Grandpa Murray

Grandchildren—this is an article your grandpa wrote about HIS grandpa. I hope one day you will write about Grandpa Ernie:

 Grandpa Murray
(1864 – 1950)
(A Reminiscence: EJA, 2014)

PART I: Boyhood Impressions

Charles John Murray—
“Charlie”—to his friends;
“Papa”—to his children, or 
“Sir”—if they were expecting a  reprimand;
“C. J.”—on checks and documents
   (and sometimes in signing letters
   to his children:“Your father,   C.J.    
   Murray”; and in letters of his 
   children to each other when 
   talking about him: “Mother &  CJ  
   went over to town”);
“Grandpa” and “Grandpa Murray” 
   to us grandchildren—

was a kind of hero to me as a boy and
young man. I didn’t know my Grandpa Ament well. I was six when he died and I was never with him much and then only it seemed when he was with big people. I don’t remember ever having a one-on-one conversation with him.

I was twenty-one when Grandpa Murray died. He and Grandma had already retired from their farm when I knew them best. They had sold it in 1926 to their son Louis and his new bride, Veronica, when it had already been in the family name for two generations, from 1857 (on its way to becoming a “centennial farm,” 100 years in the same family); then moved to Hopkinton a year later. Hopkinton was one of the early towns in Eastern Iowa, beginning with a single home built there in the Maquoketa valley by a hunting, trapping man from Dubuque in 1835 only three years after the land was “purchased” (white man’s version: see “Black Hawk War”) from the Black Hawk Indians for white settlement and eleven years before the territory was declared a state. The growing settlement was incorporated as a village in 1874 and called Hopkinton after a town in Massachusetts. Hopkinton is the largest town in South Fork Township of Delaware County, Iowa, 5 ½  miles from the Murray farm and 10 miles from Worthington.

It was about the time when Grandpa and Grandma moved there that my father and mother opened a dry goods store in Hopkinton, their second store, with a third store opening in Marion a year later, making Dad and Mother chain store operators along with Kresge’s and Woolworth! (At their peak the three stores employed 14 people. Dad’s brother Lester managed the Hopkinton store for a while; Mother’s brother James the Marion.) So we were up there more frequently thereafter as I was growing up and Saturday nights when small towns stayed open late for farmers to shop were especially memorable for us kids. Hopkinton, like many small towns, had a band concert to entertain shoppers on Saturday nights and Dad regularly played in it. Their band platform was on wheels and was rolled into the center of their main street where shopping was heaviest and we kids were free to run around and eat popcorn and occasionally pop into Dad’s store for more money (nickels and dimes) or to touch base. It was all exciting.

 Grandpa and Grandma lived in a kind of tall, rambling, wooden, white house on a big corner lot about two blocks from Main Street (In Hopkinton Main Street was not titled Main Street as in most small towns; it was actually 2nd  Street.) Not much in Hopkinton wasn’t two blocks from Main Street. The town had a population of 759 then, versus less than 700 today. As children we used to spend a few days with them in the summer, taken there by Mother from Anamosa about 20 miles away. When a bit older we could take the jitney to see them (a little train that ran through small towns in our part of Iowa) from Anamosa to Monticello to Hopkinton and they would be there to take us off the train and walk us home.

Looking back, there was nothing much to do in Hopkinton, but we didn’t notice. On hot days Grandma would put a couple of washtubs out on the lawn and fill them with water and the three of us (Flo, Bob, and I) would run around and splash each other and take turns sitting in them. There was Grandma’s cookies of course, which we never dared ask for, but Mother would say, “If you’re good now, maybe Grandma will give you one of her cookies,” and of course she did. If mother wasn’t there, Grandma would give us one as she thought best. I don’t remember ever getting more than one at a time and they were always “sugar cookies,” large and round with lots of sugar on them and a kind of baking soda taste underneath. I miss them now that chocolate chips have taken over the whole world—in every cookie, bagel, donut, and everything else edible as well; and no other pastries permitted it seems. The pantry where she made and kept them was awesome. It was narrow and had a bright cheery window that looked out to a large shady back lawn. Missing of course were all the electrical appliances we have today. The wood counter where the bread and cookies were rolled was super smooth and clean (“spick and span,” was the expression for something like that then) and there was always a rolling pin and a sifting of flour still on it which gave the whole pantry an unforgettably clean, pastry smell.

