Part VII, Finding the Rivers, Marji Stewart: Grilled cheese fortunes
Our trip out west in 1946 was a real honeymoon. We were gone a month or longer and made some stupid blunders. One I recall is that we drove that old car up a washboard road to Monument Valley in Arizona with only a bag of water tied to the bumper. The bag fell off so we lost our water.
No water, no food and no blanket or emergency supplies in July. People who are much better prepared than we were die in that environment! The scenery in Monument Valley is breathtaking.
In California we visited with Bill’s sister Lillian who was staying with her friend Claudine. We just barged in as people thoughtlessly did back then. We saw the usual California sights, such as Knott’s Berry Farm which was incredible then. The time I remember best was dinner and dancing for just the two of us at the famous Ambassador Hotel when a big band was playing – Freddie Martin. That was heavenly music and food for this river rat.
However, the time wasn’t right then for us to stay in California. We headed back to Kentucky, sightseeing all the way. Glorious simple days. No air conditioning, so often driving at night to avoid the heat. There were very few choices of places to sleep and once or twice we simply slept in the car. Who would dare do that today? Also all highways were two lane. A real drag to be stuck behind a truck going up a mountain road!
Grilled cheese fortunes
Perusing the menu in a cafe somewhere in Arkansas, we thought the price of a simple grilled cheese sandwich was too costly. All of 35 cents. Driving along Route 66 we toyed with the idea of starting a business in Kentucky. What kind, though? What about a restaurant, Bill asked me. Sure, but where?
Back home to Owensboro – and to Bill’s Mom and Dad. Perhaps they could spare a piece of their small property to let him build? I had no experience in food service but Bill had paid his way through the University of Minnesota working in kitchens. A fortune could be made charging 35 cents for a mere grilled cheese sandwich. It cost no more than 2 cents to prepare. So why not? Did we have a lot to learn!
Whether the Stewarts really wanted to give up an acre of land, I honestly don’t know. But give they did. We moved in with them, into Lillian’s bedroom upstairs. In the tiny room adjoining it, we made a small kitchen. We put a two burner kerosene stove and an old card table with three chairs in the little room. I washed dishes in the bathroom. Orange crates held our kitchen stuff. Not that we ate there much. Mostly we ate with the Stewarts or the Smocks. Both mothers did our laundry. Did I ever properly thank them?
I got a job as a teller in a Savings and Loan institution on Frederica Street but I had no transportation. Bill would take me to work and his dad would pick me up in the afternoon. Robert would patiently wait in his car even if it took hours to balance the books so I could leave the bank.
We finally managed to get a loan to build a restaurant, after being turned down by the “big” bank in town. Bill did all the blueprints, planning and consulting. I simply worked and my meager salary kept us afloat.
Uncle Clarence Brown, the city engineer, advised us to build a building which could be turned into a residence if we failed or changed our minds. He was Bill’s mother Mabel’s older brother. But these two greenhorns thought we knew more than the wise engineer. We decided to do it our way. We wouldn’t fail. Famous last words!
There was one crisis time while Bill was building. He had ordered enough strawberry plants for another acre of land. They arrived just when Bill had a serious case of poison ivy from clearing the land. He was so sick I even had to shave him! But the strawberries couldn’t wait to be planted.
A dear older neighbor, Guy Barlow, and I planted those Tennessee Beauties. That spring of 1947 saw a prolific crop of berries. Bill and I had to pick, prepare, make jam and freeze them. We gave away a lot and sold the best ones. Do you have any idea of how many strawberries are in an acre? A lot. A whole lot. It was years before I could enjoy strawberries again.
Stewart’s Drive In
In the early summer of 1947 “Stewart’s Drive In” had its grand opening. It wasn’t long until our glazed eyes were opened too. Yes, we served grilled cheese. But. Running a small restaurant required almost 20 hours per day, seven days per week. And then we barely met our small payroll.
Bill worked in the kitchen and dish area and I waited tables, worked the soda fountain and car hopped. We both worked after closing until we went home in the wee hours of the morning and crashed. Business would be great one day and zilch the next. The first winter was rough, weather-wise and financially. I served cars outdoors even when there was snow on the ground.
In the fall of 1948 Bill decided we would close for the season and go out west until early spring. We settled in Long Beach, California. Both of us got jobs. Working only eight hours a days, we felt as if we really were on vacation. Bill worked at the Union Oil refinery in blue collar work and I “slung hash” in a diner.
Uncle Clarence was right
When it came time to return to our drive in in the spring of 1949, both of us were ready to throw in the towel. Yes, I must admit we were quitters. Uncle Clarence was right, we should have built a multipurpose building.
