Chapter One

The Early Years of my Childhood

D.O.B.
LOCATION
FATHER
MOTHER
GRANDPARENTS

Mary Madon Minnis is born

They say that March comes in like a lion. That was certainly the case in 1949. In Stafford, Kansas, the wind was howling, snow was piling up, and the whole town was in the middle of a true blizzard. Don Minnis (Donald Frank Minnis, born April 3, 1917) was sitting on a wooden bench in the hallway of the Stafford County Hospital. It was 9:30 P.M. His wife Mary (Mary Elizabeth Guhl, born September 20, 1927) was with the doctor and nurse, delivering their first child, a girl they’d name Mary Madon.

The first time Don saw his child, the nurse was walking toward him carrying a naked baby by the feet. The baby was crying, and the nurse said, “Congratulations, it’s a girl.”

Don had made a promise that the new family would have a new house to live in. He’d worked three jobs to make extra money. He did bookkeeping for the local grain elevator. He drove a delivery truck for a gas company. He also worked nights and weekends at the local movie theater, where he’d pop the popcorn and usher people to their seats. Ushers would have a flashlight and help people find empty seats if they came in after the movie had started when the theater was dark.

Don had enough money to get a home loan, and with the GI Bill they could start building their new home. So late the night of March 1, 1949, he went out to the vacant lot he’d purchased. He took a shovel and a pickax to dig a hole in the frozen ground. It was only a small hole in the frozen earth, but he’d started the home, and kept his promise.

 

Some background – Donald Frank Minnis

Donald Frank Minnis was the youngest son of John Wesley Minnis and Mabel Gere Minnis. He had two sisters, Dorothy and Leora, and three brothers, Alva, Darwin, and Hubert. He also had a younger cousin whom his parents were raising, Bonnie Blue Gere. When Bonnie was a toddler, her parent’s home caught fire in the night. Her parents were able to get the children out, but the parents died. (I don’t know more details about the story.) The Gere sisters and brothers “took in” the children and raised them as their own. That’s how Don had a younger “sister”, his mother’s niece Bonnie Blue.

In the photo, Don is fourteen and the tall one in the back row. He was 5’10” and definitely the tallest in the family.  Back row: Hubert, Dorothy, Don, Leora, Alva. First row: Darwin, Mother Mabel, Bonnie Blue, Father Wesley (He was called Wess.)

 

When Don was in eighth grade, he had to drop out of school and go to work to support his parents and Bonnie. You may have heard of Henry Ford, he created the Ford Motor Company, and completely changed how things were made. How did this affect the Minnis family in Stafford, Kansas? Wes Minnis owned about 320 acres of sandy ground that hardly grew a crop. So he took maintained the county roads. The county roads were all dirt and sand, nothing was paved, and as wagons went over these roads, the sand would move to the sides. Then when it rained the middle of the roads would just be mud. So it was important to keep the sand “graded” to the center. Wes would take a team of four mules, harnessed to a grader blade, and he would go over every county road. This was a decent job for a poor farmer.

 

But Henry Ford was convinced the world needed a steam engine, mechanical road grader, and he created one.

 

This may have been great for Henry Ford, and it certainly led the way for modern road graders, but it was terrible for Wess Minnis. Modern motorized machinery meant the Minnis family was on what they called “Lean Times”.

So it was up to youngest son Don to make money. Don found a job herding cattle and sheep on foot. If you can imagine walking and running for ten hours each day, getting the animals to the right pasture, into the corral, to the water tank, all that to be paid 10 cents (one dime) each day. That’s what he did, for his parents and Bonnie Blue.

