(An American Tragedy)

Donald K. Muschany


[Letter 5]

January 12, 1977

Dear Cousin:

                 Here, as I take my solitary rounds
                 Amidst thy tangling walks and ruined grounds,
                 And, many a year elapsed, return to view
                 Where once the cottage stood, the hawthorn grew,
                 Remembrance wakes with all her busy train,
                 Swells at my breast, and turns the past to pain. [1]

     I wish that I could have said these words—have written them, moreover. But since I did not, I must settle for their being the theme for these family studies. As I go through the many documents, data, and old letters, I drop into a reverie very easily, and my mind darts from the early days of Howell through our childhood and schoolboy eras, but I always stop short of the fateful year of 1940. Somehow, I seem to blot that period from my memory, though I know it did exist. Nature has a marvelous way of half-erasing unpleasantries from our minds, doesn’t she?
     I am at present going over the early days of my father, Morris, and I grin as I am doing so. I have a mental picture of Tom Sawyer or Penrod Schofield, only with less idle time on his hands. I am inclined to transpose my dad and yours with you and me, if you follow me, although they most certainly earned their daily bread the hard way as compared to our modus vivendi. (I secretly hope that our children get the same picture.)
     Every year, I have an early Christmas, December 21st, as this was the day of my father’s birth in 1890. I celebrate that day for obvious reasons, because if that fine man had not appeared, there would have been no chance for me. From your vantage point, you must agree.
     Though you and I had some modern conveniences not enjoyed by our fathers, they seemed to run the same gamut of boyhood as we. While we had the modern news media to inform us, and to enhance our curiosity, they had the wonderful facility of boy’s imaginations. It is like the difference between our young days of wonderment in the magic of radio, and our kid’s television upbringing. With radio we had to imagine; with T.V., there it is in front of you. More’s the pity. Especially in these last fifteen traumatic years, I believe children have had to take giant steps into adulthood rather than the slow gait of our youths.
     It was not strictly a “frontier” type scenario our dads followed. True, the outdoors provided the set, but the actors ad libbed their fun. If they wanted to hunt, they didn’t refer to a calendar. The same was true of fishing, or trapping for extra money. They obeyed the laws of nature and fair play. They knew what an endangered species was without being told.
     And the “rural Olympics” went on and on. Whenever boys got together, someone would say that he could jump farther, or higher than the rest. One would say he could spit so far and would bet a pet frog on his confidence. Who could “rassle” best was going on every day with a constant turnover in champs. Running for speed or for distance usually gave the more slender boys a chance to excel, so that everyone had a “thing” he could do better than someone else. This certainly made for harmony and inexpensive pastime.
     As you know, my father loved all sports, especially baseball. It made little difference if he were coaching boys or girls. He coached several girl softball teams which won county championships. He really was proud of those teams, and had some of the best players that could be found in the State of Missouri.
     Uncle Karl Muschany told me they were entering the church yard one Sunday morn when they heard a gunshot. It was the minister starting a pre-service horse race. Sounds better than Bingo to me, eh?
     Further, every now and then, a boy would be found practicing his specialty in some solitary spot. Or he would be working on some other boy’s “thing” in order to spring a big surprise on the guys at the next “Olympiad.” This may have been the sort of present-day coaches’ delights, hard and long practices.
     In our area, boys and girls were not taught to swim. They were taught to respect the dangers of the water and to survive. You had respect for the Missouri River, or you were its victim. In fact, the old swimmin’ hole was kind of a communal bath tub to kind of “wash the country off you,” and, if you recall, this continued up in our teens, in the Dardenne Creek and the “Hollow” swimming hole. In Dad’s youthful time, the feet were given a good cleaning every night, especially in the barefoot days of summer. (Doc, I think of that when I am gingerly making my way across a lovely beach. I remember my barefoot days, but time does make a difference.) Different strokes for different folks at different ages.
     You and I were raised under the umbrella of the largest shoemaking city in the world, St. Louis. I saw in the Muschany Brothers Store Ledger where Karl paid $2.50 for a pair of shoes for Vera, his wife. Of course, this was in 1934. Mr. and Mrs. William Kaut, a Brown Shoe executive, built his dream home in “The Hollow,” which was formerly owned by Calvin Castlio.
