The Towners Move to Dwight, 1919

Daddy was born on February 3, 1913, in Lorain, Ohio, and grew up in Dwight, Kansas (1920 Federal Census population 246). According to Daddy, his father disappeared when he was about six years old. No one ever told Daddy what happened to him. I researched online about ten years ago and discovered that in 1919 when Daddy was six, his father Reid Clark Towner was admitted to a state hospital in Ohio, where he died later that year at the age of 35. Cause of death was listed as general paralysis of the insane which goes by other names as well. I have learned that this is a syndrome of mental disorder and weakness occurring in tertiary syphilis. Daddy suspected that his father was either committed to an asylum or sentenced to jail. He also wondered if perhaps his father might have had syphilis, because he said his mother died of it years later in his arms on a stormy night in Dwight. The family must have had him institutionalized, but no one ever informed my father about any of this, not even when he became an adult. My sisters and I could tell that even late in his life, Daddy still felt the pain of not knowing what happened to his father, and he died wondering. I discovered the truth, but not until after my parents had both passed away.

25 Reid Petrea Gordon Jim2
My father Jimmy with his mother Petrea, father Reid, and his older brother Gordon, abt 1914

After Daddy’s father “disappeared,” his mother’s brother Jim, in Dwight, wrote to her and insisted she and her sons Gordon and Jimmy move to Dwight from Lorain, Ohio, where they would be close to him and his wife Grace. This is his Uncle Jim’s touching letter to Petrea, inviting her to move to Dwight with the boys. The letter is dated July 7, 1919, the year Daddy’s father Reid died: 1919 July 7 Letter from Jim to Petrea

Petrea took her brother up on his offer. Daddy was six years old, and, after much argument and discussion and at the risk of getting caught, they smuggled Daddy’s white Eskimo puppy Snow onto a train in a satchel and headed to Dwight. It was a long trip to Kansas – two and a half days and two nights on a train. Daddy’s mother warned him that he was going to have to see to it that Snow stayed quiet and fed all of the way.

 

1940s Uncle Jim
Dad’s Uncle Jim Madsen; frame from 8mm movie, 1940s

Daddy wrote about the first time he saw his Uncle Jim, who was basically the only father Daddy would ever know. His mother, his brother Gordon, and he had just arrived in Dwight by train from Lorain, Ohio. He was so excited to be in “Dee-White,” as the conductor called out. He saw Uncle Jim (smaller than he had imagined) standing on the red brick platform by the depot door. His thumbs were hooked into his vest pockets, and a half-smoked cigar jutted out from under his mustache. He wore a gray suit, black bow tie, and a black derby-style hat. As they all gathered on the depot platform, Daddy couldn’t understand why everyone was crying.

As they walked from the train depot to Uncle Jim’s and Aunt Grace’s house, Uncle Jim pointed out Main Street (which was just one block long), the two-story native limestone bank building on the corner, and Uncle Jim’s general store at the far end of the block. When they approached Uncle Jim’s house, Daddy saw his Aunt Grace sitting between two large white columns in a porch swing. She was tall and thin with black shiny hair, and she was dressed in white or in a white apron. She greeted them warmly. Aunt Grace was very good to “Jimmy,” as she called Daddy. Thinking back on that first meeting, he wrote, “I knew I was looking at an angel.”

Uncle Jim and Aunt Grace had a four month old baby girl named Jennie Marie. Much of what he wrote about his upbringing was in long typewritten letters from him to his cousin Jennie Marie around 1990. I refer to them often in my posts. I don’t know if he ever mailed them to her, because the copies in his files look like originals. Aunt Grace and Uncle Jim had a big dinner for Petrea and the boys the day they arrived in Dwight. Dinner was served on the prettiest table that Daddy said he had ever seen. He said Aunt Grace was a great cook.

After dinner, Uncle Jim walked Petrea and the boys to their new home only two blocks away from Jim’s and Grace’s home. It was a small wood-frame house set three feet back from the walk, facing a row of large ash trees. The trees grew close to the walk on the street side and were separated from the street by a deep graded ditch. A bay window faced the street on the right as they walked into the house. He wrote, “The house smelled dead, hot, and of old wood. A single light bulb hung by a long cord from the center of each room. The wood floors were solid but creaked as we walked over them. To the rear of the front room a small dining room continued through a large square opening. To the left of the dining room a similar opening joined to the only bedroom. The entrance to a small narrow kitchen was to the rear of the dining room through a narrow door in the corner. A well-used sink and a cistern hand pump in the corner of the kitchen were the only fixtures in the house and the only water on the property. There was nothing [in the backyard]. No trees, no fences and no roads. There was one faded wood outhouse sitting in the weeds fifty feet to the back of the property. This was to be home – a tiny four-room white house on the edge of a dirt street jammed between an old abandoned unpainted blacksmith shop and the three-story white frame [Fisher] hotel. The one and only block of business buildings lay in view a short distance up the hill.”

The next day a team of horses pulling a wagon arrived with the furniture, and after a few hours the house was arranged for living. In a letter to Jennie Marie, he described a large reddish rug, a piano, and a rocking chair occupying the front room. A round dark oak table and matching chairs with a matching oak buffet were in the center room. I don’t know if my grandmother hauled the table and chairs from Lorain or if Uncle Jim got them for her in Dwight, but Daddy told me that he was circumcised on that oak table. Mother and Daddy got the table and chairs after his mother died in 1951 and used them every day until they moved into a nursing home in 2002.  Our family still has the oak table, most of the chairs, and the buffet. In 2016, the table is at least 97 years old.

Daddy’s first impression of his new Dwight home that smelled dead, hot, and old might not have been very good, but it was memorable, and he grew to love it. He spent the next twelve years of his life there. He wrote a warm and sentimental letter to his mother at Christmas in 1947, 28 years after moving to Dwight. At that time he had been married to my mother Pat for twelve years and had two children (I was not born yet). He told his mother that he would do anything to protect Pat from a fate such as hers, and he did. In that letter, he also told his mother that he would always remember the feelings of comfort, safety, and security that she offered him in Dwight, and that Dwight would always be his home. He promised his mother that he would be home for Christmas the next year. As he listened to the radio while writing that letter, he wrote, “Strangely as it seems, the radio just broke out with the song Home.”