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Elmer, Missouri - Early History
Family Recollections by Mrs. Bertha E. Sinclair
Editor’s note: Mrs. Sinclair is the daughter of James W. Cook, discussed in “Elmer’s First Author” on this site.
Our grandfather and Grandmother Cook married in Kentucky and left soon after to move to Missouri. He was a young doctor. Their parents owned slaves and gave them a young couple as their wedding gift, which was considered very valuable at that time. The slaves had two children, which, of course, were left behind. The couple grieved so much for their children that our grandparents wrote a note giving them up and sent them back to Kentucky.
Grandfather and Grandmother Cook settled on a piece of land north of Mercyville. There were no roads nor bridges. Grandfather Cook made his own medicine from tree bark, roots, and leaves. He forded the rivers in bitterly cold weather and icy water to take care of sick people. Grandfather Cook died of pneumonia. Grandmother Cook was left with nine children to raise. As soon as they were old enough, the boys had to work. When the Civil War broke out, some of the older boys were on the North’s side and some were on the South’s side, but as far as I remember, they were never in battle against each other. Our Dad was called up for duty and he reported for duty at Macon. He rode a horse to get there, but when he arrived, peace had been declared between the North and the South.
The Cook Family was of French and Irish descent. Our mother’s parents lived south of Elmer on a farm. During the Civil War, the Northern soldiers would raid their place and take supplies and horses. One time they ripped open the feather beds looking for money. Our mother told of she and her sisters hiding with the horses in a corn field during the night when the raiders passed by. They had one horse which was a pet of the children. When the raiders were going to take it, the captain said if they would say, “Hurrah for the General”, they wouldn’t take it. Being strong Democrats, no one would say it, till Aunt Louisa said it. The rest of the family didn’t like it one bit and they didn’t think much of Aunt Louisa for saying it. One time the raiders accused our grandfather of being a “rebel.” They thought he had helped some men escape. They were going to shoot him. They had his cap pulled down over his face and the men were ready with their guns when a neighbor came running and swore on the date they thought he had helped the men escape, he was fixing fence with him. What a close call! You can see now why we were such strong Democrats.
Our grandparents’ names were Jeff and Rebecca Rice. Our mother had three brothers: John, Joe and Cager. She had four sisters: Martha, Sally, Kizzie and Louisa. They were of Irish descent. We never knew them. They died before we were born. Our mother had an old aunt who lived with us. At that time, people took care of the old relatives. It would have been a disgrace if they didn’t take care of their relatives. This aunt’s brother would come to see her sometimes and tell of wild fights he had been in with the Indians. He said Indians loved to scalp women with long hair. They would cut a circle of scalp from the top of a person’s head and hang the scalps from their belt. I don’t know if these men were paid by the government or if the people in charge of the wagon train paid them. This man’s name was John Rice. His sister who lived with us was Martha Combs. I had to sleep with her till one night she had some sort of fit and I didn’t have to sleep with her anymore (ha!).
That little book our Dad wrote tells all about his life as a minister, but I have always felt real b ad about it. He had a cataract removed which was considered a major operation in 1907. The operation helped, but he still was almost blind when he wrote the book, hoping to sell them to help with something to live on. Not one of the many Baptist preachers who had eaten at our house offered to help sell the books or help him in any way. I’ll never forget that! It hurt him so badly. He died in 1910. My husband and I had just been married a year.
Will and I were married April 11, 1909, on Easter Sunday. As I write this, April 8, 1984, it was 75 years ago. When we were married, we went to Macon, Missouri, to live. My husband was working in a grocery store for $7.00 a week. We paid $7.00 monthly for a four-room house with no lights, no water and no heat. When my husband got a raise to $10.00 per week, he was the highest paid clerk in town. I forgot to mention that the little book our Dad wrote tells of some of the hard times they had, but it doesn’t mention how brave our mother was. She worked so hard. She sewed old clothes, made soap from the mean rinds and lye which was made from wood ashes. I can see how disappointed she must have been when he would go preach over the weekend and come home with a sack of meal or a side of bacon. I never heard Mama complain. We were never hungry, but we were very poor. We had a lot of love in our house. Della and I talked about that last summer (July 1983). We couldn’t ever remember hearing our parents fuss about anything. Our Dad would cut and haul ties (railroad) for a little money to pay the grocery bill. I remember him coming home with a knitted scarf of all colors. I thought it was so pretty, but that was his pay for preaching that weekend. How bad Mama must have felt.
