Little Herb was seven when his father died and ten when his mother remarried. During that time he lived with his maternal grandparents. Those were the happiest years of his childhood, perhaps of his whole life. His grandpa had been a MoPac telegrapher before he took up farming, and every night as the Missouri-Pacific raced across the west end of the farm, someone threw off the Kansas City newspapers, Herb’s first job of the day was to find them for Grandpa to read at breakfast. Little Herb read them too, especially the serial by Thornton Burgess about the animal-people who lived their secret lives in the Green Forest and the Green Meadow. Herb didn’t know it, but decades later, those “animal people” would play an important role in his life.


Chapter 4— Sherwin Junction

After burying her husband in Sedan, Edna and her two children returned to her parents’ farm near Sherwin Junction, a crossroad village (population 110) located seven miles north of the county seat, Columbus, Kansas.

Edna’s father, Ernest Hicks, had been a telegrapher for MoPac (the Missouri Pacific Railroad) before he took up farming. Her mother, Lucy, who was known as Grandma Souder—Souder being her maiden name—grew up on a nearby farm, which her brother Charlie had inherited. Their parents were from Pennsylvania and were associated in some way with the Mennonites but were not themselves Mennonites. She must have been the one who told little Herb that he was of Swiss-German descent.

Before long, Herb’s mother attracted a pair of suitors. One was a farmer, steady but staid; the other, a storekeeper like her late husband. The storekeeper assured her that in spite of what she may have heard, he had stopped drinking. Edna believed him, but she was in no hurry to remarry.

Little Herb settled down to a new and wonderful life. He was seven when he got to the Hicks’s farm and ten when he left. He respected Grandpa Hicks but was wary of that crusty old man. Grandma Souder was the one he loved. She was the one who looked after him.

Grandma found things for his sister, Marguerite, to do in the kitchen and sent Herb out to feed her chickens, gather the eggs, and clean the hen house. Sometimes he would tease a sitting hen just to get it to strike at him. If its beak caught his hand, he would yelp, and his grandmother would shout from the kitchen, “Herbert, you get away from them hens!”

Grandma Souder always fried a chicken for Sunday dinner. Herb’s job was to wring the bird’s neck. But even though he used both hands, he couldn’t quite manage it. To finish the job, he had to use an ax and was always splattered with blood before he was through. That Christmas his grandfather gave him a .22 rifle. From then on he shot the Sunday chicken. Soon he was feeding the ducks and helping to milk the cows and curry the horses. He loved the smells in the barn. Between chores he climbed up to the hayloft just to loll and enjoy the smell of the hay and alfalfa.

In May, a few boys showed up at school with “naked feet.” But most of them kept their shoes on until school was out in late May. After that, they didn’t put them on again—except for an hour every Sunday morning—until September. On summer evenings, once the chickens were fed, the hogs slopped, and the milk separated, Herb worked the yard pump until he brought up enough water to wash his feet. He didn’t have to put on shoes to enter the house, but he had to wash his feet.

Whenever he came home limping because he’d stepped on a thorn or a nail that had dropped from a horseshoe, Grandpa Hicks would take a wad of tobacco from his mouth and smear the cut with tobacco juice. The juice stung, but the wounds never got infected.

Every morning Grandpa packed his pipe with Granger Twist and bit off a chaw of Old Horseshoe. Then he smoked and chewed—and spit, of course—all day long. Grandma saved the tags from his Old Horseshoe bags, and when she had enough of them, she turned them in at the hardware store for a rebate of some kind.

The next day it was everything all over again, but during the night a MoPac train from Kansas City raced across the eastern end of the farm, tooting once. And each night, someone on the train threw off the Kansas City newspapers. It was young Herb’s job to find them and have them ready for his grandfather to read at breakfast, which was always the same—sour-milk flapjacks, eggs, and bacon.

