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Mansker Family Stories: The Early Years

By Gail Gibbons Mansker

Note: Gail Gibbons Mansker was the wife of Thurman Hayden Mansker of Wright County, MO. Thurman was the son of William Harry Mansker and the great-grandson of Michael W. Mansker.
The following narrative was written in several email installments in 1998 by Gail Gibbons Mansker to her granddaughter, Vicki Finger , who compiled it into one document and shared it with us. Thanks, Vicki!
Be sure to see the poem, Paul's Place, by the son of Thurman and Gail.

As far as I know, all the Manskers were farmers and traders. At one time, William Harry Mansker, your Great-Grandfather, ran a store. Most stores in those days sold feed, groceries, bought cream and eggs and ran customers on "bills" a month at a time. They were the meeting place for people who came in to buy or sell and constituted the place where people exchanged news. Most stores would have a "loafing" bench where the men (mostly) could whittle, chew tobacco, and trade stories of their latest trade or coon hunt. Harry was a hunter and fisherman, he raised foxhounds and sent them all over the country. He also at some time hauled gravel with a wagon and team, and kept milk cows.

The job of your Grandpa Bill was to keep the wood box full in winter. He told the story one time of living in a house so cold that the wind blew the linoleum up and down on the floor. They only had a fireplace to heat with, and he and his brother, Kermit had to turn to the minute they got home from school chopping wood until dark. That supply would only last until the next evening when it had to be done all over again. They had to use an axe and a crosscut saw, only cutting "blackjack" oak as it was considered a trash tree and burned very well. The trouble with the blackjack was that is was rough and crooked so didn't work up very well.

Your Grandpa (Thurman) Bill was the youngest child, and his Mother, Mayme died of what they thought was Tuberculosis when he was 5 years old. After that, he was in the care of the big sisters, who took over managing the house, and it was hard for a little boy to stay clean and please them. He was stubborn and spoiled also, but ever after said how mean his oldest sister was to him. He would run to hide from her anger under the house until his Dad came home and rescued him.

When he was just old enough to handle a horse and cultivator, he was given a plot of ground on which to raise corn. One day, he was riding the cultivator when he went to sleep and fell off and the cultivator wheel ran over his leg and broke it. Doctors were few and money was scarce, so Bill said they had the old "horse doctor" set his leg. When it was nearly well, he and his brother Kermit were chasing each other, when Bill ran upstairs and with Kermit hot on his trail, he jumped out the window, breaking the leg again. He never told his Dad and was a long time healing, eventually having one leg an inch shorter than the other.

Bill loved horses and traded for them. They were the main form of transportation then. His Grandfather, William Henry was a mule trader when they lived at Manes, Mo. and Thurman was a little boy. William Henry would let him ride on the back behind him when they took a trip to town. People began to call them "Big Bill" and "Little Bill" so the name of Bill or Billy stuck and he was called that name all his life.

When he was old enough to raise the corn crop, he had his own hogs, the corn being raised to feed them. When he sold his hogs, he was expected to buy his school clothes out of that money. One of the first things he bought out of his hog money was a prized 22 caliber rifle. Then he hunted squirrels for the table and they also trapped rabbits in a trap called a "gum" which they could sell for 5 cents apiece at the store.

He was 14 when he and his Dad had a difference of opinion over a horse Bill wanted. He left home and rode a freight train out west. This was in the middle of the depression and he didn't realize there was no work for grown men, let alone a 14 year old. He went hungry and stayed some with some hobos and said it was the worst time of his life. He couldn't go back home as he had no money and he said it was no use to ask his Dad as he had none either. Eventually he and several others were offered a job putting up hay for room and board and some tobacco. The farmer didn't have enough money to pay them. However, it was a godsend, because at least he had food and a place to stay. As he said, when he got the wrinkles out of his belly, he found other work and ended up riding the rails back home. Said when he left home his Dad was the most ignorant man in the world, and by the time he got his feet back under his Dad's table it was amazing how smart he had become!

Grandpa William Henry Mansker was told to be a contrary character. I think most of the Mansker's were very independent. Once Grandpa Mansker was upset at his wife Adeline, and threatened to burn down the house. She took her rocking chair into the yard and sat smoking her pipe. When he saw she was not going to do anything, he put the fire out.

