Small rural communities are great places to live in. There are limitations, needless to say, but overall, there are many advantages. These towns enrich those who live in them because of the caliber of the people, who have interesting lives and experiences. There were the town’s folk who went away, came back, and told of their exploits. The people had a rich and unique sense of humor, and had compassion to share amongst themselves. Philo was just such a town.
Philo at its’ peak had a population of around 290. The town boasted a small city park; numerous big two-story homes with large attics, huge trees in the front yards, wrap around porches and, it had no sidewalks. A main line railroad ran through the town so it had a station house, which the town used as somewhat of a storage facility for grader blades, saw horses, shovels, rakes, etc.
The tracks bisected the business district, which gave the town two main streets, North Main and South Main, both running east, and West.
One of the grain elevators was on the west side of town on the north side of the track; the second was on the east side on the south side of the track. The town had a train depot, which was almost never used. The town did have a post office, two banks, lumberyard, feed and grain store, hardware store, two grocery stores, two taverns, a Chevrolet/Farmal dealership and a sawmill.
Schooling was limited to one school for the lower grades from the first to the eighth grade, using five classrooms and a very large room for a general assembly.
The town had one high school; the largest senior class graduating was only 28. Philo had three Protestant churches and two three story buildings, which one of the top floors had a meeting room that was shared by the Masonic and Eastern Star lodges.
The completion of the town included one drug store with soda fountain and sandwich shop, a five and dime store, one hardware store, and two doctors and a veterinarian.
What community could want more?
Civil responsibility fell to a part time marshal, a volunteer fire department for the city and township farms, a town board that consisted of volunteers and a paid, and town clerk. The “street” department was a paid town marshal who also picked up fallen limbs, mowed the park, and cleared the street ditches in town and graded the gravel streets when required.
Three brothers and a close friend returned to Philo after spending several years “on the road,” playing banjo with various vaudeville circuits. They had been all over the “States” and even a couple of tours in Europe, and once to India.
The brothers purchased three buildings, side by side, where they operated their hardware, feed and grain, blacksmith, and tin shop and a grocery store.
They made a few changes with the buildings through the years, the biggest modification was opening the walls just inside the front doors so all the stores inside were easily accessed from any other store they had.
Each adjacent interior wall was cut back about twenty feet so if you were in the grocery and wanted to go to the hardware part, you did not have to go outside to do so. One just walked over into the store, which had the item one wanted.
Through the years there were a few little changes hear and there. Most of the changes were in combining services to make things easier for their customers. One could be in the feed, grain part, and buy a bushel of apples if it happened to be in that part of the building. The brothers used just one cash register, and one “on the cuff” book.
Often on cold winter days, men from the town and close by farms would go into the hardware store or blacksmith shop and sit around the big pot bellied stove with the Izen glass windows in the doors. They would swap stories, drink coffee, discuss local and world politics, gossip, and cover subjects for the best ways to plant and harvest crops and raise livestock.
At times, sitting around the stove, arrangements were made to get tools and materials together to fix and help local people with their homes that were unable to do for themselves.
The aided old Ethel Hartman’s leaky indoor plumbing, primed her water pressure tank. Her husband Walter had been dead a little over two years and she needed some help.
Though many had tractors for their farm, several still had only horses to get the work done. When a farmer was down or ill and unable to plant, harrow, harvest, or get big chores done, others would go over to his farm with their equipment and tools and fix things up.
If the wife were ill, many of the township women would go by, clean and sweep, do the canning if it was necessary and tend to her in many ways.
The children of this town always were looked after, guarded, and educated by the town folk. There were so many “eyes in the back of mothers’ heads.” No kid could get by with anything without the parents finding out about it. Many good, honest, and responsible citizens emerged from many such small towns. If a family had a young boy or girl that needed a little more income, women of the town would work things out to help.
The parents of the child in need, would get a telephone call and the kid would be hired to mow a lawn, dig a garden, pull weeds from a flower bed, help on a nearby farm to milk cows, feed pigs, build holding pens for new lambs and pigs, mend fences, or grub fence rows.
The daughters of such families were hired to help clean house, go by some homes once a day to do dishes and dusting and help catch up on a bushel or two of ironing. Every boy and girl was busy; all were looked after, cared for and were taught to help others for wages at times, and at times without pay, for “it was the thing to do.”
The blacksmith shop, the feed and grain business, the hardware store and tin shop, and the grocery had little signs tacked up all over the walls and some were hanging from the ceiling with life’s “rules to go by.”
Most signs were home made, letters burned with a hot iron or carved with a knife using all sorts of wood. They used old lumber planks, wide or narrow, long or short; whatever was required. The real fancy signs might have been a page cut out of a poster or magazine and attached to one of the planks with flour paste.
