(An American Tragedy)

Donald K. Muschany


[Letter 13]
October 4, 1977

Dear Norm:

     When Mary Jayne and I were in Berlin a few years ago, I wondered how such a lovely city with such wholesome people could spawn an evil little frustrated paperhanger and let him destroy our Garden of Eden, Howell, Missouri, over 4000 miles away. What had we ever done to him?
     All the time we were sweating out adolescence and a depression, this ogre was putting together a Doomsday Force from among the cousins of many Howell people, the German youth. True, those youngsters had been born into man-made decay resulting from the so-called “Great War,” making them easy prey for a Hitler. I’m certain that many of them had their own little private “Howell,” and had to leave it, never to see it again. Whoever thought up the phrase “man’s inhumanity to man” put all the woes of humanity into one capsule; are we ever going to change?
     Who could have dreamed that anyone, much less our government, would demand and take our hallowed land? But, it had happened, and the people of Howell, as always, prayed fervently and went on with the job of Christian Living in a difficult time.
     The word had come that our government needed a site for the war effort, a large TNT plant. The irony of life: the Hamburg and Howell folks had been busy from the very first raising products to preserve and enrich life and, now, their land was to be used to make the most destructive force known to man at that time. Of course, the Grand Irony of them all was that this product TNT, should have been discovered by Nobel, who became famous in later years for his dedication to peace.
     I have many newspaper clippings from those fateful times, but most of them miss the point. They are mainly interested with the price to be paid for each parcel of land, but nary a word about the “blood, sweat, and tears” that went into the countryside for over a hundred years before, and the mental anguish involved. Yet, I guess one cannot put a value on something that is priceless, right?
     The court battles were all exercises in frustration, but ones which had to be waged. Every time I read of a condemnation suit, I mentally bleed a little for some poor soul who thought he had a place called “home.” The word “home” is the dynamic in all of these cases, and I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s great line:
     “Home is where, when you go there, they’ve got to take you in. A man may reside any place he wishes or where his wallet will alow, but his heart has to have a “home.”
     Ours was Howell; for others Hamburg.
     So, in 1940, Howell and Hamburg gave up the ghost to fire and the bulldozer; physically, that is. But Howell, the “home,” the idea, the incubator of many fine families, continues. The very fact that it ceased to be a postmark in 1940 has had one good effect, in that it did not undergo the new mode of shopping centers, malls, tall medical buildings, and drive-in movies with Big Mac’s next door. We can keep the good thoughts about Howell and Hamburg and smile as we think and read about her days of glory.
     Today, most folks are not that lucky in our mobile society. A friend of mine lived in New York City in 1922 and he says there is now the third skyscraper on the spot where he saw the first one being completed. Antiquity might as well be deleted in Webster’s New Dictionary as far as most locations in our country are concerned. Is to destroy the only way to make way for the new? In Europe, when an artifact or a building is uncovered when an excavation is being dug for a new edifice, the work stops, an iron fence is erected, and a new spot for the building is selected. This may happen time and again with the same method being used.
     I’ll close out this note with a thought that struck me: Old folks know more about being young than young folks do about being old.

Thanks for the use of your eyes,
[signed: Don]