More background on Donald Frank Minnis

Don Minnis came from sturdy stock, that’s how they described people who didn’t give up easily. His distant relatives arrived in before there was a United States and fought in the Revolutionary War. More recently, his grandfather had grown up in Carroll County, Missouri, playing with neighbors Frank and Jesse James. Later as an adult, he was driving his family to town when a band of masked men, guns drawn, came riding up to the wagon. “Quick, you kids get under the seat, pull the horse blanket over you, and don’t make a sound.” the father ordered. The last man with the outlaws yelled out, “Hey,   is that you?” It was Frank James, who told the men, “Put your guns away. This is my friend.” Wess was only a little boy, but he peeked out and watched the whole thing. Later he would tell his grandchildren, including Madon, all about that day.

After the Civil War,   Minnis and his brothers became scouts for the wagon trains that crossed the Missouri River and headed west along the Santa Fe Trail. He grew tired of long days, living in the saddle, and decided to take the job of Sheriff for Stafford, Kansas. That’s how the Minnis family came to Stafford. I have the iron knuckles that used to stop fights, and the blanket he put under his saddle.

December 7, 1941 was “A day that will live in infamy.” Japan attacked the US Navy fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and we were in the second world war. Don Minnis was the first man from Stafford County to volunteer and join the US Army. He became a radio operator. He told me it was because he had big ears, but I think that was just a joke. After basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, he was sent to North Africa with the Third Army, Second Armored Division, nicknamed “Hell on Wheels”. Don was the radio operator for General George Patton, and was in all the campaigns/battles from North Africa, to Sicily, Belgium, France, D-Day, Battle of the Bulge. Being a radio operator meant he relayed messages to/from General Patton. In WWII, there was no way to get messages from the General’s tent to the cannons, or tanks. So Don created a phone system with wire leading back and forth. Then it was easy to find the enemy and aim the cannons, or send extra ammo, or know where the German tanks were headed.

On November 28, 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin met in Tehran during World War II, and Don Minnis was chief of the communications. He set up all the radio systems for all three leaders. Don rose to the level of Warrant Officer, and said he never fired a gun. He did have a German Colonel ask to surrender his brigade of 4,000 men. “I was driving the jeep on reconnaissance to see what was ahead of us. I see German soldiers coming down the road as far as I could see. A German Colonel took out his handkerchief and started waving it in the air. When I got closer, he said ‘Can I surrender my men to you? They are hungry. They need medical help. We are out of ammunition.’ So I told them to follow me back to our camp.”

Don was awarded several medals, including a silver star.

 

During WWII, Don’s mother Mabel organized a group of ladies and they knit socks for the soldiers. Mabel was also a poet, and she would write a poem for each pair of socks they sent.

 

Background: Mary Elizabeth Guhl

After the war, Don returned to Stafford and was sitting on the hood of his car, parked in front of the grocery store when this gorgeous young lady walked by. That was Mary Elizabeth Guhl, who looked exactly like Hedy Lamarr. This photo is of Hedy Lamarr, at the time she was considered the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. Mary Guhl was just as beautiful.

   This is Mary, four months before she died at age 52, September 1, 1980.

Mary’s parents moved the family several times. Her father, William Guhl, worked for the oil companies when they were drilling oil wells all over south central Kansas. As they would finish drilling in one part of Kansas, the family would move to the next area. I know they lived in Ellsworth, Tribune, Hutchinson, and then Stafford. (When I was a child, probably ages 6-12) there would always be an oil rig going up and oil pumps that looked like a grasshopper. At night the oil rigs would be the only lights you’d see, all covered with lights they were like Christmas trees in the fields.) I never met William Guhl, he died the year before I was born. My dad told me that William was a drunk, a mean drunk, and there’d be a lot of fighting when he went home to the family. He had cancer of the liver (cirrhosis). When he died, Minnette was only 49 years old, a widow with a fifteen-year old daughter, Marthell. Back then, most women didn’t work outside the home, and had no training. So Minette would “take in ironing”, meaning people would drop off their clothes for her to wash and iron. All of the clothes needed ironing, so it was quite a chore. I remember people would pay a nickel or dime to wash and iron a shirt or pants. Grandma Guhl had clothes lines in her backyard, and I would help her hang clothes. They always smelled like sunshine, and it was fun to pretend I was hiding behind the sheets or chasing “bad guys”.

