SOME WORLD WAR II MEMORIES IN AMES …
(from someone who was supposed to be too young to notice)
Donald H. McNeil
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The 1940s were the last years of old Ames. The Great Depression and then World War II had frozen the town and campus into a time capsule much as it had been during the 1920s. Great arching elms shaded most major streets (as they did until the Dutch elm blight came through in 1968). There were very few houses north of Thirteenth Street except on Grand Avenue and also along Burnett, Kellogg, Douglas, and Duff where a neighborhood extended as far as Sixteenth Street. The Cole acreage still sprawled at the northwest corner of Thirteenth and Burnett and the Tesdahl acreage graced the northeast corner across the street. Our house was at 1222 Burnett, a part of the residential expansion between Ninth Street and Thirteenth Street that had filled in shortly after World War I. Our backyard was still graced by a goldfish pond and by some of the fruit trees that were originally planted throughout the neighborhood. Next door at 1216 Burnett, Bertha and Grandma Epperson kept their entire back yard abloom all summer with every known species of flower. Farm fields closely surrounded the town, and soybeans were still growing at Fourteenth and Clark as late as 1950. To reach Homewood golf course one had to go out past a large farmstead near Twentieth and Douglas. Carr’s Pool down by the Skunk River was similarly rural. The Meeker School site was pastureland and there were no shopping malls whatsoever.
Facing north at the Lincoln Way and Grand intersection in 1936
The Fort Dodge, Des Moines, & Southern depot is visible behind the tree.
There was not a single traffic light in Ames but rather a few yellow stop signs, each of which bore the black lettering: “Arterial Highway STOP”. Quite a few streets in town remained unpaved, including Twelfth Street east of Grand and most of Sixteenth Street. “Out in the country,” only the main highways were paved, two lanes of steel and stone reinforced concrete having small round curb-like shoulders on both sides. The no-passing lines, where they existed, were positioned as stripes down the middle of the lane rather than adjacent to the center stripe. Thirteenth Street terminated at Stange Road, and Sixth Street ended at Brookside Park via a high-arching, rickety wooden bridge over the railroad tracks. The park featured a small zoo holding a bear, raccoon and a squirrel (in a genuine squirrel-cage exercise wheel). The Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Interurban provided some public transportation among Ames and Boone, Fort Dodge, and Des Moines. The Chicago & Northwestern railroad offered local and long distance passenger service north and south as well as along the east-west main line. Union Pacific trains such as the City of Portland and the City of San Francisco operated through Ames also. If a circus came to town it came by train and typically played at the fieldhouse at Grand Avenue and Lincoln Way. In town, the “Dinkey” and the trolleys were long gone, but the city bus ran back and forth between town and campus day and night. The flood plains along Squaw Creek and Skunk River flooded regularly in springtime, but no harm was done, since Lincoln Way and the railroads were built atop berms and the remaining lands were fields and pastures. The underpass on Grand Avenue was new and much needed because of the amount of railroad activity, including 24-hour switching in the freight yards adjacent to downtown. (Some people, standing north of Fifth Street, said “downtown” and others said “uptown,” but those latter folks also said “garaRge” for “garage.”) Ames prided itself on having no heavy or dirty industries and depended rather upon agricultural and college business for its livelihood. There were dairies — Woodland (at Grand and Lincoln Way), Moore Bros. (at Fifth and Clark), O’Neil’s (in the old Armory on Fifth Street), and the ISC dairy farms. Whole milk in glass bottles (with cream at the top) was delivered early on weekday mornings, with Trow being a principal distributor. Delivery trucks had replaced horse-drawn deliveries for the most part before World War II, but we took for granted that coal for our old furnaces and blocks of ice for old non-mechanical “ice boxes” would be delivered on demand.
The canning factory operated day and night during the summer and autumn harvest seasons, with sweet corn as their major product. People could set their (windup) watches by the noon whistle from the canning factory. Canning was an important part of household chores also. Fresh produce such as tomatoes and sweet corn relish were cooked to a fare-thee-well, then vacuum packed into Mason jars, usually during the hottest few weeks of the summer (and before air conditioning). Cucumber pickles, apple sauce, peaches, pears, and cherries were also canned. The most perfect delicacy ever canned was pickled peaches (with cloves for seasoning), a lost recipe which is sadly missed. A lot of the fruit that was canned privately had arrived by rail, packed in wooden “orange crates” for delivery to local markets. One could buy fruit in bulk in small crates or in large double-sectioned ones, these latter being just the right size for use by children as tandem vehicles for make-believe. These wooden crates had pine sides 1/8" thick and end pieces 1/2" thick, so that a great many household projects could be done with them. During the war years when manufactured toys were not available, wooden toys were often constructed of such scrap material. Processed cheese was sold in two-pound quantities in rectangular wooden boxes. With these, cigar boxes from Walt’s News Stand, steel typewriter ribbon spools, wooden spools from sewing thread or adding machines, coffee cans and various glass jars, adults as well as children had plenty of raw materials with which to entertain themselves.