     In a town the size of Howell, everyone knew the special ability of everyone else and respected him for it. Like Eltin Pitman and his boys, Virg, Tig, and Bud, who were the clay bird champs. They could drill wells better than anyone else. Someone else could jump, or trap, or fish better. In other words, Howell would not have been a good site for a Decathalon, as everything was individualized. I remember this particularly because it seemed to me that the older Muschany men were the exceptions to this. My dad and uncles were into quite a few things and did them well, or maybe I’m prejudiced. So be it!
     And box suppers . . . where a young swain would bid on the box brought by the girl he liked most. I hear that our Uncle Karl outbid everyone else and came away with a big grin which he has to this day. Nice going, Unk! Don Juan Muschany . . . I like that!
     Who can forget the sleigh rides on beautiful moonlight nights with the sleigh bells ringing and jangling, with the crunch of snow under the horses’ hooves, remember? Sparks would fly like sparklers on the 4th of July as the steel sled runners bit a piece of flint rock buried in the snow . . . Memories are made of this!
     On these sleigh rides, we would pass Dardenne Creek, and occasionally frighten a flock of mallard ducks into flight. What I would give to relive those pleasant moments just once more. The beauties of nature were everywhere for all to see and appreciate. Tom Wolfe said that “you can’t go home again!” Well, maybe not physically, but I do it all the time in my mind’s eye.
     Wonderful Howell, we miss you! But, we won’t forget you; that’s a promise.
     I remember old Doc Emmons, the Vet, who could treat anything from cholera to lovesickness. His sons, Bob and Charlie, have been friends of mine for years.
     Today, a change of seasons represents different things to different people. Possibly a change in sports, travel, clothes, vacations and/or expenses. But to the Hamburg and Howell families, the seasons meant primarily a change in work habits; an idea that doesn’t appear in urban life today. The winter, for instance, meant more than keeping warm, it required preparation of food for everyone during those long cold days. Almost everyone raised his own meat; hogs, cattle, sheep and chickens.
     When the moon was on the wane in late Autumn on a frosty morning in November it was time to butcher hogs. Like so many rural “happenings” it was also a social event. On the previous day a long trench had been dug, about eight feet long and two feet wide and two feet deep. The wood for the fire was placed in the trench and the scalding trough full of water was placed above the wood. Only a lighted match the next morning set the stage for the entire day. The water had to be just the right temperature for scalding the hog or the bristles could not be scraped off smoothly. The animals were shot with a .22 rifle and often there was an agonized squeal, which gave me a sick feeling. After the hog was scraped clean a single-tree from a wagon was placed on a tendon of each hind leg and the hog was hung on a sturdy pole and eviscerated.
     The thought of fresh backbone and sauerkraut, sausage, fried pork tenderloins and milk gravy tickled my palate. Then there would be souse, fried liver, and the brains and scrambled eggs all flavored with spicy black pepper and salt. Hickory-smoked hams were treated like fine china in their preparation. The shoulders, middlins and jowls were salted down on a wooden platform in the smokehouse. When they had “took the salt” they were carefully washed and hung on long poles to be smoked with green hickory and a little sassafras wood with a few corn cobs underneath to keep the smoke coming. All the fat strip had to be cut into small pieces for lard. The “leaf lard” was removed from the entrails which would go into the lard kettle the next day. Usually the sausage meat was ground by hand. The sausage mill was attached on a big board and placed between two chairs in the kitchen. Usually two persons worked the sausage mill—one turning the mill and the other feeding the meat into the mill.
     My father really came up with a Rube Goldberg. He had a ’28 Dodge sedan, and he would jack up one of the rear wheels and attached some bindertwine between the wheel and the sausage grinder, put the car in gear and had a power take-off sausage-maker. Mother necessity marches on!
     This all sounds rather simple now but hog killing was a strenuous time for grown-ups. One would say it was a greasy messy time but necessary. Father and mother always gave a big sigh of relief when the lard was rendered. Mama always saved enough cracklins for cracklin bread. I have not heard of this for years but I recall that it was very tasty.
     In the fall, apples were harvested and it was apple butter-making time. Apples were peeled the day before and placed in a tub of water overnight. The large wooden paddle is the name of this game and the constant stirring in the big copper kettle did the trick. Otherwise, you’d be making burnt applesauce. The aroma of this operation filled the area for many miles. Traveling salesmen, or “drummers,” would stop in those days to buy or sample or whatever.
     Turnips, potatoes, carrots, and apples were harvested and placed in large pits covered with earth and straw to be opened at a later date and drawn upon as the winter progressed. We were always amazed, as children, to find the fruit and vegetables so well preserved when we uncovered them. Nature has had the job for a long time and knows what she is doing.


