Journalist and novelist E.W. Howe wrote about the small towns of middle America in his fiction as well as his magazine E.W. Howe’s Monthly. A known difficult father and all-around grump, Howe’s writing never gained wide acclaim despite having stamps of approval from Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken (Twain wrote back to Howe after reading one of his manuscripts, “you may have caught the only fish there was in your pond”). “The Anthology of Another Town” was excerpted in the Post in 1920, the same year Howe published it as a novel. His quaint tales of small-town life provide a brilliant snapshot of a time and place we often too-quickly label “simpler.”
Published on November 6, 1920
Vic and Frances
Vic King and his wife Frances have been great friends of Joe Todd and his wife Clara ever since they were children. They attended school together and as young married people visited back and forth.
But they have quarreled; Joe Todd and his wife say they are through with Vic and Frances.
Joe and Clara have a little baby, their first, and everybody hears how smart it is. Elderly women say, “Good gracious, do Joe and Clara imagine there never was a baby before!”
But Joe and Clara continued to lug their baby round and tell people about its beauty and smartness, though I don’t believe anyone can tell how a baby will turn out for a year or two.
Clara said the baby talked when six months old, and pretended to be able to interpret its gurgles; and Joe stood by and said, “Hear that! It’s as plain as words can be made! I tell you honestly, I’m worried. The baby is too smart; it’s abnormal. I’m afraid it will die.”
When people saw Joe and Clara coming to visit them in the evening, the mother carrying a white fluffy package and the father carrying bottles, bags and playthings, they knew they were in for an evening of it; nothing could be talked about except the baby.
I suppose Vic and Frances also became tired of the incessant talk about the Todd baby, though it was nice enough; but, as far as that goes, the world is full of the same kind. Anyway, it seems Vic and Frances used to go over to see Joe and Clara, and talk incessantly about how smart Tommy Mansfield is. They said Tommy could sing two verses of a song; that he could form long and complete sentences; that he could take steps between chairs. They didn’t deny that Joe and Clara had a nice baby, but they talked incessantly about Tommy Mansfield, who is two months younger than Joseph, the Todd baby.
So Joe and Clara say they are through with Vic and Frances; and Vic and Frances — and pretty much everybody else in town — are laughing at the joke.
Everyone thinks it is his duty to serve as pallbearer when called on. And unless he has a mighty good excuse Jake Harris, our undertaker, won’t let one of our citizens off when there is occasion for his services. Jake has almost as much authority as the judge exercises about jury duty.
As Jake Harris always picks good men as pallbearers, six prominent citizens attended the funeral of Matt Herrold. But these comprised the crowd present, since Matt wasn’t very well thought of.
Matt was generally known round town as the Evening Herrold, because of his habit of going to the drug store after supper and remaining late to growl and gossip about the town. He had never been successful himself, and when another man got along pretty well Matt couldn’t understand it. He had a good mind, some said, but everybody knew he was mean. One evening Eddie Batty led him out of the drug store and gave him a beating on general principles.
For a time, Matt was a little more careful in his talk, but soon got back to normal, and hated everybody about as usual.
He was thoroughly disliked at the Pierce House, where he boarded and spent most of his afternoons on the porches or in the office, growling. He had once lived in a big town, and when he came here and people didn’t make a lot over him he was mad enough to bite a nail in two. Matt had as much chance as anybody, but never made much more than his board and clothes, and when anyone else did a little better than that he went the sour way. Matt thought he was a great deal smarter than he really was, is my opinion, and never could understand why the dull people about him were not dazzled by his brilliance.
Doc Tobin, who waited on him in his last illness, says there didn’t seem to be much the matter. Doc thinks he died of hate.
When I was a little boy we lived in the country, where my father was a circuit rider. Every Saturday afternoon I accompanied him on his preaching trips, riding behind on a fat pony we called Mex, because we had heard the animal was a Mexican mustang. This animal wouldn’t work in harness and wasn’t very reliable under the saddle, as he frequently threw us both by jumping suddenly. Then we couldn’t catch him, and were compelled to walk the rest of the way.