For candy, which Grandma never seemed to make (though there was a pretty candy dish in her china cabinet, that mother kept later and I have today), we sufficed with a stick of rhubarb and a cup with sugar in it to sweeten the end as we sucked and chewed on it. (Though Flo says that when she was there she would say, “Grandma, I bet you want me to help you make fudge.” And Grandma would say, “ Oh, I do,” and they would.) And we cracked black walnuts on the huge, thick slab of cement that served as their back porch outside of the pantry. Black walnuts are not like English walnuts; you had to really work to get the meat out, using sharp picks, and if the shells weren’t perfectly dry you got a near permanent yellowish black stain on your fingers, which I was always kind of proud of. They’re more bitter, with kind of a wild taste, than English walnuts, but that childhood experience gave me a craving for them that has never left me, even though they’re priced just under gold today. My favorite cookies—ice box cookies—which Mother often made have black walnuts in them.

For playing in-doors I remember mostly there was a stereoscope: a rack with a two-eyed viewfinder on it and behind that a wire holder that held cards, each with two identical pictures on it. Look through the viewfinder and slide the card holder by a handle attached below it to just the right distance from the viewer and you saw a three-dimensional picture (in brown, or black and white); some interesting (the moon) and some not so (a street scene in some far off country). Rarely, several cards made up an incident, as of a man sitting on the edge of a two-wheeled cart, which then tipped over and left him on his back with legs up. No new cards were ever added by Grandma and Grandpa, but the old ones still entertained for a spell. If other cousins were present we played games in a back hall on stairs going up to the second floor, a floor with doors to closed rooms, which we were never bold enough to explore. It was quiet and creepy. The owner of the house lived up there Grandma told us, but we never saw him.

Sometimes I would walk down town with Grandpa to get his mail or when he needed a haircut. The two big blocks to Main Street. Hopkinton was unforgettable in its streets: big, wide, none paved, except for the highway that ran right through town without even a stop sign, though, as noted, not through its main street as in most towns, all dirt with no curbs, and board sidewalks in places downtown, like in a Western movie. Just running across those streets as a boy, which we weren’t supposed to do alone, was an adventure. At the barber with Grandpa I would sit quietly while the men talked and laughed and waited their turn. The barber talked all the time of course. One time a really old man was leaving and when he got to the door he turned and said, “Well, I’ll be seeing you.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “Maybe.” And everyone chuckled—but me. Grandpa explained it a bit to me on the way home. Hopkinton had a small movie theater too near the end of mainstreet. At the last picture I saw there (with cousin Pat Murray) the front four or five rows of seats were blocked off by a board because the roof had leaked during a rain the night before and there was a small lake of water in front of the screen.

Grandpa and Grandma’s house was different to us. Roomy, but spare—or maybe roomy because spare.  There was only furniture where there was supposed to be. Bedrooms had a bed and dresser and chair, and maybe a standing clothes closet, since there were no in-wall closets—nothing extraneous, no carpet or rug as I recall. You went in only to sleep. The windows were huge, the curtains flimsy, and the bright morning sun came too early for “city” boys like us. Not unlike farmhouse bedrooms in general. In the kitchen the range was in a corner with only a few cupboards and dishes above. No sink or anything (a dishpan) so the room didn’t look like our kitchen. The living room had several chairs (two comfortable). Grandpa’s was by the radio where he listened to ball games and news and political speeches. There was also a day cot in that room, where I was put down to sleep if the adults stayed late. Then, when it was time to go, my parents carried an irritable, half-awakened me to the car and drove home. There was a sitting room off the living room also, which was kept closed with double sliding doors until company came, when it was opened and adults went in to talk, mostly women it seemed.  