We managed to lease the drive in and stayed in California. We moved to Wilmington to be close to the refinery. Our big apartment was two rooms plus a hall and small bath. This was a housing project, Avalon Village, a prototype of later public housing but privately owned then. The bed was a Murphy bed that pulled out from the wall in the living room. [Maybe Avalon Gardens.]
We made lots of friends but most of our fun was either on the beach or, for Bill, fishing. He went out on day trips for deep sea fishing and usually made a nice catch. Maybe a 10 pound Albacore or tuna.
There weren’t any decent rivers near us but there was the Pacific Ocean. Our favorite day off activity was spending the day at the beach. We had two large cloth bags (air mattresses) which we would run along the beach and hold in the wind. They filled with air and we quickly tied them. We carried them out in the surf and then rode them in to the shore before the air leaked out. Great, innocent, cheap – but very sandy – fun. Often we went dancing later somewhere in LA or to the Coliseum for special events. Always more than one hour’s drive.
To make ends meet I worked at jobs like selling home products. My territory was Watts. Even then it was a minority neighborhood, gentle and peaceful. Could it actually rock with riots, violence and murder? Yes, sixteen years later, it could and it did.
Of course I never made enough money to pay my expenses. Gasoline was less than 39 cents per gallon, sometimes 19 cents! One of my friends and I tried to get jobs at the local fish canning factory but they wouldn’t hire us. Helen said perhaps we looked too “refined”? I think they more likely thought we wouldn’t stay.
Finally Bill got into real estate and quit his job at the refinery. He was told to be prepared to survive a year before any income would start coming in. He worked in Rolling Hills, a lovely area.
Size 10 to 14
I took a job as a secretary and jill of all trades with a suit manufacturer in downtown LA. During the interview, I was told that the job required being a size 14. I was a size 10 so I told the employer “I’ll grow into it!” He laughed and hired me anyway. I doubt that I made even $35 per week and had to ride the buses downtown to the garment district, now almost in Skid Row. That was January 1950.
Occasionally I would have to wear the newest suit and go meet with a prospective buyer for the boss and model the garment. Lest this sound like a glamorous job, it wasn’t. I was the only person in the office and often felt the wrath of someone – customers, employees or bosses. But I was glad to have a job. However, my plans backfired for working until Bill could make it financially in real estate. When we were least expecting it, we were expecting! You could say I really did “grow into” the size 14.
We’ll leave Marji and Bill for now. See Monroe Smock, Kentucky for the beginning of this story. In a few weeks we’ll go back to the story of Marji’s mother Elizabeth and the McDonald family of Kentucky and Texas.
Part VI, Finding the Rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: 1945
My final year of high school (1944-1945) was at Owensboro Senior High. It was not especially outstanding. I felt older than the other students in my class, although I only turned 17.
On my birthday, Bill’s mother called me to come up to their house on Stewart Court. She had a gift from Bill. He was overseas in England and I was leading my own life. Dating and doing all the things that most teenagers do.
I always loved going to the Stewart home on the Ohio River. It was heaven on earth to me. My wonderful future mother-in-law had chosen a gold heart-shaped locket for me with two tiny pictures of her son inside. I still have it. With the locket was a note from Bill. He had known my age all along. How embarrassing. Oh, to be young again and longing to be older!
I received my diploma in May 1945 and enrolled in the summer session at Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College in Cape Girardeau MO. My sister Betty and husband Bill Vogel were in college there. I lived in a girls’ dorm, had friends and dated but nothing special. Bill and I exchanged letters regularly but it was not terribly serious. The war was winding down.
V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945
I was back in Owensboro by that memorable day in August when the Japanese surrendered. (Official surrender ceremony was held September 2, 1945.) A friend of Betty and Bill’s was visiting us; Dwight was a navigator in the Air Force. We were having our usual tasty Sunday dinner when the news came. People ran shouting into the streets, blowing car horns, etc. Dwight just kept eating. After all, homemade rolls and pot roast were hot and inviting. To a guy who had seen too much action, this celebration was a non-event. He continued eating Mother’s rolls until they were gone. Meanwhile, us noncombatants continued making fools of ourselves out in the street. The war was over!
Americans were still under food and gasoline rationing until up in 1946. We carefully guarded our sugar and meat coupons and never drove unless it was absolutely necessary. Servicemen started coming home and a major transition began for most people. Of course some families only experienced emptiness because their loved one(s) never returned, or returned in poor or maimed physical or psychological condition. That was sobering but, mostly, a new excitement filled the country. There was an exhilarating expectation that now, like prophesied in Isaiah 2:4, man would learn war no more. Sadly, almost 60 years later, man still hasn’t learned that.
