Others Had It Worse: Sour Dock, Moonshine, and Hard Times in Davis County, Iowaby Vetra Melrose Padget Covert, Chris D. Baker
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In 1977, while studying journalism at the University of Iowa, Chris Baker gave his grandmother a notebook and asked her to write about her childhood. Years later, long after her death in 1990, he found the tattered yellow notebook. In twenty-nine handwritten pages, the woman he knew as Grandma Covert had recorded her younger life in rural Iowa between 1920 and 1929. Writing about herself from the ages of four to thirteen, Vetra Covert sent a simple message back to her grandson: “That’s just the way it was. Others had it worse. We got by.” Captivated by this glimpse of a woman very different from the more formidable grandmother of his memory, Chris Baker reframed Vetra’s journal to create a narrative of her childhood and a window into rural Iowa life in the 1920s. Transcribing her words into nine chapters that illuminate home, family, neighbors, school, and social life, he has composed a collection of candid, whimsical, sometimes ornery stories that will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to decipher the lives found in old letters and photos. Vetra’s was not a romantic little-house-on-the-prairie childhood. She grew up with seven brothers and sisters (every new baby was “a supprise”) in a dilapidated log cabin near a small town now vanished from the Iowa map. Two rooms up, two rooms down, no plumbing, no electricity, holes in the roof and floor so big “you could of throwed a cat through them.” Her father was a bootlegger-farmer who measured his corn yield in gallons, not bushels, a moonshiner occasionally harassed by federal agents. Although family stories now present him as a quaint old-timer, the reality of living with him was much starker. In his introduction to Vetra’s recollections, Chris Baker reveals the harsh truths underlying her authentic, uncomplaining account. By honoring her legacy, he discovered a newfound respect for her and for her family’s ability to survive despite the devastating forces of poverty, isolation, and the looming Great Depression. Together he and his grandmother have created an enduring chapter in family history.
“Mom always used a poltice on sores that needed it. If bread and milk poltice didn’t work guess what cow manure poltice. I tell you it worked. When She greased us for a cold it was Kerosene and lard warmed together till warm and rub it on. It worked and put 3 drops on a tsp of sugar and swallow it to break a cold up.”from Others Had It Worse
“Others Had It Worse is a captivating account of a woman’s life between 1920 and 1929. Born on the prairie, raised in a log cabin with the snow covering her blanket in the winter, Vetra Covert gives us a glimpse into the rough and tumble life of the timesfrom country school to hunting and moonshining. A valuable piece of American rural history.”Mary Swander, author, Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment
“Chris Baker has not only preserved the life of one woman but has also given us a way to read a text that follows its own path. By valuing what would typically be overlooked, he has broadened our understanding of life writing and illuminated the daily effects of poverty and isolation, as well as the small joys that arise amid both. It is a song one should not miss hearing.”Jennifer Sinor, author, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary
“It is a pleasure to read Vetra Padget Covert’s memories of growing up poor and getting by in rural southern Iowa during the 1920s. In a matter-of-fact voice, she recalls the work, play, and school days of her youth. Readers will enjoy the tales of pet pigs, wild salad greens, dancing, and making molasses, moonshine, and mischief. These reminiscences, told in an authentic voice, conjure a long gone world that should be remembered by those who call the Midwest home.”J. L. Anderson, author, Industrializing the Corn Belt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945-1972
“A rare, insightful, and intimate work of history. . . . Like the frames on a zoetrope, these brief snippets run together to create a rich, vivid view of a bygone era.”Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
OTHERS HAD IT WORSE
Sour Dock, Moonshine, & Hard Times in Davis County, Iowa
By Vetra Melrose Padget Covert, Chris D. Baker
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Chris D. Baker
All rights reserved.
A FAMILY PORTRAIT REFRAMED
Chris D. Baker
Looking back, it is easy to understand how we lose sight of the past, our lineage. Childhood memories fade along with the names and faces of near and distant relatives. We push forward with our own lives until one day, perhaps some fifty years later, when asked about those ancestors, the answer we give is sadly insufficient: "Well, I don't really remember my great-grandfather. I think I met him once when I was a kid."
If we are lucky, a few tattered and creased photographs remain. At first glance, those often blurred and poorly exposed images seem incredibly ordinary. They certainly lack the artistry and technical expertise of a Dorothea Lange, who documented the desolate lives of Americans during the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. However, despite the perceived flaws, family snapshots are iconic in their own right. The captured faces bear the same harsh contours of old-world ethnicity, of untold hard times, of promise. If we are twice lucky, those photographs lend context to the mystery of our own lives.
