Memories of Walnut





Small towns

The backbone of America is dying, or perhaps has already died.  Each town in its own way was a cell, an entity, capable of self-existence that together made up a strong nation.  Each community was a world within its self.  Old Charlie Longnecker, a roving butcher, was on call to assist farmers in the slaughter and dressing of hogs, cattle and other farm animals for personal consumption.  He and his family ate well for part of his pay was forthcoming in choice cuts of beef or pork.  It was said of Charlie that he never roamed so far away from home as to cross “Old Muddy,” the Missouri River.

My favorite was Dr. Hannah.  He was most often on the road in his buggy and later his Model T.  Most of his “know how” was self-taught or from books.  Consider my town in the 1920’s.  There was a lawyer, 2 doctors, a dentist, a jeweler, a harness maker, a blacksmith, a department store, 3 grocery stores, 3 banks, 2 4-chair barber shops, a tailor, a furniture store, 2 hardware stores, a community band, a town baseball team, 3 automobile franchises, 2 lumber yards, a cement factory, 3 gas stations, several restaurants, 2 drug stores, a theater, a clothing store, a millinery shop, machinery shops, a flour mill, a granary elevator, a railroad and a stockyard.  There were still a few hitching posts and it was not uncommon to see teams of horses pulling wagons or sleighs.  Today, in my hometown, about all that remains are a bank and a post office.  This process has occurred over and over thousands of times in our land.  It all began in the late 20’s with the advent of the horseless carriage and the Great Depression.  Of the three banks, only one opened after the “bank holiday” in 1932.  The decline had begun. (Written January 11, 2003, page 294)

Hang in there

I remember so well the long hours my dad and mother spent serving the community in their grocery store.  It was fully stocked, including a hand-pumped reservoir for the farmers requiring lamp oil.  Electricity was not yet available to the farmer.  One section was set aside for dry goods (bolted materials) for the women to purchase gingham patterns for hand-sewn dresses.  A full line of tobacco was available as well as hosiery for men and women and overalls.  A man wanting a tailor-made suit could also be accommodated.  The Diamond Quality suit with vest and two pairs of pants was $25.  For the less discerning gentleman a nice three-piece suit could be measured for $12 or $15.  And voila, two weeks later a package came back from Chicago on the Rock Island Express.

On Wednesday and Saturday nights the farmers would hang out in the saloons until midnight and consequently did not allow my parents to close shop until they had picked up their egg cases filled with groceries that had been bartered for the fresh eggs and homemade butter.  I loved those late nights for I could crawl under a counter and stretch out on one of the vacant shelves for a nap.  The only exception was when lightning appeared in the northwest.  To hesitate would require putting on chains to traverse the dirt roads.  In that event the streets would vacate in moments.  Although there was credit business to a large extent, many days the cash receipts were 15, 18, 25 dollars.  A hundred dollar Saturday was a hallelujah day.

I remember the humongous safe that really only guarded over a leather bag with a few dollars in change and a bank book neatly enfolding a few bills, tightly bound by a rubber band.  Since the bank was catty-corner across the street, I was often entrusted with making the deposit.  I had a personal savings account that always thrilled my heart on the annual anniversary when I could proudly present it for interest updating.  The thing that has prompted this whole exhortation is interest rates.  In those days 1% was pretty standard and the entry in my book for interest was only a few pennies.  What goes around, comes around.  I just got my bank statement, and guess what—I’m back where I started some 70 or 80 years ago.  (Written January 13, 2003, p. 293)

It’s Walnut again

The information regarding Grandfather Fischer [Wilhelm] that he was born in 1856 and arrived in Walnut at 15 years of age in 1871 seems pretty reliable.  Actually, Walnut was not yet a town, but a growing, pioneer settlement.  It became a chartered city in 1877 with estimates of 800 to 900 residents and a bunch of saloons.  Government land agents were slow in coming to the northeast corner of Pottawattamie County because of lack of proximity to railroads.  Land agents moved in sometime around 1850, and according to my source, the land sold for $2 – $3 an acre.  The land was rolling hills and valleys and very fertile. 

Grandfather actually settled in Shelby County about six miles north, but Walnut was his outlet and the community to which he retired in 1910.  His land was located on a level stretch, running north and south for several miles and approximately 2 miles wide, called Wisconsin Ridge.  Being level, it was especially desirable, considering most of the area was rolling.  I have not been able to determine just how much he paid per acre or whether he was the original owner.  He had acquired the land by 1880 for that is the year he was married.  The best available information is that by 1880 the price had risen to $30 to $50 per acre.  Interestingly enough, the Walnut Bureau (It began publication in 1878 as the Walnut News) arrived last week, stating that average land prices in Iowa last year had risen 4.7% to $2084 an acre.  That beats the stock market or the security of one’s mattress.  (Written January 27, 2003, p. 291)

Speak gently!

