Earliest Recollections

A lot of the childhood memories I-think-I-have may come from photos and numerous discussions about the family over the years, but I feel that they are real memories and I claim them as my own. I can definitely recall that our childhood homes always seemed to be within earshot of railroad tracks, and that I always felt a little excited when I heard the whistle of a steam locomotive, or the horn of a diesel. I loved the mystery of trains.

Perry, Missouri

In photographs my mother had stored away and forgotten for many years, there are snapshots of trips to Perry, Missouri when I was 2 years old, and again when I was three. My grandfather, William Thomas Vaughn, was pastor at the First Baptist Church in Perry at that time. Perry was a coal town, hit hard by World War II and the emerging trucking industry.

Perry was platted in 1866, and named after William Perry Crostwaite, a first settler. In 1892, the Perry branch of the St. Louis and Hannibal “Short Line” Railroad was completed to Perry. The railroad was a “shot in the arm” for Perry and remained a factor in the community’s fast  growth. The strip and underground coal mining fueled the 1920s and 1930s bustling economy and limited operations continued into the 1950’s. The end of the Perry branch happened in 1943 and 1944 as World War II rationing and demand for manpower rang the branch’s death knell. 

On visits to his pastorates I remember my grandmother, Jessie Beulah Phillips Vaughn, on numerous occasions, made sassafras tea for us from some roots she had dug up in the side yard and dried. I still recall the fragrance of the roots as she gently simmered them to make the sweet, aromatic, tea with just a hint of milk!

We sometimes made the trip to Perry with my first cousin Sharon, daughter of Helen Ruth Vaughn Sampson, and her husband, William “Bill” Sampson. The trip wasn’t that long; a distance of about thirty miles, but we would go on Saturday, stay overnight, attend church the next morning, and have a nice lunch and playtime before heading back to Hannibal. Of course, I remember very little, if any, of this, but relate what my mother had told me about those trips, and what I can surmise from the few photos she saved.

I don’t remember much about the parsonage properties themselves, except that they usually had big yards and lots of mature trees all around, with the church next door. We were not allowed to play on the church lot, and we never questioned that, because we knew it was the house of the Lord, our God.

Strangely, all I remember of the parsonages, is one particular kitchen, because of something that occurred during our visit that stuck with me! I remember the 4-place square kitchen table being set against two tall side-by-side windows, with white lace curtains pulled back, that looked out onto the lawn. Directly across from the table was a white porcelain double sink, kitchen range, and refrigerator along the inside wall. At one end of the room was the front door, and at the other was a doorway into the living room.

My grandfather came into the kitchen from outdoors one day, while Sharon and I were sitting at the kitchen table having a snack. He turned on the tap to run cold water into the sink, and spit blood into the drain. I didn’t know why he was spitting out blood, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t think I wanted to know, but it sure imprinted that memory!

Bevier, Missouri

Some of my earliest actual memories are of later visits to my grandparents’ parsonage home in Bevier, Missouri, where grandfather pastored the Baptist Church. Usually when Dad was gone to National Guard summer camp, mother would pack everything we needed, and we would board a train to Bevier for a few days with my grandparents. Of course, we didn’t see a lot of Grandfather during the stay, as he was always busy on church business.

When my grandfather, William Thomas Vaughn, was born on October 22, 1894, in Tunnel Hill, Illinois, his father, Lemuel, was 26 and his mother, Rebecca, was 27. He married Jessie Beulah Phillips on October 2, 1917, in Carterville, Illinois and shipped out October 4, 1917 for service with the U.S. Army. His first child, Helen Ruth Vaughn, was born 06 December, 1918, while he was serving as a machine gunner in France. He was discharged six months after her birth in June 1919.

My grandfather was “Willie” to his family and friends, and was a stern, no nonsense, disciplinarian with a deep voice. I don’t remember affectionate moments with him, but, then, he died when I was only nine years old, and for most of those years he lived out of town. He stayed busy with church business, and we would only see him if he came to Hannibal as a guest preacher, or we went to their pastorate for an occasional visit.

My mother would laugh when telling that when I was a toddler, Grandfather brought home a live turkey for thanksgiving, and he put me on its back so I could “ride” it in the kitchen. She said everyone got a good laugh at him trying to keep me from falling off that frightened turkey as it tried to escape its predicament on the slippery waxed floor!

CB&Q to Bevier

My family traveled on a Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad passenger train from Hannibal, Missouri, where we lived, to Bevier, about seventy miles away. The tracks ran on the roadbed of the predecessor Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. Bevier, at the time was a very busy coal town, with active coal mines all around the area, and a short line that ran passenger and freight service to the mines.