Still, there is a void. Something is missing —something that even Lange could only intimate in her classic image, "Migrant Mother." Perhaps, it is our own mortality reflected in the eyes of aging parents and, in turn, our children, that makes filling that void suddenly urgent. Old family photographs are scrutinized for insight, but in essence we are looking at strangers. We need more. We need words. Stories. This book is an attempt to fill that void. It is a collection of family stories—better yet, I like to think of it as an excerpt from an ongoing folk song passed from one generation to the next, a song that would make Woody Guthrie proud. Over the years, the melody has surely been altered to reflect the mood and times. Sadly, some verses have been lost forever, so we don't really know how the song begins, let alone how it may end. We can, however, take comfort in the certainty that, like any family, it is indeed a work in progress.
Vetra Melrose Padget is the lyricist. Of course, to me, by virtue of her marriage to James Oscar Covert and the subsequent birth of my mother, Betty Arlene Covert, she is and will always be Grandma Covert.
Born January 1, 1916, she grew up in rural Davis County, Iowa, with her parents, Wilmer and Edith Padget, and seven siblings: Clell, Lale, Barbara, Reva, Paul, Charles, and Donald. The eighth and eldest sibling, Silas, died three days after his birth in 1903. They lived in a dilapidated log cabin near Chequest, a village once located northeast of Bloomfield near Troy, or, as the crow flies, about eighteen miles from the Missouri border.
There were two rooms up, two rooms down. No plumbing. No electricity. Holes in the roof. Holes in the floor. Holes so big, according to my grandmother, "you could of throwed a cat through them."
Based on references throughout the handwritten manuscript, matched with an overlay of birth dates, census reports, and the details of stories from extended family members, a timeline emerges indicating that the content covers her childhood from approximately age four to thirteen, or the years 1920 to 1929.
To better understand my grandmother's world, it is helpful to view those years in the context of historical events and her complicated, if not embittered, relationship with her father.
In contrast to the prosperity usually associated with the Roaring Twenties, farm prices were in a tailspin throughout that same decade. As a result, many American families were on the breadline long before the stock market crash of 1929, or before Lange first left the comfort of her portrait studio in the early 1930s to photograph the gathering crowds at the White Angel Jungle, a San Francisco soup kitchen for the destitute. With the Great Depression looming, some historians estimate that eight million rural Americans were already struggling to just get by, to survive.
The Padget family is no exception. The poverty described herein is as inescapable as the often harsh behavior of my great-grandfather.
Wilmer, who answered to the nickname Beef, was a moon-shiner, a bootlegger. Although he stood six feet two inches and weighed about 225 pounds in his prime, he reportedly earned the moniker not for his imposing physical presence or his notoriety for drinking and fighting, but rather for consuming a large pot of beef intended for a den of fellow fox hunters.
Either way, the nickname is a plausible fit.
In the 1920 and 1930 federal census reports, his occupation is listed as a farmer, but he was not a typical farmer by any stretch, according to Leon Wilkinson, Reva Padget Wilkinson's son.
"Grandpa measured his corn yield in gallons, not bushels," Leon said.
Indeed. Wilmer made moonshine, sold moonshine, and apparently consumed it with ferocity —often with staggering consequences for his family. The stories, taken from my grandmother's manuscript and gleaned piecemeal from family members, often read like indictments.
My grandmother recalls her father's habit of disappearing for days at a time, presumably to run his hunting dogs, and the constant presence of his drunken cronies, one whom she describes as passed out on the cabin floor and soaked in his own urine.
"When he came awake he just wore the same old clothes. Maybe he would be there several days," she writes. "The smell was strong."
To suggest that hard economic times pressed Wilmer and countless others into bootlegging as a matter of survival is certainly a noble, if not defensible assumption for some. However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish an act of desperation from a mere rationalization. Clearly, in my grandmother's eyes, her father's reasoning fell to the latter and only increased the family's burden.
Christmas was a particularly confusing and sad time for the Padget children. At best, each received a pair of stockings and, perhaps, there might be one bag of candy to be shared by all. Other years, nothing.
My grandmother recounts one Christmas during which she and her younger brothers concluded that they might receive more presents, like the other kids at school, if only they had a proper Christmas tree. After cutting a tree and fashioning a paper chain for the decoration, they thought they had it made. When morning arrived, they were disappointed.
"We tho't Santa didn't like us," she writes.
My grandmother later told her daughter, Sheri Guthrie, that during the early years of her marriage, my grandfather always cut and decorated two Christmas trees in an attempt to ease those painful childhood memories, to somehow bring balance to his bride's world.
Dennis Covert, my cousin, once attempted to bring some perspective to the grinding poverty. Upon hearing similar stories as a teenager, he offered our grandmother the standard viewpoint that everybody was poor back in the day.
