Willis Helmantoler’s Last Story

On the last day I visited with my father he was “fixin to get on down the road “. He insisted that I “get the can of oil on the garage floor and put it in the top of the car engine”.  Jiffy Lube had just done an oil change, so I knew he must be time traveling back to earlier days.  I assured him that the oil was topped off and asked him if I should read his story of his first road trip which follows:
The Hubbs Farm 1922-1925

Early in 1922, when I was barely a few months old, my father became a tenant farmer on a small farm a few miles out of New Columbia, Illinois. We lived there for more than three years. Obviously, I don’t remember much about the experience, but a few things stand out as the first things I remember in life.
My constant playmate was a small brown dog named Jackie-boy. He was a mixed breed: hound and terrier. At night he served admirably as my father’s coon dog, but in the daytime he was at my side as guardian and playmate. One of my earliest and clearest memories is of Jackie-boy killing a snake that was slithering across my path.

My other playmate during those early years was a girl named Anna Ruth Clymore who lived up the hill on an adjacent farm. She and I used to play automobile on an old trunk. She would sit on the trunk and I would pretend to crank the engine. Then we would both splutter in an effort to sound like Model T Fords, which our fathers drove in those days. We got to play together only on rare occasions when our families had time to visit each other.

My father worked from “can’t see to can’t see.” He plowed behind a team of mules named Jack and Gin. My mother raised much of our food in a garden near the little three-room farmhouse in which we lived. Of course, there was no electricity or plumbing in farmhouses in that area in those days. We burned wood in an iron stove in the kitchen. Water was pumped by hand from a well. Kerosene lamps lighted the house at night. A cow whose name I have forgotten supplied us with ample milk. I can remember drinking warm milk that had just been squeezed from that cow’s teat. I used to watch from the kitchen window when my parents did the milking in the late afternoon. Often I stood on the windowsill to get the best view. On one such occasion I fell off of the windowsill onto the floor and broke my arm. This caused a major disruption of life on the Hubbs farm. The next day I had to be taken to a doctor several miles away to have the arm set. When we returned home that evening I took off my blouse and threw it on the floor. My father asked me to pick it up. I declined. He directed that I pick it up. I refused. He spanked me – the only time he did that in my life. Even though I don’t remember the spanking, I have concluded that it made a strong impression on me. From that day on I was always responsive to my father’s instructions. When he called, I came running. I never challenged his authority.

I can remember riding in a wagon drawn by our mules. The family was heading to a small white church on a Sunday morning. As we rode up Chapman Hill some teenage girls hitched a ride on our wagon, and my teenage brother was scolded for being too forward with them. Even though I was only four years old, it seemed to me they enjoyed his forward behavior.

The following incident occurred when I was three years old, so I doubt that much of it comes from my own memory, rather it probably comes from my parents telling me about it. But the feeling of fear is so stark and two of the pictures stand out so strongly in my head, that I think there is a possibility that I actually remember some parts of the incident.

It happened on a night when my father had gone coon hunting. I had whooping cough at the time and was incapable of remaining quiet no matter how much I wanted to. Several men built a large fire in our yard and stood around it talking. My mother, my brother Wayne and I watched them through the window. I coughed almost continuously in spite of my mother’s shushing. The men pounded on the door and demanded admittance. My brother, who was thirteen at the time, held an iron poker in his hands and told them that he would kill the first man through the door. I think I can remember the overwhelming feeling of fear.

My father always sang as he drove his wagon home from his nighttime coon hunts. Evidently, the men heard the wagon returning, doused their fire and departed before he got to the house. He told us he thought they were members of the Ku Klux Klan who had tried to recruit him. He thought they were trying to scare him into joining. I am proud that he continued to decline their offer of membership.

Another event on the Hubbs farm that has remained in my memory-bank over the years involves my cousin Jack Helmantoler who was working on the farm for my father. One day Jack took me with him on the wagon. For some reason the mules made a sharp turn, and the tongue of the wagon was snapped in two. I clearly remember looking down at that broken wagon tongue, but I don’t remember saying, “Now, we’ve played Hell,” as was reported by my cousin.

Shortly before the family left the Hubbs farm in the fall of 1925, my father bought a Model T Ford (probably costing less than $300). Being an inexperienced driver he ran the car into a ditch on one of our first drives. The picture of that car tilted at a crazy angle in that ditch still sticks in my mind. It was one of the few times I ever heard my father use foul language.

I’m sure I had no idea of what it meant to pick up stakes and leave the Hubbs farm, leave my dog behind and move to a city 175 miles away. It was also decided to leave my brother Wayne in nearby Metropolis where he was in his first year of high school. He would join us when school was finished.

The Helmantoler family was unencumbered by a large number of possessions. All of our worldly goods were loaded into the back seat of that car with me sitting on top of our featherbed. My first impression as we approached our destination was the odor of the oil refineries; the next most distinctive memory was that of thousands of electric lights on the refinery towers and tanks. Wood River, Illinois was the fastest growing town in the country in that year of 1925, and we were a typical part of that growth.

In future blogs I will share other stories he wrote about events in his life.