     I haven’t really mentioned my boyhood chores. Not because they were unpleasant memories, but rather that they seem insignificant in this work-a-day world. And yet, I know that every boy and girl in Hamburg and Howell represented an important stone in the life-supporting structure of those two communities. Actually, it seems that life was indeed supported for the children by the adults. For that reason, I want the record book set right for those gallant people who made up these communities.
     Like other boys, I split wood for the cook stove, storing it in the wood box which seemed bottomless at the time. I tossed hay for the cattle; mowed the lawn; washed the windows; cleaned the floors; and, helped Mom hang the perpetual supply of laundry. Our drier in those days was a fairly constant 10-mile-an-hour breeze from the Howell Prairie, and it was so dependable.
     When I had a little more age on me, I advanced to working at the Muschany Brothers’ Store. I was stock boy, commissioned to keep the goods on the shelves, lest the wheels of commerce grind to a halt. I also was studying biology, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was the egg candler, with a basement of a million eggs or so to inspect each day . . . or, so it seemed. For years, every time I saw an egg, I groaned. Now, I smile at the memory. That basement was my laboratory of life, as I see it in retrospect.
     A country boy was most certainly a “white-washer,” as Mark Twain pointed out so ably. Everything that moved, we said “sir” or “ma’am” to; and if it stood still, we “whitewashed” it.
     Through most of my life I have had a close friend, Ralph Fridley, who has shared many parts of life with me. Ralph and I went to Francis Howell High School together, after each of us married we lived near each other in St. Louis and went to the same church. We have gone on many vacations together, enjoyed good times, and shared in the loss of loved ones.
     Have you ever tried to catch tame ducks in a dusty henhouse at five o’clock in the morning? Ralph and I have many times. We were duck hunters and it was during a time when you could use live decoys. We would catch these ducks and put them in a burlap sack and up the river we would go. In the year of 1930 the Missouri River was not a bad fly-way for ducks and we had a lot of luck. You must experience all this stuff with decoys in freezing weather to appreciate duck hunting. Come rain, snow, or sunshine nothing stopped you from hunting ducks. Going up the river in complete darkness surrounded by fog can cause you to lose your sense of direction. We did and ended up in the middle of a brush pile. In spite of this we had a great respect for the Mighty Mo and there is no description that is adequate to describe a sunrise or sunset on this beautiful river.
     Every April was the time to hunt morel mushrooms in the river bottoms. These little morsels are about the finest delicacies found in Missouri this time of year. The land and water was good to us. We grew to appreciate everything about nature. There were many things we did not understand, but we learned the art of wondering. What causes the turquoise glint of a robin’s egg, a fossil form in a rock, the glimmering petals of spring flowers or the rosy quartz of an Indian arrowhead from three hundred years ago? Goethe said, “The highest to which man can attain is to wonder.” And the faculty does seem to lead to humility, happiness and gratitude.
     I have many pleasant memories of my friends, neighbors, and relatives of the Howell and Hamburg neighborhood. There were so many interesting and unusual people that I must stop the clock and recall the past.
     Dick Holtsclaw was a unique person, not because he was a cripple and used crutches, but because he managed to do many different things. He was the town’s barber for a time, not a good one but an adequate one, and for only 25¢ he would cut everything he could see. There was one thing for sure . . . . you would look different when he was done.
     Dick was a weaver of fine rag rugs that adorned many of the homes in the area. He painted houses and often used too much turpentine which caused the paint to peel off, but there was never a word of criticism because of his physical condition and he had done his best. Neighbors cut his stove wood for the winter and gave him food whenever they could.
     In various ways, he was a pitiful character and yet he served as an inspiration to many. In his older years my father, Morris Muschany, was able to get Mr. Holtsclaw into the St. Charles County Home and it was there that he died.
     I remember one story that they always told about Mr. Holtsclaw. He was very fond of Hershey candy bars, so a group of men bet Dick a box of Hershey bars that he could not shoot and hit one clay bird out of three. He accepted the challenge but he didn’t know that the fellows had replaced all of the lead shot from the shells with salt. Well, they got Dick on a stool and the event was under way. Three times the salt poured out of the gun barrel and no clay birds were broken. Dick got his box of candy bars anyway, it was a big fun event for all except Dick Holtsclaw.
     Mr. Calvin Castlio (I always called him ‘Mister’ because he was much older than I and we were taught this courtesy) spent some time in the West in the gun totin’ days. Said he had seen Geronimo, the Indian fighter, a number of times. This impressed me and he also said he had carried a gun but used it to shoot snakes.
     Mr. Calvin said one night three men stole their horses and the next morning a posse caught the thieves, he paused a second and said, “They never did steal any more horses.” Eltin Pitman told my Uncle Karl that he noticed a tear in Mr. Calvin’s eye. He was never asked to relate the story again.
     Mr. Calvin was a man of good judgment and his opinions were sought and valued by many in the community. Truly, he was a man who loved his family, his neighbors and his country. He was born on the 9th of November, 1856 and had three children which I knew as “Doll,” “Kit” and “Babe.”
     Leonard Kessler, the well driller, lived just across the road from the blacksmith shop. He was a man of many talents. He bought a certain piece of property behind Howell on the Hollow Road that had a spring that never went dry; it came out of a small cave on a hillside. Mr. Kessler built a concrete dam just below the spring and there was always a refreshing drink for a thirsty traveler in a beautiful setting. The children were David, Corrine, Ruth and Lillian. Just about any evening, at dusk, you would find Mrs. Kessler and one or two of the girls taking a walk. Not because they lacked exercise, but because they enjoyed looking at nature.
     Many of my fine friends are no longer alive. I could and should write with eloquence about each family that formed the fabric or cloth of the area, but space does not permit. Although the face is not seen, the voice not heard, I have been disarmed and ask you to remember with me.
     As a little boy, I remember visiting Uncle Bob and Aunt Leora Fulkerson. Sometimes I would spend the night with them. On one occasion, I recall there was snow on the ground and I went to the hen-house to gather eggs. As I entered, I saw a beautiful redbird (cardinal), so I picked up a corn cob and threw it at the bird. The aim was good, because it not only hit the bird, but killed it. When my aunt learned what had happened, she gave me a good lecture about killing birds. I became very upset and cried and didn’t sleep very well that night.
     Apparently the lecture made a lasting impression on me. Today, the Cardinal is my favorite bird. We have several around our home and we always put out sunflower seed for them. Through the years, this incident has become a good lasting memory for me.


