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Lowell Ozbirn has seen a lot in 97 years and remembers it all.Posted Thursday, March 17, 2011, at 1:10 PM
While I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, a moderate sized city, I loved to come to Salem as a kid to spend summers in the country with my grandparents, Dick and Vera Trevathan. They lived out Highway 395 at the low water bridge on Walking Stick Road, except there was a swinging bridge over the water and, since the vehicle bridge had not been built yet, people had to across the river at what my grandfather called "the rocky ford." My brother, Rob, and I spent a lot of time fishing and swimming on the South Fork and tromping around my grandfather's land, messing with the cows and trying to repair his decrepit fences.
"Going to town" was always a special treat, especially Saturdays, when everybody came downtown and gathered at the square for "the drawing," which consisted of prizes of money and merchandise merchants offered to entice people to shop. I have fond memories of Cherry Cokes at Humphries Drug Store, the pinball machine at Mae Bassham's cafe and spending hours at Wolf's store, the general store run by Ed and Virgie Wolf, my grandparent's good friends.
Down the road from my grandparent's place, were Lowell and Vola Ozbirn, who had a storybook farm with a picture perfect home and barn and, always, a collie dog. I have known Lowell all my life and, at 97, his mind is still sharp as a tack, and his memory of Salem and Fulton County goes back to 1919, not the late 1950's Salem I remember. I recently recorded a long interview with Lowell about his early life and all the changes he has seen over, nearly, 100 years. Here is the first segment of those memories:
Q: Where were you born?
Lowell: Do you know where Squirrel Hill Road (between Salem and Glenco) is? Well, you turn left and go back toward the South Fork (River). For years and years and years, it was known as the Ozbirn Place. My granddad owned a place on the South Fork, on this river here, creek. That's where I was born. I stayed there until I was five or six years old. My dad bought a little place south of Squirrel Hill Road, back over there in just a rocky place.
Anyway, we raised enough cotton over there to buy a new car, a new Model T. And then my dad rented this place. Ed Wolfe owned it at that time. There was 300 and some odd acres down there, a lot of farmland, just off the road and we lived there until I married.
Farmed that with mules. Didn't know what a tractor looked like.
Q; And you always worked on the farm, from the time you were real little?
Lowell: Uh-huh. All my life. All I ever knew.
One or two times, when the crops would burn up, we would have a hard year and we didn't have any rain, maybe I went off and worked a month or two to make a little extra money. Went to Kansas City a time or two. Worked at Sheffield Steel one time and then I worked at the Armour Packing Company once, for a month or two. But, other than that, I've been right here.
Q: Did you have brothers or sisters?
Lowell: I had a brother, Homer, five year older than I was but he died in the year of 1939, at the age of 29. He was 29 years old and had never been married. He was engaged to be married but he didn't live long enough. Died with the cancer.
Q: Did he live with you, live with your family?
Lowell: Yeah, he was still at home, with the family. He never moved out.
Q: So you were born in 1914. What is your earliest memory? What do you remember when you were a little boy?
Lowell: About (age) 5. I started to school with him (Homer), at a little country school up there. I was five years old, that's about my first memory.
Q: How would you get there?
Q: How far away was it?
Lowell: Well, it was about a mile and a half I imagine, something like that.
When my dad bought a place over there, it was two and a half miles, I imagine. Sometimes the weather was down toward zero and the snow would be knee deep.
I've had a good life and I've had some rough spells.
Q: Was that a one-room school house?
Q: So little kids and older kids were all together?
Lowell: All in the same building. There's a dwelling house there now but I can point out within 20 feet where it set. They had a cistern there and the school directors would haul water from the South Fork, South Fork Creek. Before school started, they would clean this out good, get all the water out and fill it with that good creek water, about two weeks before school started, so it would be cold. And they had just a regular old rope, pulling rope to draw it with. That's the water system, and the bathroom, it was wide open, 40 acres there.
Q: There wasn't an outhouse?
No. No outhouse. The boys went one way and the girls went the other way. (laugh).