Bill comes home
It was sometime after August 21, 1945 that Bill flew back to the States and went through official separation from army service in Camp Atterbury, Indiana. He arrived home not long after.
Bill also earned a Commercial Pilot’s license for multiengine planes. He trained as a fighter pilot but had his ear drums badly damaged by a loud cannon explosion. Therefore he was shifted to piloting big planes whose slower speeds would not further impair him. That change might have saved his life? Many of his original squadron went on to fight over Africa and did not survive. Twice in that summer of 1945 Bill flew his large transport plane to evacuate some of the ambulatory survivors and inspectors from the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. Not an easy assignment.
Back in Kentucky, it didn’t take long for romance to be ignited. Bill was so ready to settle down and have a wife and home; he was 29. At 17 I still wasn’t mature but there were stars in my eyes. Bill asked me to marry him a short time after he arrived home. Daddy wasn’t home, so Bill asked Mother “for my hand.” He expressed some concern about our age difference. Mother seemed to agree but shared that her father was 13 years older than her mother. Then she told him Sarah McDonald had eleven children. That should have frightened him away but it didn’t.
I was working in a local attorney’s office at 35 cents per hour (that’s $2.80 per day or $14 per week). Bill went to Cleveland and other areas searching for a job. But really, he wanted to be home. Bill had his fill of travel. He had been gone from home since before 1937 when he hitchhiked to Minneapolis to enroll in the University of Minnesota. So he returned to Evansville IN in October 1945 and took a job as a salesman with the National Cash Register Company.
By October we both were ready to tie the knot and we set a date of November 10, 1945. Rev. Rake, who had also married my folks, married us in his study. It was a very small wedding with our parents, Bill’s sister Lillian and the couple who stood up with us. Betty was expecting her first baby in Jeffersonville IN and was under doctor’s orders not to travel.
After the ceremony, Daddy hosted a lovely dinner at the Hotel McCurdy in Evansville IN. This was when my family began calling Bill “Stew” since Betty’s husband was also Bill. To add to the confusion, Bill Stewart’s family called him Lester, his middle name. So I had one husband with three names – Bill, Stew and Lester.
I wore a chocolate brown suit with a creme silk blouse and had a hat and veil. The hat was made of gold sequins; Bill had bought it in Paris. Bill gave me a lovely orchid, which had zero fragrance. Not to worry, he also brought me several bottles of French perfume. Never had a bride smelled so good!
There was no honeymoon for us. We had rented one room in a home in Evansville. We shared the kitchen and bath with the landlady, a war widow. She graciously arranged to be gone that weekend. As a dutiful bride I prepared breakfast the next morning. A total disaster. Bill wanted oatmeal which I didn’t have a clue how to prepare and I oversalted the sticky mess. Also I burned the bacon, which is the unpardonable sin. But Bill was sweet and did not complain.
We did walk to church on Sunday morning. Of course I wore my orchid and was dressed in my wedding suit plus coat with fur collar. I must have stood out like a Kmart Blue Light special. Someone came down from the choir and tried to get me to join the church and questioned my salvation. That embarrassed me. I think I was feeling pious for even being there, wed less than 24 hours. I still feel uncomfortable when well-intentioned people buttonhole a stranger, supposedly “witnessing”.
Four weeks, three moves
In the next four weeks I moved us and our meager belongings three more times. Each time to a larger, more private place. All of this was via the bus or walking. Finally we had a small apartment with our own tiny kitchen and our own bath. What a luxury!
I had a job in a law office in Evansville and for the next nine months we stayed put. Of course we rode the Greyhound bus back to Owensboro many weekends. Bill probably needed that good mothers’ cooking to survive my efforts at k.p.
Next time: In July 1946 Bill decided he wanted to quit his job and take a trip out west. He received all his military training in the west and loved that country. So we bought a used car from a man in Fordsville KY.
(Previously on the Smocks: River Pilot, Air Pilot)
Part V, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: River Pilot, Air Pilot
Let me explain a bit about working on the river. The crew had to stay on 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, working 6 hours on and 6 hours off. The “dog” shift, or midnight to 6 a.m., was the hardest. Pilots usually drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot. Keeping your eyes on the long barges way down in front of you wasn’t easy, especially in foul weather and moonless nights. You had to stay wide awake.
However, there was one big plus about working on the river: wonderful food. The cooks were always the top of the line and the crew were fed three solid meals per day, plus snacks in the galley any time. When guys worked 12 hours per day, good food was like jet fuel for a 747. Everyone ate together rather than separate areas for crew and officers. It really was one big family.