When I saw Mex tied by the kitchen door on a certain Saturday afternoon I knew what it meant, so I stopped what I was doing and went inside to put on my best clothes for the trip. On this particular occasion Mex threw us as usual, and, trying vainly to catch him, we walked to the home of a farmer named Joel Fair. We seemed to be expected, for a good many were gathered there, and we held a prayer meeting.
After it was over I heard the men discussing Squire Bondurant, a well-known rebel who lived in that neighborhood. It was finally agreed that it was their duty, as religious men, to go over to his house and talk to him in the hope of coming to an understanding about the war, then threatening. The squire was a religious man, but belonged to the South Methodist church, while we were North Methodists. Some thought that if my father went over and prayed earnestly with the leading man of his faith in our neighborhood trouble might be averted, for things were looking mighty black about that time. A big girl at school had already read a composition entitled The Horrors of War, and everywhere I heard discussions of slavery. We North Methodists were for freedom, but Squire Bondurant owned slaves and said the Bible plainly sanctioned his course.
After supper the men started over to Squire Bondurant’s house, and I went along, wondering how the adventure would come out. As we walked through the woods after dark we sang religious songs and worked ourselves into quite a religious fervor and we claimed the Bible plainly said all men should be free.
Arriving at the Bondurant house, father walked in and the rest of us slipped in behind him; four or five men and as many boys. Father was very polite and said to the squire that as they were both religious men and confronted with a difference, would he join him in prayer?
The squire didn’t like the intrusion very well, I could see that; but as there didn’t seem to be anything else to do he consented. So we all knelt, and father began. Three or four of the squire’s black people were standing outside, curiously watching the proceedings. As father proceeded he warmed up, and said a good many things even I thought were dangerous in Squire Bondurant’s house, knowing his sentiments. None of us had ever been in the house before, as the family was somewhat exclusive.
The prayer being over, the squire was in a bad humor.
“Do you know,” he sharply asked my father, “that you could be sent to the penitentiary for that prayer? What you have said is plainly intended to incite slaves to rebellion. There is a statute against that in this state.”
Father was rather a mean talker, too, when discussing a disputed point with a South Methodist, and the argument soon became so warm that I went outside, frightened. The others of our party followed me and we stood in silence until father came out. Then we all walked home, realizing we had been guilty of an indiscretion. There was no singing on the way back, and little conversation.
I slept with father that night at Joel Fair’s, in a big bed with a trundle-bed under it in which were three children, and noticed that for the first time in my experience with him he could not sleep, but tossed about.
The house was small, and we all slept in the same room. Very late in the night I heard my father say to Joel Fair: “Brother Joel, are you still awake?”
Brother Joel was awake; he too was sleepless from thinking of the indiscretion.
“Tell everybody you see tomorrow,” father said, “to meet at the schoolhouse next Monday afternoon. If we can’t settle it with prayer, we will have to settle it some other way.”
There was a tremendous rally at the schoolhouse the following Monday afternoon. Someone brought a drum and pounded it a good deal. Father was elected captain, and those who signed the muster roll followed him into the yard, the drum beating harder than ever. The women and children cried, as we supposed the men would march away at once; but they didn’t actually go for a week, and when they did go they went away in wagons.
And that was the way Company A was formed.
Clara Dowling has worked in John Miller’s family for nine years, and caused a sensation the other day by quitting. We all supposed the trouble was with John, as Mrs. Miller is a lovely character. So someone asked Clara what John had been up to.
“It wasn’t him,” she replied; “it was her.”
There is in this town a very respectable and proper woman whom I will call Mrs. A. We have heard in a roundabout way that she bitterly complains, to her women friends, of the conduct of Sam Underwood, a married man. It seems Sam is always trying to hold Mrs. A.’s hand.
Quite recently I was in company with Mrs. A., and the name of Sam Underwood came up.
“Now,” I thought, “Sam will catch it. Mrs. A. hates this man, because of his boldness and, his name having come up in the conversation, she will crucify him.”