Grandpa could have fetched the papers himself when he did the milking at 4:30, but he left it for the boy to do, and the boy loved doing it, loved being out all alone at daybreak (not so much in the winter) with the mist hanging on down by the creek, birds rising up or coasting down in the fields, and here or there the cattle, pushing themselves up and stretching their bodies, all black with the light behind them.

Walking between the rails, he stretched his stride in order always to step on a tie. He was looking forward to reading the paper himself—part of it anyway: the next installment of the serial about Farmer Brown, Bowser the Hound, and all the animal-people who lived their secret lives in the Green Forest and the Green Meadow—Reddy Fox, Blacky the Crow, Jenny Wren, Jimmy Skunk, and all the rest of them.

Illustration for “Peter Looks for a Way to Escape,” which appeared in newspapers of February 18, 1920.

Illustration for “Peter Looks for a Way to Escape,” which appeared in newspapers of February 18, 1920.

Grandma and Edna made breakfast—and dinner, too, in the winter—by the light of coal oil lamps. In the summer, if the weather was nice, Grandpa, Grandma, Edna, Herb, and Marguerite trooped out to the porch to “set a spell” in the dark and talk.

Grandpa grumbled about the weather and repeated what he and his friends thought the price of wheat was going to be that year. Grandma repeated the gossip she picked up while shopping in town or visiting a neighbor. Grandpa told them what the newspaper said about President Taft and former President “Teddy” Roosevelt, who was in Africa, killing lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, zebras, and even hippos. Herb asked Grandpa about the new automobile called “the Model T” that his friends at school were talking about. Edna didn’t say much. She didn’t think they’d be interested in the fact that the most fashionable skirts were now clearing the floor and approaching the ankle.

One day Grandma Souder came back from town with the news that a man there was paying seven and a half cents for the skin of a trapped rabbit and five cents for the skin of one that was rifle-shot. She showed Herb how to build rabbit traps and taught him to spot a rabbit sitting in the snow so he could shoot it with his .22. He made nearly ten dollars selling rabbit skins that winter.

That was the beginning of his career as a trapper. He invested the money he made shooting rabbits in steel traps and began harvesting the pelts of mink, muskrats, moles, skunks, possums, and even rabbits, though rabbit skins are so thin he had a hard time peeling them off all in one piece. He shipped his pelts to Kansas City or Saint Louis. The pelt of a short-stripe skunk might be worth as much as five dollars. But it wasn’t easy to skin a skunk and not end up smelling like one. He was told the trick was to remove the pods. But then he was told he could just cut an inch wider around the anus. The first time he tried this, Grandma made him burn his clothes and sleep in the barn. He finally learned that before skinning a skunk, he needed to soak the carcass underwater in a stream for at least a day.

Grandpa sold the “heavy crops”—wheat, calves, pigs, and hogs. Grandma sold the apples, butter, and eggs. All the money went into the same kitty except the egg money. That was all Grandma’s. On Saturday, she took Herb and Marguerite to town to barter and buy. She needed salt, sugar, and flour, and sometimes a dress or a hat. She made her work dresses out of gingham or flour sacks. Her “bought dresses” were for church or visiting.

When Grandma heard that coal miners up north were buying apples, she told young Herb to fill the buckboard with “fall-offs” and get himself up there. She said he could keep whatever money he could make. So at the age of nine, he drove a wagon full of apples six miles north to Scannon and, to his surprise, sold every one of them, worms and all, at twenty-five cents a peck.

On one of those dry, warm, windless, winter days that signal spring is on the way, Herb went out to the woodpile to gather sticks for the kitchen stove. He was cradling half a dozen of them and reaching for another when he thought he saw something move. Leaning down to see what it was, he was met by a snake shooting straight up with its mouth wide open, its tongue vibrating.

He whooped and staggered backward, sending his stove wood flying. and ran, shouting, towards the house. Grandma came banging out the kitchen door, caught him, and turned him around. Picking up a piece of cordwood, she attacked the snake. Herb followed her example, and together, they beat it to death.