Mary had two sisters, Georgene (older) and Marthell (exactly 6 years younger), and an older brother Harry.

Grandma Guhl

When Mary’s mother Minnette (born May 28, 1899) was about five, her older brother was killed by a train. He was eighteen and went to Wichita for a job working in the railroad switchyards. (The definition of a switchyard is part of a railroad system where train cars are stored, loaded and switched to different tracks.)

 

Before he arrived, there had been a fight between three men working in the switchyard. Two of them decided to hurt the other by having him get caught in the switched track and hit by a train. They didn’t know that the guy didn’t show up for work that day, and instead Minnette’s brother was there for his first day. He was the one caught in the switched tracks and killed by the train. Minnette’s mother was so distraught with anguish that she would hold Minnette close to her for comfort, and say “You are my little comfort.” So, Minnette’s nickname became Little Comfort.

I spent a week with Grandma Guhl (Minnette) for several summers. I loved it. I was only five, but she would let me walk five blocks to my cousins (Harry’s girls) and play with all their neighborhood kids. I could walk to the swimming pool across town. Grandma Guhl would send me to the grocery store to buy things. Grandma Guhl never had a car or knew how to drive, so she walked everywhere and so did I. I felt very empowered, knowing she trusted me to find my way around and come home safely. My Aunt Marthell was in college during this time, and one summer she was in Stafford when I was there. She had a car. We’d go for rides and to the drugstore for cherry sodas. We went to the malt shop. I had burgers, French fries, chocolate malts, and Dr. Pepper. I loved Dr. Pepper! Marthell would put money in the jukebox and let me pick out the songs it’d play.

There was this one day, when I had too much of a good thing. Cherry soda, cherry pie, a whole box of cherry cough drops, and I got sick. My stomach hurt so bad. Then it happened. Pink puke! I threw up everything cherry. I haven’t liked cherry cough drops or cherry sodas since.

Spending a week with Grandma Guhl was the best part of my summers. She taught me to bake a confetti angel food cake. I wasn’t tall enough to reach the kitchen counter. So she’d open the oven door, and that would be my table for mixing and stirring the cake mix. Of course, it was before she turned on the oven. Grandma Guhl would spend a lot of her days crocheting, usually lacy doilies to put under table lamps or vases. Her fingers seemed to fly as she created lace from thread. I’d ask her what it was like when she was my age. Since she was born in 1899, they did not have: cars, electric lights, airplanes, air conditioning, refrigerators, hot water heaters, VERY different time. She told me they would have picnics, cook all the great food, then load up a big horse-drawn wagon with the food and a bunch of friends, and go to a lake, or place where there was outside music. It sounded like so much fun.

Grandma Guhl was a great cook, and meals with her were always a treat. For Thanksgiving, we’d go to Grandma Guhl’s house and she would have turkey; dressing; mashed potatoes; gravy; green bean casserole; sweet potatoes; homemade rolls; orange Jell-o salad with carrots and pineapple; lime Jell-o with marshmallows, cream cheese, pineapple, and pecans; homemade green tomato relish (my favorite); her amazing chocolate meringue pie; and cookies. She would spend almost all her money for groceries and have the most wonderful feast. No one would write or call and tell her “we’re coming”, I don’t know why. One year, mid-meal Harry and his family came in the door, so we made room and every ate. When Harry moved away from Stafford, there was no more work in the oil fields. He and his wife had two daughters Nancy and Dixie. The year they came for Thanksgiving, they lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and arrived with Nancy, Dixie, and young Joe. What! You have a son! Why didn’t you tell me? It was a shock. Later they had another son, Sam. I’m not sure I ever met Sam. We lost touch, and I don’t know where any of their children are now.