She didn’t know I knew of her complaints against Sam Underwood, but as she is a very proper woman I felt sure she would express her disapproval of him in a way that could not be mistaken.
But this is what she said: “He is the most entertaining man I ever knew in my life.”
Some say it is about the worst town row we have ever had, and it began about almost nothing. George Edward Morgan, seven years old, failed to pass his examination at the close of the term and was ordered to remain in the first grade another winter.
His mother, who belongs to one of our best families, was furious, as George Edward is an only child. Mrs. Morgan says it was a rank case of favoritism, and went to see Miss Minnie May Perry, George Edward’s teacher. Mrs. Morgan reports Minnie May as boldly saying that George Edward is naturally dull.
The board of education was appealed to by George Edward’s father, who came into the row promptly. About half the members were inclined to decide that it was their duty to stand by the teacher, but the other half thought that maybe a good shaking up would do the school good. A number of other mothers said their children loved Minnie May, and these stood by the teacher. Finally, everybody in town was in the row, and when a special meeting of the board was called to consider George Edward’s case the attendance was so large that they adjourned to the brick church. The adherents of George Edward want the teacher discharged; those on the other side say such action would be an outrage, as she has a first-class certificate and is loved by her pupils. One bank supports George Edward and the other favors Minnie May, the teacher. The rival merchants, grain dealers, lumber dealers, ministers, lawyers and doctors have also taken sides, and are about evenly divided.
Mrs. Morgan says she could forgive anything except the statement of Miss Perry that George Edward is naturally dull. Minnie May declares that what she really said was that George Edward was a little backward in his studies, as many otherwise bright children are for a time and yet come out all right when 9 or 10 years old.
The members of the board of education have been postponing action from time to time, hoping the people will forget it; but instead of forgetting it they dig up new evidence every day. The parents of George Edward say their child shall never again be under the influence of that terrible woman, meaning Minnie May.
Older heads who have looked the matter up say George Edward is about like the ordinary boy of seven, but that his mother kept him out of school nearly half the time, and very naturally he failed to pass. They say Minnie May is an excellent teacher, without a doubt; but George Edward’s mother says her innocent child shall not be branded with the mark of Cain at the age of seven years and that the teacher must go. Minnie May boards with Mrs. Mark Bradford, another very active woman, and probably there is no way out except to fight it out.
Ira Snell, a farmer living in the river hills six miles south of town, drove in yesterday morning with a wolf he had shot.
His wagon was at once surrounded and Ira attracted great attention. Everybody wanted to know how he shot it, and Ira told the story over and over with evident enjoyment.
When the crowd was largest several ladies came along and wondered what the men were looking at. The ladies hesitated about walking out into the street, so Wils Dunlap took the wolf by the tail and carried it to the sidewalk, where the crowd followed. It might have been anybody’s wolf on the sidewalk, so Ira soon went and got it and threw it back into his wagon.
As soon as the crowd decreased Ira drove on uptown, and attracted another crowd. Finally, he offered to sell the wolf for five dollars, but though everybody wanted to look no one seemed to care to buy. So Ira reduced his price to three dollars, to two, to one; but still did not find a purchaser.
By this time there was almost no one round Ira’s wagon, and he went into the post office after his mail.
“I’ve got a wolf out here,” Ira said; “want to see it?”
But the postmaster had seen it and was listless. Ira next tried the keeper of the store where he went to do his trading before returning home, but the storekeeper also had seen the wolf.
When Ira went out of the store with his packages there was only one man looking at the wolf, and he was offered the animal for fifty cents, but the man didn’t want it. Then Ira offered to give the wolf to anyone who wanted it, and as no one would accept it as a gift he pulled the wolf out of the wagon and said he would throw it away. But the city marshal said a dead animal couldn’t be thrown away in the city limits, and Ira started home, taking the wolf with him. He told Harry Towne he hadn’t been treated right by the city marshal and that in future he intended to do his trading in Centerville.
The secretary of the board of trade has been asked to fix it up, as the secretary has mighty little to do.
