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Old Cramer Place

First GradeBy Bob Van Leer June 9, 2007

  The Old Cramer Place is where memory began for me. It was an abandoned log house that stood on a farm owned by my Uncle Ernest Van Leer located west of Union, Missouri, in Franklin County about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis. About 1931 Uncle Ernest loaned the house to his brother, Roy (also my father), and my family moved into the house as better than being homeless. I don't remember the move, just living in the house.

  My father was a carpenter and had worked building Bagnell Dam, a power dam for Union Electric that backed up the now-famous Lake of the Ozarks in south-central Missouri. While the dam was being constructed the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began. When the dam job was finished there were no jobs anywhere for carpenters. Construction died.

  We were to spend the next three years living in that house. The family consisted of my father, Roy; mother, Alice; older brother, Ken; myself, Bob; and younger sister, June. While we lived there our youngest sister, Ruth, was born, completing the family.

  The house was located between Old Casco Road and Old State Road with the closest town the hamlet of Jeffriesburg which no longer exists. It was located on a ridge and down below a half-mile or mile was the old Van Leer homestead occupied by my grandmother, Nettie Van Leer and Uncle Walter and family, my father's youngest brother. West to the Old State Road was a similar distance and a mile north of there was Uncle Ernest's house. 

 South of Ernest's, perhaps three miles, was a farm owned by Tony Wallach, an old friend of my father. About three miles south of Walter's was the Jeffriesburg School where I started the first grade. That area, roughly three miles by two miles, was my universe while we lived there. I may have, but I don't remember riding in an automobile in those years.


 Transportation was by foot and rarely, horse, and almost never outside that universe. My father had owned a car but the remnants were on blocks near Uncle Walter's barn.

  The house contained four rooms with an attic where I and my brother slept. There was also a part-basement. It had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Heating was by wood stove. Water came from a cistern, a common practice in that region. Houses had metal roofs that were linked by gutters and downspouts to an underground stone and concrete storage vault and a hand-crank pump brought the water up for use. There was a barn and a couple of small outbuildings. We had a sandbox, sand inside a steel ring, that was an old wheel off something.


  My playmates were two cousins about my age. Ross, Uncle Walter's oldest son, was my closest friend. The other was Lester, Uncle Ernest's youngest (of four) boys. We had a well-worn trail from Ernest's to the Cramer Place to Uncle Walter's. Jordan Creek ran between the two roads and was quite close to Uncle Walter's but a considerable distance downhill from the Cramer Place. We used the creek for swimming and catching tiny fish. My brother and I and my cousins spent a lot of lazy days playing around the creek and the neighborhood. We were poor as church mice but at that age we didn't know it. No one in the neighborhood was much better off.

  Some events stood out. Once a steam engine waddled along the Casco Road. It was so noisy we could hear it a long way away, giving us time to get to the road to watch. It came down the road, a huge black thing belching smoke and steam, traveling at maybe 3-5 miles per hour going to a farm work job.

  A project that gave us something to watch for months was building a stock water pond below the Cramer Place. Uncle Ernest had it built, I think financed by one of the government's make-work projects. There were men and horses and equipment moving dirt and it was an exciting event for pre-schoolers to watch.

  My first personal experience with death came when my buddy, Ross, died at the age of five. He was just a few weeks younger than me. He died of some childhood disease, diphtheria I think, that today would be cured by a couple of shots. At that age I couldn't understand why my buddy wouldn't come out and play with me anymore.

  Even for pre-schoolers there was work to do. I remember working around the edges of wheat fields picking up stalks of wheat the binder didn't cut for chicken food. In summer the garden needed weeding and I helped my mother butcher chickens for the table.


  Us kids were not in the money economy. We didn't have any and if we had there was no place to spend it. I remember a rare treat. My parents were ordering from the Sears and Roebuck catalog and they told us kids we could each order something that cost a dime or less. There were a few things you could buy at that price then. We spent hours going over the catalog before making our selections. I chose a small boat that I could play with in a tub of water.

  Christmas was a slim holiday, but we had no basis for comparison so it was fun for us except I remember a time when my sister, June, got too close to a candle and set her hair on fire. My father put it out before there was any permanent damage. One Christmas I received a cap pistol and a few rolls of caps as a present. It didn't take long before the caps were shot up and I lost the gun. The next Christmas I got another gun and caps and it finally dawned on me this cap gun looked an awful lot like the one I had "lost" the year before.