     Our dads were lucky to have a teacher for a father, though they probably thought differently from time to time. Either directly or by osmosis, they realized that obtaining knowledge had its reward and it also was the key to progress and success. Needless to say, common sense played a real part in achieving success. Howell was an outstanding community as far as educated people were concerned. There are teacher validations from that area as early as 1876, before dad was born. They had Howell Institute, which was as good for them as good old Howell High was for us. The University of Missouri Alumni list was packed with Howellites, especially doctors and teachers.
     Our teacher-granddad did farm a very small parcel of land solely for food and preservables. Six mouths to feed on a teacher’s salary demanded sheer magic or a good garden. I think it was here that your dad and mine learned a fine set of values: The Lord Giveth and The Lord Taketh Away. Nature and the forms of weather kept you praying constantly for necessities, not luxuries. I am sorry to say that the reverse is more prevalent today. I think there is an eternal lesson in any form of tilling the soil for survival, and the sooner we revive that principle the better. Surpluses rarely instill appreciation. Why should we fear the hydrogen bomb and ignore the philosophy of nature? As an old ad used to point out, ‘‘Nature in the raw is seldom mild.”
     In genetics, we learn that we inherit certain characteristics; in sociology, we are told about the advantages or disadvantages of our environment. You and I were winners in both cases. May our children be as fortunate.
     Well, the Muschany brothers grew in age, size, and in the community in that they became the owners of the small town Mecca, The General Store. Besides having all the needs of man or beast, this emporium was the seat of learning. Not book learning, you understand, but REAL learning like Democrats or Republicans, War or Peace, Gold or Silver, Wheat or Oats, and just plain old humor. Jokes were passed along from the dry goods drummer or the tobacco man or the shoe salesman, with the racier ones being told in the warehouse room. According to today’s standards, these would be told in the Romper Room. The men gathered here in droves, to sit by the stove in winter, eat peanuts, and toss the shells at an empty plug tobacco box which held a few ashes to catch any sputum that might come its way. Yes, they did smoke and chew tobacco. In the summer, this occurred on the front porch of the store. Young boys tried to grow up in a hurry by hanging around until told to scoot, only to come back again until they finally reached man’s estate and became regulars at the fountain of knowledge. The games of chess and checkers were played regularly. To add real class to the Muschany Brothers’ store, the second story of the building was the home of the Masonic Lodge. A more prestigious tenant did not exist anywhere in the area. An added aura seemed to adorn the already magnetic store.
     Every Howellite remembers this general store with its bunch of bananas in one window, lamps and dishes in another. Strips of fly-paper dangled from the ceiling above the cabinets of J. P. Coats white and black threads. In a fancier cabinet were kept the silk threads of various colors and shades. (Simple . . . if it was a necessity, you went to one; for a luxury, to the other.) Ribbons, lace, yard goods, all wearing apparel had a regular spot, probably based on the buying habits of the rural customers. The telephone—three longs and two shorts—was near the desk as was the candy counter; inasmuch as most folks bought candy as they paid their bill. Penny candies were the big thing, usually in bulk containers.
     The kerosene or coal-oil pump stood in the store to the right of the front door, but the storage tank was in the basement. Many a time I’ve pumped a gallon or five gallons of the stuff at a mere 7¢ a gallon.
     On the porch of the store stood the old-time gasoline pump. The first pump was a Bowser Pump and cost $175.00. It was one of the first gasoline pumps in St. Charles County. The replacement was another hand pump, and as I recall you could fill the glass basin, which held twelve gallons. Each gallon was indicated by a metal mark. Of course, gas was not too big an item because there was not too much motorized equipment around. Muschany Brothers really operated a General Store. They, like Central Hardware, had everything from soup to nuts or bolts or whatever. Memories! Yes, Roland Boone, Roy Blize, Glen Yahn & Rudolph Ebert had their first jobs here.
     It was not uncommon to see the three brothers, Claude, Karl and my father, disappear into the warehouse. This meant there was a problem brewing and through this meeting agreement would be reached on how to settle it. I suppose you would call this the “Board Room” of today. I never heard these three men have an argument in public. If there was disagreement (which was seldom), it was settled through private conversation with dignity, agreement, and no ill feelings.
