Like most grown people not only living in the world today but all down through history, I am nostalgic for a past I never knew. Wistful, perhaps- yearning. I may be groping for the word sehnsucht, which I find means longing, maybe, or pining- but then, the description goes on to say that it’s hard to really translate the feeling this word describes. In a wider sense, it means a kind of intensely missing… something. It’s a sort of sense of melancholy, or nostalgia, but somehow more- a kind of regret for something you’ve never experienced. An intangible thing.
We all know that nostalgia for youth, our own youth wasted on us in a sense because none of us ever realized while it was passing that it would be so fleeting, or that it was to become so precious down the years as we got further away from it and looked back with longing. I often drone on at you guys about my own magical memories of youth: those long summer days in Pleasant Valley, drinking out of the hose and swimming in the stock tank, or the everlasting afternoons in the aura of chlorine and Hawaiian Tropic by the edge of the Boerne pool. Dancing around a coffee table a long, long time ago with my brother and sister and my mom, all of us together dancing to a record of Disney songs. But I can also sit down with all those kind of blissful memories- they’re all tinged with an autumnal glow and scented like a cold day’s bonfire, or they have glistening drops of vividly blue water sparkling in the sun on their edges, like when water droplets land on a camera lens- I can take them out of the album in my mind and look at them in the harsh light of day and recall, with an effort, that they weren’t all as sublime as they appear to me now. I was so often sad as a child- all kids have so many nebulous fears, and such very real ones as well, which are as enormous and as terrifying as anything we may come to fear later in our life- but some inner machinery edits out all of those desperate tears and feelings of misery, leaving behind only the divine, only the consecrated. All the unhappiness I experienced as a child when everything was so much more intense, all the hurt that I felt, they were enormous in my heart when I was little, but when I thumb through my memories all the pictures show is the contentment, the laughter, the golden glow of a childhood wild and free in my dusty old hometown. In the looking back, what Kurt Vonnegut called our ‘forgettery’ gets to work. He called it a protective mechanism against unbearable grief and, I think, against all of the things that hurt to remember. I remember this line from The Great Gatsby, a description of a character’s golden youth, and even the dirt had a magical quality: ‘a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.’ In real life, when I was living through it, the dust was gritty and got in my eyes and my teeth and plagued my sleep at night, but when I look back on it from here it was pixie dust, and it shimmered in the sunlight.
A whole lot of us old-stock Boerneites feel like Boerne has slid straight down the hill and it isn’t the same anymore- that this new version of Boerne is awful and we hate it. A lady and I were commiserating once about the decline of Boerne civilization and I found out late in the bitch session that she’d been here for nine years- so as far as she was concerned, the old cowtown was still in pretty good shape as of 2008, and only fell to hell sometime after that. I think of myself as real old-school Boerne, I started school here in the 5th grade, and I’m pretty sure things set off downhill when Walmart came to town in the late-ish 80s- but then there are still others whose people were among the very first settlers in the Latin commune of Tusculum, and they feel pretty strongly that Boerne hit the skids a long time before 1974 when the Hagys got to town. Or maybe they think we were the turning point. Anyway, whenever I see an old photograph of my hometown taken a hundred years ago or so, I have this almost overwhelming desire to somehow climb right into the frame and just live there- before Walmart, before I10, before anybody discovered us and there were any shoppes on Main Street and if anyone ever called it the Hill Country Mile everyone would’ve looked at that person in disbelief and some suspicion. Back when you went to Main Street to get your shoes resoled and to shop at Adler’s store, when a favorite pastime was running to the depot to meet the train hoping the Duerler Candy guy and his pet monkey might be onboard, and Kronkosky Hill twinkled with fairy lights and echoed with the sound of orchestra music and the laughter from the Camp Funston soldiers and their girls dancing the night away up there, before they went off to war in Europe. Now those were the days.
Those were the days before fast food and microwaveable Hot Pockets and Mickey D’s, when people ate wholesome, home-cooked food, especially on farms in the country, where most of the population of Kendall County lived a hundred years ago. In 1917, around thirty-one (31) million Americans lived on farms, compared to about three million people today. Most of their food was homegrown or came from wild game- cows, pigs- either their own or feral- chickens, deer and beans provided most of the protein for the family. The pig also provided many other needs on the farm- most folks know the old saw about using every part of the pig except the squeal. While commercial laundry soap was available one hundred years ago, the vast majority of rural folks still made soap the old-fashioned way: they boiled the guts of a freshly butchered hog for the tallow, made lye from ashes and mixed this mess up in water. And it was the same soap for everything one needed soap for- the same stuff for doing the laundry and scrubbing the floors and for washing up your own bits and pieces in a tub of water the whole family shared. The pig also provided another crucial staple for farm families, speaking of all that good wholesome food: lard. In fact, in all that home cooking they did a century ago, Americans managed to pack away nearly twelve pounds of lard every year, on average. Let me say that again, so it can sink in: ONE person ate TWELVE pounds. Of lard. This means people used to eat roughly the same amount of lard as they did chicken, on a yearly basis. A kid might tote his lunch pail- literally, a metal pail- with whatever veggies she fancied accompanied by a nice lard sandwich on a couple slices of home-baked bread. Yummy!
