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Back Home in Indiana
& Other Travels
John T. Compton’s Story
It was the winter of 1913. The winds were howling outside. The snow was drifting up on the front porch as it always did in a storm. But inside the house things were warm and cozy. A fire was going in the fireplace. It was Christmas Eve, 1913.
A Christmas tree was cut several days before down in Uncle Dick’s woods. Harold and Lois spent many exciting hours decorating it. Harold was six, Lois was four and Miriam was two. Their parents, Harry and Myrtle, were enjoying the excitement. Myrtle was especially happy as her fourth child was due any moment.
Popcorn was popped in the open fireplace in the parlor and strung in long strands. It was draped on the branches of the tree along with the paper fold-out bells used from year to year. A few candles in tin holders were attached to the branches and lit only on Christmas Eve. A star made by the children hung on the top. A few presents were placed under the tree.
Each child got one gift from Santa if they had been good. Harry and Myrtle made gifts for each other and for the children. Hot chocolate would be a treat to drink with the cookies Myrtle made.
The children woke up early and the day’s activities began. Gifts were opened and goodies consumed. Later that day relatives stopped by. Harry’s farm was joined on the South by Uncle Ed’s farm and Uncle Ben's farm was just west of Ed’s, which was Grandfather Compton’s original farm. These families got together for all the holidays and most of the Sundays. The children loved being together and playing their simple games.
It had been a perfect Christmas. It was late when the tired little children were tucked in their beds, the kerosene lamps extinguished. What a wonderful day!
During the night Myrtle awakened with those familiar pains. The baby was on its way. At dawn Harry hustled to the neighbor’s house to get the lady who served as a midwife to the farmers’ wives in the area. Excitement was high and finally the cry of a newborn child reached the ears of all the family waiting in the living room. Yes, John Thornell made his appearance on the day after Christmas!
My first real memory is the fire. Details of this horrible event are told in the story, “The Fire” that Mary wrote. The house was totally destroyed. My Mother and sister Miriam died in the fire. My Mother was severely burned. I was in a bed in the burning house.
She was able to break the window and drag me out. I remember neighbors coming to help. I remember going back to the farm on Easter Sunday, just a few weeks after the fire, and finding Easter eggs that my Dad had prepared and hid for us to find around the old house foundation.
Later, Dad built another house on the same foundation. He hired housekeepers to help with the children and the cooking. No one lasted long. One lady, Mrs. Ruddleson, was particularly mean to us kids. We really disliked her. Finally, a lady named Lessie came as a housekeeper with her daughter named Mary.
Lessie was very strict, but kind, and eventually my Dad married her, and we all came to accept Mary and Lessie as part of the family. They had two children, Betty and Allen. My little brother, Frank Allen, died when he was four. I was six. This was just a year or so after the fire. I remember how much he hurt. He had a terrible stomach ache and the doctor told Pop to give him some castor oil. This was the worst thing that could be done as it turned out. Frank Allen had a ruptured appendix and died.
For school, we all went to a one-room schoolhouse with a wood-burning stove for heat and open windows for air conditioning. We walked across the fields to this school carrying our lunch in a brown paper bag.
We had one teacher for all eight grades. We had a pump outside of the schoolhouse where we pumped water to drink. We had one cup for all the kids to use. I remember when I was in the third grade, I was the only one in that class. Discipline was very firm at school. If we got into trouble we were punished with a whipping. If our parents found out about it there would be another punishment at home.
When I got to the 7th grade the school was closed, and we went to school in Taylorsville, which was about 12 miles away. I rode the bus. There each teacher taught only two grades, and there were separate rooms for these classes. I was on the basketball team at Taylorsville and our team went to other townships for competitive games.
Basketball was always a strong sport in Indiana. The boys loved the game. I remember cutting down a tree in the woods and helping to make an outside basketball court at our grade school where we played at recess and at noon. At home, believe me, we all had chores from an early age. I had to gather the eggs in the evening.
Pumping water was my main chore. We had a deep well with a hand pump that was very difficult for me to pump. Water had to be pumped each morning for household cleaning and cooking, drinking, washing dishes and washing clothes. Water for the horses, cows and pigs was mostly supplied by the windmill pumping when the wind blew.
My other chores were milking the cows and separating the milk from the cream with a hand cranked machine. This was done early in the morning and late at night. I helped with feeding the horses, cows, pigs and chickens. As you can imagine,farm kids didn't’t have much time to get into trouble!
Pop raised corn, clover and wheat on the farm. The corn and clover was for feeding livestock. Clover replenished nitrogen in the soil. Fertilizer wasn’t available in those years. We sold all the wheat and some of the corn that we didn’t use. The nearest store was five miles away. We often traded eggs for groceries.
