The following is an interview between Flora Dutcher and Mike O’Dell, with additional stories told by Flora Dutcher.
You probably don’t need to be introduced you most of our readers, but just in case someone has landed here from another planet, tell us about yourself.
Dutcher: I am a complete McCookite and Nebraskan. I was born in a sod house in McCook, south of the Driftwood in 1908. So, I’m 92 years old and lived here all of my life. I went to high school in McCook and graduated in 1926. It was the largest class that had ever been graduated up to that time– 77 kids. We were very naïve, but we were a nice bunch of kids.
When I was eight years old, I decided I wanted to be a schoolteacher. That’s where I headed right from the beginning. I went to a country school, District 71, through the eighth grade. I begged my folks to let me go to high school. They finally said I could, but I had to work for my room and board. So, I did
When school was over and I graduated I went out and found myself a school, District 68 in Hitchcock County. I taught there and I had 28 kids in all eight grades. Believe you me, I learned faster than they did. When the team ran away and spilled kids all over the school yard, I had to decide whether to catch the team or pick up the kids.
Journal: When you say team…?
Dutcher: It was the team of horses that brought the kids to school, so I grabbed the horses and got them back up. One of them had fallen down into a barrel pit. We killed rattlesnakes in the toilets too. We brought our lunches and carried in water–and I played with the kids every recess. We worked hard and I liked the kids. I enjoyed them very much and they taught me as much as I taught them.
Journal: Where did you go from there?
Dutcher: I taught at several rural schools. I taught nine years at rural schools and every summer I went to school to establish my certificate so I could keep on teaching. Then, the summer after the 35 flood, I went to Kearney and I got a fungus infection. It was just horrible, just all over. So, I had to quit and come home. Then I was broke. I didn’t have any money, I had been sick and I didn’t feel good so I borrowed $25 from Mrs. Macmillan to go to college that fall. Can you imagine $25? I knew that I had to do whatever I could to make money. I had to work, so I volunteered to be a substitute teacher. I had nine years of teaching experience, so I made it.
Journal: How much was tuition that year?
Dutcher: I think it was $72, but I worked. I read papers for the Dean and whatever they needed for me to do, I did. Degroff’s let me open a charge account, which I was very careful with. I had nice people to live with, and I made it. I graduated with my bachelor’s in 1943 from Lincoln and then in 1951, after nine summers, I earned my master’s.
Journal: So, your master’s is in education?
Journal: When did you start at McCook Community College?
Dutcher: Well, that’s kind of an interesting story. The day I graduated in 1936, the superintendent gave me a job teaching in an elementary school. That was West Ward and I taught social studies. I loved it.
Then I got moved from West Ward to the junior high to teach social studies and that was different. I was crazy about those kids. You would give them something to do and they were eager. They weren’t blasé about what they could do. They were eager to learn and I had a lot of fun with them. Kids like John Hubert were in my class and they were cream of the crop. It seems like about every sixth year or so, a special class came along. They were really good kids and smart and wanted to learn. They were eager and lively–and I wouldn’t give a nickel for kids that aren’t a little lively and a little ornery.
Then they built North Ward and they asked me to go out there and be the principal. That was a new job. I didn’t know how to be a principal, but we made it. We set up traditions and we had all kinds of fun–and we worked our little heads off. I really did enjoy that. I was so proud of the building. It was so bright and new and different and fun.
I got moved from North Ward over to the college in 1955. So, I started out there in 1955 and I retired in 1973. I taught out there eighteen years. I was the librarian, sponsored the pep club–and I’d never belonged to a pep club. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to do any of those jobs. Finally I had to learn and it kept me alert and interested and having fun. So, I loved that place and it was a struggle from the word go.
The year that I graduated from high school, 1926, they started the junior college. The first junior college in Nebraska. When the class of ’26 graduated, I didn’t go there because I was going out to teach school. I was bound and determined I was going to earn some money, but everybody else…not everybody but an awful lot of that class was in the first class.
We ran the college on a shoestring. When the boys went off to war, there were nineteen girls in college that year. Some of them stayed in what’s now the restroom in Macmillan hall and the rest of them roomed somewhere around town. Dorothy Martin, who was the physical education teacher, stayed there and supervised those girls who lived there. That was when they wore all of those underskirts. I don’t know how the girls fit. I suppose that they used the True Hall showers where the boys showered. There weren’t very many boys in school that year, so they could do it without any problem–but I don’t know how they made it. I don’t even know how the school made it with just 19 students, but we stayed with it.
Then when the boys came back, there were all these GIs on the GI Bill and that was a blessing. Those kids had matured early and they wanted to learn. They were just bound and determined to do a good job when they came back. That’s when the school began to grow…at first the library was in one of the classrooms in Macmillan hall. Well, we had to move out because they needed it for a classroom. So, I moved into the back of Macmillan hall, one door, one window, and that was the library.