There is a good deal of talk because Mont. Douglas was lately elected president of the First National Bank, as it is pretty generally agreed that he is not a brilliant man. In fact, Mont. Douglas is duller than a good many who have never been honored by being elected president of a bank.
But now that the discussion is up, a good many are saying Mont. is at least reliable. We always know where he stands, and his position is usually somewhere near right.
I suppose there are a hundred men in town and its vicinity who are smarter than Mont. Douglas but there is not one who has better habits. If he goes to the city with a load of stock we have observed he is not lured into the suburbs and pushed off the viaduct; he comes home in a day or two with nearly all the money he took with him, in addition to the check he received for his stock. Mont. is quiet, but when he does talk he is usually polite and in favor of whatever is decent. The bank under his management will be conducted in an old-fashioned safe way; flashy men who come to town will not be able to talk Mont. off his feet, and depositors may count on getting their money when they want it.
Altogether, the discussion of the new president of the First National has been a pretty good sermon for everybody; a good many of the idle, brilliant mischievous men round town are beginning to realize that the great number of dull men in the world have quite a show if they attend to a few simple and easy essentials.
There is intense excitement in town over a trial in the police court. Hugh Graham had Mr. and Mrs. John Doe arrested for conducting a disorderly house.
Hugh lives next door to the Does, who have five young lady daughters, and charges that every evening in the week they make so much noise he can’t sleep until after midnight. Hugh admits that the Doe girls are as respectable as any in town, but says their house has become a resort for other young people, and that singing and piano playing and laughter go on there, to the annoyance of the neighbors.
Hugh is a hard-working man who is compelled to get up at six and says that the racket at the Does’ keeps him awake every night when he should be asleep.
Mr. and Mrs. John Doe are particularly indulgent with their children, and young people whose parents are more strict take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Doe home.
At first there was considerable indignation because of Mr. Graham’s action, as a dozen very good families were humiliated by it, but after he gave his testimony, and the neighbors gave theirs, some sympathy for him is developing. Hugh says either he must have relief from society or sell his property at a loss and move.
A decision has not yet been given, but as it is understood that before filing complaint Hugh had the judge over at his house several evenings to hear the noise, it is believed the Does will at least be compelled to pay the costs.
At the last city election, the candidates for mayor were Judge Bell and Jim Osler. The Republicans were afraid of Jim, as he is tremendously active and enthusiastic, so they offered their nomination by acclamation to Judge Bell, who is a dignified, quiet man.
The judge refused at first, but the Republicans begged him to oblige them. Committees called at his house and said if he would accept the nomination that would settle it; his election by a large majority was certain, because of his prominence.
Finally, Judge Bell was made to believe it was his duty to save the party, as it had twice honored him by electing him to the legislature.
I suppose it is the duty of everyone to keep quiet a good deal, but some say Judge Bell rather overdoes it. Apparently he is always thinking over big questions, with a view of settling them, and giving his opinions to the world at some time in the future; but ever since we have known him he has confined his efforts to thinking, for he rarely says anything.
The candidates for mayor being agreed upon, the campaign came on.
Jim Osler worked like a beaver and talked a blue streak. He said his wife and children would be humiliated in case of his defeat; he shook hands with everybody he met and was always holding conferences.
Judge Bell remained silent, as usual, and looked as though he had quietly put influences at work that he, a wise man, knew about that would overwhelm the Democrats.
The result was a surprise to the whole town.
Jim Osler received seven out of every ten votes cast. And he has made a reasonably good mayor; about as good as we have ever had. I suppose a mayor is the most inferior form of statesman we have, unless it is a county commissioner, but Jim is really doing pretty well, in spite of his tiresome enthusiasm and incessant talk.
I say again it is the duty of every man to talk less, but some of the windy men seem to amount to a good deal, after all.
“There has been a good deal of talk that I was chased out of Centerville, the town I came from,” said Pink Smith. “The charge is true, but I beg that my side of the story be heard. It should be remembered that I was very young when the incident happened, and that in trying to do a noble thing promptly I made a mistake and was laughed at until I had to leave town.