All the farmers raised their own vegetables. Gardens had to be planted, weeded, watered, etc. We always had plenty of vegetables to eat. We had lots of fruit trees — apples, cherries, pears and peaches. In the winter we buried lots of vegetables to keep them from freezing. (Whoever heard of a freezer in those days?) As needed, we would dig them up. We also stored food in the cellar, which kept things cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Canning vegetables and meat was a big operation toward having food for winter months. Other than some corn and all the wheat, we sold some eggs and all the milk and cream that we didn’t use. This was a primary source of cash. The clover was used to feed our livestock. Other sales were beef cows and hogs that we raised for that purpose. We also butchered beef, hogs and chickens to eat. Chickens were our primary source of meat.
When I was five or six years old my Dad bought our first car. It was a Ford Touring Car and cost about $100. It had no doors, and I remember sitting in the back seat while Pop was driving. He went around a corner and I fell out in a puddle of mud. He stopped and said to get back in the car, and off we went. Prior to that time, transportation was by walking, horseback, spring wagon or buggy, all pulled by one horse.
My sister Lois and stepsister Mary drove a horse with buggy to Edinburg High School, five miles each way daily, which meant another chore for Harold and me. We had to harness the horse and hitch it to the buggy each day. They did the unhitching and hitching when they arrived near the school and boarded the horse.
When I graduated from eighth grade I went by bus to Mt. Auburn High School about four miles away. I made the basketball first team as a freshman, not because of skill or stature, but because competition was scarce! I went to Mt. Auburn for two years and then went to Edinburg High School. I stayed with my Aunt Ruth for a time. I had a paper route that made about $3 per week, which helped pay for my board and room.
I don’t remember why, but later I stayed with a family friend, Lawrence Stillabauerr, a married man with one child. In the middle of winter I returned home to live and walked the five miles back and forth daily to school for the rest of the year. I was home for the summers and back to farm work, plowing, shocking wheat, hoeing weeds, milking, feeding livestock and other chores. During the winter months I ran traps each morning. I caught rabbits for eating. I caught skunks, possums, weasels, mink, coon and muskrat and sold the hides.
When I was twelve I decided I wanted to see some of the country. As I remember it, my sister Lois gave me a little change she had, and I set off hitchhiking. I got as far as Arkansas. I soon decided that it wasn’t a very good idea to leave home. I was hungry and lonesome. So back home I went. People asked Pop if he went looking for me, and Pop answered “Oh, no, he’ll come back when he gets hungry.” I did!
My last year at high school was back to Mt. Auburn and riding the bus. I couldn’t be on the basketball team, though, because they didn’t allow transfers to play on the team, to prevent good players from changing schools.
I remember we had no inside plumbing. Everyone used the old “out house” as we called it. Long after I left home my folks finally got inside plumbing.
We had no telephone all those early years. I remember when I was in high school, they got their first phone which was a box attached to the wall. Lines were strung from house to house into the telephone company in town. Everyone on the “line” had a certain ring. One would turn the crank on the box to make the ring. Ours was two shorts and a long. Everyone on the line could listen to any and all the conversations.
We had no radio, and my cousin ordered a kit by mail. We put it together and actually did get a program out of Indianapolis, which was the only broadcasting station in Indiana at that time.
We had no electricity until the mid 20s. We used kerosene lamps to study by in the evenings and carried lanterns outside when it was dark to do our chores. Of course there was no TV, no central heat nor air conditioning. For transportation we went from horse and buggy in those early years to the huge airplanes and fast cars that we all enjoy now.
Wash day was a full day’s chore. A fire was built outside under a huge black kettle filled with water.to heat the water for the washing. Homemade lye soap was used. Clothes were scrubbed on a washboard, rinsed in tubs of water and hung on the line to dry. Shirts and dresses were dampened then ironed with irons heated on the cook stove in the kitchen. This was really hot work in the steamy Indiana summers.
I remember in 1929 when the whole country was paralyzed by the stock market crash. Everyone lost every cent they had when all the banks closed. We didn’t lose much, but it was all we had.
I graduated from high school in March 1932 and immediately went to work at a dairy owned by my two cousins, Claude and Roy Compton. The dairy was about one mile south of Edinburg on my Uncle Dan’s farm. I lived in a one- room cabin at a campground by Blue River and slept there the few hours that I wasn’t working That’s when I learned how to cook beans. I’d build a fire in the early morning, put on a kettle of dried beans in water and when I got home the fire was out and the beans were cooked — most of the time.
The cabin was about a mile from the dairy. I got up, as I remember, at 2 AM and walked to the dairy. Another cousin and I delivered milk in Columbus, the town nearby. The milk was in quart bottles. We had a regular route and we knew how much milk to leave at each house by the number of empty bottles left on the porch. A quart bottle of milk sold for seven cents delivered to the front door.