Most unusual and of great interest to us kids, they had an indoor outhouse. An outhouse, but you didn’t have to go outside to get to it. You went from the kitchen through the pantry;  then opened a door into the garage, which was actually mostly a woodshed, stacked on each side almost to the rafters with split wood, kindling for the furnace and range, and its big double doors left open usually to the outside. So it had its own great indoor-outdoor smell. The car fit in the middle between the walls of split wood—a tight fit, with no room else but for a few garden tools hanging up. The garage floor was lower than the rest of the house (looking in from the pantry) so in the garage you crossed right over the hood of the car on a little bridge that led to the door of the outhouse on the other side, attached to the house, as noted, and still inside so to speak, but nonetheless an outhouse. It had the same three graduated-sized holes in its wide wooden seat and magazines and catalogs for toilet paper and was stifling hot in summer and freezing in winter. But you never got wet getting to it. A real step up from farm civilization we thought. In winter Grandma and Grandpa used chamber pots in the house. Which were not fun.

Grandpa was a large, good-humored Irishman who liked a humorous story and joke, but was serious overall.  He wore brown pants with suspenders, never a belt, and usually a colored shirt (which differentiated him from town and city folk who wore white shirts for dress at that time)—never the striped bib overalls that the next generation of farmers (his son Uncle Louis, for example) liked to wear, with the pocket in the bib for the 98¢ Ingersall pocket watch that was guaranteed for 90 days and broke on the 91st. And brown shoes. He had a dress suit too, also brown, for Sundays and events, and shirt and tie—often a bow tie, a fashion in those days—and again, brown shoes. If he wasn’t wearing a coat and tie, as when working, he buttoned the shirt to his neck anyway. A lot of dust and chaff in farm work and farmers wore long sleeves and a hat and did what it took to keep the heavy dust from their skin. So when they came inside to wash and bathe and took off their outer clothes there was always that stark line on brow and neck and arms between white and red skin, between what the sun reached and burned or tanned and what it didn’t. Like a different species almost.

His hair always seemed a bit unkempt to me, like it was never combed wet, trimmed short and high above the ears. He had a mustache too, from the time he could grow one I’m sure (according to what pictures we have of him anyway), as fit his generation. And the index finger on his right hand was missing to the middle joint, cut off accidentally by a motor he was tending in the family creamery (“milk house”) on the farm in 1918 when he was 53. Taken right off. The pain was intense and the doctor had to come by team because of muddy roads and gave him cocaine and dressed it and Grandma stayed up the first night pouring antiseptic on it every hour. It was slow healing, but did. I never referred to it, curious though I was, and he didn’t either. It probably wasn’t a big deal to him once it was all over, though many pictures have him covering that finger with the other hand, probably by habit.  So many accidents on farms with the machinery, some leading to death, then as now (often young boys or men driving the tractors too steep on hillsides). They were regularly reported in the local papers.

“Big-boned” would apply to him, which was actually a family description of themselves, which sprang from a city cousin who came to visit once and stayed long enough to get into a no doubt healthy, air-clearing quarrel with her country cousins during which she said that they were “just big-boned farmers, who were raised on beans and onions.” Instead of being offended the family found the insult amusing and kept it as a kind of in-family joke they told on themselves on occasion. There was some truth to it no doubt (Grandpa did keep a large onion patch in a field away from the house that was often referred to and family members would go over to tend it), but of course they were more than just that: to raise a family of two cloistered nuns and a Jesuit priest and four solid family makers and providers. Good, hard-working, Catholic citizens all.

Grandpa was slow and deliberate in his walk and talk. I saw him mainly when he was old, but I believe those qualities were his natural bent. He could get angry of course and raise his voice, but I don’t think he ever acted in haste or rashly, but from deliberation. He had an Irishman’s emotion and would easily choke up, with tears coming to his eyes, when telling of a great Irish leader here or in Ireland or hearing a political speech on the radio, as when Senator Alben W. Barkley gave the keynote address at the Democratic presidential convention in Philadelphia in July of 1948 and later accepted the nomination as the oldest candidate for Vice President ever (to that date) in Harry Truman’s run for re-election that year. Grandpa was living in our house then.

