This is kind of a long story but I think it’s worth telling. To tell the story right you got to know two different back stories. If you got time and I recon you do.
About 3 weeks ago we were all sitting around the coffee table up front and every one was having the same talk we have every morning. How much rain did we get or are we going to get, is it going to be hot or cold today, it almost could be anything but almost always it’s nothing. The long and short of it is, every morning is the same as before no good reason for it that’s just how it is, we all talk for hour and I’m not sure anyone ever says anything important. It’s just a companionable time before work with friends.
One of the guys, from the older generation than me is Richard. He has got to be pushing 90+ and if you think about it, I guess that makes the timing about right. He comes to morning coffee, same as everyone, but hasn’t had much of anything to say since his wife died. I guess it’s been about ten years ago now. So, after about ten years of setting at the end of the table for what must me thousands of hours now and not hardily saying a word to anyone but good morning and you all have a great day. Richard just stands up and… Hold on, I don’t want to get ahead with the story but, so don’t go thinking Richard was treated bad or that people haven’t tried to cheer him up over the last ten years. Many a day we all would sit down his end of the table but he would just get up and go home if we got to close. So, by this point we all decided he can live his life the way he wants. If he doesn’t want to talk, so be it, the coffee is still free.
Okay, okay, okay, so have I set this stage right, and it is really important that I get this right, after basically ten years of not talking, Richard stands up and walks down to the kids end of the table. Mind you kids are any one twenty years his younger and he is about 90. He slides his cup to the middle of the table, and says “We had to burn Prairie house to the ground once and if you kids don’t pull you heads out of your ass’s, were going to need to do it again”. He then headed for the door and barked “one of you kids wash my cup and hang it on its peg’. Everyone, like privates in army book camp, return “yes sir”, then we all just looked at each other. It was so quiet you could have heard a mouse fart from the back room. All of us just sitting there staring at each other.
Now you gotta understand, the story of Prairie House fire, that story ain’t said no more. It’s just one of those things. In a small town like this, people don’t talk about what happen on that day. You really gotta understand, husband and wives don’t talk about it when aren’t no one around. I recon for example it would be like having a naked pope at church or those people that spent a winter in Donner pass, trying to get to California. Sometimes there is just shit you don’t talk about you don’t even think the thought. There’s just no good can come from it, only hurt feelings and a broken town. So why in the hell would Richard go and say a dam fool thing like that.
You going to need a little back history.
In city folk history, you know the shit written by college people. The Folks that are really smart, because someone else won the who’s bigger contest and told them they were smart. Most people thought that the land was free from people and in spring of 1898 there was some kind of stampede across the state of Oklahoma for the land. That’s some bull shit story there. In fact, survey shows clearly that 9/10 city folk don’t have the brains to wash the goose shit off the pump handle before drawing their drinking water. (Fake check that)
Sorry for getting side tracked but I’m just saying Prairie house had been serving travelers and traders even Indians. All kinds of people would come buy from time to time to get salt, coffee, nails whatever we could get shipped here and people wanted. For a hundred years or more before 1898. The story as I’m told Great grandfather crossed the Mississippi river and moved to the planes Indian land for no good reason. If there was a reason, they took it with them, I ask several times and all I ever got was to be free.
That is where they started Prairie House Supply. To say it was a store would have been a joke at that time, it was more like a mud hut, there wasn’t even a proper house for a long time. Then eventually it turned into a place where folk came to buy the stuff they needed. Even though the sign on the door stated clearly, we were closed for the day, it was a place where most folks were welcome to just walk around back and holler for someone. Often people would trade milk, grain, eggs and stuff from the local farms and travelers would pay for what they needed for their travels. Money was never even a thing it was just a means of keeping count of stuff.
The original, what most people remember as the supply store was just an old barn it was started as a business to make wagon tongues for folks heading out west. The ground around here was very rough and often wagon tongue would get broken. Grandfather was known for making a tongue that some say could be bent half round and not break. I think that’s a fib, but it was a very good tongue.
Side note I think I still have the instructions around here on how to build a Prairie house tongue; I don’t guess keeping a secret on how to build a Prairie House wagon tongues is going to be helpful any longer, you know on second thought I think, I will just give that old leather-bound book to the kids and swear them to the family secret. It’s not like you can’t just google on how to make glue, but back then almost no one could.
Another funny, that huge table we all set at every morning at coffee. That table was made from the broken wagon tongues, the very reason grandfather decided this was as far west as he was taking his new wife. The fancy folks heading west would sell everything they got would buy a new Conestoga wagon and fill it with cast iron stoves and huge cabinets. The little I remember of those stories and the stories about great grandfather. Were stories about him trying to explain to people, they would be better off going back to where ever they came from, then they would be heading west. Seems like no one ever listened, almost like every story would end with a few weeks later the trappers or trail herdsman would talk about finding the wagon from someone who never got where they going.
That’s another long story, if you remind me some time, I will tell you about that one. But for now, let’s stick to the fire story.
The second side story:
After the boys got back from Germany the first time, as grandfather tells it, everything was going well. I always laugh when I think about him telling this story because he hated those dam black motorized buggies. He would rant a rave, going on and on that he would rather plow all day with a horse, right out the turnip patch, then smell the shit of a FORD. I hate to get too far side tracked but it’s always funny to me when I would hear him bitch about Ford trucks. I’m not sure he even once, ever admitted selling gas and tires from American Oil and Gas and Goodyear paid the bills at Prairie House for a long time.
For years people would trade with us and like most small towns of the time, we carried most people on charged pads. Then at the end of a month, we would send out the charge receipts and people would pay their bill. Sometimes if people were having hard times, we would carry them another month Just being neighborly. Back then morning coffee was a nickel, there was a jar by the door no one was ask to pay it was just a sign on the wall. Most days in that time 20 to 30 men would hang around before work. Enjoying getting ready for the day.