Be kind to your neighbor:  that person may be your relative.  For wont of something better to do, I have spent a couple of hours in the FAMILY HISTORY.  Along with other relatives and friends, two simple, peasant folks from Germany migrated to these shores in 1855 for a better life.  Johann Heinrich Wilhelm (1809 – 1890) and Maria Dorothea Louise (Bergman) Fischer came with their possessions and two sons and two daughters.  In just a few years, as they settled on a farm on the west bank of the mighty Mississippi, one more son and two more daughters would grace their household.  From these seven children a might oak tree would grow. 

I have only been able to cover the adventures of three of these siblings, but am simply amazed at the numbers of souls produced–hundreds, maybe thousands.  Wilhelmina, the second daughter, had fifteen children with her one-and-only husband.  She lived to be 71 years of age.  The offspring from these families have migrated into every state in this union; and through marriage, have taken on the last name of almost every name in the telephone book.  Some are highly educated, having gone to the most prestigious universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, M.I.T., U.S. Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, Miami U., Iowa U., Pennsylvania State and many, many others.  One son of the original seven children served in the 13th regiment, Iowa Infantry and was discharged in July, 1865.  Several were killed in action during WWII and in Korea.  In 1908 Lucy Fischer returned home from a Fourth-of-July dance and was gunned down and killed by a rejected suitor.  One young man was an exceptional golfer and participated in national tournaments. 

The only one of the original seven that I had ever known was Georg Heinrich Frederich Fischer who lived in Manning, Iowa and became quite wealthy.  He died in 1943, being 92.  One of his grandsons played trumpet for Lawrence Welk in the 30’s. 

One thing stands out above all else:  They almost without exception reflect upon their membership in and adherence to the tenants of the Zion or Missouri Lutheran Church.  A number were students at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and became pastors.  The admonition was to go into all the earth and replenish.  The early Fischer Clan did its share.  (Written February 2, 2003, p. 290)


Yesterday, last week’s issue of the weekly Walnut Bureau arrived.  The front page was replete with pictures of an abundant and freshly-fallen snow.  In places near to areas where snow had been cleared, the piles were high enough that children tunneled in and made Eskimo houses.  This all brought back memories.  My in-laws’ [“Red” and Ruth Osler] house [703 Atlantic Street] was in an area of town that was very level.  The building lots were all large and, as there were no fences, the rear area where these various properties came together created an almost park-like setting.  The open space was dotted with bird houses, gardens and numerous oak and maple trees.  It became a wonderland setting after a snowfall.

Iowa has a goodly variety of birds.  I suppose my favorite, at least as a song bird, is the meadow lark.  Oh, how they did sing in the spring and summer after a shower of rain, while sitting on a fence post drying their feathers.  Chances are that you have never seen a cardinal.  I have only seen them rarely while in Iowa: and those times were in winter scenes and only in the area of which I have described as the community of backyards.  The bird is magnificent, shrouded in brilliantly red feathers and just a tuft of black at the very peak of its head.  Joyce Kilmer reminds us that only God can make a “Tree.”  We should be reminded that only He can make a “Cardinal,” as well.  (Written February 6, 2004, pp. 229-230)

The tomato

Unlike sin, which needs no nurturing, is always present and desires to be tasted, a taste for the tomato can be acquired.  My paternal family looked upon the tomato with great disdain, second only to sleeping in the nude.  Consequently, it was not until I matured, moved out and became involved in other cultures and civilization that I finally saw the light.  It is the same with sow’s belly.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair to claim total disassociation from the tomato, for, if mustard was not available, a hamburger at Ma’s Burger Pit in downtown Walnut could be garnished with catsup, providing there was a layer of three, thinly sliced, sweet pickles between the bun and the patty.  “Ma” had her finger tips on the pulse of our high school mentality and knew we would rather eat our hamburgers on the seldom-used road on the west side of the Catholic Cemetery, known as Lovers’ Lane, than sitting at her counter.  She would diligently place a 25 cent order of 5 hamburgers in an unused, brown, paper sack and send us on our way.  [Editor Note:  Ma’s Burger Pit, in the building formerly at 211 Antique City Drive, was owned and run by Margaret “Ma” Rethwisch.]

Today, I am more sophisticated and confined to foodstuffs that never had a face–like the Roma tomato.  The Roma does not compare to the Beefsteak, but is of a size just right for one person.  Of course, the Beefsteak is the Cadillac of all tomatoes.  But even the Beefsteak fruit falls within certain parameters to live up to such a profound reputation.  Never expect a greenhouse-grown Beefsteak to fulfill your expectations or, for that matter, the California product.  Science has proven that because of day and night temperatures, humidity, day length, soil (not dirt) and the soft breezes of Pottawattamie County, which happens to be in Western Iowa, it is the only location known to provide the perfect Beefsteak Tomato.  (Written February 13, 2004, p. 229)