Grandma’s House and A One-of-a-Kind Photo Collection

Calendar Plate--The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas from 1911--I probably admired this plate so many times that my grandma finally gave it to me. It's one of my treasures.

Calendar Plate--The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas from 1911--I probably admired this plate so many times that my grandma finally gave it to me. It's one of my treasures.

For a kid, my grandma’s house wasn’t the most fun place to visit, especially if you went there almost every day. It was pleasant enough on summertime evenings, when the grown-ups sat on the front porch and we kids sat on the “stoop” or ran down into the ravine (which wasn’t really a ravine, but a low place where the water ran when it rained) to catch lightning bugs.

But other times, when you had to be inside, there wasn’t much to do. Grandma was quiet and serious, and kids were expected to behave. There were no toys to play with at Grandma’s. Thinking back on it, I wonder why the folks never left a few of our toys there for us to have something to do when we went there, but they didn’t.

I say there were no toys to play with at Grandma’s, but there was –“the wheel”. The wheel was a miniature tire, about 6 inches in diameter, and had probably been a promotional give-away from one of the local filling stations, most likely originally with a glass ashtray in the middle. So when a very small child came to Grandma’s, she dug out “the wheel” for them to play with. And even when you got older, the wheel still had some fascination when it was gotten out for a younger relative.

But when you got older, there were other things at Grandma’s house to get your interest, if you had sense enough to keep your adolescent mind focused.

Grandma’s house had a parlor, and the parlor, indeed, was treated as that, a special room. In fact, it was on the other side of the house from the front room (living room) with a bedroom in between. It was not often that Grandma would “open up” the parlor. Opening up the parlor meant pulling back heavy, velvet, dark burgundy drapes that closed off the bedroom from the parlor. In the spring and summer, in order to help the air circulate, it also meant opening the parlor door, which was a second entrance to the house.

There were some odd pieces of furniture in the parlor: a library table with photos of grandkids on it, and a leather and wooden sofa, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever sat on. The biggest attraction in the parlor was the secretary, one of those old-timey pieces with a tall cabinet with a glass door on one side and a pull-down writing desk on the other side. Inside the cabinet, there were various knick-knacks and pieces of glassware, but the real gold mine was the two velvet-covered picture albums that held family photos, some so old they were tin-types.

I remember sitting with my mom looking at them. Grandma never had the desire to sit and look through a whole book, but she’d help to identify unknown faces. After Grandma’s death, some of the relatives got the albums and I have never seen them again. Fortunately, I do have a lot of old family photos given to me by my mom or other relatives.

Maybe I’ve got “the cart before the horse” in my memory lane narrative, but a discovery I made last night has got me thinking about those old photos.

I’ve mentioned my hometown–Dorrance, Kansas before. You can take the kid out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the kid. Well, that’s me, not a kid, except at heart, by any long shot these days, and I’ve lived in one of the biggest cities in the U.S. now for almost half my life. But Dorrance will always be a part of me, even as I get older and Dorrance’s population dwindles even smaller and smaller.

Dorrance is very lucky, though, and, unlike many small towns, has a way of keeping its history, thanks in part to a young budding photographer, who lived there a hundred years ago. His name was Leslie Halbe, and for a period of about four years–1908 to 1912, he took pictures of the people in and around Dorrance, both in portraits and in daily activities. This was done with one of those old cameras that used glass negatives. Although Leslie moved away from Dorrance in 1912, by luck and maybe some foresight, most of these negatives finally ended up in the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. There have been different exhibitions of Halbe’s work through the years.

The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas, May 26, 1909, by Leslie Halbe.  This building is still standing on Main Street in Dorrance.  It was the office of the Dorrance Telephone Company when I was a little kid and more recently was a barber shop.  Notice how the negatives of the old photos had two images.

The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas, May 26, 1909, by Leslie Halbe. This building is still standing on Main Street in Dorrance. It was the office of the Dorrance Telephone Company when I was a little kid and more recently was a barber shop. Notice how the negatives of the old photos had two images. This is the bank my plate came from.