  When I was six I started school at the Jeffriesburg School, a classic one-room school. No plumbing or electricity of course. An entryway where we left our muddy boots also housed the wood stove that heated the school and a stack of wood to fuel it. Down a small hill behind the school were two outhouses, one for boys and one for girls.

  About 24 kids attended the school, many of them my relatives. My first teacher was my Uncle Ernest, who retired from teaching midway through the school year. My second teacher was a young lady named Paula Doerr. Paula later married my cousin George Van Leer (now deceased) so I was able to keep track of her over the years. I last visited with her in March, 2007 in Union, MO. She is doing well for 96. Not many people my age (79) are still able to visit with their first grade teachers.



Each grade included just a few children and Paula would group two or three grades together, teach them something, give them an assignment to work on and then go on to another group. We walked to school as there were no school buses. The walk for my brother and me was 2.5-3 miles. We had to cross Jordan Creek. When the water was low we could walk on planks. When the water was high we had to cross on a cable bridge. I remember one morning starting to school in a fierce snow storm. After going about a quarter of the way I told my brother I couldn't make it any more and was going back to the house, which I did. That night my father tore into my brother for letting me go back alone because I could have gotten into serious trouble.

  One vivid school memory was when a photographer came to take pictures of the students which included the one of me accompanying this article. I had to wear clean clothes and was scared to death.

  When we moved into the house my father set up one room as a cabinet shop, planning to do cabinet work for area farmers. This was not good business planning as no one in the region had a money for a luxury such as cabinets. This is the room were we kids took afternoon naps.

  The only way to cook or get hot water was on the wood stove, winter and summer. My mother had to heat water for clothes washing and she washed for our family of six on a scrub board. Of course, we didn't have much in the way of clothes. For my brother and me it was one pair of bib overalls to wear, one in the wash and a pair of shorts. I had one picture of my brother in overalls. On his knees there were patches. On the patches there was another patch, and finally a third patch on a patch on a patch. We didn't wear shoes in the summer. Life for a woman in those days was continuous work from getting up to going to bed. Once a week us kids had a bath in a galvanized wash tub. Water was heated on the stove so one tubful of water had to last for all of us. We tried to get first in line.


When my sister, Ruth, was born this took place at home and us kids were farmed out to relatives for the day. I remember that as the day I learned to tie my shoes. I was sent to stay with Uncle Walter. When my shoelace became untied I presented my foot to him to tie the lace as my mother would do. His reaction was, "You don't know how to tie your shoes? We'll take care of that right now". He showed me how to do it and I was afraid not to learn.

  There was almost no work for a man. My father would sometimes work from sunup to sundown for $1.00 per day and then couldn't get steady work at this price. I remember one terrible time he was brought home with horrible burns on his hands and arms. He had been washing up grease on himself with gasoline by the light of a lantern when he caught fire. I remember it because of his screaming when he was treated. His arms were scarred for the rest of his life.

  Prices for everything were at rock bottom. One time when my father had no work he decided to make sausage and sell it. He bought a 500 pound hog for $5.00, a penny a pound. He made sausage of the whole hog, sold the sausage and about broke even. In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president of the U. S., replacing Herbert Hoover. I can remember my father setting a wind-up alarm clock and putting it on the kitchen table. He said when it rang we would have a new president and maybe things would get better. 


 In 1934 my mother's brother, Uncle Ed, came out for a visit and for some reason they thought things were getting better in St. Louis on jobs so he would move us back to St. Louis. We hurriedly packed what little we had and moved to the city. No one lived in the house after we left. It was weird when I visited the old house 30 years later and could see the broken toys still laying where we abandoned them during the hurried move. Things actually were not getting any better and we moved in with my mother's parents, Conrad and Mary Vossel.

  An eastern red cedar tree was growing in the yard of the Cramer place. It was a slow growing tree but produced seeds that sprouted. On one of the few trips I made back to the house as an adult, I dug up a couple of small seedlings and they are now planted in our front yard at Hunter Creek. That would have been in the 1970s but the trees are still small compared to the growth of local species of trees.

  The move to St. Louis was more than just the 40 miles on the road. It was a major culture shock moving from a quiet area where a good part of the population was relatives into a large metropolitan city. I was way past my depth and flunked second grade. But that's another story.

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