When we planned the new library, the Vaughn Reisen, I was in on the planning and I wanted to see the kids out there on the campus walking and I wanted to see it snowing, so we had windows on all sides. I don’t think they’d do that anymore.
Following the article that came out in the McCook Journal, March 19, 2000, Steve Batty came to ask me to expand on that article for the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Book so I decided to write a story about my father Austin Wilson Dutcher.
Dad was born March 14, 1867, the same year that Nebraska became a state, in Whiteside County, at Cordova, Illinois. The family lived in Storm Lake, Iowa and came by covered wagon to Nebraska. I suspect the attraction was free land.
About 3 months ago, I discovered that my father’s two half-sisters were married in McCook Red Willow County. I did not know that those two aunts were my father’s half-sisters, however, I did know about them. We did not talk much about the family.
Everyone should tell the children in the family about their heritage. It is important. I had thought that Dad and my grandfather Ephraim Selden Dutcher and Dad’s stepmother was the family.
My father was married to Clara Elizabeth Sprague who was a close neighbor, in 1889. Three sons were born to them; Albert William called “Bert”, Jesse Ephraim, called “Eph” by our family and James Austin the youngest, who was six when his mother died of typhoid fever. This was 1902. Ephraim later used Jessee as his given name.
I am the oldest of the second family. My mother wrote an article in the Comfort Magazine. My Dad wrote to her and their letters back and forth and those letters culminated in marriage. My mother Minnie Magnola Tucker Dutcher grew up in Pangburn Arkansas. She thought Nebraska was pretty lonesome. She hated the wind and the emptiness.
My parents, Austin and Minnie, were both hard-working in their make up, together they were a great combination. My mother beside all of her other responsibilities, spent hours taking loving and special care of my sister, Thelma, who was handicapped. Her splendid example, no doubt, influenced my two younger sisters who had a handicapped child in each of their families. I think my mother was a silent motivation to them both. It showed in their loving devotion to their own handicapped children.
I think my father was a special person. He had a limited education. However, if he saw a problem, he attacked. He could forge out repairs for broken equipment and make it work.
He dug a well by hand that was 180 feet deep. He kept the well going straight down using a mirror to reflect the shadow of the circle at the top. He could repair our shoes as fast as we could wear them out. He loved the outdoors and the living things. He loved the farm animals and took good care of them. He loved the land.
Dad was slender in stature, strong, active, hardworking, quiet, fair and gentle, honest and dependable in all his dealings. He arbitrated neighborhood disputes. He held offices of responsibility. When he spoke, he was listened to (mostly). I remember an exception. We had a dog named, Caesar. We all loved Caesar. Dad said to us, “Do not let that dog go to school with you”. One day we let Caesar follow us. He barked and spooked a young horse being trained by a neighbor. The owner shot Caesar.
When we told Dad what had happened, with our heartbreak clearly showing. Dad said, “I told you kids not to let that dog go to school with you”. That was all he said. There was no blame either way, no scolding us, nothing more. We understood. We learned, that when he spoke, we better listen. That was what he meant. As I look back on that I think what good teaching that was. We learned where our limits were. He didn’t fix any blame and he did not let us blame anyone either.
Dad always wore a moustache. I never saw him without it. He shaved once a week. At our house bathing was a problem. In the winter we made a little enclosure with quilts around chairs and the washtub as a bathtub. We trusted no peaking; we bathed in the same water. I remember my brother Calvin calling. “Throw me over in a rag, Mom”. We laughed and started the wise cracks. Mom would never allow any wise cracking.
Now, as I look back on our lives, I marvel that we lived on such a tight budget. We had our own meat, carefully butchered and preserved. We had cream and milk, butter and eggs, wheat flour for bread, and a garden, which was my Dad’s pride and joy. This was the source of an abundance of a variety of vegetables. We had about 30 peach trees in the orchard on the north slope of a slight hill behind our house and cherry trees. We sold cherries and peaches to our neighbors by the bushel. We had rhubarb and asparagus beds and mulberry trees.
Dad had a hot bed. It was about 6 feet deep, and 68 feet in size. Filled with barnyard waste, it fermented and it warmed a space to plan frost sensitive plants. We covered the bed with sort of glass-like windows. We had odd shaped little patches of potatoes in canyons with flat space. Ugh! I hated to pick up potatoes when newly plowed. Another thing I hated to do was wash up the cream things.
All of these things took work and we kids were involved it as soon as we were able. I remember washing dishes for Mom when she had to put the dishpan on a chair so I could reach. I was probably 4 or 5 years old. My Dad did not help with the canning of everything but we children did. Mom canned about one thousand jars of everything to get us through the winter. Great jars of sauerkraut!
My family is a large one. In the first family, Clara Elizabeth Sprauge and my Dad had 3 boys. In the second family there were 9 children, 7 girls and 2 boys. My Dad and mother, Minnie, were married in Cabot, Arkansas on May 1, 1907. Mom?s impression of Nebraska made her skeptical about the move but she never left. She tried to talk Dan into selling out and going to Iowa but he had put too much of himself into wrestling a home out of the prairie to leave.