Don, Mary, and Madon came every year for Thanksgiving. Then when I was about eight, we didn’t go. My Moma, Mary, decided to cook. She made the meal and we ate at our home in Harper, KS. But she didn’t tell Grandma Guhl that we weren’t coming. Later, with tears Grandma Guhl told me, “I made everything you like, and I sat here and waited. I waited all day, but no one came.” I was crushed that Moma didn’t let her know. That was cruel.   

Moma Mary

When the Guhl family was living in Hutchinson, Mary was a Girl Scout at Trinity Methodist Church. They had two nice homes, one on 13th and one on 15th. When I was young, she would drive past these houses and tell me how much she loved living in Hutchinson. She also told me that Harry was an excellent Clarinetist, and he would entertain people before the movie started at the Fox Theater. She was proud that one of the boys in her class was a Dillon, and they were rich.

Mary was about eight when she darted out between two parked cars without looking. An on-coming car hit her, and she was in a coma for a long time. I don’t know how long it was. I remember Grandma Guhl telling me she would sit by her hospital bed all night and most days, praying that Mary would wake up and be all right. One night the doctor told her, “We’ve done all we can. If she makes it through this night, I believe she will live. But we don’t know.” Grandma Guhl’s story goes on, “I started praying for God to save Mary. During the night, I heard a noise on the window. It sounded like a bird hitting the window. I believe it was Angel wings. Because in the morning Mary woke up, and she was fine.”

But Mary missed a year of school and was older than her classmates. I don’t know if she had a learning difficulty because of the accident, or she just hated school. But she would find every excuse to skip school. As a teenager she would complain of cramps and spend a week in bed every month. Marthell told me that Moma would expect her meals in bed and would order Marthell to bring her a chocolate malt every day. Grandma Guhl said it was her fault, she spoiled Moma because she’d been so afraid that Mary would die.

When I was very little, Moma would be sure I had a pretty dress and she’d fix decorations for the holidays. Moma was artistic, she could draw and paint. She liked to paint ceramics and china. Probably the Christmas of 1952, Daddy and Moma created wonderful outdoor decorations. There was a Madonna and baby Jesus in one front window, with Joseph, shepherds, donkey, and Wise Men. All of these were cut out of plywood and hand-painted. They were all life size. On the other side of the walk, they created a Victorian scene of two couples and two children singing carols by a lamppost. The people were Daddy, Moma, me, and their best friends Mr/Mrs Koontz and son Buddy, who was my best friend. I think there was even my spotted Cocker Spaniel Ginger. Daddy created a sound system so that he would play Christmas records inside, and the outside speakers would spread the sounds to the whole neighborhood. Stafford had a Christmas Decoration Contest with a $100 prize. We won it.

Danville

Don wanted better jobs, so he took a correspondence course in bookkeeping. He was working at the Stafford grain elevator and did bookkeeping, plus assistant manager tasks. Then the Danville Farmers Coop Grain wrote him. They were looking for a manager and offered Don the job. It was a dream job. But it meant leaving their new house, leaving their family in Stafford, and moving to a teeny tiny town with about 100 people. Danville Farmers Coop Grain provided a house for the manager’s family. But it wasn’t much. I drove by it eight years ago, and it was just an empty lot. The house had a tiny front room, one bedroom, a little room added to the back, a kitchen, tiny room by the kitchen, and cement porch. There wasn’t a place for the washing machine. So it sat on the cement porch, no roof, and was covered up when not in use. I didn’t know how bad it was, after all I was four.

It was an adventure! I could walk two blocks from the house to the elevator office by myself. There was a boarding house on the way that had a tiny tobacco and candy counter. Licorice Scotties, candy lipstick, cinnamon bears, root beer barrels were all 2 for a penny. If I had a nickel, I was in candy heaven. Connected to the elevator office was a large warehouse for salt blocks, calf feed, fertilizer, mountains of fifty-pound bags to climb on. I would climb to the top (about fifteen feet high) and slide all the way to the bottom. I would like the salt blocks and decide if I liked the red or white ones better. The soda pop machine had NeHi with flavors like Lime, Strawberry, Grape, Orange, and the bottles were painted with the silhouettes of a boy and girl sitting on a bench looking up at the sky. I loved the Lime best. Green and purple were my favorite colors. Flour came in cloth sacks, printed with Disney characters. Grandma Guhl made me a dress with Alice in Wonderland and Bambi. She also sent a green and purple dress for my birthday. It had POCKETS! Pockets hidden in the seams of the gathered skirt. So they were secret pockets. I loved them, and still do. Pockets are a wonderful thing to have.