Sometime back, I discovered that part of Halbe’s photos were available on Kansas Memory (click in the sidebar or below). Then last night, I found that they now have all of the 1500+ photos online. I still haven’t looked at them all. But I will.

I know that some of Leslie Halbe’s photos had to have been in those album’s kept in Grandma’s secretary. I remember also that one of the “Halbe boys” had been one of my mother’s elementary school teachers. One of the articles said Leslie Halbe’s parents ran a candy shop. If what I remember is correct, it was the drug store, which in the early days might have been called a confectionary. The drug store closed in Dorrance when I was in grade school, but not only did they sell over the counter drugs and bits of what a Walgreen’s might have today, they had a soda fountain, where you could buy ice cream, soft drinks, and sandwiches.

Halbe’s photos leave a record of the people and life of not only my hometown, but really of small town America on the Great Plains during the early 1900s.

  • If you’re interested in learning more about Leslie W. (Winfield) Halbe and his photos, read here and here.
  • If you want to access the Halbe Collection photos and Kansas Memory, go here.

These are some of my favorite photos from the collection, so far:

Dorrance, looking at Main Street and southwest, circa 1910

Dorrance, looking at Main Street and southwest, circa 1910

Dorrance Telephone Operators and Office, Nov. 6, 1909.  This photo is probably one of the most popular from the Halbe Collection.

Dorrance Telephone Operators and Office, Nov. 6, 1909. This photo is probably one of the most popular from the Halbe Collection.

Belle Bickell and Miss Browne, June 3, 1911

Belle Bickell and Miss Browne, June 3, 1911

Harvest Crew, July 7, 1912

Harvest Crew, July 7, 1912

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Grandfield, Oklahoma, Small Town Teachers, and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

photolaramiepjct1I feel sorry for Grandfield, Oklahoma, its people, and its school. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I know it. I doubt that it’s much different than many small towns dotted all over the Great Plains.

Bigger than many similar little prairie towns, Grandfield has a population of around a thousand people and sits out in what some would call “the sticks” between Wichita Falls, Texas and Lawton, Oklahoma. The high school itself is a small one (74 students in the 2006-2007 school year).

But now this small town and its school are getting national attention because of the dismissal of one of the high school’s teachers, whose students were working on a production of “The Laramie Project”, the story of Matthew Shephard, the Wyoming college student brutally murdered in an anti-gay attack a decade ago. (Read the story from the Lawton, OK newspaper here and here.)

If you look at the school district’s website, you realize that Grandfield probably has a good school. The fact that a school this size even has a website is evidence of this, but aside from the fact that some of its sports pages could do with some updating, the school’s site is well done.

From what I’ve read about the main players in this controversy (the superintendent–a Mr. Ed Turlington, and the dismissed teacher–Debra Taylor), it seems likely that there probably have been some “philosophical differences” between them. Added to that, by looking at the school’s schedule of classes, it’s not difficult to see that there could have been some varying points of view among the faculty members about what should be taught in classes in this school.

In most small schools, the teachers generally have an overlap of the subjects they teach; for example, a math teacher might have to teach some of the science courses too, or the physical education teacher might also teach history and driver’s education. Sometimes, because of class size or lack of funds, even the superintendent or the principal (who might also actually be the same person) has to teach a class or two.

On the other hand, because of the small size, teachers who have a special interest may be given the opportunity to teach more topic specific courses. By looking at the class schedule again, this looks as if what might have been the case in Grainfield. Ms. Taylor’s schedule includes an Ethics class and a Street Law class, not your run-of-the-mill courses generally taught in small rural schools. Likewise, there is a class listed as the Bible as Literature, taught by a C. Turlington, (whom we can assume has some relationship with the superintendent), also not a course that we’d find in most small public high schools, nor for that matter, even large public high schools.

Just looking at those course listings, at first one might think how lucky the students are to have such choices. But courses like those are not instituted without some push from somebody who wants them to be taught or who wants to teach them. When you see the outcome of the teacher’s being dismissed, it’s seems like there probably was some undercurrent of discord because of differences of opinion about what should be taught in this school and in these classes long before the “Laramie Project” situation.