     I mentioned to you about Dad’s ingenious old Dodge and its sausage-making gadget. Well, you should have seen me take that old car to the creek each week to let the wooden spokes of the wheels get a soaking so that they would expand. Can you see someone in a fancy Charger or Mark V, or 98 doing that today? How simple life was!!
     I think about this when I hear a youngster of today begging for a “stick-shift” car. I was so elated when I finally got an automatic transmission. Different strokes for different folks, right?
     My father inherited my grandfather’s house and forty acres right in the heart of Howell. His brothers received other properties. We lived there from 1924 to 1932, and it was here that I picked up the “featherbed and flat-iron” custom. The two bedrooms on the second floor of this home were not heated, so we used the time-honored system of heating flat irons on the wood stove before bedtime, putting them into a little flannel bootie, and then into the featherbeds. Who said electric blankets are better?
     And, Norm, do you remember the fish fries at the Femme Osage Creek? Each family would bring a covered dish, with the creek furnishing the fish, caught by seines. These events were called “fish boils” by the Swedes in Door County, Wisconsin. I guess because they were done in big black kettles of boiling grease, after being well-seasoned and floured. Great occasions for great people!!
     I’ve had many thoughts since I began this “crusade,” and I remember several persons who might evoke a smile or two from you but I am positive this individual will. This is what I call a pleasant memory.
     The Howell and Hamburg communities were certainly diversified as to talent but there was one “genius” I shall never forget, Hodgen Bates. Bates was a bachelor who built his own log house, dug his own cistern, and, get this, slept in the shell of a grand piano. His dreams must have been in full stereo. He played almost flawless chess, and knew just about everything worth knowing about nature. I spent many a Sunday afternoon talking with Hodgen, sometimes walking through the woods, while he identified this tree or that tree, birds, rocks, and soils. He gave me an appreciation of nature which I cherish to this day.
     Hodgen truly loved all animals and never as much as killed a snake. He knew that none in this state would hurt him—and they didn’t to my knowledge. Many people today are cynical of TV’s Grizzly Adams or Marlin Perkins, but not old Don K.
     And he was an artisan and a voluminous reader, who remembered what he read. Our uncle, Karl, has a fine hexagonal tapered walnut cane made for him by Hodgen Bates. It is an exhibit of superb craftsmanship, made under crude circumstances. I think Karl will take it to the hereafter with him, because it represents so much to him.
     After thirty-five years, I was privileged to visit the old homesite of Mr. Bates. Of course, the house and he were long gone, but I felt his presence as I recognized many signs of the past. Along the hillside the flowering iris, or flags, continued to bloom where this good man, Hodgen, had planted them. It would take more than an act of Congress to destroy these bits of natural memorabilia! I saw flagstone rocks which he had carefully placed to identify various paths in the woods still serving as a silent guide for an infrequent visitor.
     Hodgen Bates was an honest man, always paying his just debts, but was not exactly a Beau Brummel. One day he was sitting on a bench in front of our general store when Howard Fulkerson appeared, a bit the worse from liquid refreshments. Howard said loftily, “Hodgen, I’m going home and get some of my old ties and collars. When you put them on, you’ll look a hundred per cent better.”
     Another note on Hodgen Bates. He was a math scholar, who would delight in giving a youngster a problem he couldn’t solve. He would give out with a hearty laugh that could be heard all over the area when one failed to get the answer. Some thought him odd . . . a hermit . . . and less, but Hodgen Bates always stood tall in my mind and in my pleasant memories.
     The movies would have had a field day casting a Hodgen Bates-type. There was only one Hodgen Bates, the genius of Howell.
     I’ll confess that I am not ashamed that I was moist-eyed as I revisited this hallowed Howell and Hamburg ground. I stood on Hodgen’s Hill and another memory sprang into view . . . “The Sinkhole” . . . as good an ice rink as any boy ever had, and so-o-o-o economical—free. Tag, log jumping, and hockey were all played on the ice. The “puck” was a mini Pet Milk can. I wonder if the Pet Company conglomerate ever knew about its hockey influence?
     As you remember, the ice became rubbery as the weather warmed. It presented an additional challenge to dance around the undulating ice.
     Then came the bonfire where we cooked hot dogs and marshmallows, and swapped fantasies. Hodgen would serve up hot chocolate and regale us with the story of a book he had just read. I believe it was he who told us how to procure the “best” hockey “Sticks.” We would look for a hickory sapling with a particular crook, and . . . Whacko!!! . . . we were in business. Spalding or Rawlings never made a dime on the “Howell Hotshots.” I remember, Doc: boy, how I remember!
     And I recall with bitterness that this was part of the Hamburg and Howell lifestyle that met an untimely rape and death with the government takeover of 1941.
     There was mental anguish galore, but I suppose that we younger folks did not realize the full significance until years later. It has left an indelible stamp on our characters, Norm; there’s no way around it.