Town services in Ames were matter-of-fact, with a few police cruisers and two fire trucks. The old red one and a new white one stood side by side facing outward in the garage at the east side of City Hall. An additional truck was housed under the stands of Clyde Williams Field along Sheldon Avenue west of the ISC campus. Electrical power was generated locally, then as now, from one power plant at Fifth and Duff and another on the campus. Telephones were of the standup variety with a mouthpiece atop the stand and receiver on a separate cord. Telephone numbers were four digits followed by “J’ or “W” (ours at 1222 Burnett was “1508-J”), and live operators connected every call. Two or more residences shared each party line; to have a private line was to be quite a snob indeed. Housewives kept their sanity, such as it was, by talking to one another on the telephone for hours at a time during many a day. Men typically worked six days a week, and Saturday night was a hot time in the old town with downtown stores open late and lots of people in town from surrounding farms. One source of entertainment was to go down to the depot and watch the trains, of which there were a great many; indeed, the first time I ran away from home at the age of three I explained my adventure as a desire to go “down to see the t’ains.”
For young boys, but not too young, there were 25¢ cowboy movies each Saturday afternoon at the Collegian Theater and, of course, feature films every evening. Sunday was for church in the morning followed by a big noontime dinner and a sleepy afternoon. Mary Greeley Hospital was not-for-profit where a bed was less than $10 per day, and the McFarland boys ran just another doctors’ practice. Law and order was occasionally an issue. Hobos rode the rods of freight trains through town, sometimes stopping to wander through the alleys and cadge food or do odd jobs or steal a few items. Bicycles could disappear without warning, only to be found abandoned elsewhere in town. Window peeping was a popular pastime in some neighborhoods. The wild days of bank robbery across the Midwest were still fresh in mind, so Clay Stafford kept a loaded hog-leg revolver in his office desk at Ames Trust & Savings where he was owner and president. With City Hall located across the street from the bank, it was convenient for my father to come out from behind his teller’s window and drag a miscreant across the street to the police if they tried to pass counterfeit money (and he did so on at least one occasion).
Anglo/Scots-Irish/Norwegian ethnicity prevailed throughout town and campus. The Roman Catholics lived in an enclave south of the railroad tracks around Saint Cecilia Church on Lincoln Way. There were three or four Jewish families and one or two black families. In almost every neighborhood there were a few run-down houses where trampled junky yards and scruffy, obnoxious pets signaled that these were the residences of lower brows. To the south of Lincoln Way and east of South Duff there was “Little Hollywood” but definitely without a Rodeo Drive. College professors lived near campus for the most part and tended to turn up their finely educated noses at everyone else in town.
The effects of World War II itself on Ames were strong albeit distant. Many husbands and sons were in service, and service stars adorned the windows of many residences. Troop trains regularly passed through town on the east-west main line. My father was just 35 and starting a family as of Pearl Harbor, so he declined his country’s offer of free room and board and world travel, but he did his part on the home front. Because so many farmers were away at war, the males remaining in town often drove tractors and did other physical labor on nearby farms during evenings after a full day’s work at their regular jobs. There were no new cars available from 1942 through 1945, so some rather classic vehicles roamed the streets. Even bicycles had to be bought second hand. No new household appliances could be purchased; old stoves and sinks and cast iron bathtubs with feet were common. Those residences that had iceboxes continued to use them. A typical mechanical refrigerator had only enough freezing capacity to make a few ice cubes (very slowly). If one screamed for ice cream, one got it from a dairy and served it immediately. Frozen foods hadn’t been invented, so all victuals and viands were either fresh or canned … and orange juice came from real oranges. There was rationing of meat and gasoline and tires, so the ration book of coupons was a treasured imperative. There were recovery drives for paper, metal and rubber. Cooking grease drained from frying bacon or hamburger was saved in cans on the stove and recycled at intervals. Waste was unthinkable. Victory gardens were popular, though they didn’t really provide much food, just better tasting food, and something to do to feel useful on the home front. From time to time there were blackouts during which one would sit in the dark and listen to the radio. With no TV whatsoever, radios and newspapers and magazines were the only sources of news and entertainment. WHO and WOI radio were predominant in Ames. The NBC dinner hour news read by Alex Drier was definitive and quite frightening to any children who overheard it and then had nightmares about themselves growing up to fight Germans from tree to tree in the European woods.