"Not that poor," she replied.
My great-grandmother, Edith, seemed perpetually stuck by her husband's roguish bent. By all family accounts she did not condone Wilmer's passion for drink. Still, according to Leon Wilkinson, she hid the hooch in the washing machine when a stranger or the local sheriff came knocking.
Edith's complicity is easily reframed as an act of self-preservation. After decades of failed legislation and social unrest, Iowa had finally become a dry state in 1916, the same year my grandmother was born and four years before the passage of the 18th Amendment. If convicted of moonshining the penalty was stiff. Although the punishment was often subjective based on the will of local authorities to enforce the law, an offender could be fined up to $500 or receive six months in the county jail. Multiple offenses could land a bootlegger in the state penitentiary for up to one year. Obviously, Edith did not want her husband arrested.
Wilmer's illicit activities also attracted the attention of a higher authority. Donald Padget, my grandmother's youngest and lone surviving sibling who was born in 1923, said, "Dad got wind that they were eyeing him for moonshining. Feds came and turned the house upside down but they never found anything."
My uncle, Bill Covert, explained why the federal agents came up empty-handed, "Mom said they hid the jars of booze under the fence posts around the yard."
Wilmer was also the source of Edith's estrangement from her parents, Silas and Grace Caruthers, and her brother, Albert. Apparently, Wilmer irreparably severed all family ties to the Caruthers because he thought his mother-in-law was too bossy. As the story goes, some forty years later, an aged Edith, sitting on a park bench on the town square in Bloomfield, was approached by a man.
"You don't recognize me, do you?"
She did not.
"I'm your brother. Albert," he said.
Clell, my great-uncle, suffered from an affliction that left him somewhat of a lifelong dependent of his parents and siblings. Although respected as a hard worker, he might be politely described as a little slow. He never married, never had kids.
When interviewing relatives about Clell's condition, different accounts emerge. One version is that he contracted scarlet fever as a child, but there are also whispers that Wilmer worked his eldest surviving son so hard in the fields that, at age seven or eight, Clell suffered a heat stroke. The latter is quietly, if not reluctantly, accepted by some family elders, but not all.
"I was told he was born that way," Donald Padget said of his older brother, who was eighteen years his senior. "That's all I know."
The truth is buried with Wilmer and Edith.
Finally, my grandmother recounts one of her many sleepwalking episodes that left family members in a state of panic—all, but apparently one. During the frantic search, Wilmer announced, "Well if she is gone she's gone."
Curiously, this story is not punctuated by my grandmother's oft-used reminder to the reader of her humorous intent: "Ha. Ha." As a father, I play that scene over and over in my mind. The most forgiving interpretation of those words leaves Wilmer wanting in ways difficult to reconcile.
"I believe Mom was bitter about it," Floyd Covert said of his mother's relationship with her father.
Of course, it's easy, too damn easy, to judge my great-grandfather. I don't know the complete story, all the injustices, joys, or twists that shaped his life. My grandmother does not address the subject.
It is a fact that, Wilmer, at age ten, was forced by his father, James Arbuckle Padget, to work at the coal mines in nearby Laddsdale, Iowa. He drove the mules between the mines and the railroad line. After leaving the mines, he worked as a hired hand for area farmers.
As a result, he never attended school like his other siblings. He resented his father. He resented the fact that he could not read or write. In later years, Edith finally taught Wilmer to write his name so that he could sign his old age pension check.
Yet another story passed down through the family speaks to an intergenerational cycle of male violence common to many family histories, a violence endured by women and children until it becomes frightfully mundane.
As a young man, before he was married, my great-grandfather returned to the family farm one early morning after a night of carousing. His father James ordered him to take the team of horses to the field and work. Wilmer declined, said that he needed some sleep. In response, James allegedly grabbed a large gate hinge and struck his son in the head, knocking him to the ground.
"Now go have your mother sew you up and then get the team and go to work," my great-great-grandfather James reportedly told his bloodied son.
No one can say that my great-grandfather had an easy go of it.
Donald Padget said that he doesn't remember many of the stories in this book. Seven years younger than my grandmother, he offers a more conciliatory view of his father, Wilmer.
"He was known to be pretty tough. You didn't argue with him. If he said it was raining and it wasn't, you didn't argue with him. He was considered a tough guy, but he liked to think that he was just fair. Others might not agree," Donald surmised, adding, "I thought he was pretty good to us boys."
There are hints that an elderly Wilmer tried to atone for his past. Dennis Covert witnessed our great-grandfather, as he prepared to leave after a visit, awkwardly attempt to hug our grandmother. She would have none of it. He asked her about the incident.