 

  Old Boarding House near Danville Elevator      Flour Sack Dresses

The Danville house didn’t have a basement, it was on cement blocks with a crawl space underneath. One day, the neighborhood kids told me there was a smell under our house. We found the place that had the strongest smell, and I crawled under to see. There was this long-haired black kitty that didn’t look right. It was asleep and didn’t want to wake up. So I carried it into the house to show Moma and ask her to help the kitty. It was dead, and decaying, and very smelly. We buried him in the backyard.

Another day, a farmer sold Daddy about 3 chickens. He brought them home and said I could help him. I didn’t know what that meant, but I soon learned. He would chop off a head, and the chicken’s body would run around crazy for awhile then drop dead. Then we dropped each body into a barrel of hot water so the feathers would come off. That’s how you get a chicken ready to cook and eat. It was kind of scary not knowing where the chicken’s body would go and if it would come toward me. So I watched from the cement porch. I was never a fan of fried chicken after that.

There was a large mulberry tree outside the house. Daddy said, “Leave those berries alone. They have worms. They will make you sick.” But they were purple, how bad could they be? I was still taking afternoon naps. Moma would lay down beside me, when she fell asleep, I would sneak out the window to play with the other kids. That’s where she found me, under the mulberry tree, purple mouth telling her what I’d been doing.

I had a wart on the middle finger of my left hand. It curved life a worm around my nail. The rumor was that soaking it in turpentine would cure it. The elevator office had a can of turpentine, so it was my duty to traipse over there and soak the wart as often as possible. While I was there, I played with the machine that embossed checks, gears, numbers, levers to pull. Magic. I would sweep the floor to earn NeHi money. I’d sort pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters in the change drawer. And I’d ride the manlift up to the doghouse.

Doghouse? Manlift? That’s right. The elevator elevates grain, circulates it between bins to reduce moisture and prevent spontaneous combustion. The top of the elevator is called the doghouse. Daddy and I would ride the Manlift to the Doghouse, open the door and stand outside about 100 feet up in the air. Loved it.

        This photo is Danville, Kansas, you can see the DogHouse.

The Manlift was a square platform that would lift you up or down. There was barely room to stand, and just a rope to hold you in place. This was before OSHA and safety standards. Later I rode up in the safer version with metal sides, about the size of a yellow school locker.

My only friend in Danville was Cheryl Krone, who lived just outside of town. Her father was allergic to cow milk, and he would travel several times a week to a man who raised goats, and Mr. Krone would bring home the goat milk. Cheryl was the luckiest girl ever. She lived on a farm with places to explore, and she had a Shetland Pony! Pepper! Whited with black spots! I loved Pepper! I’d go play at Cheryl’s and we’d ride Pepper, explore around the farm. Once, she said, “We have a new milking barn. Let’s go check it out.” So we walked over the open door, noticed a long black thing across the threshold. “Just step over it.”, Cheryl said. Inside she showed me the individual milking stations for the cows. How they moved the milk into the pasteurizer. When we turned to leave, something wasn’t the same. That long black thing across the threshold was gone. Gone! Snake! We stepped over a snake! And it’s gone….where? We knew Mr. Krone should know about this iMMEDIATELY!  He was plowing the field south of the house, so we ran out to tell him. Freshly plowed ground is like running over 12” high mounds. I was four years old, so 12” mounds were super high for my little legs. When we finally (It took quite a while to get there.) got to the tractor, shouting and “Snake” alert, and telling our frightening(?) story, he was calm, smiled, hugged us, and promised he’d take care of it before the cows were in the barn, because we didn’t want scared cows.