Crew earned days off and would be home for a longer time than ordinary workers would be. But at the same time, they were gone a long time. Actually their families could live almost anywhere as long as it was close to a river and other transportation means. As in the military, usually mothers had the entire responsibility for raising the kids and managing the home.
Granddaddy Smock died
On March 6, 1944 we got a call from Daddy’s sister Leora. Granddaddy Smock had died of heart failure. Mother quickly contacted Daddy who was somewhere on the Mississippi River. She, Betty and I drove to meet him somewhere and then we headed for the big farm house as fast as Daddy dared drive.
At Granddaddy’s funeral I felt as if a giant had died. He had so many friends and family. John Thomas Smock was 81. He had never been ill except for an abscessed tooth. What a life!
It must have been that trip home for Granddaddy’s funeral when the folks decided to leave Evansville and move to Owensboro. I had quit school only a few days after my 16th birthday. I helped Mother and cleaned the apartment next door after the couple left each day for work. That paid a quarter a day! But my wise mother knew I needed to be in school. Did they feel a smaller town in the hospitable Blue Grass state would benefit me more?
Pilot of MV Sohioan
So soon afterward Daddy began working for the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. He was made Master of their new top of the line boat, the MV Sohioan. That was a proud moment. Mother and Daddy were wined and dined in Ohio and Daddy received a nice raise. Towing barges of oil to their destination, usually New Orleans, was sorely needed in the WWII effort.
We moved to a house in Owensboro probably in April 1944. It was too late now to get in the local high school year. So Mother and I decided a stint at the local business college would be good for me. The skills I learned would be useful all my life; typing and bookkeeping. I learned shorthand too but used it very little, except while working in an attorney’s office.
At the business college I made several friends; it was a small group. One of my friends was Georgia. She was a bit older but we became quite close. Georgia had a friend Lillian.
Lillian had a brother Bill who was a pilot in the Air Force. He would be home for a brief visit from overseas in July 1944. Would I be interested in writing him and perhaps meeting him when he came home? It was a common practice to write to servicemen to help boost their morale. Of course I said yes. I think we exchanged two or three letters, the very thin airmail type.
Capt. Bill Stewart, US Army Air Forces* Pilot
Sometime in July Georgia called and said Bill had flown in from England and we were to meet him the next day. So about 2 in the afternoon, Georgia looked out the second story window of the business college and said, “He’s there.” Sure enough, my blind date was standing on the sidewalk looking up. A handsome fellow in US Army uniform. I stuck my head out the window and we were introduced.
A whirlwind week followed. We dated every evening. I’m sure his parents longed for him to be with them every moment. But this guy had been overseas a long time and wanted to live every moment to the fullest. We went dancing at night at a nightclub on the river.
Friends had loaned him their car to drive while home. On the weekend he took me out in his motor boat and we swam in the Ohio River. Bill’s home was on the river. His mom would prepare delicious meals and of course I ate with them. Lots of friends and family came to greet him and they were all over the place.
The river was prominent in Bill’s family’s lives too. The house had a huge yard, lots of trees and a big swing between two big oaks. Much of that yard is gone now, lost to erosion from the river. But it surely was a romantic setting.
This was heady stuff for a 16 year old high school dropout; dating a college graduate who held the rank of Captain and was a pilot too! I honestly think that neither of us expected to see the other again. Would we?
* The Air Force, called US Army Air Forces or USAAF, was part of the US Army until 1947.
Previous: Smocks on the Ohio River
Next: Don’t know where, don’t know when…
Part IV, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: Back to the Ohio River
We left Texas in the summer of 1938, heading back to the river. We must have looked like the Grapes of Wrath crowd as we sadly headed back to where was always home: Kentucky. Or at least to the Ohio River.
Daddy built a small open trailer (courtesy of the local junk yard) to carry our stuff and we took off. I do remember this trip. Uncle Ben pressed some bills in Mother’s hands as they said a tearful goodbye. He knew we needed it.
The trip was uneventful except for continual flat tires on the trailer. But what can one expect for free? Finally I heard Daddy use a word I had never heard from him – damn! More flat tires. In those days, tires had inner tubes too, so double trouble.
Finally there was no way he could repair the repairs any more. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Daddy pulled in to a small gas station. After a brief conversation with the owner, he backed the trailer onto the station lot. He had arranged to leave it with all our earthly possessions. Later he would borrow a truck and come back, unload the stuff and take it home. The station owner would inherit the trailer.
It wasn’t easy pulling away from our bedding, wicker furniture and kitchen stuff. But we did. None of us expected ever to see our things again. But guess what? When Daddy went back a month or so later, it was still intact! The owner had guarded it as if it were his own. There are good people all over the world!