He was a life-long, staunch Democrat, a member of the Delaware County Democratic Central Committee and a 1914 delegate to the state convention in Council Bluffs. At home he would repeat to his children political speeches he’d heard. A picture of Wilson hung in the dining room and other presidents, if Democrat, were added as occurred. He told me once that he first voted when he was sixteen (the voting age being 21 then of course). He said he was big for his age and just walked into the tent. That would have been for Democrat Winfield Hancock, who lost to Republican James Garfield in 1880. In 1948, when Harry Truman ran against Tom Dewey, it was the first presidential election my sister Flo was old enough to vote in and Grandpa explained to her how easy it was. You just looked for the circle at the top of the ballot where it said “Democrat,” he said, and checked it. A bit of advice she privately declined to take, though, as it turned out, after examining and checking off each office separately on the ballot, she arrived at the same result. It was said that the three qualities that could best be said of someone to Charlie Murray was that that person was Irish, Catholic, and Democrat (order not stressed I think). In his last illness, at our house, when Mother wanted to send for Fr. Simon, our priest, he said to her, “Simon? What nationality is that, Laura?” “Oh, I think it’s Irish, Papa,” she lied.

 The whole Murray family was Democrat—and for life as far as I can tell. And for what it’s worth, the Aments four miles away were equally Republican for as long as I know. Iowa farmers were never monolithic in politics and sought government solutions from a mix of governors and Congressmen from both parties. And Grandpa Ament (Theodore), who ran Cedar Lane Dairy Farm that serviced milk to Worthington, was featured in an interview in 1932 with the Cedar Rapids Gazette (a largely Republican Iowa paper) for his Republican views on what farmers needed from the government. In his remarks Grandpa grumbled about high taxes, the wasteful and growing government farm bureaucracy, and burdensome regulations. His well-known antipathy to automobiles surfaced when he blamed them for the depression and increasing crime in the nation. “How did automobiles bring about the depression?” asked the interviewer. “Everybody had to have a car and run around and spend money,” said Grandpa. And crime? “The hooch peddlers and the bank robbers never could get away with what they have been doing without speedy automobiles.” Bank robberies were burgeoning at the time; Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were all three gunned down two years later.

Of course Grandpa Ament’s sons were buying cars as fast as they could afford them but when they finally talked him into getting one he was loathe to learn to drive and they ended up chauffeuring him about in it—once even  to a talk about the need for better roads to accommodate automobiles. My father’s acquisition of one was slowed by his service in WWI and when he returned from France in 1919 to continue his courtship of my mother he fretted that he had to pick her up in a buggy while other beaus escorted her by car.

Grandpa Murray ran for public office himself and was regularly elected assessor for South Fork Township for more than a decade. Proof, my mother told me, that he was fair and honest in assessing farms for taxation was that often after assessing a farm the farmer invited him to stay for dinner. One farm he assessed near Worthington belonged to Chris Ament and had been established by his father Henry Ament some years after he and his wife Catherine arrived to Iowa on emigrating from Baden, Germany. Whose grandson Albert would in time marry Grandpa’s daughter Laura of course. Albert’s father Theodore, as oldest son, would have inherited the farm but opted instead to go into the harness business in Worthington and leave the farm to younger brother Chris.

Grandpa Murray loved a good speech, and, as noted, easily choked up if it were an Irishman or Democrat. His first daughter, born October 16, 1896, was named Minerva, a name not used before or since in our family relationship. It is hardly coincidental I believe that it was chosen two months after the famous “woman in white” incident at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when a Minnie Florence Murray came “out of nowhere” (actually from Nashua, Iowa, about 100 miles northwest of Hopkinton) and roused the Convention that August by standing on her seat in a white dress high in the far corner of the balcony above the assembled delegates below in the Chicago convention hall. And, as the papers the following day put it, “in two minutes had converted that crowd of 20,000 people from an orderly assembly into a howling mob” by chanting the name of the former Democratic governor of Iowa, Horace Boies, in support of nominating him for president. The Iowa papers gave her huge coverage of course and two months later when his first child and daughter was born Grandpa named her Minerva and called her “Minnie”: “Minnie Murray.”