Q: You lived out in the country. You would have to come to Salem to get your supplies?
Before we had that car, every Saturday, the farmers would hook up their mule and wagon and everybody would get in and go to town. Take their rigs and their chickens or whatever they had to sell and buy what they had to have.
But we raised the bigger portion of what we eat. You see, we had our own cured meat and we had cows to milk and we had butter and raised plenty of corn and had cornbread. We used cornbread for a lot of things. My mother would feed cornbread to young chickens. We didn't have chicken feed. She'd make a big ole pan of cornbread and, of course, it was made with milk. The chickens would grow like everything.
Q: Did they have canning back then?
Yes. My mother, and my dad would help her, canned a lot of stuff. Used to be a lot of wild blackberries. We picked a lot of wild blackberries plus our garden stuff. A lot of tomaters and stuff like that. My dad would have a big Irish potato patch and they would keep them in a barn or somewhere they wouldn't freeze, and we had Irish potatoes year round and that was a big part of our feed. And beans, they'd plant beans and let them dry. Like you do now out of the store but we raised them.
Q: So what things did you have to get at the store? Supplies like sugar, flour, coffee?
Well, mainly, 90% of the farmers had a big bunch of chickens. Mainly, they'd sell eggs to buy their small groceries like that. And then my dad would raise a few hogs. We would have a few hogs to sell and a calf or two once in a while. Richard, people lived on what they throw away now. They were conservative with everything. But I couldn't understand how those poor old women, they cooked on a wood cook stove with no refrigerator, no electricity. They had to cook three meals every day and had to light that old wood stove and wait for it to get heated up. It's not like an electric stove where you turn it on and in a few minutes it's ready to cook.
Q; So they had to get up early to cook breakfast?
That's right. Get up early. My dad would get up and build a fire in the fireplace. They didn't know what a stove was. Had an old fireplace.
Q: So that was your only heat?
Yes, then he'd put a fire in the cook stove and mother would get up and cook our breakfast. By the time she got up, the stove would be ready to cook She'd boil the water and make coffee, yeah.
Q: So how long would it take to get to town, to Salem, by buggy?
Lowell: Well, we was rich enough that my father owned a buggy. I don't mean buggy. I was a hack. A buggy just has one seat and is made a little smaller. A hack has two seats on it and is made just a little bit bigger and you used two mules on it and we went to town in that. It had springs on it. Made it easier to ride.
You would get there easier. On level ground or going down a bit of a grade, I know my dad would chat the mule.
Q: Did you like going into town?
Lowell: Oh, yeah. I wanted to spend my dime. After I got bigger, I got to settin' rabbit traps and that's how I got to makin' my spendin money. You would sell rabbits for a dime and they would send them to St Louis.
Q: So, you were selling the fur?
Lowell: No. They'd eat it. They'd send them up here and the black people would eat the rabbits.
Q: So they were live rabbits?
Lowell: No. No, you kill 'em and gut 'em and clean them out. It would just be done in cold weather.
Q: So going to town was when you would see kids you knew?
Lowell: Oh, yeah.
Q: And the square was a hoppin' place in the 1920's I'll bet.
Lowell: It sure was. There was a little, in later years, not in the beginning, there was a little show (movie theater) down there. Old show building was over there on the corner where that rock building is (the current site of the Swingle Family Diner).
Q: So that was a movie theater, over there?
Lowell: It was a theater. It cost you a dime. It was something to look forward to. At the beginning, it was silent, then they got to talkin', yeah.
Still to come: The Salem square wasn't always square and there were more cows and pigs in the street than wagons and cars.
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I used to call this blog "Stranger In Town" but time goes by quickly. After a year in these parts, I realize people will still say, 'he's from off' but I now proudly claim I am a "Stranger No More"! After a lifetime in living in big cities, small town life has produced surprises, good and bad but, after more than a year, I love it (most of the time!). I promise to keep on writing about stuff that interests me and things I think of to complain about. I hope you will continue to check in occasionally to read and comment.
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Lowell Ozbirn has seen a lot in 97 years and remembers it all.