Ohio River: Jeffersonville IN
We stayed with Aunt Luss [Celeste Steele] in Jeffersonville, Indiana for a brief time until we could rent a bungalow in Jeffersonville [across Ohio River from Louisville KY]. The basement still had mud baked on the floor from recent flood damage. Daddy drove to Little Rock to get our stuff.
Betty and I started school. I was in junior high and Betty probably her third year of high school. Those were not remarkable years for me. Daddy was piloting on the Ohio River and the Mississippi. Mother just calmly kept the family together during all our girlish traumas. She made all our clothing and, as usual, prepared wonderful food. Mother was a superb cook; I still remember the aromas in the house when we can in from school. Also we saw a lot of Aunt Luss and her boys. Aunt Luss, too, was a natural born cook.
In those Great Depression years we had very few treats. But one special day I remember was when Mother, Aunt Luss, Betty, Jack and I went to Louisville to the big Loews theater to see Gone with the Wind. Along with an untold number of others, I immediately fell in love with Clark Gable! That day we had a studio picture made too. I had on a handmade rose gabardine blouse and long hair.
When Daddy was home he spent a lot of time studying. He bought a roll of white shelf paper and began drawing the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with all the sand bars, bends, locks and vital information on the map. That map was spread all though the house. That must have been when he was studying to pass his exams for the advanced “Master, Mates and Pilots” license. The rivers had to be drawn from memory during the exam. He was over forty years old, with limited formal education but he passed.
Mississippi River: Cape Girardeau MO
Very soon after Betty finished high school, we moved to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Daddy had the offer to master one of the boats headquartered there. Cape was a boat town as well as a college town. Nice. Lots of big trees, curved streets and gentle hills. The Mississippi River dominated the town landscape and planning.
We rented a modest two bedroom apartment above a Mrs. Latimer. She owned the local business college and Betty enrolled. Betty rode to the school daily with Mrs. Latimer. In a rush to get home for lunch one day, they collided with the daily noon train. Both were injured but recovered.
Ohio River: Evansville IN
After Betty’s accident our enthusiasm for Cape waned and Mother wanted to go back closer to home. I think we settled on Evansville Indiana because another of Mother’s sisters, Aunt Grace [Kidd, Jones], lived there. It also was on the Ohio River, across from family in Daviess County, Kentucky. Evansville hosted a “ways” for repair or perhaps building new boats. (There was a shipyard there in WWII.)
On Nov. 7 1941 Mother, Daddy, Betty and I made a quick trip in our old Studebaker to Evansville and Kentucky. On the road, the engine began smoking. We quickly got out of the car with our tomcat Prettything. (A beautiful yellow Persian we thought was a she when we named him.) The car didn’t go up in flames but almost. When the oil had been changed just before the trip, the mechanic had not secured the plug. There wasn’t a drop of oil left. Daddy knew too much about engines to think it could be salvaged. What to do?
We managed to get to an old hotel. Betty cleverly draped Prettything over her arm like a fur stole. All went well until Prettything began balking while going up on the old elevator. The elevator operator looked but said nothing; our secret was safe!
Next morning we had a brand new car. The folks had to buy it “on time”, something Mother never liked. But we had to go on and then get back for school and Daddy’s job. In another month, however, we saw the burned out bearings as a blessing. You couldn’t buy a new car for more than five years! Pearl Harbor changed everyone’s lives.
After Pearl Harbor
Betty got a job offer with the Department of Navy in Washington DC. It wasn’t easy for Elizabeth to part with her oldest girl, who not yet 18, went to work in a faraway BIG city. Perhaps Mother’s own experiences had prepared her for this big day?
So I began high school in Evansville IN. Honestly I remember little about the school. With Betty in DC and Daddy off on the river, Mother and I were alone most of the time. We spent a lot of time meeting boats or parked on the river bank for hours waiting for the boat to arrive.
One time the boat was delayed and there we were, far from home. We spent the night in a desolate small town. There was an old hotel. We had a room with a window facing the river. There was a brick on the floor, chained to the window sill. The instructions were: “In case of fire, throw the brick through the window and jump.” I slept soundly. But I doubt Mother got a wink in, between worrying about Daddy and possibility of being burned alive in this firetrap.
In the spring of 1943 Betty wrote she had a surprise. Bill Vogel had proposed and they weren’t going to wait until the war was over to marry. She and Bill had been dating since they were in high school together in Jeffersonville IN. He had joined the army and was stationed in Michigan.