Your Grandpa Bill said his Grandpa, William Henry Mansker, called him a "damned little rebel," and it was Bill's job to kind of follow him around and see he didn't hurt himself. He could tell stories of his life in the Union side of the Civil War, told him he was a "sharpshooter" which meant he was a good marksman. Often then they climbed trees to have a good view of the Confederates. Bill said as Grandpa Mansker got older and Grandma Mansker had died, he lived a few months with each of his children. When he lived with them, he would take his money, which he carried in a roll with a rubber band around it, and count it, losing some in the process. Harry, knowing his mind was getting bad, cut money sized newspaper pieces, and Bill said Grandpa would count those newspaper pieces the same as he had the money, roll it up and put the rubber band back on it.

When Bill was 11, Harry married Nora Hawks. Bill always said she was a "mail order bride". When she came into the household, she had never been married, and the kids resented her mightily. Nora's mother, Grandma Hawks came with her to live with them. Bill said as long as Grandma Hawks was alive, all the house was clean and she was a good cook. When she died, poor Nora who had never taken responsibility tried to manage the house and the unruly kids. They made it so miserable for her she gave up and went back to Texas. Bill said that didn't last long, because Harry went and brought her back. Berchia, Bill's sister taught school when she was 16. You didn't need a degree in those days.

Because of the depression, families moved in with each other and shared expenses. This was true of theirs. It was some years before things improved, so sometimes the ones who had jobs footed the bill for the ones who didn't. Gradually they moved around. Berchia to Tulsa, OK. Jean to Tulsa, and then California, Stella to Pennsylvania. Bill and Frances visited and lived in Tulsa and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, Bill went to work in the zinc smelters along with Kermit, his brother who was living in Donora. They went to work at 3 or 4 in the morning and worked until 10. This work was exhausting as it was a process of taking a shovelful of zinc ore and having to place it into the very back of the furnace. If it was not placed exactly the hot ore could blow back into your body and burns were frequent. When the "retort" (furnace) was full, it was sealed off to burn the ore into pure zinc. Bill said it sweat all the salt out of your system in the heat, and he and Kermit would go home and drink quarts of salty lemonade. However, he said this was one of the healthiest periods of his life, I guess any germs or impurities couldn't survive that routine.

There is not much knowledge about Frances and Bill's life together. Everything was kept very hush-hush and Bill did not like to talk about it as it was a very painful memory. I know Frances had several miscarriages, and had two children who died. Jerry Lee, buried in Hartville, and Beverly Ann, buried in Tulsa. Curtis Layne was 3 years old when they divorced and Bill was forced out of their life. As you know, Bill and Curt did not meet again until Curt was 20 years old and it took many years for the truth of the situation to come out. After Bill and Frances divorced, Bill then went into a series of jobs and experiences.

In California where Jean lived, he tried to join the Army in World War 2, they wouldn't take him because of the one shorter leg. He then joined the Merchant Marine in a capacity of electrician, but was told he was really hired in a position of intelligence. If he was to ever be captured or killed, they would not acknowledge him. He was on board ship in a convoy headed for Europe when his ship was torpedoed. He found himself in the water, the ship on fire, and burning oil all around him. Many died, and he was among those who were rescued in the water. They then put them on a ship, which carried them to Murmansk, Russia. From there he traveled by train, saying the Russian people were very friendly and handed them food through the windows. It was years before he ever told me this story. One of the reasons he did tell me was that I didn't understand the peculiar nightmares he sometimes had. He would wake suffering and shaking when he had these. He was reliving the torpedoing of the ship and seeing it all in his dream.

When he returned he drove a bus in Oakland, California, worked on ranches in Wyoming and Montana, worked in Hanford, Washington as a driving tester for licenses in the Government project there. Bill loved to gamble and was arrested for it while in Washington. When the policeman who arrested him showed up at the Hanford site to take a driver's test, Bill asked to take him. He refused to pass the policeman. When he complained it was because he had arrested him for gambling none of the other testers would change Bill's test. The story was that the policeman said, "Don't make any trouble for that man, or you will never get your driver's license."

