Bernita Leazer’s little red antique tractor will be on display this spring at the Prairie Trails Museum in Corydon. Photo by Jason Selby
AS A CHILD OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION, THE PROMISE CITY NATIVE RECALLS PESTILENCE—AND ONE SELFLESS ACT
Bernita Leazer lives in Corydon with two cats and a collection of antique dolls. A wooden box telephone hangs on her wall, from when the first phone line out of Promise City was laid in the late 19th century. The telephone was made to last.
“If you put batteries in it, it’d still work,” Leazer says. “Those phones didn’t wear out.”
Leazer’s family grew up on the second road north of Promise City. She went to the South Salem country school through eighth grade. After World War II, she married Harold Leazer, who was the postmaster in Corydon for several decades.
Her father, Linton Achor, originally from Ohio, farmed cattle and sheep, and sowed corn and oats. He was named after a local grocery store owner in Ohio, Charlie Linton.
“He loved sheep. I did too, I loved the lambs. He fattened the lambs himself, and the packing house bought them right from him.
“The depression was going on real bad. What the grasshoppers didn’t eat, the chinch bugs got. Everybody was poor. I mean poor. Now they talk about poor, and they don’t even know what it is. Our neighbors were just like us. We didn’t think anything about it. Us kids were happy, and lived the life we had and didn’t complain, because there wasn’t any use complaining. If you got a nickel’s worth of candy once a month, you were really a rich kid.
“If my dad hadn’t of hunted in the wintertime, I don’t know what we would have done. A wild mink was worth good money—in Chicago and New York, the rich people still wore their mink coats. My dad would get a mink and go to town on Saturday, and come back with sacks of flour, beans and sugar. That’s how we subsisted in the wintertime.
“We had a missionary come to our church one time. We were in one of the counties that were supposed to be poor. Of course she’d been over where they were poor. She looked around and said, ‘I can’t imagine them calling this county poor.’
“I can remember going out to the field when they plowed a furrow around it and poured stinking oil in it. When you cut the oats, the chinch bugs went over into the corn and killed it. And they’d pour the creosote into this ditch that they plowed around the field trying to keep the chinch bugs out.
“It was just pestilence everyplace. They were here by the millions, and they smelled real bad when you crushed them. You couldn’t even step where they weren’t crawling on the ground.
“Then we had the rats that all moved in. People would come home Saturday nights with droves of rats swarming across the road. I don’t know where they were coming from or going to. You had rats eating what you did grow. Great big rats. They would go out in the field and move in and take over the little chipmunk colonies dug into the ground. That was the sport of Sunday. We’d go and dig them out and kill the rats. It was just a terrible time.
“I remember the first tractor that came into our neighborhood. Carl Thatcher had it. It was called a Fordson, with metal tires. You plowed with it, one wheel in the furrow and one wheel up, and it went kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk—you could hear it for miles. You could go outside when tractors started coming in and you could tell who was plowing with what brand. Farmalls, for instance. John Deeres went boppity, boppity, bop. My dad said, ‘I wouldn’t own one of those, they’d drive me crazy.’
“But those that bought them loved them. It was a step up from horses, but I always liked the old horses.
“My mother saved cracked eggs. She would make dog bread, which was corn bread ground up with the cracked eggs. My dad would bring the dogs up and feed them before they went hunting. We always had at least one hound.
“I didn’t go to school until I was six, because we had a long ways to walk. I only weighed 28 pounds. My mother didn’t think I could walk that far.
“In those days, we had really deep snows, and it was cold like it was last winter, only we had lots more snow. It was terrible.
“In the summer, when it was hot as the blue blazes, we’d walk to our neighbors, and there’d be big canvas-backed grasshoppers by the millions, and they’d jump in your face—I was just tall enough for the grasshoppers to hit me, and I hated them.
“My mother tore up old sheets and packed them to the windows. She’d set a bucket of water by the window, and get the sheets wet. They’d get caked with dust. Along toward evening, you’d see the dust coming. It was mostly a reddish color. It would land on everything.
“Kids would get together, and we’d have fun, ride horses, go for walks, watch birds. We could make up our own games. And we always had whistles in the spring. You’d go out and cut a hickory stick when the sap was coming up. My dad was good at making whistles. I could make one now, if I had the stuff. I made my son one, one time.
“The things we had, we liked, We didn’t throw them away in the ditch the next day like they do now.
“We had these neighbors, their last name was Brainerd. My parents were great friends with them—our neighbors were like relatives back in those days.
“They had three children. The little boy, Freddy, was a year older than me. We played together all the time. He was the sweetest little boy. He had this tractor. It was the only toy he had. I had lots of toys, because I had an aunt and an uncle who didn’t have any children.
“He would never let me play with this tractor. He had his little farm built out from the house. He’d make his little fields with twigs stuck in the ground, with strings for barbwire fences.
“Things were so poor, there was absolutely nothing. Well, me and the oldest boy worked for a dollar here and a dollar there, anyplace we could find, until he bought an old truck, one with a wooden rack on the back. It’d be a real antique now.
“They packed their things up to go back to Minnesota where they came from. They felt they could stay with relatives and find something to do to make a nickel.
“And my dad got up real early, before I even woke up, and helped them pack this truck full of stuff. It wasn’t big like pickups are now. They were all going to ride in there. They were slim people. They had a little box for Freddy to sit on.
“When my mother got me up, we walked over to their house over a quarter of a mile away. I remember it was cold, and there was frost in the grass along the road. My mother was crying of course, and so was Mrs. Brainerd, because you knew you’d never see them again.
“This little boy had this tractor in his hand, that he would never let me play with. And he gave it to me. My mother said, ‘You can’t take Freddy’s tractor, because that’s the only toy he has.’ And Mrs. Brainerd said, ‘Oh, yes he can, because he’s been talking about it for weeks now, he’s going to give her that tractor.
“So I kept that tractor all these years. It’s been played with a lot, because every little boy that came to our house wheeled it. I played with it, too. It meant a lot to me. I was happy they could play with it. I was taught to be very generous, and not be selfish.”
This winter, Leazer donated the tractor to Prairie Trails Museum in Corydon.
“When I was gathering things to take down to the museum, which was a lot of my toys, I took that little tractor down there because it’s got to be somewhere that people can see it. It looks a lot like it did when I got it. It was a toy made to last, not one of these modern things. It’s made out of metal. It’s a little wobbly and all that, and its been wired together a few places, but it still works.
“I hate to see it go, but I’ve had to let go of a lot of things. It’s not going to be sold at a yard sale, or thrown in a ditch, but looked at by people.”