Even so, this problem seems to be one that should stay a local one. The biggest story about this small school should be one about a sports team winning a championship or an FFA member taking a Grand Championship ribbon at the state fair.

PFLAG groups getting involved on the side of the teacher and the Phelps family coming to town to rail against “The Laramie Project” should not be what brings attention to this school and town. Issues in small towns are small town issues, no matter what they are. In the end, it is the locally-elected school board that decides what is best for the school.

Outsiders getting involved only exacerbates the conflict and will make it much harder for those in the town itself to come back together. Because come back together they will have to, one way or another. You just can’t avoid people in a small town like you can in a big city. People who do not grow up in a small town just have no understanding how close-knit the people who live there are. People from outside trying to favor one point or the other are going to be looked at as “meddlers”. That’s why I feel sorry for the people of this community. They don’t need all of that interference.

But even I am taking a side here. First of all, there is no reason for a class like “The Bible as Literature” to be taught in that school or any public school. If students need more literature than they are getting in their English classes, the school should offer AP (Advanced Placement) Literature to get them ready for college. I’m sure Grandfield has a number of churches that have Bible Study classes, Sunday School, and Summer Bible School, from which anyone interested could get all the Bible Lit. they wanted.

On a more personal note, years ago, I had a “Debra Taylor” as my English teacher. Her name, though, was Mrs. Anna Herman, and she was my English teacher for all my years at Dorrance (Kansas) High School. Not only was she the English teacher, but she started a speech and debate program in one of the smallest schools in the state at that time (about 40 students in grades 9-12). This gave us the opportunity to compete against schools much larger in size, something that sports usually doesn’t do.

virginia-woolfWhat makes this situation in Grandfield seem so similar is that when I was a senior, Mrs. Herman suggested that my classmate and I do a piece from Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. At that time, this controversial drama had just come out as a movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton cast as the leads. The cutting that our teacher wanted us to do was from some of the Taylor-Burton scenes. However, before we could work on the piece, she asked that we get our parents to go watch the movie at the theater.

Back in the 60s, the film’s subject matter was considered raw and the language strong, but when compared with today’s films, or even TV shows, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” would  seem fairly “tame”. But in 1966, it was a cutting-edge movie, and not an easy one for 17-year-olds to watch with their parents, let alone 17-year-olds with farm parents from a town of about 300 people .

The 15-mile drive home from the show was a very quiet one.

However, we got to do “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as our speech competition piece because our parents trusted and believed in Mrs. Herman. To this day, after all these many years, I’m proud to say that we got a first place in every speech contest that we entered, including the state competition.

We also presented our piece in front of the school and parents a couple of times, and always got a positive reception; even though the people from my little town were both conservative and religious, they also were the type of people who recognized the importance of their kids’ getting an education that would prepare them for life beyond the farm and our little town.

And you know what? Mrs. Herman wasn’t some sort of liberal interloper from the outside. She was a farmer’s wife who had gone back to school later in life to get her degree and teaching credentials, but she was a teacher who gave her all so that her students would have more opportunities and realize that the world goes a lot further than just the county line.

I don’t know Debra Taylor, but I have an idea that she might be the same kind of teacher.

This may be the problem with some of the people in Grandfield, Oklahoma: that narrow-mindedness is interfering with giving kids an education to help them prepare for the world beyond their town.

(Just for the record: Anna Herman was the sister of Johnny Locke, who coached basketball for many years at Natoma High School in the 1950s and 60s and was one of the winningest coaches in Kansas high school history.)

VW Bug and College Life on the Great Plains (Chapter 4)

I went to college in the middle of the Vietnam War years. Though I’d had my VW painted purple and maybe even had a peace sticker on the back window, I was hardly a hippie or a protester. Right at the time I started college, my brother had just come back from Vietnam and gotten out of the army, so I was personally aware of the war and its consequences, but I’d really never thought about whether I was for or against it.

I went to college in Hays (Fort Hays State) and sometimes drove the 44 miles home on the weekends. Forty-four miles seemed much further in those days, and some of the trips back to school on a Sunday night felt long, especially in the winter. The VWs of the 60s had terrible heaters, and sometimes the car never got warmed up the entire ride, and if there was snow or sleet, it would freeze on the windshield because the defroster had so little effect. I know there were times that it was so difficult to see through the windshield and through the blowing snow that it was only because the car knew its own way that we got back to Hays.