"Grandma basically told me that when Wilmer drank he didn't care about anybody else," Dennis recalled. "She didn't like drinking, said it just ruined everybody's life."
Now I better understand my grandmother's guarded response when I asked her many years ago why she had never consumed alcohol.
"I saw enough," she said.
Of course, the civil thing to do is just simply dismiss my great-grandfather as an ornery old cuss and embrace his antics as fodder for family reunions. I confess that I have certainly shared a few belly laughs with family members when regaled by the outrageous stories.
For example, Wilmer was once confronted by a law enforcement officer while fishing Chequest Creek. He searched the pockets of his overalls and finally admitted that he must have misplaced his fishing license. The suspicious officer, perhaps a bit overzealously or perhaps because he was a bit too familiar with Wilmer, loaded my great-grandfather and his fishing poles into his car with the promise of a ride to the pokey.
As Bill Covert tells the story, about a mile and a half down the road Wilmer asked the officer to stop the car. He had found his license.
"In my hat band."
Wilmer displayed the legal fishing license, gathered up his gear, exited the car, and casually walked toward a house in front of which the officer had unwittingly stopped the vehicle. Yes, it was Wilmer's house.
"Grandpa just wanted a ride home," Bill laughed.
Over the years, as such stories are told, retold, and no doubt embellished, the edges have been softened and Wilmer has received a reprieve of sorts. The accepted caricature of Wilmer is that of the harmless, yet crafty old timer whose adolescent-like irreverence for the law is better suited for a character living near Andy Griffith's fabled Mayberry, North Carolina.
Reality is a different matter.
Stepping back, a full accounting unveils the clinical portrait of a man whose sense of male privilege was only further fueled by alcohol and, no doubt, resentment toward his father.
Wilmer's family could no more escape his tyranny than he could a blow to the head with a gate hinge, than the nation could a collapsing economy. His choices, for better or worse, unequivocally shaped the lives of his wife, their children, and, perhaps, even future generations. This book is not about Wilmer Wilton Padget and, yet, it is. Simply put, my grandmother's story is inextricably bound to her father.
Should my interpretation of events be construed as a gratuitous sucker punch or a smearing of the family's good name, please know that my intent is not to condemn my elders but rather to better understand and honor my grandmother's worldview, her truth. As such, any inclination to quiet her voice is a disservice to all, to posterity.
But those are my words, from my easy chair.
Others might not agree.
Although there is no apparent effort to avoid unseemly or potentially embarrassing family stories, be warned that my grandmother's candid memories are not to be confused with grievances. That was not her nature. Like so many other people of her ilk, she would have publicly shrugged off such judgments: That's just the way it was. Others had it worse. We got by.
Of course, there were good times and good humor to boot. She writes of her joy in attending the Toby and Susie Tent Show during the annual Fox Chase near Floris, performing the "shodish" at country dances, and proudly riding the family horse four miles to Troy to take her seventh-grade exams. She passed.
And it's still hard not to grin, just a little, when reading of the family cow, Spot, who inadvertently ate the mash intended for my great-grandfather's moonshine, or my grandmother's ongoing consternation with a neighbor girl left in her charge on several occasions—one Irene Humphrey.
Irene, by my grandmother's account, was as unruly as a cowlick on Sunday morning. Despite several warnings, one day Irene managed to walk through every mud puddle to be found on the way to school. Unable to remove the water-filled boots, my grandmother finally picked up the crying child and turned her upside down. Problem solved.
Other problems required more drastic measures. When illness or injury struck, Edith turned to folk remedies to meet most of the family's medicinal needs. To break up a cold, three drops of kerosene were added to a teaspoon of sugar and consumed. Kerosene, mixed with melted lard, was used to grease a chest cold. If a milk and flour poultice proved ineffective, then cow manure served as an astringent to treat a minor wound.
Donald Padget recalled another cure for a stubborn cold that my grandmother failed to mention. One-half tablespoon of skunk oil, or more accurately stated the skimmed froth from boiled skunk fat, mixed with one-fourth tablespoon of kerosene would presumably purge the body of any lingering toxins.
"You would vomit as soon as it hit your stomach," Donald said.
Excerpted from OTHERS HAD IT WORSE by Vetra Melrose Padget Covert, Chris D. Baker. Copyright © 2013 Chris D. Baker. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Vetra Covert was born in 1916 in rural Davis County, Iowa. Wife, mother, homemaker, and consummate baker, she died in 1990 in Ottumwa, Iowa. Photographer, writer, and musician Chris Baker is the author of In Retrospect: An Illustrated History of Wapello County, Iowa. He works in the fields of mediation and crime victim services.
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