Cooking all that lard and chicken wasn’t quite like popping an egg roll in the microwave either, or preheating your electric oven or flipping a dial on a gas stove and causing a flame to leap into existence. Pretty much no farms, nor even little towns, especially in the South, had electricity in 1917, and all the cooking was done on a wood stove. You kept the fire lit all day in the wood stove- and yes, right here in Boerne, Texas, where the temperature gets downright tortuous in the summertime. But producing a single meal was an hours-long task for the housewife, the dishwater had to be heated on it too, and by the time one meal was prepared and cleaned up, it was time to start the next one- not to mention bread needing baking in between, and wash water to heat. There were no built-in cabinets, or sinks or fridges, just a room where the stove sat in the corner and a table for a work surface, or a Hoosier cabinet if you were really lucky, with storage for flour and sugar and spices, plates and silverware and a work surface for rolling dough and the like. For cold storage, folks either kept food fresh by putting it on a block of ice or keeping it in a root cellar- of which there were precious few in the limestone country of Kendall County- or in cooler weather, burying it in the yard or storing it on a window sill. In town, the iceman came around every day, and so did the meat wagon- driven in this town by Henry Fabra, in 1917, who announced his presence by hollering ‘Meat! Meat for sale!’ when his wagon came down the street. Boerne hausfrau would meet him at their carriage blocks on the street and buy whatever they needed to feed their family for the day. Out on the farms, the people hung the hand-butchered carcass in a limestone smoke house to preserve. All that wholesome food though, and the primitive methods of cold storage, could cause problems, including cholera, smallpox and yellow fever. Contaminated food, milk, and water caused foodborne infections, including typhoid fever, tuberculosis, botulism, and scarlet fever, and poor refrigeration caused salmonella and staphylococcus. Pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease caused by a lack of niacin in the diet and known as the disease of the four Ds: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death, was a scourge on the former CSA states of the southern US after the Civil War, and it raised its ugly head again a hundred years ago, in the early 20th century. Goiters and rickets were another couple of things that happened to people because of lack of the right nutrients in the diet.
The sorely beset farm wife had a lot of other stuff to do in her day besides feeding her family and hopefully fending off diseases that might be passed to them through their food. She turned ‘boughten’ fabric or upcycled cotton flour, guano, and chicken feed sacks into blouses, dresses, shirts, underwear, sheets, dish towels, and even curtains for her family (but she might spend actual cash money on denim overalls, which had become widely available by 1917 and which might be purchased at HO Adler’s, ‘the store of a million articles!’ or up the street at Joe Dienger’s). She tended an extensive vegetable garden and took care of her kids and often helped out in the fields too, did the laundry (often outdoors over a boiling kettle filled with water she drew out of the well or fetched from the river, an old mop or broom handle called a punching stick and the ubiquitous lye soap). President Lyndon Johnson’s own mother ‘grew stoop-shouldered lugging buckets of water from well to kitchen,’ in the Texas Hill Country, and she had plenty of company. Wives and mothers a hundred years ago also sold extra milk, butter, eggs, and other homegrown and homemade commodities for cash, which they then used for all the things they couldn’t make themselves: those denim bib’alls, salt, coffee, and sugar, material to make clothes, and school books and shoes for the kids. She dried and canned vegetables for the winter, she smoked hams and made sausage, she knitted socks and milked cows and churned butter. Her work was literally never done.