In the Summer, there was a community dance every Saturday night. There was an area where people would gather, they’d play music, and dance. I loved it, and joined in whenever I could. My favorite was when we made a huge long  line and danced to the “Bunny Hop” and the “Hokie Pokie”.

Perhaps my favorite thing about our year in Danville, was the tiny grocery store. Danville had a Post Office, Grocery Store, and maybe a realtor/attorney. Anyway, there were three businesses together to create Main Street. It was very old-fashioned, no paved roads or sidewalks. There was a wooden boardwalk that connected the three stores. The only store I visited was the grocery. The lady who ran the grocery loved cats, and she had lots of them. They were all over the store, sleeping on top of the coffee cans, washing their paws between the laundry soap boxes, where every you looked, there were cats. At the front of the store, she had a soda pop cooler. It was loaded with ice, then the glass bottles of pop. When you paid a dime, you could pick your favorite pop, and push the bottle along the track until it came to the end, and you could pull it out.

   Then there was the ice cream freezer! She had small cups of orange sherbet for a nickel. You’d get your own cup of orange sherbet and a wooden spoon all for five cents. What a glorious idea! I’d work at the elevator office, soak my wart, and ask Daddy, “Are you hot? Are you hungry? Would orange sherbet make you better?” Then he’d give me a dime, and say, “Yes, bring me one, and get one for yourself.” I’d hold the dime tight as possible in my hand, and walk to the Grocery Store, pick out two orange sherbets, pay with my dime, and take it carefully back for Daddy and me. Then one day, it changed. When I asked my questions, “Are you hot? Are you hungry? Would orange sherbet make you better?” He handed me a nickel. No dime. Just a nickel, enough for ONE orange sherbet, not TWO. I was crestfallen, but I bravely walked to the Grocery Store, looked at all the fifteen cats, petted a few, picked out ONE orange sherbet and wooden spoon, handed over my nickel, and marched back to the elevator. I handed Daddy the orange sherbet, “Here you are, your orange sherbet.”

What do you think he did? Daddy looked at me and said, “It’s for you. You have the orange sherbet.” I was in shock. I thought the one orange sherbet was for him. I brought it back for him. Now he said, “It’s for you.” It tasted so good. There’s nothing like orange sherbet on a hot day. I knew Daddy was proud of me, and I felt good that I put Daddy before myself. And I was rewarded for being a good girl. Maybe I made too much of it, but those were my feelings and I’ve remembered that day above all others for 66 years.

When I turned five, we needed to move away from Danville. So we moved to ten miles down the road to Harper, Kansas, which had a public school system with Kindergarten.

Times I didn’t listen

Perhaps you think Grammy is a goodie-two shoes, never breaking the rules. Maybe not. So I’m coming clean and telling you what I did whether it was right, or not.

When I was two-three years old, and we lived in Stafford, I decided to push a chair over to the kitchen cabinets, climb up, stand on the counter, and look through the cabinets for cookies. I slipped and fell. Moma heard the crash and came running into the kitchen. “What were you doing? Were you looking for cookies? Were you on the counter? I told you, “NO” what were you thinking?” I knew I was in big trouble. So I said, “I can’t feel my legs. I can’t stand up.” Momma said, “Show me you can walk.” I told her I couldn’t stand or walk. I just sat there on the floor.  Moma called the doctor and said we needed to see him right away. Moma carried me into Dr. Longwood’s office. He checked my legs, said he didn’t feel anything broken. Then he said, “Madon, would you like a sucker? You can pick out your favorite one. They are in the jar that’s on my desk.” Of course, I jumped down, walked over, and picked out the purple sucker. Then I realized what I’d done. Dr. Longwood looked at Moma, and said, “I think Madon is fine.” He smiled. Moma didn’t. She was embarrassed and mad. I think that was my first spanking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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