The  “woman in white” highlight however paled before a much greater highlight two days later at that same convention when “the boy orator of the Platte,” 36 year old William Jennings Bryan, electrified the convention with his impassioned “Cross of Gold” speech and won the nomination away from, not only Gov. Boies, but all front runners in one of the most famous Democratic conventions ever. Bryan lost that year’s election to Republican William McKinley, but was nominated a second time by the Democrats four years later. Again, it seems no coincidence that when his first son was born two months after that second nomination Grandpa named him James Bryan Murray: “James” after his own father and “Bryan” after the Great Communicator.  James’ twin sister then was named Mary Florence: “Florence” from the “woman in white”?  Which led in time of course to Mary Florence Ament!

Most of all Grandpa did manly things to my young mind, as I saw or was told of them later. On the Fourth of July he would put a stick of dynamite under his anvil out in a field and blow it up (a practice he seems to have dropped for fireworks and watermelon as his children got older, though my mother recalled it vividly). And though he was, as noted, an inherently friendly man, he did on occasion ”get his dander up” (another Murray-Irish expression), not an easy thing to bring about in one who was not a fly-off-the-handle type of person. Once, however, when some dogs were killing his sheep he got up on his windmill for a couple of nights and shot dogs. Then, as the story goes, he went to town and spread the word around that if anyone was missing a dog, he should come out to his farm: “He had a pile of ‘em.”

On most occasions though he was reasonable and considerate, valuing justice and charity. As with hired men. He hired mostly immigrants, from my knowledge, to help them out. His own father had come over a half century before and the Irish brogue was big in his upbringing and household as in the area itself. But he did  not hire just Irish, but Germans and other ethnics also. Some lasted only a few weeks and quit of their own accord. Grandma said they weren’t “stayeds.” And some workers got a reputation that way.  I suspect they weren’t used to the great size of Mid-western American farms and how much work was required to run them, especially before gas-powered machinery arrived. It could be backbreaking. Others did stay and worked hard. And if a hired man occasionally went on a weekend binge and didn’t come back till Wednesday Grandpa usually (for someone who didn’t drink himself) took the man back—IF he was decent and sober while on the job of course. Hired men, before cars became common, often lived and ate with the family so the wife had a say in them too.

Grandpa used to drink himself when young, but not for long. One time he drank too much and the next day heard friends laughing about how “Charlie there, fell all over the place trying to get up the stairs.” He vowed that would never happen again and it didn’t. I never saw him or Grandma or anyone else drink at Murray family gatherings, though neither he nor any other Murray relative preached against it to my knowledge. Of course I wasn’t at a great many of those gatherings and wasn’t concerned for that business as a boy so didn’t notice much.  We didn’t have as many family affairs on the Murray side as on the Ament, there being so many more relatives there. The Ament side didn’t drink much either. One hi-ball was about it Mother used to complain, “and that was weak.” And the only way to get more was to have the first one “freshened up a bit.”

And Grandpa carried a pocketknife. Which he took out to ready a cigar for smoking or cut a string or slice and eat an apple or prune a bush or for other assorted needs. It wasn’t just the fact that he had one, but the casual way he pulled it out as needed that inspired my brother and me that we too had to have one when we got big enough. And we did. He first of course, after begging for years, and me soon after. It was for us a rite of passage, like the BB gun and rifle later. To the end my brother kept the first pocketknife he ever had. I’ve had—and lost—dozens. A big difference between us. My Grandpa was the only adult I ever saw who regularly carried and used a pocketknife. My father had a small one my mother gave him as a gift when they were going together, but he broke it early and never replaced it. He was rough on tools from his days as a carpenter. For carpenters tools are things to be used and abused, not pampered as amateur woodworkers do today. Pocketknives may have been too small for farmers to bother with anyway. They always had something bigger at hand.

(To be continued)


Sept. 23, 2014
Corrections; Comments; Questions: EJA, 810 Barrington Rd, Grosse Pte Pk, MI 48230;

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