In 1917, the Gibson Girl personified the very ideal of feminine beauty, and the New Woman- that liberated precursor of the feminist- was daring to sport revealing bathing suits and pushing the envelope by donning trousers in public- but not in rural Boerne, Texas. Farm women still wore floor-length skirts with petticoats underneath, button-down blouses and button-up boots and instead of what we think of as a bra, she would’ve worn an undershirt or some kind of cloth binding for support and modesty. Imagine that ensèm in a kitchen with a fire burning all day long, or while throwing her shoulder to the wheel alongside her man in the cotton field! And we must not ignore another delicate issue: in an age before disposable feminine products, the woman of 1917 often made her own, utilizing everything from cotton rags or plain old field cotton, to sheep’s wool and rabbit fur to knitted pads and even grass in their undies to deal with the visit of their Aunt Flo. (I’m sorry for that info, but haven’t we all wondered? There were disposable sanitary pads available a hundred years ago, first thought up by nurses as a way to staunch bleeding on the battlefield, and in 1896 Johnson & Johnson put the first American version on the market, called Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towels for Ladies. Now I don’t know whether or not HO Adler or Joe Dienger carried Lister’s Towels in their stores- Adler did advertise that he carried a million articles but I don’t know if this was one of them, and a hundred years ago most farmwives in Kendall County wouldn’t have had a lot of spare cash to go blowing on such frivolities anyway. They were very expensive, and a staid German hausfrau in 1917 asking the counter clerk for a box of sanitary pads is too great a stretch of the imagination.) A quick visit to the powder room was no easy task a century ago either- most houses, even in the big cities, had no indoor plumbing, and virtually nobody in the country towns or down on the farm enjoyed the mod-cons. Most houses and many businesses in the actual town of Boerne still had outhouses in the 1940s, and the percentage must have been even greater in the country. Instead it was the chamber pot or the privy for one’s dirty business, and don’t think there was a whole lotta disposable toilet paper going around either- an old Sears catalog served for some folks, while a corncob served the purpose for other, more unfortunate users. One woman remembered the very limited options available to her on a dark night in the Texas Hill Country: ‘I had a horrible choice of either sitting in the dark and not knowing what was crawling on me or bringing a lantern and attracting moths, mosquitoes, nighthawks and bats.’ Nighthawks and bats. Sit with that a minute.
Food was in tighter supply in many places in the country in 1917, the year the US entered WW1, and farmers were asked to produce more to feed Our Boys overseas, and families to tighten their belts. Canned foods had recently come onto the scene and were a great boon because of the labor they saved, but botulism and lead poisoning were a couple of risks one had to contend with in those early days. Fortunately, fresh produce and eggs were still plentifully available in Boerne, and the farmers hauled their goods to market in town via horse-drawn wagon or in rare cases, one of the new horseless trucks. In 1917 there were just two million cars on very few paved roads, or about one for every fifty people in the US.
That kid we mentioned earlier, carting his lard sandwich to school in his old tin pail? He’d be going to one of the one-room schools that dotted the countryside, from Panther Creek and Pleasant Valley to Wasp Creek and Welfare and Waring, or to the ‘new’ two-story limestone school on the hill in town that nowadays serves as the City Hall. He and his buddies got to school however they could- some rode horses with siblings clinging on the best they could, while some lucky kids had pony carts for the horse to pull along behind. A lot of kids walked. At least the fear of running into native tribesmen was no longer a potential hazard, as it had been just a generation earlier when their parents made their own way along the well-worn paths. School supplies consisted of a slate and a stick of chalk and whatever books the family could afford, and learning was often achieved by rote memorization and students were terrified into doing their schoolwork by primers that warned about the fate of bad children who wouldn’t study their alphabet- they were frequently devoured by bears. Kids in town tended to go to school longer and more often than their cohort in the country- farm kids were needed on the home place, to help with the planting and the harvest and all the grueling work of producing a crop, and they more often dropped out early when the family figured he’d accumulated enough knowledge to take over the place someday. In 1920, just twenty-eight percent of young Americans between the ages of fourteen and seventeen went to high school, and the numbers were far, far less for children of color.
Women had more children back then, three, on average, and those kids were expected to help on the farm, in some cases by the time they were five years old. But there was an additional and more heartrending reason that women had more children than just to provide extra hands for the farm: their children were much more likely to die. Ten percent of babies died before their first birthday. In fact, everybody was a lot likelier to die before their time: in 1917, the average life expectancy for men was forty-eight (48) years old, and for women it was fifty-four (54). Some of the leading causes of death in the US included tuberculosis, diarrhea or enteritis, heart disease, stroke, accidents, cancer, senility, and diphtheria, and coming soon, in 1918, a horrific epidemic of Spanish influenza and pneumonia would hit the country like a bombshell. This forgotten scourge was to kill more than fifty million people on the planet, and at least a million Americans- ten times as many as were killed in WW1. The Kendall County death registry reflects the same causes of death: the flu, called ‘La Grippe’; stroke, termed ‘apoplexy’; senility (and possibly Alzheimer’s) was called ‘hardening of the arteries’- and a surprisingly high rate of suicide. One hundred years ago no so-called social safety net existed, and unless you were able to save money against your own old age, you just hoped you were physically able to work until you died. Otherwise you were just broke, and you didn’t eat. With this grim reality in mind, and instead of becoming a burden on one’s family in one’s infirmity and old age- or when one didn’t have any family- some people saw suicide as their only option. It wasn’t until the Social Security Act of 1935- hotly contested as pure socialism- that older Americans could face their declining years with any hope of supporting themselves. Before that, poverty among the elderly was so crushing that writers of the time referred to growing old as the “haunting fear in the winter of life.” Another reason for the high rate of suicide was that there was no treatment for, and no real recognition of, clinical depression. Soldiers returning home from the Great War in 1918 would bring back with them a condition that came to be known as shell shock or battle fatigue, and from that start medical doctors would eventually devote more study to diseases of the mind. But if you suffered from what they called melancholia or hysteria to any marked extent in 1917, there was a very real possibility that you could be checked into the ‘insane asylum’ and never seen again, while your shamefaced family by tacit consent might never mention your name again in polite company- or in any company, ever again. Tragically, untreated depression often results in suicide.