     The Muschany Brothers purchased the store in 1916 from the Stewarts who had it in their family since 1883. That was the year the old Kaiser was doing his thing in Europe, much to the chagrin of many German-oriented Howell residents, who remembered a happier day in Baden, Germany. Yet, many families had left Germany because they did not wish to serve in the Kaiser’s Army. Again, it looked like young American boys were going to be in the thick of it some day, and Howell would have its share of those. The first man killed in World War I from St. Charles County was from our area, and Pvt. Bowman’s monument stands in Thomas Howell Cemetery.
     Uncle Karl has a supply of anecdotes about the store. One day a man came in and mumbled something about a “. . . collar . . .” Karl went to the warehouse and brought back two sizes of horse collars. “Not horse,” yelled the man, “soft collar . . . SOFTE” (a soft collar on a shirt). Another fellow wanted a stove part. When asked what number, the man didn’t know. Next day he lugged the big stove to the store. However, the number was on the lid.
     Karl also talks about Rollins Jones, a big black, who came every Saturday, blew a giant whistle, and ground corn for all. Truly, this was free enterprise on the move.
     In those days, getting to St. Charles or St. Louis was more of a planned expedition than a store jaunt. As a result, the store stayed on, and with something new being added . . . Morris Muschany, Mortician. Necessity created flexibility in those days. Dad had been learning this trade by helping in medical exams of the dead, and, as mentioned in an earlier letter, earned as high as $2.50 per body, which was one heck of a lot of money for the times. Enough, in fact, to cause him to think along these lines.
     On December 17th, 1919, Dad received a Degree in Proficiency from Eckels College of Embalming and Sanitary Science and graduated on May 21, 1921 from the St. Louis College of Embalming. On June 10, 1922, he received his Missouri License #2461. With the help and encouragement of E. A. Keithly, O’Fallon, Missouri (another funeral director), Dad was in the funeral business, serving the Howell Community. Through his endeavor and ability, he established additional funeral homes in Augusta, Missouri, New Melle, Missouri, and Wentzville, Missouri. He became Coroner of St. Charles County and served for four terms from 1948 to 1960. In his early days, he was a Deputy Sheriff of St. Charles County from 1918 to 1920. He was a member of the Auxiliary Patrol of the Missouri State Highway Patrol for many years, as well as a member of the local draft board for some 20 years. Dad was a member of the Wentzville Lodge #46 AF & AM, Scottish Rite, Moolah Temple Shrine, Wentzville Chapter #37 O.E.S., Odd Fellows of America, and an honorary charter member of the Wentzville Rotary Club. He was active throughout his life in the Methodist Church and taught Sunday School. He always had a keen interest in young people.
     I am sure you remember my mother, but I trust I can refresh your memory and tell you about her.
     Nellie Mae Keithly was born in St. Charles County, October 28, 1889. After finishing the old Howell Institute, she went to Springfield, Missouri around 1909 and worked in a 5 & 10¢ Store. She quickly discovered this was not for her so she came back to Howell then went to the Warrenton Methodist School and then to Warrensburg Teachers’ College. Upon graduation she taught at the Old Monroe Public School and later at the Hamburg Public School. While there, she fell in love with my father and, after a two-year romance, they were united in marriage on April 8, 1913 in the Howell Methodist Church. My dad’s brother, Claude, and my mother’s sister, Beulah, stood up (like bridesmaid and best man) for them. Their first home was where my Grandfather Muschany had lived. Dad started farming. The soil was poor and new land had to be cleared. I remember Dad talking about pulling stumps. It was a rough life. Mother was a most likeable person and an excellent cook. Canning vegetables, preserves, washing clothes, quilting, making soap, making dresses and bonnets, visiting friends on Sunday and always attending church, preparing and cooking meals, sometimes making cottage cheese hung in a pillow case on a clothes line to drip-dry . . . these are but a few things I remember about mother.
     Just a few days before I was to graduate from Francis Howell High School, mother became ill. Dr. Ben Neubiser from St. Charles came to our home and after a brief examination told my father and me that mother had had a heart attack and probably would not live. On May 16, 1934, at the age of 44 years, 6 months and 18 days, Mother died. On Sunday May 20, 1934, the funeral was held in the Howell Methodist Church with burial in the Thomas Howell Cemetery.
     Norman, I’ll have to close for now. I’m getting into our Grandfather’s material and will write you all I find. Very best wishes, with the hope that you are enjoying these sorties into Howell as much as I do.

[signed: Don]
(the local Herodotus)

[1] Author unknown . . . taken from CROW'S NEST by Lilian Hayes Oliver.