However, being light-weight and having the engine in the back, the car got really good traction. Because of that, if the streets around Hays hadn’t been plowed clean, my roommates would always get me to drive. My last year at Fort Hays, we had gone back for inter-session ( a short 2-week mini-semester) early in January, but there had been such a big blizzard that they called off classes for a few days. Of course, we had to get out of the apartment anyway. We found out that the movie theater downtown was open, so we got into the VW and headed out. With the weight of four guys in the car, we moved pretty well through the snow-filled streets, but sometimes we’d run into a drift in the road and the car would just get stuck; then, the other three would jump out of the car and push it through, jump back in and off we’d go. When we finally made it downtown, there weren’t many other cars out and the crowd inside the movie theater was a meager bunch of the most hardy of souls, or maybe the craziest. I guess we felt something like pioneers for being able to get ourselves through all that snow to watch a movie.

The student population at Fort Hays was very homogeneous in those days. The farm population of western Kansas was already dwindling, but not nearly as much as it has in more recent years. Most little towns still had their own high schools as consolidation had just barely started. Like me, the majority of the students came from small Kansas towns and from a more or less isolated existence. There were some out-of-state students and a few foreign students, but most of us came from the same rural background. The first black guy I met was at Fort Hays, but he too was from a small western Kansas town. (Nicodemus, Kansas was started by the exodusters, freed slaves from the South, who settled in western Kansas after the Civil War.) The people I went to school with were basically nice people, really good people, but I think most of us had grown up relatively naive to what was going on very far beyond our part of the state.

Even so, there were a few anti-war rallies on campus, but they were tame in comparison to most, and certainly there were no campus buildings damaged or destroyed by war protestors like happened at KU and some other campuses around the country.

There was a “head shop” that sold mostly black lights and black light posters, but drug use wasn’t that big. Like most college towns, there were a few bars and clubs that attracted students, but aside from weekends, I didn’t know that many people who drank that much. However, one of my roommate’s dorm friends was a pothead of sorts. Through him, I had my first and only experience in Hays of getting high. He had this stash–and, yes, it was truly stashed. One night four of us went out to the college farm to this pasture testing area. There were some test plots, which had fences around them in order to let the native plants grow and prevent the cows–or maybe buffalo (they had some buffalo out there too)–from eating them. We drove all over the place until we located the right plot, and the guy who had the pot stashed went and dug out this big bag of pot–I mean it was about the size of a bread sack. (I wonder how much that amount might be worth today.) He got back in the car, and we drove to another place there on the college farm, which looked out over the city. (At about 15,000 it was a city to all of us from towns of 300 or so.) He rolled some, and we proceeded to smoke it, looked at the glowing city lights, peered through the swirls on glass Pepsi bottles, and laughed a lot. I don’t know whether I got high from smoking the marijuana or just from the excitement of that new experience, but whatever, it all felt a bit dangerous but nonetheless fun.

My social life was typical of most of the “dormies”. Most of the students at Fort Hays were either dormies, lived in a frat or sorority house, or lived at home and commuted. Of course, like my roommates and I during our final year, some of the dormies eventually moved into apartments.

Looking back, the four of us probably could have been classified as nerds, but I don’t think there was such a stigma of being studious as there is today. The three of them were science majors of one kind or another and I was an English major. They studied more than I did, but we all ended up getting good grades. On the other hand, after living in the dorm for three years, we did like to have parties. About once a month, on a Saturday night, we’d throw a party, inviting everyone we knew. Of course, it was always alcohol-centered. If food was involved, there was never anything much more elaborate than some bags of chips. Sometimes, we’d have a “trashcan party”. We’d get some cans of Hi-C, pour it into a big plastic trash can, then everybody would add whatever booze they’d brought into the can. Sometimes, there would be 60 or 70 people inside our small two-bedroom apartment on Custer Drive, with the majority of them spilling out onto the balcony that ran all along the second floor. Well, maybe we weren’t such nerds (and maybe some people did drink quite a bit) after all.