Little kids coming into these stores would stand and look at those signs and would ask someone what they said. There seemed to be someone around always at hand to help them.
One of the most favorite items was a statute of three carved monkeys, about eight inches high, painted faces, with brown bodies. Needless to say, the words on the base of the “art work” were: “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.” Other signs had: A bird in hand is worth two in a bush, A penny saved is a penny earned, when you go through a closed gate, close it behind you. There were dozens and dozens of such saying all over the stores.
Little Bill Williams, around five years old, was one of the town’s “projects and pet.”
He always ran wherever he went, even from one store to another. He wore patched and tattered bib overhauls, one strap hanging down; no shirt or underwear it seemed. He had freckles across his nose, very pail skin, and hair so red, it looked as if he had been struck by lightning and caught fire.
He was always barefoot from early spring until snow fell. In winter, someone always managed to find a pair of shoes for him; new or used. His feet were always scuffed up and often had a small narrow rag tied around one toe, which served as a bandage for him. He swore a lot but the women of the town [and some of the men] scolded him enough about it that he “toned down” his use of such words.
One summer evening around suppertime, the “hangers on” around the store were sitting outside on the wood sidewalk. The stores had a roof over the sidewalk, with posts at the edge of the walk to support the roof and were useful to tie horses to as well. There were some armed homemade chairs; some chairs had cane bottoms, which most often were split.
They used, round small barrels, wood boxes, and some items had metal seats on top, which were taken from discarded cultivators, tractors, and other used up farm equipment. Most often, the tops had a couple of feed sacks folded three or four times as makeshift cushions. The most sought after seats, which were the two that used a thick sheepskin for a cushion.
In the summertime, “Little Bill” was around quite a bit of the time and all the men would ask where he had been and what he had been doing that day. They also asked him what he had in his pockets, which seemed many times, more often than not, have some object that was causing a big bulge or had something and protruding from it. He would have treasures; old door knobs, telephone pole insulators, pipe tobacco tins containing marbles, shinny rocks, new horseshoe nails, rusty skeleton keys . . . most anything that struck his fancy.
One particular evening, spending time with the men, Bill was asking about the signs in the various stores and they asked him which ones he liked the best.
Carefully, slowly and deliberately he began reciting some of the ones he remembered. “If you have . . . . anything . . . . to say about someone, [and in a rush of words], saysomethingnice. A smile is better than . . . . a. . frown. Hear no evil annnn. .d , , , , see no evil and . . . . . . [and a voice would whisper softly the word “Speak”] and Billy would blurt out in another rush of words, “speaknoevil”.
The men praised him and told him he did a good job and then one asked: “Any others you know?”
Little Bill began again; “Don’t . . . . drink any beer and don’t . . . . drink any . . . . . . . .[and a voice from the side line whispered, liquor] don’t drink any liquor annnn . . . . . . . . . and with a loud, high pitched voice sounding like a blue Jay shooting out of an orchard toward a cat climbing a tree where she had her nest, . . . .. . . . . “And don’t eat any of Aunt Lottie’s pancakes with plumb syrup.”
One would have thought that all the doors of every asylum in the state had opened up and the patients transferred to the chairs in front of the stores. Everyone exploded instantly with laughter; men hooped and hollered, wiped their eyes, held their sides, slapped their knees, stomped their feet, and one even rolled on the sidewalk.
Aunt Lottie was probably one of the very best cooks in the county. She was known for her jellies, jams, custard pies, cakes, vinegar slaw, lime pickles, and vegetable casseroles. All who were in attendance at church pitch-ins, banquets, public picnics sought after food that she had prepared. It common that after the blessing was given, people got up to get in line. Quite few, who were in the know, would rush over to the opposite end of the tables to the desert end and snatch up a piece of her fabulous pies, cobblers, or cakes and some of her glorious vegetable casseroles.
Recently, Little Bill had some of Aunt Lottie’s pancakes with plumb syrup. The plumb syrup was his downfall, because he over indulged to such a degree that his system was in turmoil for a few days.
So, a legend was born from this incident. Years afterward, at any pancake breakfast held in the county, sponsored by any church, Sunday school class, Lions Club, Rotary Club or any organization that wanted to raise money for a “project”, the question was often asked by many who attended these breakfasts; “Are some of these Aunt Lottie’s pancakes?”
Some of the other signs that were hung: Keep skunks, bankers, and lawyers at a distance. Meanness doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t take a very big person to carry a grudge. You cannot unsay a cruel word. When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty. Silence sometimes is the best answer. Sometimes you get, sometimes you get got. Lettin’ the cat outa the bag is whole lot easier than puttin’ in back. Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, and leave the rest to God.
I think that currently, our country needs many more small towns like this. What a lovely, gentle age.