Bill signed up for a year to work on the Alcan Highway in Alaska. This was very good money, but there were no places to go and the work was grueling, mosquitoes big enough to carry you off, and only a work camp to live in. The biggest mistake he ever made he said was when he decided he had had enough and wanted to quit and go back to the States. O.K. they said, and released him. When he asked about the next transportation back they said "Sorry, not for several months." He said he had been getting room and board, plus his salary, then when he quit, he had to spend every cent he had made to pay room and board, until he got a way to leave. He said that really taught him a good lesson.

Before I married Bill, he was sick at one time and went to the Dr. who told him about his circulation problems, and said he should not work for a while. This was devastating to him because of course he had to work at something to support himself. At any rate he was in a beer joint (which is where ranch hands and day workers went to find work in the West). While he was there a man came in looking for a sheep-herder. Bill told him he was his man. The man said have you ever herded sheep before, (of course he hadn't) but he told him "Yes sir, he sure was a sheep herder." So they go out to the man’s ranch and load up the sheep camp which is like a little covered wagon and pulled by horses. They go up the mountain to where the sheep are, Bill had a horse given to him, and a dog (he thinks it is nice to have a dog for company). The boss leaves, and Bill settles in for the night. About dark he hears the bells on the sheep begin to ring. Looking out, he discovers that the herd is leaving the bedground. He gets on the horse quickly and begins to try to round them up. He has the dog running along side panting and excited. The sheep are getting scattered and though he has ridden as fast as he can to stop them, they are spreading out. He has visions of sheep never found again, and losing this job. Finally he gets down and sits on a rock, (dog still panting and excited). Bill said he looked at that dog and threw his hat down on the ground and said, “O.K., you know so much, YOU go get them!” The dog took off like a flash and in a few minutes had the sheep all rounded up and back on the bedground. He always laughed at how that dog could do his job and he was to learn what the dog was for.

He also had a dog one time that stood at the back door of the sheep camp and waited for him to throw scraps out of the door. One morning he baked a pan of biscuits and burned them. Tossed them out the door and thought about the dog too late. The dog caught one of those red-hot biscuits in the air. Bill said no matter what he threw out after that the dog would always wait to see how hot it was before it went into his mouth. He had sheep he herded in the winter on the desert and in the mountains in the summer.

He loved the life because he could fish and hunt and read, listen to the radio, had his food furnished, and his paycheck would be waiting at the end of the season. Sometimes he worked on the ranch during lambing time. He said if a ewe didn't accept her lamb, they would put some vanilla on it and it confused the ewe so she wasn't sure if it was hers and most generally took it. If her lamb died, they would skin the lamb and put it over another lamb and she thought it was hers as the smell was still there. Most ewes had two lambs, so it was easy to find the new one.

Coyotes and bears were the biggest problem with the sheep. Bill shot coyotes often, but the bears were more trouble. They would kill the sheep and leave them. One time they found 2 young bears killing the sheep, shot one and wounded it, so it was making a lot of noise, he said they were petrified that mother bear would come after it, and that would have been very dangerous. They did kill both the young ones, and saw nothing of the mother. Moose was another problem, he said they were bad to come on in mating season. Once he had gotten off his horse and the horse went wild running around a tree, when he looked up there stood a huge moose. He tried to get to the horse and his gun in the scabbard, but the horse wouldn't let him get to him. He said he was very fortunate that the moose finally just left, but he was scared he might have been attacked.

I had never lived in the country where there were no electric lights or running water to say nothing of inside bathrooms. When I first married Bill I lived in Tulsa and we soon decided to move to Missouri. David was 4 and Billy 3, and thought this was a lot of fun. We moved into a farmhouse with 120 acres. I had to learn to pump up a white gas lantern and we hung that from the ceiling, we also filled kerosene lamps for light. Drawing water out of the well was done by lowering a "bucket", (a long tube with an opening and closing valve on the bottom). You let the bucket down the well until you heard it hit the water, this created a vacuum, which pushed the water up the bucket and then the valve closed. You pulled the rope hand over hand to the top and held the bucket over your pail, then you had a metal loop you pulled which opened the valve and the water was transferred to the pail. This was a slow task, but the only way of transferring water to the house.

Bill cut trees down with an axe, split up the wood and it was carried to the house, small wood for the cook stove, bigger wood for the heating stove. I soon learned with Aunt Stell's help (she was Bill's Uncle Ben's wife--this for benefit of you kids who were not fortunate enough to have known and loved her) how to find wild greens, how to plant a garden, how to can on a wood stove. She was a wonderful, loving and patient woman, and so good to me.