Betty rode the train home from DC and Mother quickly made her some lovely outfits for her new life. Because Betty was 18 inches around her waist and 5’8″ tall, it was difficult to find ready made clothing to fit. Mother and I saw Betty off on a train to Michigan.
Next time: Working on the river, and Marji meets a pilot.
Want to start at the beginning? See Part I, Monroe Smock, Kentucky.
Dr. Marji Smock Stewart, my late mother-in-law, wrote her family story for her son and grandsons. She called it “Finding the Rivers.” She shared it with other family members too and I think would be happy to see it online. Here is an excerpt about her father Monroe Smock and his father John Thomas Smock, from Daviess County, Kentucky. (Also see her Smock family tree.)
Finding the Rivers – Part I
John Thomas Smock 1863-1944
Granddad John Thomas Smock and his family of three kids (George, Leora and Monroe) plus my grandmother Cora lived in an old red house near the bridge and curve on Curdsville Road.
In his youth, Granddaddy was a real working cowboy. He worked in the plains States, following the wheat harvest, riding his horse from one area to another. We’re talking circa 1880. Granddaddy rode a horse almost until his death in 1944. He was an avid reader of old Western cowboy novels all his life.
John Thomas must have been working in South Dakota when he met Cora Delia Kohrdt. They married about 1880. Cora’s parents were German immigrants. Her father was Otto Kohrdt. My aunt Leora was born in Elk Point, South Dakota and probably that was also true of the eldest son, George. Their youngest, Monroe Thomas Smock, was born in Monroe, Louisiana. They moved to Daviess County, Kentucky, when Monroe was very young.
In Kentucky, the Smocks lived a typical farm life but apparently Granddad did well enough to acquire more property. There were a few farm hands who did the hard labor. My Daddy learned to work on the machinery and keep it in top running order. At some point John Thomas built the big house on the bend that I remember being my grandfather’s house. I never knew grandmother Cora. She died of breast cancer April 17, 1911 when Daddy was 15.
Not too long after Cora died, Granddaddy went to Tennessee with a team of horses, pulling a big wagon. When he returned home. his children recalled, he pulled up to the house with a new wife, Lena Denton, and her four children and their belongings. In 1915 Lena and John Thomas had a baby girl: Edna Mae Smock, later Glenn.
Monroe Smock 1896-1980
Also in 1915, my father Monroe married Cecile Sims. He was about 19. Their son, Hugh Kenneth, was born May 23, 1916. Monroe and Cecile were divorced when Hugh was very young. World War I was brewing so Monroe joined the US Navy. He became a machinist and was stationed in Philadelphia before shipping overseas.
Perhaps it was this experience on a ship, far below the deck, removed from fresh air and sunlight, that caused Monroe to think “If I ever have a chance, I’m going to be a ship’s pilot.” Those working on the engines had to stay on ship and work in the heat to “ready the engines” while those assigned to topside got to go ashore when the ship pulled into dock. Probably young Monroe knew what he was missing.
After the Armistice in 1919, Monroe returned to Kentucky and I assume he farmed. Granddaddy had given his daughter Leora (Denton) a farm (his first one with the red house on Curdsville Road). This might have been when Granddaddy gave Monroe a very small farm at the back of his bigger one, which backed up on Green River.
Elizabeth McDonald 1889-1991
In the meantime, down the road towards Curdsville, Lum and Sarah McDonald’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, had returned home from Louisville. She became secretary/bookkeeper for her brothers Joe and Homer, who owned a coal mine near Henderson KY.
At some point Monroe and Elizabeth renewed an acquaintance and began “seeing each other.” After all, they had lived most of their lives about 5 miles from each other. The old Curdsville Baptist Church history shows the Smock, McDonald and Denton families had been clerks, Deacons, Sunday School Superintendents etc. since the 1800s. In a small village, everyone knows each other.
On Dec 1, 1921 Monroe and Elizabeth tied the knot in Evansville IN with Rev. Rake officiating. Elizabeth Weldon and Homer McDonald stood up with them as witnesses. Elizabeth was Mother’s childhood chum and later in 1922 married Homer, Mother’s closest brother. The two Elizabeths were friends as well as sisters-in-law for almost 80 years.
The newlyweds moved to the little farm on Green River. Somehow farming didn’t hold them, although they had a daughter, Betty Jean, born in 1924 in Curdsville.
In 1927 Mother was pregnant again but Monroe and Elizabeth, with 3 year old Betty, packed up and moved to west Texas. Ranger TX was not too far west of Fort Worth but it was the beginning of the dry country. The oil fields promised good employment, plus a small house on site was provided to married men.
