Beyond the Western
"Pat, could I have 108 please?" The caller was accustomed to having his black Bakelite phone connect him to personalized service from his hometown telephone operator. And he wasn't disappointed. Without hesitation, Pat, the switchboard lady, informed him, "You won't find him there, I just saw him walk into the barbershop." This folksy exchange could spring from a script for an episode of the Andy Griffith Show. It was however, a slice of real 1950's and '60's life in my small southeastern Kansas hometown of Colony. The little farm town of nearly 400 residents, boasted one of the last privately owned telephone companies in the nation.
Only one person at a time manned the switchboard. And Pat, her husband, Floyd, or one of the young ladies who sometimes filled in, had a perfect view of the little town's goings on. The telephone office looked out on the little community's business section, so they could keep up with the latest wanderings of Colony's citizenry. On a busy day, there might be up to half a dozen pedestrians strolling the sidewalks and as many as two or three cars waiting for the green light at the town's only stoplight.
If the scene got boring, the operator could always listen in on phone calls to catch up with the latest gossip. Floyd and Pat, however, took the chance that the gossip might include them; since everyone in town knew that during warmer weather they often spent weekends at a nudist camp. The little telephone system sometimes left a little to be desired. In fact, at times, there was a lengthy pause before the operator answered, punctuated with the sound of a flushing toilet. But that's okay – it was the sound of home.
The little site had been home to quite a few people since folks first gathered there back in 1858 in a little tavern called the Halfway House. Built about half way down the line of the mail and passenger stagecoach route from Lawrence to Humboldt, the tavern refreshed the passengers along the route. Twelve years later, the Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad built a depot at the spot, and the location acquired a name. Since it was the highest point on the railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico, it was often called High Divide. Over the next few years, that was shortened to Divide.
The name change from Divide to Colony occurred when about 100 immigrants settled there from Ohio and Indiana in 1872. Since they apparently felt they were "colonizing" the rustic territory, they decided the town should be called "Colony." By the end of the decade, the proud little burg sported an assortment of small stores including a blacksmith shop, a hotel, a dry goods store, a wagon shop, and a post office. Colony's future looked bright.
Unfortunately, the next decade didn't start with the same promising outlook. In 1881 a fire destroyed nearly all the buildings. Like the flames that devoured their little hometown, however, the resilient residents leapt up and rebuilt their community.
Southeastern Kansas, like many rural settings, is dotted with small towns. Some remain about the same size for decades while others sprout up a bit. One of the sprouters lies about 12 miles south of Colony. Named Iola, for the one of the founder's wives, Iola Colborn, it started out at about the same time as Colony. In 1859, a two-story stone building marked the birth of the town. J. F. Colborn built the structure on his land claim, which encompassed a good deal of what would become the town proper.
As the "Bloody Kansas" hotbed of both Confederate and Union supporting guerrilla attacks swept the nation, the building was fortified to house local militia. Later, during the Civil War, it provided a base for various Union Army units. Fortunately, Iola never suffered the deadly sieges by Confederate "Bushwhacker" guerrilla units that assaulted nearby Humboldt. Throughout the decades to follow, the resilient little town's population topped the 10,000 mark.
My memories of Iola are considerably less exciting than the events during the Civil War, but several recollections stand out. Another stone building, originally erected in 1869, served as the county jail for nearly a century. Fronting Washington Avenue, not far from the downtown section, it allowed the inmates the opportunity, in those pre-air conditioning days, to pass the time of day with pedestrians. Although I don't remember the specific exchanges as they called out through the barred open windows, I imagine some were in the vein of "Hey kid, find me a hacksaw."
The town's movie theater also forged a lasting memory. Back in the 1950s and early 60s, the Iola Theater, devised a unique promotion. When a customer purchased a movie ticket, he or she would also receive three or four little paper bingo cards. The cards had perforated circles around each number, so the holder could punch it with a finger when that number was called.
Like theaters everywhere then, they gave their patrons a full evening's entertainment, complete with cartoons, a newsreel, and two movies. After the first feature, the theater personnel would turn the lights up and push a giant Bingo wheel onto the stage under the screen. Incidentally, a number of early movie theaters included a stage in front of the screen, since they often originally included live performances along with the movies. The first two or three Bingo winners received a complimentary ticket for a future show. The grand prize winner pocketed a crisp new five dollar bill.
Even little Colony furnished a unique movie experience. Although it had no theater, now and then during the summer, a traveling movie truck would pull into a vacant lot on the main street. After erecting a large screen and setting out rows of folding chairs, they were ready for business. As our little town's citizens donned their "going out" clothes and promenaded down the uneven sidewalks toward the big event, they knew they were in for an evening treat. Complete with the drone of the portable generator that powered the projector, and the tantalizing aroma of the popcorn machine, the night came alive. We all applauded after the last feature to show our appreciation for the little "walk-in" movie.
What little Colony lacked in size, it made up for in colorful characters. One of the most colorful lived next door to us. Creta Brown, known around town as "Creety," lived alone, with the exception of an occasional visit from her brother. I would keep her company from time to time, but she didn't seem to lack for conversation partners. She would carry on a dialogue throughout the day, in a good strong full voice. As she belted out statements like, "Well, I guess it's about time to start canning the tomatoes," even those of us who knew her ways would sometimes look around her yard to see who she was talking to. Our searching eyes, however, would fall up no other being but Creety, keeping herself good company.
In addition to boasting a robust voice, she had an airtight memory. When our little weekly paper, the Colony Free Press, would hit the streets, Creety would devour it from first page to last. There was not a lot of earth-shaking news, since crime was virtually unheard of in Colony. In fact, we had no full-time law enforcer – just a part-time constable, nicknamed (I kid you not) Pokey Post. Pokey could usually be found during his abundant off hours, digging ditches for sewer lines.
Despite the lack of hard-core news, our little paper filled its pages by listing such vital information as every town resident's birthday and anniversary. Creety prided herself on remembering each and every one of these – for no particular reason. "Numbers," she once explained, "mean something to me."
Like most teenagers, I found myself growing bored with the small-town life, and anxious to "get out to the real world." I have only returned occasionally since heading off to college and eventually leaving Colony, Kansas in my rearview mirror. Bound for the future, I casually left memorabilia from my childhood behind including, regrettably, several Mickey Mantle, Roger Marris, and Yogi Berra baseball cards. Fortunately, though, I kept the most valuable things. I held onto the vivid recollections of Creety carrying on a monologue with her backyard trees; of Floyd and Pat's clandestine gleaning of the town's tastiest gossip; and of Pokey proudly leaning on his shovel with his gleaming constable badge fastened firmly to his mud-caked overalls.