I can not remember a time when we were not poor in the country, but she taught me so many things to use from nature and how to make do with what we had. Her recipe for chest rubs for colds and croup was equal parts of turpentine, kerosene and lard, melted together, rubbed into the chest and covered with an old piece of outing flannel, you would be cured by morning. She made the little boys mittens out of old sweaters, putting their hand down, she drew the outline of their hand, sewed on the line, cut them out, and turned them inside out. Old sweaters also made stocking caps. Every old shirt or dress or feedsack went into something. She made my little boys diaper shirts, a button down the front shirt long enough to cover the top of the diaper. In those days, sugar and flour sacks and printed feed sacks were made into lots of things. Pillow cases, slips, aprons, pot-holders, quilts. Also the flour and feed people gave away coffee cups with their products. Coffee jars were made so that they could be used as canning jars. Oatmeal had small bowls and glasses in every box and those are the collectibles of today. I still have a cookie recipe book I got free with Gold Medal flour.

No one went and bought new canning jars. Instead you went to "sale" at auctions held mostly on people's farms where they were moving. All farm equipment and animals, cows, horses and mules, pigs, chickens, sometimes canned fruit and vegetables, along with the furniture and anything else they didn't want to take with them was sold at those auctions. It was a wonderful opportunity to visit with your neighbors and outbid them if you could.

Aunt Stell and Uncle Ben had a little daughter named Geneva. She developed strep throat, and because they didn't know what that was, she got rheumatic fever, which damaged her heart. When she was 11 she died, and Bill always told the story of how much he loved her and what a sweet little girl she was. She loved to have him visit her. On the night she died it was a cold January, they went to take her to the hospital and found the tires on their old car were flat. Aunt Stell said they stuffed the tires with rags and started for the hospital. When a highway patrolman saw them and saw how bad Geneva was he drove ahead of them so they would get there all right.

Once Uncle Ben got a government loan to help him on his farm, the government lady would come and visit you several times a year and was supposed to teach you how to sew and can and use the farm to make money. Of course this was all Uncle Ben and Aunt Stell had ever done so they had to listen and act like they were taking it in, and then when the lady left they did as they pleased. They milked cows and she saved the cream to sell to make the farm payment. It was a hard life but they always had their own food they raised and so I learned a lot from her about how to get along with what we had. I really believe that we were healthier and happy even though we had no money to speak of.

Many of the things we did, we did as a family, work and play, having to enjoy some of the simpler pleasures. When farmers butchered, usually hogs, they needed help to take care of the meat. Neighbors would go to help and as their pay they would receive a side of ribs or liver or some part of the meat that was most welcome. Neighbors also helped at haying and other harvest times. It was a way to help and enjoy each other's company at the same time. Men did a lot of trading. Sometimes they traded farm machinery or cows, mules or horses. Sometimes dogs. It was a favorite pastime to go coon hunting, and usually the family would come to stay all night while the men went coon hunting. It was brag time when each thought they had the best dog. Sometimes they were gone all night and the dogs would come in lanky from running and might even go in to a neighbor’s place and be put up until the owner came after them.

Bill said their favorite time when he was young was the 4th of July. All the families would get together and go to the river, where they stayed several days. In the evening and morning the men would hitch up the wagons and go home and milk and feed and come back to the river.

One of the worst times he could remember was when the camp meetings would be held and they would have revival for several days. He was afraid of the "hellfire and damnation" the preachers preached and as a result of his experiences, he never told his children they had to go to church and let them choose to if they wanted or not.