Toy Ice Truck (made from orange crate wood) by Don McNeil's dad
There were no new manufactured toys, so children had to make do with hand-me-downs from older siblings or used toys bought from other families. My father, ever the doomsayer, anticipated shortages and bought the last metal tricycle from the Western Auto store on Main Street for me in 1941, long before I was able to use it. He attached wooden blocks to the pedals to allow me to get going while my legs were short. He also used odds and ends of the project materials previously mentioned to make more than a dozen large wooden toys for my birthdays and Christmases. With heavy lumber he made a huge rocking horse which I rode hard and compulsively on the kitchen linoleum until the whole house rocked in rhythm to “Roll Along, Jordan” playing on the radio. All projects were made using manual tools — brace-and-bit, coping saw, hand drill, etc. — since there were no power tools in most home shops. Manual reel lawn mowers kept male family members fit, and nobody ever collapsed from pushing one. In the kitchen, the manual can opener and the hand-cranked “egg beater’ ruled. If you couldn’t carve the holiday turkey without an electric knife, you didn’t eat.
Everyone was overjoyed when World War II ended and quite satisfied that atomic bombs had terminated the war in the Pacific without further massive loss of American lives. The Japs got what they deserved. “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” indeed. During holiday seasons in 1945, 1946, and 1947, children carried canned goods to school to deposit in CARE boxes for starving children in Europe. People started procreating again, hence the “baby boom.” Rationing ended. By 1947 one could buy almost anything: bicycles, toy trains, Mixmasters, electric drills, furniture, AM-FM-record player consoles, kitchen appliances, new bathroom facilities, swing sets for the backyard, and new cars. Our family splurged on all of these, except for the new car; we drove our black 1941 Ford coupe until 1950 and cried when we had to part with it, though we did happily see it around town for some years after. A lot of the products on store shelves bore the label “Made in Occupied Germany/Japan.” In 1947 our family made the first of a dozen cross country vacation trips by automobile, this one to New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C., to visit relatives on both sides of the family. We would carry our own lunches and cook over Sterno at roadside picnic areas in Indiana or Ohio. There was the regular evening adventure of trying to find a cheap motel that was not too flea-bitten. Along the way, one could listen to Bob Hope’s morning radio program and cringe as my father’s temper exploded in the afternoon when his blood glucose collapsed at the same time that he got lost for having missed a turn on US Highway 30 as it meandered through some rustbelt town.
To anyone who was sensitive to the consequences of changes in cultural and worldwide affairs, 1947 was the last and perhaps the only good year of the 20th century, for we had everything we needed safely at home as well as a dominant international strategy based on nuclear hegemony. After 1947, the USSR had the bomb, China went Communist, the Iron Curtain went up, the Cold War often waxed hot, and global holocaust was constantly on the horizon. In 1947 New York was still an art deco New Amsterdam, New Jersey was still the Garden State, and a nickel ride on the Staten Island ferry could be taken without a strip search. DDT hadn’t killed the songbirds (you could still see bluebirds and orioles and goldfinches in your back yard) and the Dutch elm blight hadn’t killed the trees. Ames was still Ames, Des Moines was still Des Moines, and Ankeny was still the most fertile farming site in the world rather than an ugly example of the malling of America. The times were a’changin’, however. New construction was rampant. Ames sprawled, even as it razed its treasures. The Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern interurban ceased to run, and then mainline passenger rail service ended altogether. The Woodland Dairy went out of business and then O’Neil’s. The rail yards moved east of town. Downtown Ames went into a cycle of partial failures and partial recoveries. ISC became ISU and grew into a megalith. Ames remained recognizable as to places and people for twenty years or so after World War II, only becoming fully unrecognizable to a person of mid-twentieth century vintage by the 1990s. Younger people are lucky, perhaps, because they don’t know how things were and what they are missing, country-wide as well as in the life of old Ames. The “good old days” are not what they used to be, and never were, but there were some golden seasons, now fading in memory and soon to be lost forever.
Donald H. McNeil wrote this in December 2004.
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