After we finished the delivery we returned to the dairy and helped Uncle Dan with milking his cows. Then my job was to wash the bottles in the dairy while Roy and Claude did the pasteurizing for the next day’s deliveries. After finishing the bottle washing we helped with the farm work in the fields and the evening milking. My salary was 75 cents per day.
I bought my first car from Cousin Roy. I paid $22 for a Ford. I don’t remember the year or the model. He let me pay for it by taking money out of my paycheck each week. Later I moved from my cabin to a room in Uncle Dan and Aunt Cora’s home. I got board and room plus the 75 cents per day. I worked there until March, 1933.
I knew that the dairy didn’t have much of a future for me, so I decided to enlist in the Army. My Uncle Dan said he couldn’t understand why I wanted to quit a steady job like I had at the dairy when jobs were so scarce. All I could say was that it was indeed “steady” when you had to work 20 hours a day and seven days a week! So, I went to Ft. Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis and enlisted in the 11th Infantry. After one year there I requested and was transferred to Schoffield Barracks in Hawaii.
To get to Hawaii I hitchhiked to New York City, boarded the USS Republic, which went through the Panama Canal then to San Francisco. I stayed at Angel Island for a couple of weeks then on to Honolulu, leaving San Francisco through the Golden Gate under cables that later would become the Golden Gate bridge.
The total trip took about 30 days. We were welcomed by many hula girls in grass skirts giving us leis when we docked at Honolulu. I was assigned to the 19th Infantry at Schoffield Barracks. My salary was $21 per month plus room (I should say it was a one-bed space) and three meals per day. My pay was reduced to $17.85 per month that year by President Roosevelt because of the continued depression.
I spent two years in Hawaii and was actually homesick for awhile. Mail from the states was by boat about once a month at first but toward the end of my tour, the flying boats arrived weekly.
First, I bought a motorcycle, but I got caught speeding on base so I wasn’t allowed to have the bike on base. I then bought an old Ford car and started a little touring company on the side taking fellow soldiers around the Island on the weekends for a scenic trip. I charged $3 each for a tour over the Pali and around the beaches and pineapple fields. It was always fun to see these new places and the extra money came in handy.
Honolulu was just a small town at this time. There were two big hotels, the Ala Moana and the Royal Hawaiian. The roads around the island were all dirt roads. Schoffield Barracks was the largest military base of the USA at this time, although Hawaii was still a possession, not a state.
A lot of famous people toured the Island while I was there. President Roosevelt came to see the Island, and I was a member of the Honor Guard at the parade they held in his honor. I saw Shirley Temple when she visited the Island and took her picture when she was at Schoffield. I saw Amelia Earheart when she came there. She was honored with a parade, and everyone was interested in this female pilot.
I got a special assignment as cashier at the Post Exchange Meat Market, which meant extra money.
In 1936 I returned to the States by military ship. Coming through the Golden Gate, we observed that the basic structure of the Golden Gate Bridge was almost complete, I was discharged from the army and went home to Indiana by bus.
I went to see an old high school friend, Ed Iliff. He was picking tomatoes in the field. I suggested he go to San Francisco with me. He immediately stopped picking and left the box of tomatoes in the middle of the field and said “That’s the last * * * * tomato I’ll ever pick! We got to San Francisco, and we both enlisted in the Coast Guard in August 1936. I soon found out that I was no sailor and got out in December 1936 while Ed stayed in for a career.
In April 1937, I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge the day it opened — before the official opening day. I worked for the Market Street Railway as a street car conductor in San Francisco and later at Standard Stations Inc. pumping gas and repairing tires, etc. In 1939-40 I worked as a guide at the San Francisco World Fair.
I learned of a program, in which it was possible to go to pilot training with 2-year’s college credits, or one could take an examination in lieu thereof. I decided to give it a try although I had no college credits. The exam to enter this program consisted of nine subjects including Plane and Solid Geometry and Trigonometry.
I took a correspondence course in these subjects through the University of California. I had to hire a tutor on many occasions. I finally was ready to take the test covering the nine subjects, with three hours for each subject. I passed all the tests on the last possible date before I became ineligible because of my age.
I became a Flying Cadet, graduating in 1941 as a Second Lieutenant with assignment to the 88th Recon Squadron at Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City, Utah. where I became a B-17 pilot.
You all know the rest of my military story after arriving in Hawaii during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Here it is 2008, and I am 94 years old. What a change I have seen since those early days on the farm.
What will happen in the next 100 years? You will be around to tell that story to your kids and grandchildren. What a story that will be!
If you have corrections or additions, email J R.
This page was written by John T.
Compton with help from
Mary Clare Compton, Patricia Compton and Anna Palmer.
It was edited, designed and produced by J R Compton.