As new mines were opened, the Bevier & Southern Railroad extended their branch lines to provide hauling service. I loved hearing the big steam engines pulling the heavy coal trains uphill from the mines and through town to the CB&Q railroad siding.

WVRR Steam Engine #100 with cabbage stack departs coal service pit, 1986

Several times we would hear a train approaching as we played in the yard, and I would run to the sidewalk out front, to gaze the few blocks toward the railroad tracks just to catch a glimpse of the steam engines chuffing through the intersection. I always enjoyed the noise and drama of the “working” end of the train, and admired the men in the cab of the locomotive who made the train “go.”

In later years Grandfather had churches in other towns including Meadville, Kahoka, Braymer, Hannibal, and St. Joseph MO. I only knew him for the first nine years of my life, but he left a resounding impression on me. I just couldn’t imagine a better person in the pulpit. I no longer recall him doing a church sermon, as the lasting impression is of tent revivals in Hannibal where my family assisted with passing out handheld fans with funeral home advertising, and printed programs during sweltering summer nights. Grandfather’s shirt and tie would be soaked with sweat by the end of the service, his suit jacket having been removed earlier.

Revivals and Bible Thumping

I recall going to his week-long summertime tent revivals in the Bear Creek Bottoms in Hannibal MO off South Arch, between what is now Warren Barrett and Collier Streets. The city has constructed a water treatment facility on the property, which back then was called “the fairgrounds,” and had previously held a professional baseball field. Many circuses had been held in that field, too, with their long trains parked on the siding provided just for that purpose.

Summertime Tents

I believe the huge circus-style tent used for the revivals may have been erected by a rental company, because I don’t remember being there during setup. Then, again, it may have been too dangerous to have small children around during what must have been a well coordinated event. The revival tent was heavy beige canvas held up by very tall poles down that lined the center with shorter ones around the edges. Really thick ropes tied the sides to stakes all around the outside, and the bottom flap was rolled up on the sides, to let the hot summer air circulate.

The end flaps were pulled to the sides to make a large opening at the back big enough to drive a truck through, which served as the entrance and exit. A piano was placed to the right of the plain wooden podium at the front, and the choir sat in rows of chairs to the left, facing the podium. I would guess there were 25 folding chairs side by side on either side of the wide center aisle, and I couldn’t venture a guess at how many rows there were, but it was standing room only!

Ushers stood at various posts throughout the tent to lend assistance to anyone needing help. I recall handing out cardboard fans with wooden handles at the entrance, and them being put to use immediately because there was no air conditioning. When you glanced at the congregation, those fans seemed to flutter in unison throughout the tent. As I recall,  the fans were furnished by a local funeral home, and had a mostly red pastoral painting on one side, and the funeral home advertising on the other.

My grandfather seemed just perfect in the pulpit to me . . . loud, clear, emphatic, filled with God’s inspiration . . . straight and true. His voice trembled with conviction and echoed in the evening stillness as his bible met the podium with an emphatic “thump!” The flashes of light bouncing off the gold gilt edge as he waved the bible seemed to accentuate the point he was making. I just couldn’t imagine anyone being a better preacher!

His voice reverberated across the fairgrounds, and I was sure that folks must be able to hear him quite well for several blocks. His big black bible that he preached from lay open on the podium, its gilt edges gleaming as he turned pages. Occasionally he  picked it up, waved it in the air, and plopped it down on the podium with a resounding thump! I was very proud of him, and thought, as a young boy, that I would become a preacher.

He died unexpectedly when I was nine years old, on the day before Easter, April 4, 1953.  Easter was a sad event that year, although I didn’t really grasp the meaning at the time. He was a pastor in St. Joseph, Missouri at the time of his passing. I don’t remember going to the funeral, and doubt that we children were able to attend. My brother, the youngest, would have been only three years old.

For many years I had only one keepsake of my grandfather’s; a handsome metal-cased pocket knife inscribed with his name, “W.T. Vaughn.” I got the knife from my grandmother a few years later. She told me it had been a sales award, from the years before his full time ministry, when he was a hardware salesman for L.B. Price in St. Joseph (1939). Though kept in a memento box and stored away, the knife has been lost to history, and its whereabouts unknown.

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About Larry E. Vaughn

Larry E Vaughn is a Texas-based blogger/ content writer, and former career counselor. His published works can be found at HeliumNetwork, and InsideBusiness360 . He writes for CabForward.com℠ and has additional websites at GodsWoodShed.com, Vaughnkitchens.com, and is publisher of The Self-Employment Journal, http://paper.li/levaughn#/..
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