As it turned out, it was just a harmless blacksnake, but it was the biggest one either of them had ever seen—over six feet long. They looked at it for a while. Then Grandma Souder winked at her grandson. “Let’s skin it,” she said.

She showed Herb how to gut the snake, peel off the skin, and stretch it out to dry Eventually, he took it to school for “show and tell.” It was a big hit.

His school was a one-room cabin. Students in different grades sat in different rows, with the youngest nearest the stove. When the wood box was almost empty, the teacher sent one of the big boys outside to chop more. They were all hoping to be chosen because the boy who was outside was skipped when his turn came to recite.

Once Herb had to hold out his hands while the teacher smacked them with a ruler. His story was that he had just happened to have his pocket knife out to sharpen his pencil when the fat girl sitting in front of him just happened to lean back. The teacher scoffed at his excuse. The girl had “leaned back” far enough to draw blood.

One morning, Herb refused to go to school. Wouldn’t say why, just wouldn’t go. Finally, his grandmother wormed it out of him. One of the older boys was picking on him. The next day, to his acute embarrassment, she went to school with him and had a talk with the teacher, who had a talk with his tormentor.

But Herb probably invited a certain amount of persecution. He was, as he put it, an “independent boy,” but he was small, unlike his tall father, so he had to “make room for himself.” Nobody took a look at him and stood aside. His father was dead. His mother wasn’t around much. And while his grandmother saw to it that he was now dressed as well as anyone, he hadn’t always been. He could remember going to other schools and being ashamed of his clothes. Few people seemed to realize it, but he was as good as anybody, maybe better.

That year, after the Christmas presents were opened and the Christmas dinner was eaten, Grandma’s phone rang, two longs and one short. Herb answered and learned that the boy on the farm down the road had received a shotgun for Christmas.

They met at the lower end of Grandpa Hicks’s corn field. The stalks were dry but still standing. Herb examined his friend’s new gun enviously. As they walked down the rows, the neighbor boy’s dog scared up a cottontail. It led the dog on a zigzag chase. Suddenly the frightened rabbit came racing straight at the boys.

“Shoot, shoot,” shouted Herb. But his friend froze.

So Herb grabbed the gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

He went over backwards. The rabbit went to smithereens. And the dog went yelping back the other way. The neighbor boy helped Herb up. He wasn’t hurt, nor was the dog, though it wouldn’t hunt with either of the boys again. When Grandpa Hicks learned what had happened, he ruled that Herb couldn’t shoot anybody’s shotgun again, ever. As a result, his mother ruined a dress.

A crow had taken to raiding the henhouse. It walked right inside, drove the hens off their nests, and ate their eggs. On this particular day, however, the rooster was in the henhouse and challenged the intruder. There was a great hullabaloo and out flew the crow. But it didn’t go far. It perched on a fence post not 25 feet from the kitchen door to consider its next move.

Herb and his mother were the only ones home. Hearing the commotion, they ran into the kitchen and saw the crow through the screen door. They knew Grandma wanted to be rid of it. But Herb had been forbidden to use Grandpa’s shotgun. So his mother picked up the heavy gun.

She didn’t want to frighten Blackie away by opening the door, so she aimed through the screen and fired from the middle of the kitchen. The crow flopped to the ground. Edna staggered backwards and flopped on the hot stove. Rolling off, she found herself with superficial burns, a ruined dress, and a good story.

Another time when everyone but Herb was away from the farm, old Bossie delivered herself of a calf. Herb gave her what help he could, doing what he’d seen his Grandpa do. “Guess what?” he greeted his mother and grandparents when they returned. They followed him to the barn. Grandma whooped. Grandpa laughed. And for a while everybody addressed him as “Dr. Knapp.”

Edna had to make a decision. She didn’t want to live on a farm if she could help it, so she rejected the farmer who had been courting her and married his rival, Lee Ellsworth, the storekeeper. Lee took his new wife and her two children to Joplin, Missouri, where he had a variety store, and for Herb, the fun was over.