Ninety years ago this May, my grandfather, Ronald Merle Phillips, and his twin brother, Robert Earl, were born on a farm near Chetopa, Kan. His twin died of influenza before their second birthday, but my grandpa is still alive and well. To celebrate that fact, 150 family and friends gathered at the community center in Parsons, Kan. last month.
After the party, the family continued the celebration at my great-uncle Terry’s nearby farm. All eight living Phillips siblings were there, with several generations of family laughing and reminiscing on the patio, splashing in the pool and laying out food in the kitchen.
My grandpa and his nine siblings grew up moving from farm to farm in Southeast Kansas, so they have lots of farm stories to share. Their parents were sharecroppers, which meant the family was more transient and less wealthy than those who owned the land they farmed.
I drove my grandpa home after the party, and asked him about his experience with sharecropping.
“Sharecroppers were not the most highly-rated people," he said. "Because a lot of people owned their farms. Sharecroppers usually were though of as always having big families and being poorer. We moved from farm to farm. Sometimes we stayed two or three years...I went to five or six schools in eight years."
But despite the hardships they experienced growing up during the Depression as the children of sharecroppers, most of the stories they told about the farm were light-hearted — a horse getting stung by a bee while baling hay, playing “whipcracker” on frozen fields by spooking a cow and holding on to its tail as it spun around, rigging up old buggies to race down the hill.
Perhaps it was the party atmosphere, or fondness lent by the passage of time, but I also think it’s an attitude gained from growing up working the land during that time and place. They learned to work hard, use what they had, and to focus on the positive to get them through.
Humor and good stories were in high demand beyond just the Phillips family, too. A tale about my great-aunt Jan Phillips caught the ear of the local newspaper editor in Miller, Mo., who published the story. Another newspaper published a version of the story and a cartoon in its “Goings on in the Ozarks” section. And the morning edition of The Kansas City Star, The Kansas City Times, reprinted the article as well (on Aug. 24, 1937).
Jan’s story about “Little Miss Janice Ann Robinson and the cow” is the subject of this week’s My Farm Roots. Her well-turned phrases and fluid speech reflect the oft-told nature of the tale. After all, Jan was too young when the story occurred for her to remember it happening of her own accord. Jan’s ease with words is also reflective of her vocation; she taught at a private school in St. Louis and wrote a book about wild edibles for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Jan said growing up on the farm inspired her to write the book. “I wrote a book on wild edibles that was a result of my father giving me the green persimmon before it was ripe, which is a very, very dry, pulling number,” she said with a wry chuckle.