“One summer afternoon I was with a number of boys who were swimming at a favorite hole in the creek near town. Suddenly it was discovered that Tom Jackson, a boy of ten or eleven, about my own age, had disappeared. Then we began diving for him, and in a little while he was dragged out on the bank. He was drowned; he had mud in his nose, and was as limp as a rag.
“Tom Jackson was a particular friend of mine, and when someone cried: ‘Get a doctor!’ I flew up town. Fortunately, I found Doc Lewis in his office, and we hurried to the swimming hole, finding about half the women in town there, crying over Tom’s limp body.
“The Doc rolled and pounded Tom, and blew in him, and at last got him to crying, when we knew Tom had been saved. As we stood about Tom lying on the sand, and realized he had been brought back to life, I began thinking I had made a wonderful run uptown and back after Doc Lewis. Probably it would be talked about for years, and I would be a hero; within my recollection equally good time had not been made by anyone in going for a doctor.
“And while I was in this comfortable frame of mind a woman said to me: ‘Why, Pink, look at you!’
“And then I realized that during the run uptown and back, and at that moment, I was as naked as the day I was born. People laughed at me so much that as soon as I was able I left town.”
“I will be 83 next month,” said old Robert Poole; “and, having never been complimented, have decided to compliment myself. As a boy I was always picked at. Many of the boys I grew up with got into trouble, and all of them are now dead, but I have never been in jail or accused of an offense warranting arrest.
“As a husband I was not satisfactory, though I was a better man than my wife’s father or any of her brothers. I was not a satisfactory father, either, though none of my children have amounted to more than I do. I was never a satisfactory farmer, though I not only made a living at that calling but accumulated something, in addition to educating seven children. I knew I was not considered a good farmer because I rarely picked up a newspaper that did not quote an agricultural college professor who said my methods were old-fashioned. I looked up several of these professors, and found that none of them amounted to much except as critics.
“My wife worried herself into her grave 15 years ago, but I still manage to surmount my worries. My three daughters are married, but I keep house as well as they do, with the assistance of a hired housekeeper, whose husband runs the farm. Doc Hurley, who abused me because of my careless way of living, died 10 years ago, at the age of 64.
“I have long been a Republican, but do not satisfy the party managers. They grumble because I do not attend the primaries more frequently, and march in more torchlight processions.
“It is occasionally said I am a miser. It is true I save what I do not need for necessities and comforts, but it is a fool who does not.
“I am a Methodist, but the pastor complains every Sunday because I do not do more for the church, though I do a little more than my share.
“I am an Odd Fellow, but the Noble Grand often growls because I do not attend more meetings.
“Still, I own four good farms, and have outlived most of those with whom I began life. Of all those who started when I did, none have done better, and a good many worse. Therefore, I feel that I am a pretty good man, because I have done as well as any of my critics, and a good deal better than most of them.”
Mrs. Bill McClure
A queer feature of the gossip of this town is that people say Mrs. Bill McClure doesn’t particularly care for her husband, and is trying to get rid of him legally — she is feeding him three big rich meals a day. Bill doesn’t suspect what his wife is up to, so he eats too much and says she is a queen.
In the old days of freedom there lived in this town a noted drunkard named Ol’ Stewart. He had fallen heir to a business from his father, and this gradually went to pieces. His relatives were constantly clinging to his coattails and begging him to behave. Temperance lecturers and preachers labored with him; hundreds of religious people prayed for him for years. But Ol’ proceeded steadily down the rocky road, and got so low that he solicited men to give him a dime with which to buy a drink.
One day he so accosted Lem Dowling, a hard-headed man who was tired of Ol’ Stewart’s foolishness. Lem took Ol’ into a saloon, and told the barkeeper to give him all the whisky he could hold.
The barkeeper was surprised, and said: “Why, he’ll kill himself!”
“That,” Lem replied, “is the idea. Give him all he wants, and send the bill to me.”
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now