As difficult as daily life was for most folks in and around Boerne a hundred years ago, it was a thousand times more grueling for people of color. Hispanic and African-Americans were far less likely to own their own homesteads than their white counterparts, and much more liable to the abuse of the sharecropping or tenant farming system. Under that system, a tenant lived in a house provided by the owner- often in a state of squalor and disrepair- and the owner also provided seed, horses or mules, the plow and all of the equipment to grow a crop. He would also pay the sharecropper advances during the growing season, for anything the family needed that they couldn’t produce on the farm. Come harvest time, the landowner and the tenant shared out the profit from the harvest, usually by halves, and then the cost of the seed and the equipment, etc, and any advances were deducted from the tenant’s share. The vast majority of the time, in the case of black or Hispanic farmers, the owner informed his tenant that his expenditures outweighed the profit made on the sale of the crop, and therefore the tenant was left owing the owner money. The sharecropper was then unable to leave the owner’s farm until the money had been paid back, and was thus he was sucked into an unbreakable cycle of ever-mounting debt, and virtual enslavement to the boss. This is called debt slavery, and the practice persisted far past the end of the Civil War and tied millions of African-Americans to the land as irrevocably as race-based slavery ever did. In the Jim Crow South, there was no conceivable way a black man could ever challenge his white landlord on his accounting of the value of the crop, or hope to receive a fair settlement, but in the bleak landscape of the South where the law, mob rule and the threat of violence ensured that blacks remained meekly subservient, they simply had no other choice. The lot of Latinos was not much better. One sharecropper’s son remembered his father’s backbreaking labor growing cotton on shares with his white landlord, and the misery of settling-up time. ‘You bought things—it was just on a handshake back then,’ he said of the cash advances made before harvest time. ‘So at the end of the year you pay the boss man…. And my daddy would say that money left his hands sore. He said so much money went through his hands, that’s all they have left, sore hands.’
In a scant few years, the boll weevil would arrive from Mexico and lay waste to Texas’ cotton industry, and the poorest of the poor would, as usual, be the most sorely affected. However, in 1917, African-Americans all over the Southern slave states would begin to leave behind the misery their people had known for generations, often forced to flee in the middle of the night to avoid the wrath of their white neighbors. Up North, plants were emptying out when the men who manned the factories and assembly lines went off to fight the Great War, and black Americans packed up and left the South forever to take those jobs and seek out new lives and new freedoms. ‘They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done,’ wrote Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. ‘They left.’ And their struggle for equality and just treatment, for respect in this nation of their forefathers, continues today.
We look back on those times as a paradise, a time when life was simpler and somehow more pure, less complicated. Things were better then, we believe, looking down through the mist of the years, through the haze of all the intervening troubles that we had not yet lived through. We’re too far away now to feel the grit of daily life, to feel the ache in our shoulders from hauling the water, to smell the acrid odor of blood when the pig is slaughtered or the bone-weariness at the end of the day with the sheets plastered to our bodies by the heat of the oil-lit night. But there was grit and there were troubles, mothers who stood stoic by the newly-dug graves of their babies after the dry-heaving misery of their loss, black men who bit back their fury and the red hot coal of their despair as they allowed themselves to be cheated because they had no choice. And yet- we dream our dreams of the good old days.
I am alive today for a million reasons, most of which I will never know. My life was saved because I had pancreatitis in 2007, not a hundred years ago, and no one thought of bleeding me or applying leeches. I have a trach that lets me breathe through a useless windpipe. I keep my house at 72 degrees and I’m about to nip over to the fridge for a bowl of ice cream. These- these are the good old days.