Our family moved from Goldsberry to Mercyville and kept boarders. They were the men who worked on the I. & St. L. (Iowa and St. Louis) Railroad. We only charged $4.20 per week and that was for 21 meals and a bed. Mama was sick at that time with a heart condition and Della, Papa and I would get breakfast and fix lunch for these men, and then Della and I were off to school.
Della had cats, not me. She had several. Papa made a trough like they fed the pigs in, and when they milked he would pour milk in there for her cats. I heard her say one time, “Oh, Papa, I wish I had a hundred.” I had an old hen whose feet had frozen off and she just hopped around on stubs. I remember how I cried when she died. We didn’t have toys, just a doll. We would take sticks of wood and mark off which was Della’s house and which was mine. One time Mama gave us a piece of old lace curtain and we made our dolls dresses from the piece of curtain. I also dried a rabbit skin and made my doll a cape. That was really something. One time Della and I were so busy playing and Mama called us to pick come currants so she could make some jelly. We put a lot of leaves in the bottom of the bucket so we could get it full real quick. How dumb we were, for we were punished and had to fill two buckets.
We had to walk two miles to the Barnes School when we lived at Goldsberry. One of Uncle Joe’s girls was staying with us (her name was Cora Rice) and we three were caught in a snow storm on the way home. We were not on a road, but we walked across a meadow and there were small ditches we had to cross. The snow was deep and we fell into one of the ditches, and Della and Cora began to cry and their eyes froze shut. Just about then, our Dad got there and took us home. Some of Uncle Joe’s children were always with us as he wasn’t well. He died of cancer. His wife, Aunt Em, used to tie her baby ina chair and put some sorghum molasses on his fingers and then give him a feather to play with. That would keep him quiet while she hung the wash on the line. What an idea!
I remember all of us kids had to wear a piece of asafetida tied up in a little bag on a string around our neck to ward off disease. Oh my, how awful! I have never smelled anything like it. We used skunk oil for croup. We had a bottle we shared with the Bill Truitt family. They had three boys: Charley, Joe and Wade. Joe was my age and Wade was Della’s age. It seems that as sure as I got the croup, here came Bill to get the oil because Joe had the croup too. I wonder why they didn’t put some in another bottle. Guess they didn’t have one (ha!). Another remedy some people used was to make a tea from sheep manure and give that to people who had the measles. We never did have to take that. We were lucky.
When other children came to play, we always played church. I was always the preacher and my sermon was always the same. The kids shouted lots of “amens” and I did a lot of loud talk and gestures. The sermon:
Three old crows sat on a tree, as black as three old crows could be.
One crow said to his mate, “What shall we do for food to eat?”
His mate replied, “Yonder in the land lies an old dead horse. On his carcass we will sustain.”
It was a lot of fun for us.
Minnie Meeks (she was Dutch’s aunt) was a widow with five children. As I remember, the children’s names were Pearl, George, Eddie, Ivan and Goldie. She would come to our house for the weekend. We lived on a farm near Goldsberry at that time. Another thing we enjoyed was roasting pigeon eggs. My brothers had a lot of pigeons in the barn and they would bring their eggs to the house and we would wrap the eggs in wet rags and cover them with the hot ashes in the fireplace and roast them. We thought that was such fun. Another childhood treat was “Egg Butter.” It was made with four or six beaten eggs, sorghum, and cooked slowly till thick. We thought it was so good.
We washed clothes, our hair and our bodies with homemade soap. The first soap we had from the store was called “Grandpa’s Soap.” It was dark brown and smelled terrible, but we were so proud of it. The way we cleaned our homemade carpets was to take them up and put them on the clothesline and beat them with a limb from the apple tree. For padding under the carpets, we put down a lot of nice, clean straw from the threshing machine. It was so nice then, but by spring the straw had worn down to a lot of dust. Another thing we used straw for was our mattresses. We filled what they called a “straw tick.” This straw tick was filled with straw and sewed up. It was so big and fat. Then, after the straw tick was made, a feather bed was put on top of it. It was so high our Dad would have to lift us up onto it. By spring it was worn down and ready for new straw. I helped some in the fields at “hay time.” AThere was a flat thing they called a hay sled. An old horse pulled it. I drove it after it was filled with hay. I drove the hay sled to the bard where a man unloaded it. I felt so important. Della, being two years, ten months younger, was more of a “Mama’s girl.”