I have copies of an article I wrote about a sod house. You are welcome to use one. It will help you understand what building a sod house involved.
Why was the house made of sod? In the 1890’s what else was there? Nebraska has many more trees now. Birds and floods carry the seeds. The rock that exists in Nebraska is porous and crumbly. So it had to be sod. A sod house is just another example of the resourcefulness of the early pioneer,
We kids grew up making our own fun and were made to feel that our help was an absolute. In such a large family, there is plenty of work. Beds to make, dishes to wash, floors to scrub ad on and on. We did not know that we were poor, we had little contact and many others and we just took it for granted that everyone lived as we lived. Dan made us a tall swing. We spent hours in that swing. He played games with us. One day when we came home from school, we found Dad working on a strange looking contraption, which he told us was a “wait and see”. At Christmas it showed up again. It was a sled. It was heavier than those bought in stores, but that did not deter us from dragging it up to the top of our favorite hill for the fun of riding down in all that speed.
Our Dad read all the continuing stories that came out in the newspapers which subscriptions were paid for the old hen. We were introduced to the joy of the printed page in a painless way. He read Tarzan of the Apes, Brewster’s Millions, Lydia of the Pines. Remember Lydia? She thought her Mother said one cup of beans for each member of the family, poor Lydia. Beans everywhere. We met Harold Belle Wright and Zane Gray, and in addition, we learned to wait and to share. We did not read ahead or cheat. We waited so we could all enjoy the stories together. As the younger kids came along, they learned that you listened and an argument over a little green train ended with the little train in the fire. This reading and listening together was a priceless gift of awareness and participation.
In between times, there was work to be done. Our silo was thirty feet deep. We used 30 gallon buckets to fill with ensilage brought to the surface by ropes and pulleys. One bucket went down and the other went up. The ensilage was fed to the milk cows and the remainder went to the trough for the rest of the herd. We took turns at milking. The straw barn had 8 stations and a feed-through. In summer when the flies were bad., and when weren’t they bad, we milked late so we didn’t get switched. No matter shat, those cows had to be milked and cared for . They paid for sugar and pepper.
We kids hoed the garden, the orchard, the potato patches and we took our hoes into the pastures and cut out the loco plants. I think Mom conspired with Dad to get us out of the house so she didn’t have to listen to kids squabbling.
Our main garden was about a fourth of a mile from the house in the flat bottom of a very nice canyon. Dad loved that garden. He plowed it with the team. He fixed an irrigation system. He planted everything he could think of for food. Then there was the peach orchard. We sold bushels of peaches and canned and canned for our own use. There were also cherries.
My Dad was forty years old when I was born. You can see why he needed kid help. I cannot remember that we ever complained about working. It was there to do and we were made to feel that the family could not survive if we did not help.
Mom needed help, too. We set the table, made the beds, swept, scrub, wash windows, help with the washing and the ironing. Mom thought you were not ironing if the clothes had not been starched, dampened and ironed.
Mom was very particular about her washing. She heated the water on the cook stove and heated some more to boil her linens, sheets, tea towels, towels and any linen like things. The water was hard so she broke it with lye. The ironing was often done with sad irons heated on a kerosene stove. On wash day we had beans!
When we came home from school, we changed our school clothes for our crudies. We lived in the sod house until 1916. I don’t know how he knew what to do to make that sturdy poured cement house but he did. Only a partial shell is still standing. Just before Christmas in 1916, we moved into the new house.
Not only was Dad good at “making do”, so was my Mom. For example, the mattresses on our beds were ticking filled with cornhusks. They smelled good and they fluffed up the beds. Feather beds were nice to snuggle into on cold winter nights. We did not have central heat or electric lights, or running water. We carried in coal and carried out ashes.
We played card games. Mom did not approve of cards but she played. Dad knew the rules for all the card games he had ever played and we learned from him.
When I was still a small child, I heard Mom and Dad discussing Bert and May going to the Christian Church in McCook and called themselves Christians. I asked my Dad “What are we”?. He explained that 12 miles away with a team was too far to go to church and that even though we did not go to church, we were Christians. From that minute on, because my Dad said so, I was a Christian. I didn’t know what it meant, but that was it.
Years later when in high school and Ruth Hileman had been my Sunday school teacher, I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I have belonged to the First Baptist Church all of my life and it has been a rich, highly prized and rewarding experience. From what I just told, you can see that my Dad gave me my first feeling of belonging to the Christian life.
Mom left the farm in 1943 after Dad died in June 1941. Nothing of his hard work and endeavor remains but the shell of the poured cement house.
I used to go there sometimes and mourn. But Hazel, my sister, said to me one day. Don’t think of decayed wood and things, but think of our wonderful siblings and how great our parents were. These writings are the reason I think my Dad was special.