     As the exodus began from the Howell-Hamburg area, many of the displaced families looked back and saw smoke rising from the home they had just vacated and with all humility they wept at the sight. The torch had been put to their domiciles and as the black billowing smoke erupted into the sky everyone knew that their lives would never be the same again.
     Our families were leaving without payment for our land, and a lack of understanding and little compassion displayed by our government. Some of our friends had no place to live and had to erect shacks across the highway from the government project. It’s too late for understanding and sympathy, but all who have read this should know that the rape of Howell and Hamburg was real. Can you put yourself in this ignominious spot of watching your way of life go up in smoke? In a moment it was real and the next moment it became a bad memory.
     The religious community, the Church itself, suffered. My good friend, Elizabeth Audrain Watson a capable historian, in her book, HERITAGE AND PROMISE said, ‘‘There were long years of litigation with the Government concerning the price of, and payment for, the South Dardenne Church property. Under these circumstances, the Presbytery decided to allow the congregation to remain a congregation until payment was made for the property, and disposition of the funds was made. There were less than forty members remaining in the congregation, and they had no place to worship as a body during these years . . . Finally, on September 27, 1945, the Government paid the South Dardenne Church $7,305.42 for the property.”
     Yes, several years passed before the government met its obligation; however, it is ironical that during this time there was a tremendous waste of funds at this munitions plant.
     During the occupancy by Atlas Powder Co., two large water plants were built. One is still in operation but the other, big enough to serve the town of St. Charles, Mo., was left to go to rack ruin. You know how important water is, especially today in this nation-wide drought. Tons of money was dissipated at this TNT Plant.
     I know of one railroad spur which ran for several hundred yards that never had a train on its track. It was misplaced and completed before anyone found out about the mistake.