When we lived in Ponca City, Oklahoma, we rented a big two-story house that had a big wheat acreage on it. The part we rented had 40 acres and a stream of water going through it. The wheat pasture part was rented by a farmer who hired David and Billy to work on the tractors. First the ground had to be plowed, so David worked all night, and Billy worked all day. I think David was 16 that year and Billy 14. It was very long hours, hot and windy in the daytime and cool and full of bugs at night who were attracted to the tractor lights. It was hard for David to sleep in the day, because of course we had no air conditioning. Billy had to be up and at work at 7 and worked until 7, David would get on the tractor then at 7 that night and work the 12 hours until 7 in the morning. Wheat farming was a no nonsense job and it was important to get it all in and done. In the winter when the wheat was coming up, we had a good advantage, as the farmer who had the pasture had cattle he put on it. The idea being that the more it was eaten the more shoots of wheat would "stool" out and so the more wheat stems there would be, thus more wheat. Because we had water on our side of the farm, we traded our water for his cattle and we got to pasture our cattle with his, so it was a really good feed saving for us. Then in the summer when the wheat was ready to harvest, Billy and David got the job working at that, and they all drove to the storage and put the wheat in. It was hard work but good pay, and Billy and David bought their school clothes out of their pay and had some left over to spend.

We had lots of garden on that place, and raised cows and hogs and chickens. Something was producing all the time. In the spring we bought baby chickens and raised them to eat and saved some for laying hens. One year the snow was so deep there was nothing for the wild quail to eat as they couldn't get to the ground. We had a path dug to the barn and fed our chickens in that path, then found the quail eating with them. Ordinarily we couldn't have gotten within a mile of them, but they were hungry, so it was a special treat to get to see them up close. The boys also brought rabbit to eat and of course had to be the ones to kill and pluck the chickens. It was my job to clean and put them in the freezer, and then to cook them. We butchered our own hogs so mostly had meat all the time.

One time during the winter we had a little bull who got shoved into the feed trough. He could not get out and it froze one of his feet. We thought he might die, but survived and lost his hoof. Then Bill made him a leather boot, which he wore until he was big enough to eat. We didn't butcher much beef as it was worth too much on the market. But this one made a lot of good meat. Not having an inside bathroom, the creek made a wonderful place to take baths in the summer, also a very peaceful and beautiful place to sit and rest. There was an old rock quarry down on the bottom end of the place and the kids played Cowboys and Indians. Their name for it was Ambush Canyon.

We had horses and one time Bill traded for a goat with a horse. That goat was such a nuisance he decided to trade him back to his friend, but the friend refused to take him, so Bill had to pay him to take him back. Ponca City, out in the western part of Oklahoma was always subject to thunderstorms and we often took to the storm cellar when it looked bad and we thought there would be a tornado. You could stand in the yard and see the tails develop on the bottom of the clouds, but the only tornado we had was at night when we had gone to bed and that was so fast we would never had time to get to the cellar. When it went over the house it sounded like a freight train, and when we got up, the down draft in the chimney had spread soot all over the floor and carried it up the stair to the upstairs. Some of the stuff outside was moved down to the barn, and even though we had no bad effects, it was pretty scary to realize what could have happened if it had gotten down to the ground.

We always had lots of company and the kids had to give up their beds to them. Lots of nights they took quilts and went to the yard to sleep. When we moved back to Missouri and lived in the little house on Paul's place, they also had to sleep up in the attic of the house without many comforts. Later they said how darn cold that upstairs was when the stove went out below.

Bill would let them take the tractor there to the creek. When I worried they might get themselves hurt, he said not to worry there was a governor on it that wouldn't let them go fast. Years later they told us how one of them would stand on the governor to keep it open so they could go as fast as they wanted to. It was not an easy life with all the work to do, and not a lot of money, but we all worked together and played together. We played cards and visited, most people when they came to visit stayed all day, as that was the country custom. Sometimes if there was work to do they came and stayed all day to do that. The kids could always go fishing and we kept a kit of camping stuff for them when they went, as sometimes they stayed all night. One time they had borrowed a boat to take fishing and were going under a big tree limb when a cottonmouth snake fell into the boat with them. They let the snake have the boat! Also they lost several of my good cooking things, as they were at the bottom of the creek There was always a bunch of hazards to being in the woods, ticks, and snakes and poison ivy, but they didn't seem to mind.

Bill was an excellent horseman, he could ride anything, but was very protective about the kids on horses. He made them go two at a time the same as when they were hunting, so that if one got hurt the other could go to the house to get help. He was also very strict about taking them places. If they wanted to go out for track or basketball they had to get a ride or arrange it themselves. One of the best times I ever had was when he let Billy and me go to the horse show being held for the senior trip. We took our big old truck and while Billy worked on the show part, I worked in the concession stand. We got home about midnight, but everyone had fun getting those kids their trip money.