Living on a lease was dirty and very different from the green fields of Kentucky. The house was right out among the huge wooden rigs, unprotected from rambunctious kids. The wind blew continually and dust was everywhere, except it was often mixed with dark sticky stuff – black gold.
In early fall 1927 Daddy received an invitation to go to one of the prime Texas hunting spots for deer with a group of men. Mother wasn’t pleased, but somehow I politely waited for my daddy to come home before I put in my appearance. On October 14, 1927, I, Marjorie Ann Smock, was born.
Kentucky and Missouri
Apparently the oil boom turned bust and when I was still young Monroe took his three gals and went back to Kentucky. Perhaps he had been lured by invitations from Homer and Joe McDonald, Mother’s brothers. Homer and Joe had a towboat, the Sarah Mac (named for their mother), built for use on Green River in Kentucky. It probably was used in moving barges of coal around, or towing barges of coal to buyers in Evansville, IN. Daddy had the offer to master her so he and Mother followed his dream again.
Around 1930 Daddy got an offer to take the Sarah Mac to Missouri. I know nothing about the financial arrangement with Homer and Joe, but the idea challenged Monroe. There was Green River, the Ohio River, the mighty Mississippi River and briefly the Missouri River to navigate prior to finding the little Osage River that ran through the Ozarks. I don’t know if Daddy had been on any rivers other than the Green and the Ohio near Daviess and Henderson Counties in Kentucky until then.
So off Daddy went, hopefully to make a better life. Mother and her girls stayed in Kentucky, waiting for word. “First find the river” was a challenge to face Daddy throughout his life. When we would go to a new place, the byword always was, “first find the river.” That was our compass.
The depression was in full swing and, knowing my mother, she was concerned about the family’s future and how her two girls would fare. Would Elizabeth leave the comfort of being in Kentucky where many of her siblings and her mother lived? Monroe and Elizabeth had an exceptional love for each other. Would it stand this test? It wouldn’t be easy, as we shall see, but theirs was a tenacious bond. It lasted almost sixty years!
Next time: Elizabeth and the girls join Monroe Smock in Missouri.
This was first posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 10, 2012. This Saturday, May 7th, 2016, it’s Derby Day again. It feels different this year – it’s the first anniversary of the beginning of American Pharoah’s successful run for the Triple Crown. It’s also the 10th anniversary of Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby win. Sadly, he was injured in the Preakness and he died Jan. 29th 2007.
The 1st Saturday in May, this is the mug I pour my first cup of coffee into. Last Saturday, the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another came from the middle of the pack and passed the frontrunner. At 15-1 odds and in the 19th position, he wasn’t considered a serious contender.
His jockey, Mario Gutierrez, raced at Hastings Raceway in Vancouver, or as the announcer put it, “the small-time circuit up in Canada.” It was Gutierrez’ first Derby ride. The owner of I’ll Have Another, J. Paul Reddam, is originally from Windsor, Ont. As a university student, he got interested in racing by hanging around Windsor Raceway. Two racing lives honoured in the winner’s circle of the most prestigious race in North America, both nurtured on Canadian tracks.
Tracks that, at least in Ontario, face closure. Premier McGuinty’s government decided that the long-standing profit-sharing agreement between tracks and the OLG would not be renewed. Until now, OLG and the track shared the profits, with OLG getting the lion’s share. Still, the 10% that the tracks get is crucial to their economic survival. Slot machines and rooms that house them cost far less to maintain than do barns, tracks and horses.
Another side of tracks: history and tourism
All racetracks, including Churchill Downs, rely on slot machines and other forms of gambling for income. When we toured Churchill Downs, our guide said the only day of the year on which the track actually makes money from racing is Derby Day.
But the pride, prestige and history of Churchill Downs is in the racetrack and barns. It is a tourism draw, with tours, gift shops and a museum. Restaurants, motels and stores in Louisville also benefit from the dollars that come with these tourists who come to Horse Mecca and buy a commemorative mug. Do non-gamblers make a special trip to tour a casino, other than in Las Vegas?
A racetrack is a huge operation, employing many in track and horse maintenance. Also the breeders and trainers who spend years refining bloodlines and preparing juveniles for the track. The stars are the horses and they are expensive to maintain.
Meanwhile in Ontario, racehorses are being sent for slaughter. If the tracks don’t have the slot machines, they likely will close. There will be nowhere to race horses so breeders are getting out of the business. That means getting rid of living horses. It is said that newborn foals are being killed before they stand up – that way insurance will cover their “loss”. Many of those thoroughbred foals and their mothers and fathers have the blood of the great Canadian Northern Dancer in their veins.
