WWI Vet and Grantsville Postmaster Ollie "Bill"
Umstead was one of Calhoun's best storytellers

By Bill Umstead - 1967

Over a half-century ago here in Calhoun County, where I grew up as a boy, people did not have the comforts in their home as we have them today.

Few, if any, had running water. We slept on a straw or a feather tick. We burned oil lamps and wood for a fire. About the turn-of-the-century, gas was discovered but it took several years to develop it for domestic use.

One of the discomforting things of life back then was the backhouse. It mattered not - rain or shine, snow or blizzard - when nature took its course, you meandered to that little old house erected against the hillside or down by the creek.

Both sexes used the same house. Many were of a crude type with cracks between the board's large enough for you to poke your fingers through.

Seldom were you ever rushed, but sometime there was no paper. The catalog had been taken home or thrown down one of the two holes. But such was life in a county with no railroad, few roads, no high school, but many happy people.

The mother was the main spoke of the home. Her work was never done. She canned the fruit, vegetables, washed, ironed, sewed, looked after her children, and was still a good wife to her husband.

The dad was not idle. There was a mutual understanding of their task and their part of life. In most instances the husband was the spokesman - at least in all business matters.

They had little money and they spent little money. All they ate was grown in the garden or in the fields. Meat was cured for winter use. Potatoes and apples were stored.

The wheat was in the bin and the corn was in the crib. Cellars were full of canned goods and during the good seasons enough stuff was stored to run them through the bad seasons.

All work was done by hand, horses or team of oxen. A day's work began at daybreak and ended usually after dark. It was a great life, the weak weakened and the strong grew stronger.

There was no DPA or handouts. If a person got sick and unable to work, his neighbors helped. And of course, as we have always done here in Calhoun, the more fortunate helped the less fortunate.

Nobody starved.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspects of change of two generations ago and of today is the style in clothing. Today women wear dresses above the knees, whereas back in those days their dress was below the ankles.

No woman wore pants especially out in company. Women never smoked, unless it was a pipe. Several did use snuff and tobacco.

We traveled by foot, horseback, wagon or buggy. There was no automobiles and few roads, that is, one on which a car could travel.

For entertainment, people attended about all gatherings usually in the fall months. They went to church, the country stores, mill and blacksmith shop. There they gathered together, the men folks to gossip,pitch horseshoes, and tell tall tales.

Men were proud and they boasted a lot of the feats such as how many rails they could split, how many shocks of wheat they could cradle in a day, etc. Most usually they could back it up with proof.

They had little education, but strong hearts and strong backs.

On Sunday many attended their church. They sang old fashioned hymns and many could and did pray long and loud. They were not ashamed of their Lord and they proclaimed it, blessing Him for their health and happiness.

We children attended school, usually a crowded school with fifty or sixty boys and girls and only one teacher. We had wooden benches, with two children, even three, occupying the same bench.

We used the same textbooks over and over for several years, usually McGuffey's. Many children walked two or three miles to school and oft times children never missed a day unless sickness or deep snows prevented their arrival.

There were no school buses to transport us to and from school. Usually we only had six months of school or it lasted until in the spring when good weather came and then the older children had help on the farm.

The more studious boys and girls would stick to school and oft times attended a summer school where they prepared themselves to pass a state examination. If successful, they received a certificate, either a number one, two or three grade and this entitled them to teach.

A number one certificate entitled you to more pay and most all strived for that grade. Despite the fact that many of the teachers did not attend college, they had a good education, especially on basic things such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

As the years passed, more and more education was required for teachers so many had to attend short courses at some college, and step by step education and schools have progressed like you see it today.

For fun and amusement we oft times had little shows to come through the country. We kids, as well as grown-ups, enjoyed this and we had a good time.

One show in particular which I recall more than others was the wrestling bear. This show came to our little village (Mt. Zion), secured a plot of ground and erected a tent.

One of the acts was a trained bear in which the owner would contact some strong person, giving him a dollar or so to wrestle with the bear. He offered a standing reward of five dollars if anybody could pin the bear and hold him down for two minutes.

We had a big strong youngster that always took part in most any feats of strength so the owner of the bear soon had this fellow engaged. The first night the fellow wrestled the bear, of course the owner had it fixed in order to draw more attention for the second night.

And so it happened that the next day much talk in the interest even bets were made, that the bear will be held down for two minutes.

Some of the boys who had made small bets had prepared or secured some extract or medicine of some kind that was very sensitive to a dog or any hairy animal.

I believe they called it "hokey-pokey." Anyway, as the act started and large crowd had gathered around the ring, the owner brought the bear out and announced what was to take place.

The young man was given a leather contraption, a bit like a vest to put over his shoulders so the bear's claws did not scratch him too much. The bout started and the man had the bear down and about that time some person squirted this extract on the bear. It took only few seconds until that old bear came up from the floor swinging his giant paws.

It so happened that he knocked the man out of the ring and everybody fled the tent. The owner had the bear chained so he rushed him off to his cage. This broke the show up and the next day it pulled out. The owner offered a ten dollar reward for the person responsible for the bad act.

Time permitting, I could relate many incidents of the long past, but for the time being I shall end this article and hope you have enjoyed it.

Transcribed from the Calhoun Chronicle by Norma Knotts Shaffer.