All of this back story, it is all to try and explain what happened when Richard spoke. It is an understatement that the people from here are a proud people. The simple concept of someone not doing what they said is completely beyond the concept of this community. Everyone loved the lifestyle, freedom and security the Prairie community provided. When they opened the state, someone built a jail but to my knowledge, before the time of the fire no one was ever in it. I know this for a fact, because I remember playing hide and seek and I thought it would be a great hiding spot. If I remember, it took Bo Jackson almost four hours to find the key.
As you might have surmised the problem with this hole plan was not the farmers fault, it was not the town peoples either. Some people even blamed it on the banker. Now I know the banker as well as every other person in the town and I swear to you, “any one is welcome at his dinner table any night of the week”. They say the only reason he opened a bank here was to help the local farmers and businesses.
In October 1929, someone destroyed our naive way of life. To hear the old folks, that was the last Christmas. Soon people didn’t have jobs and families could not buy food. Farmers couldn’t sell their crops because there was no market.
My grandfather and dad talked about it and they decided that our family was sure as hell not going to let kids go hungry or wife’s not have something to feed their husbands. So quietly the word got around that Prairie House was having some accounting problems and it could be some time before anyone would be able to send out bills. Mind you my grandfather and father wanted nothing more than people to come in get what they needed to feed their family, simply charge what they needed to get by. It was not charity, someday we would settle up on the bill.
This helped most of the people for a while, but the farmers and other vendors still needed money. Night after night I remember Grandfather and Grandmother talking with dad and mom about money problems at the store. I was supposed to be a sleep, but what they didn’t know was that I had lost all my friends at school. Most people wouldn’t even come to the store because they were embarrassed about how high their bills have gotten. No one ever came in to morning coffee, if you try to wave at people, they would just duck their head and walk away. This was not how a small town was supposed to work. I don’t remember exactly what year it happened because in this town NO ONE SPEAKS about the burning of Prairie House Supply. This is such a taboo subject that I bet I can count on one hand the number of times anyone since that day had dared utter a word about what happened.
But one day in the fall, Grandfather over dinner told the family what we as a family had decided to do. He explained it to dad and mom and after church the next Sunday would be the best time. That would be the day, so dad and I took an old tank and dragged it to the middle of the road. We placed it in front of the store, across the street from the church, we built a big ass fire in that tank and let it burn down to ashes. At the end of the sermon the preacher told the crowd we needed some help at the store if any of the men could help us for a few min before they head home, we would be grateful.
If I remember right about 15 people dropped by the store that morning after church, dad and grandfather ask each of them to help out carry out some boxes. That day, stacks and stacks of charge tickets were tossed on the fire. No one was allowed to ever speak of what had happened that day, that’s all my grandfather ask. Then he grabbed that coffee for a nickel sign and tossed it on the fire. Dad had made a new sign in big bold letters Free Coffee, and he proudly hang it up stating to everyone that coffee at Prairie House would be free as long as he lived.
To my knowledge, there was never a record or count of any of the tickets that were lost in the fire that day. No one ever made a deal out of it, but it was known by the older people, as the day that Prairie House store burned. I guess some thought those tickets represented the store. But granddad was right that day, the only way to save the store and town was to burn it.
As I remember it, the night grandfather decided to burn the tickets. All he stated at the dinner table was. “That store isn’t worth a dam penny without people in it. If people won’t trade with you over some stupid charge pad, the easiest thing to do is, get rid of the charge pad”. Now don’t be stupid, my family would never let people go without food. My grandfather would have unsaddled his best riding horse and left it at someone’s house if he thought that was the only way the kids got to eat. We just decided to let the preacher carry that water bucket, no one needed to know who was filling it.
So, us ten kids 65 and older mind you, setting at a coffee 150-year-old handmade coffee table, take a one-line tongue lashing from Richard about having our heads up our asses. There has never been a curse word spoken to anyone than what Richard spoke that day. There was a life time of love, hate, anger, sadness, failure, success and joy, all combined in that one statement. What do you do with that, I assure you no one was going to ask him, at our age we were supposed to know what he was saying. Then he just walks out telling us to do his dishes. After about two min of mumbling, everyone scattered like a covey of quail. Just like me all the other kids were sitting on rocking chairs at home trying to figure out what we had missed.
I guess no one will ever know, he didn’t make it to coffee the next morning. We sent the preacher by his house who found him in bed with his wife. Sadly, that night a library was burned down. You’re going to need to try and figure out what he was talking about on your own. I like to think, Richard was talking about forgiveness and life is not about keeping score but forgiving people. I guess his cup will hang right there on that peg by the free coffee sign. I hope it will act as a reminder to me, that sometimes the only way forward is to forgive the past.
Just between you and me, I remember grandfather and dad meeting with the banker a few nights before the fire. I don’t know what he needed that late at night, and I don’t ever remember dad paying the bank back. I was setting here thinking, Richards family moved here when he was a kid that’s all any one remembers. The preacher at the funeral talked about his kids in California and strange fact Richard wouldn’t leave, he wanted to be by his wife. Do you think it could be possible that Richard’s family paid off the towns debt and that’s why he stayed with people he loved and who loved him just the same. I personally thought it was the banker who bailed the town out and wanted no one to know. The town thought it was my grandfather but we didn’t have that kind of money. No one speaks of it, so why in the hell did Richard bring that up after all these years.
Do you think, Richard wanted to do a once in a lifetime, drop the mike, punk the kids, diabolical, just for laughs. I swear, it would take you 90+ years, to think up an exit stage left moment like that.
The Old Man
Your fences need to be horse-high, pig tight and bull-strong.
Keeps skunks and bankers and lawyers at a distance.
Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.