Somehow I got this girlfriend, the first semester of my senior year. I had had a few dates before then, but for the most part, I was scared of girls. Don’t get me wrong; I liked girls, and always had lots of friends who were girls, starting from grade school. Dating, though, was a different matter. In college, I was pretty out-going and involved with student government and other organizations, and lots of other guys I knew were dating, and even getting married, so I guess I felt it was something I should do. I really never felt pressured to do it, for sure not from my roommates, who had less going on in that part of their social lives than I did.

Anyway, that fall, I started dating this girl, who was a year younger than I was. I guess you could say she was on the aggressive side when it came to making the moves. No doubt, she was more experienced than I was, because I had never had any kind of physical relationship with a girl up till then. She seemed to really be into me, so at the beginning I liked going out with her. She liked to come out to our apartment and get me into my shared bedroom, even with the roommates out in the living room, which sort of embarrassed me. There were two things, though, making me reluctant to go all the way: one, I just wasn’t quite as interested in doing it as she was, and second, my mom had put “the fear” in me when I was back in high school about getting a girl pregnant. So while we can say there was sometimes a lot of frenzied action, “no deal was ever completed”.

We soon “started going steady”, exchanging high school class rings and framed photographs. Then not too far down the road, she got me even to look at some engagement rings in a downtown jewelry store. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in hindsight, I realized that this girl was one of those who went to college to get an M.R.S. degree. One weekend, we drove out to meet her parents in Ulysses, where her dad was a school administrator.

Saturday of that weekend, we went around town looking at different churches because the church she and her parents attended would just not do for the wedding she was thinking about; it wasn’t big enough nor nice enough. Mind you, I had not even asked her to get married, but to her it was a foregone conclusion. Sunday morning, we all went to their church, a Baptist church. (Growing up, I went to the Methodist church in Dorrance with my family, and it was pretty low key: a lot of singing of hymns, which I liked, and listening to the boring sermons, which were mostly about how to be a good person, and probably sometimes about how people needed to give more money. When I was about 13 or 14, there were three of us who took catechism classes at the church parsonage in Wilson, taught by the grizzly old preacher that we had at that time. We had to learn Bible verses and other lessons in order to become full members of the church. I really didn’t like going because this old geezer thought that he really had to put the “fear of God” in us. He treated us like we were stupid and primarily terrified us. In the end, I did become a member of the church, but I never liked going after that.) I knew people who were Baptists when I was growing up, and they were no different than any of the rest of us Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, or whatever. I guess maybe they weren’t supposed to dance, but I think at that time if you were really a strict Methodist, you weren’t supposed to dance either.

But this Baptist church in Ulysses was really different. The preacher was one of those “fire and brimstone” types, and he said that if you weren’t a Baptist, you were going to Hell, but you couldn’t be just any Baptist; if you weren’t a member of that particular Baptist church there in Ulysses, you were going to Hell.

Needless to say, I was beginning to feel like a runner caught between second base and third base in a squeeze play. That drive back to Hays was one that I couldn’t wait to end, and over the next few weeks, I began to distance myself. I knew I didn’t want to get married to this girl, (and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t want to marry any girl), not because of what had happened during that weekend, but I knew I wasn’t in love with her.

She still had one more card to play; a couple weeks later, she called up and told me that her period was late. I didn’t do anything but worry for a couple of days, wondering how her being pregnant was biologically possible and what I would do if she were. Then finally convinced by a mutual friend, she told me that she had made it up. The one thing I wanted back was my class ring, so I went over to her dorm with her ring and picture. She still had a couple more scenes left in that little drama of hers; when I took her ring and picture back over to her dorm, she started screaming and threw my ring and framed picture down the stairwell at me, shattering the glass all over the place.

Sometime after I had graduated and was already in the Air Force, I heard that she was able to get that M.R.S. degree. Over the years, I’ve thought back on that fall of my senior year and what a miserable mistake it would have been if that relationship had gone any further.

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You may also want to read VW Bug and a Summer Job, VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter 2, and VW Bug and Saturday Night in a Small Town.