Thoroughbred and harness racing are part of our national history. If profit sharing with slot machines keeps tracks alive, that also keeps alive our horses and our presence in the sport of kings. McGuinty’s tinkering with what worked just fine for long before he became premier is now costing the lives of horses and livelihoods of horse people.
Saturday was Hallowe’en. A big day. This October 31st was a big day for another reason. The Breeders’ Cup Classic horse race and the chance to see something that’s never happened before. It happened.
Wire to wire and breaking the track record time, American Pharoah won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Therefore, he won the grand slam, the four most prestigious Thoroughbred races in North America. He is the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first who had the chance to add a fourth jewel. (Watch it here)
The Breeders’ Cup was started in 1984 by American horse breeders as a showcase for the sport and the bloodstock. Each year, on dirt and turf tracks, the best of the best compete. The Classic is for 3 year old and older horses. It’s a big end to the race meet and the season.
Unlike the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup moves from track to track each year. This year, for the first time, it was held at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. In light of the history it made, that was especially nice. Keeneland is an old and prestigious track right in the middle of the blue grass and horse farm country.
After the Breeders’ Cup Classic
The day after the Breeders’ Cup, American Pharoah was trailered a few kilometres down the road to his new home, Ashford Stud at Coolmore Farms. It would have been a difficult day for the Zayats, saying goodbye to him.
He’s still their horse but they sold the breeding rights to Coolmore. It’s likely his stud fee will be about $200,000. That will go up or down, depending on what happens when his babies start racing. The fee for the services of Pioneerof the Nile, his dad, jumped way up to $120,000 after American Pharaoh won the Triple Crown. It was evidence of good genes being passed on. So now we wait to see if American Pharoah passes them to his offspring.
I wish American Pharaoh a long and happy life. His name will be a distinguished one in the record books forever. He’ll have a special place in our hearts. A Triple Crown after 37 long years, when it seemed all but impossible. Then the cherry on top – the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But most of all for his heart and personality, for making it look so easy.
This coming Saturday, May 2nd, is the Run for the Roses, the first leg of the Triple Crown. The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. The young royals of mainly North American horses will be there. Both connections and horses dream of winning it and going on to win the other two jewels of American Thoroughbred racing.
No horse has done it since Affirmed in 1978. It’s the longest gap ever in Triple Crown history. I didn’t see Secretariat’s spectacular runs in 1973, but I certainly knew about them. With three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, I thought it was something that would happen like clockwork every few years. Little did I know.
Churchill Downs, even without horses there, is magical. In the tunnel and trackside, you almost see the horses and jockeys. Inside the viewing salons, you feel the money and the excitement. In the betting lounges, the tension and hope for the big win and desperation over the big loss surrounds you.
There’s a lot wrong with the horse racing industry, just as there is with any sport business that involves animals. Too many horses are bred in order to find that elusive ‘superhorse’. What happens to the foals that don’t make it to the track, and those that do make it, but aren’t good enough for the big time? What happens to those that are good enough but, like any athlete, get past their prime?
The great Ferdinand, 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner and 1987 Eclipse Horse of the Year, was slaughtered in a Japanese meat-packing plant in 2002 after his career at stud was deemed over. He earned over $3.75 million. His reward was to become steaks and dogfood.
There’s also a lot right. Running faster than the wind is in the blood and bones of a Thoroughbred. Most racing people love horses. They ought to. It’s the horses who run the race and win the glory and the money. The jockey, trainer, groom and exercise rider help the horse, but they are support staff. A jockey can cause a horse to lose a race, but he can’t make a horse win. It’s the horse’s mind and heart that runs the race. And that’s all the people need to remember. Look after the horse and the horse will look after you. And remember, when that horse no longer wins the big purses, it was his or her effort that got you where you are.
That’s where owners, owner syndicates, trainers and jockeys can go wrong. They think it’s them – their handling, their business decisions – that are key. People who believe in their own centrality in horse racing should instead invest in NASCAR or motorcycle racing. The thrill of speed and winning is the same, and it is solely your care and handling that makes a car or motorcycle win or lose. It might be cherished by you, but it’s inanimate. It will not feel anything if you junk it at the end of its career. If you’ve done well in horse racing, thank the horses that did it for you by treating them right in retirement.
In 2005 NY racing groups began the Ferdinand Fee, a voluntary $2 per race charge with proceeds going to Thoroughbred retirement farms. Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm near Lexington is the only one that takes stallions. Because of their often-difficult personalities, they can be hard to handle. Most rescue and retirement farms are not equipped for them. Mares and geldings stand a better chance than stallions of having a good post-race life. (Updated from my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 5, 2011.)