Life in Dwight


Daddy’s Uncle Jim operated a general store which was located in the Masonic Building. In 1987 Dwight celebrated its Centennial. In honor of the occasion the organizers printed a commemorative book entitled Dwight, Kansas, The First 100 Years (1887-1987). In my photo gallery, I have included a picture of the Masonic Building, along with a photo of Daddy’s Uncle Jim, (photographers unknown) which were printed on page 47 in the commemorative centennial book almost thirty years ago. Jim Madsen’s store occupied space below the Masonic Lodge on the lower floor and in the basement of the Masonic building from 1915 to 1940, at which time it moved to the Workman building. In the Gallery of Memories section of that book, a man named Dwight Parken offers a peek into what the general store was like:

“Madsen’s store was a typical country store of that time. Most dry foodstuffs like beans, rice, flour, and oatmeal came in barrels and boxes and were weighed and sacked by the clerk. It was a delightful place with interesting smells…Bolts of cloth and new overalls had an aroma of their own. Redman plug and Bull Durham smoking tobacco another. New shoes, Red Parrot brand, smelled about like the horse collars in the back room. Vinegar and kerosene were delivered into your own container from barrels at the back. If you lost the cap to your kerosene can, a potato was jammed over the opening to keep from spilling the fuel. Candy, cookies and crackers were kept in closed bins near the front of the store. Two pot-bellied stoves heated the store in the winter time. The dry goods department was near the front of the store and the area around the front stove was kept neat and clean. The rear stove, however, was a gathering point for the men customers or whoever dropped in to gather the news or pass the time of day. Sometimes they aimed their tobacco juice at a spittoon and sometimes scored a bullseye on the glowing bulge of the stove…Spittin’, whittlin’ and shooting the bull was a harmless enough pastime in the winter months but when the weather cleared, those with anything to do elsewhere usually reappeared at the loafing areas only Saturday nights.”

After moving to Dwight in 1919, Daddy’s mother Petrea went to work for her brother Jim at his general store. Daddy was six. His brother Gordon was twelve, so he was old enough to work in Uncle Jim’s store, too. Gordon opened the store every morning and began by sweeping the wood floors. Gordon also filled the rice bin as he removed mouse turds. He explained to Daddy that Uncle Jim said customers didn’t like to buy rice if they saw even one little mouse turd in it! Gordon showed Daddy a handful of rice with a mouse turd that looked just like a black grain of rice. They began to wonder if Uncle Jim was “joshin’” him. Usually, Daddy walked with his mother the two blocks to her work each morning, home for lunch, back to work, and back home for supper. That was the routine. Sometimes he stayed home with his grandmother after she came to live with them.

The store was very busy. Wednesdays and Saturdays were “open store nights.” Customers came to shop and then went out on the town. The store stayed open until the last person picked up their groceries, which was often after midnight and sometimes two o’clock in the morning. On those nights, they checked the store before closing for the night to make sure no youngsters had fallen asleep in the balcony among the boots and shoes or on a stack of one-hundred pound bags of sugar. Daddy said he crawled onto those shelves himself a few times and that he saw some wild goings-on in the front of the store late at night. When he woke up in his own bed, he couldn’t remember going home or getting into bed.

Daddy described the Dwight night life that he observed:

“The dance hall was a combination, roller skating rink, moving picture theater, and stage theater for minstrels that performed one night stands along the main line of the Rock Island Lines. It was a big barn of a building with high straight white stucco walls inside and out. A high stage set at one end with a drop curtain, two enclosed dressing rooms at each side and two rear exit doors that lead only to a weed patch. The front of the building was similar, but with concrete steps up into an alcove and a ticket booth in the center. An entrance door on either side entered into the large hall. On either side at front was a service room. One side was skate storage and service for roller skating. The most unique part of ‘The Rink’ (as it was called regardless of what was being held there) was its proximity to [my] house. It was just the other side of the hotel toward town and, as the front step was right on the front sidewalk, just as [my] house was, and the hotel set away back, it was practically next door. [I] lay in bed most every Saturday night listening to square dance music or the roar and hollering of the din of roller skating. That is, after [I] was made to come in and go to bed.  Earlier [I] was very much a part of all the fun and many times, much to the chagrin of cuddling couples that had slipped out a rear entrance thinking they were not missed. Time did not seem to be measured by the merry-makers, and [I] often was free to roam among them.”

Basically, Daddy was given free rein to go anywhere in town he wished, but there was one place that was off limits – Maude’s restaurant. It had small hotel accommodations upstairs, and his mother threatened him with “a pinchin’ you’ll never forget,” if she ever caught him there.

Daddy liked to go to a swimming hole with the guys. As soon as they arrived, they would all take their clothes off and jump into the twenty-foot pool. They loved to play underwater tag. Once, when he dove to the bottom of the pool, he got caught in some trees at the bottom when a tree shifted as he swam through them. The boy Daddy was chasing surfaced, but Daddy did not. When Gordon realized Daddy had not come up, he dove in and rescued his little brother. I’m not sure if this incident happened exactly as he described, because this might have been part of a creative writing piece he wrote but never finished. I like to believe it is true (and it probably is), but it’s possible he embellished it a bit. (Daddy took a correspondence writing course from 1949-1951. He received a Membership Certificate from the Newspaper Institute of America, New York, dated September 4, 1951. He took another writing class in 1971.)

When Daddy was about nine or ten years old, his grandmother Anna Marie Christensen Madsen came to live with them. He described her as having “soft merry brown eyes set deep and wide under smooth curved brows…with an enormous nose…Her forehead was high, wide, and swept smooth and wrinkle-free down to the heavy brows.” She had straight hair pulled tightly into a bun in the back. She was toothless and smelled of the sweet pungent odor of chewing tobacco. She only spoke Danish. She understood some English but could only shake her head and occasionally utter, “Psshaw!”  Daddy’s grandmother Anna Marie Madsen died October 6, 1925.

Daddy said he only remembered his Uncle Jim getting angry with him twice: Once, Daddy broke up a bunch of egg crates that Uncle Jim was making and his uncle had to patch them up. The other time (as an adult) he took my mother Patricia and his cousin Jennie Marie on walk on a zero degree winter day a couple of miles into the hills south of Dwight so they could all go sleigh riding. He admitted it was a dumb and dangerous idea. Uncle Jim died July 8, 1945.