Although we had ancestors buried in all three cemeteries, we went to the Francis Howell Cemetery on Decoration Day.
            We would get up early so we could get in a full day’s work.  Yes, it was work, as well as pleasure.  So many of the graves were old, the headstones noting the resting places of many of the people that settled the area.  I can remember the stone of one of my ancestors,William Stewart.  He was born in Virginia in 1776.  Although many of my ancestors are buried there, I always recall that grave when thinking of that cemetery.  On Decoration Day some of the men would mend the fence, if necessary, while others mowed the grass with hand push lawn mowers they had brought from home.  The woman had collected flowers: iris, roses, spyrea, and anything else that was blooming. They would clean the headstones and then place flowers on the grave.  The older children had the task of gathering the mowed clippings and putting them in barrels.  The younger children had been given scissors and were busy cutting the grass from around the stones. The mowers could never get close enough to trim the stones nicely.  I swear, when I think about it, I can still feel the blisters on my hands from those scissors.
            Planks were placed across a couple of wooden horses to make a long table.  The women had prepared plenty of a variety of food for the hungry, hardworking crew.  It didn’t take long for the food to disappear.  If we were lucky, someone would bring a hand-cranked ice cream freezer.  It was the job of the larger boys to crank the freezer until the creamy mixture inside had become ice cream.  That was a real treat, as we didn’t have the Good Humor Man drive by our homes selling ice cream cones, Eskimo Pies, and popsicles.  As soon as the children were finished with their lunch, they were free to play.  Their work was finished for the day.  It didn’t take long for the games to begin.  The boys would start a game of hide-and-seek, using the stones and the many trees for hiding places, or a good game of tag.  The girls were occupied with skipping rope, and generally some of the girls would bring their dolls.  Showing, discussing and playing with them took up the time of the young girls.  It didn’t take long to get in bed when we arrived home.  We were tired and sleepy from the long, enjoyable day.
            I was one who cried when the people of Howell had to move from the area of their ancestors.  Never again would they live as neighbors in a small town, where everyone cared for their family, friends, and neighbors.  Their homes were built by the brave people that settled this area of wilderness.  Many of them had traveled from Virginia via the waters of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the unsettled area.  There isn’t any doubt in my mind if their homes were still in existence many of them would be listed on the Register of Historic Homes.  Even to me, as a child, I realized that way of life was over and would never be attained again.  The government’s gain was our loss, and all we have left are our memories.  Thank you for reminding me it was time to stop and smell the flowers, and to recall 75 years walking down memory lane.