Life in Mount Vernon…Back In Time by Cornelia Vinzens

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Picture of a cattle auction with various bulls for sale

I thought about many things I could write my project about; Lincoln Highway, uptown, architecture in Mt. Vernon… and many other things. But, for myself, I think I chose the best one.

I had the idea to find out about life in Mt. Vernon in the past. I wanted to know as much as I could about living in Mt. Vernon. I was especially very interested in how life was a few decades ago, maybe 70 years ago. How the town changed since then, how the school was… and who could tell me better and more about that than the people who actually lived at that time. So I decided to interview old people who live in Mt. Vernon. First I thought about a few, but then I decided to choose only two people who had different professions and do a long interview with them. I chose a retired professor at Cornell College and a farmer’s wife. I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough material to fill a whole project. But on the way home from my first interview I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about that!

Interview 1

Professor Alan Duvall was the first person I interviewed. He’s a retired professor at Cornell College. After a phone call I walked to Prof. Duvall’s house. What I didn’t know at this time was that I also would have the opportunity to meet an old friend of Prof. Duvall, Mr. Millhouse, who arrived on the same day for a visit from Florida. Mr. Millhouse grew up and went to school in New York City and moved to Iowa City in 1940. A few years later he moved to Mt. Vernon and lived there for 40 years until he decided to go in Florida’s warm sun where he has lived since. For me it was an unique opportunity to talk to two very interesting men who grew up and went to school in completely different places, one in NYC and one in a one room school in the country in Iowa. Each had their own memories on the old town of Mt. Vernon when they both moved here in the 1940s. Sometimes we talked so long about one thing that we drifted away from the last question and came up with other interesting questions I didn’t even think about before!

I could have kept talking the whole night and I think they, too. After two hours we all thanked each other for this very interesting talk. It was like a journey a few decades back in time. As I walked home, in my hands were a few sheets with a lot of notes on them, much more than I thought it would be.

Name: Alan Duvall        C: Cornelia

Age: 87                          A: Alan Duvall

Profession: retired professor at Cornell College    M: Mr. Millhouse

Residence: Mt.Vernon

C: Prof. Duvall, did you grow up in Mt. Vernon?

A: No. I moved here in 1941. I grew up on a farm near Glenwood IA.

C: Which was the first school you went to?

A: It was a Country School, a one room school. There was only one teacher and the school took 8 years.

C: Only one teacher for 8 grades! How did this work? How could he teach 8 grades at the same time?

A: Well, that’s a good question. There were students from the age of 5 to the age of 13. All together in one room. And it worked somehow. But I don’t really remember how the teacher used to teach us.

M: I can imagine he taught one class for maybe half an hour, gave them an assignment and went on with another class.

A: Yes, I think that was the way it worked. But I can remember we learned a lot from each other, the younger from the older students.

C: How many days a week did you have to go to school?

A: We had 5 days a week of school, from 9 am to 4 pm. Oh, I think I should tell you how I went to school. I had a two mile way to school. Sometimes I walked and sometimes I rode a horse! My father bought me this horse. On the way to school I always had to cross the railroad and one time he dropped me off because the train scared him! After the country school I went to the high school in town for 4 years. I remember what a strange feeling it was to go to a bigger school. It was a big change from the country school to the high school. There were 1,200 students and the first time there I was scared! Now you can see how funny it is to compare my situation at that time to Mr. Millhouse’s situation. He grew up in New York City with thousands of students and I, as a country person, was afraid to go to a small town school with 1,200 students! Well, after high school I went to college for 4 years. At that time it was very uncommon for a country person to go to college. I got an MA (Master’s Degrees) in 1941. Then I moved to Mt. Vernon. I studied philosophy and languages (German) at the University of Iowa for 4 years. After two years I started teaching at Cornell College, but I still took courses at the University of Iowa. In 1948 I got a PHD (Doctorate Degree).

C: Which classes did you teach?

A: I taught German, Composition and Conversation and 18th and 19th century literature. I also taught Spanish and English for one year. At this time we had a few exchange students from the orient. They came from Korea, China, Japan and sometimes from Africa. They spoke very bad English and had problems understanding at school. In 1978, I started with another teacher an English course for foreign exchange students. It was a success and a very good opportunity for the foreign exchange students to get along better with the language.

C: When you think back over your whole school time, were there any differences between boys and girls? Was it maybe uncommon for girls to go to school?

A: No, not at all. There were in the country school as many girls as boys. It was just uncommon, as I already mentioned, for country people to go to college.

C: Which classes did you have? Where there any main classes we have today you didn’t have at that time?

A: Hmmm…yes of course: Science! There was no science until high school. We had mainly geography, English, a bit of math and music.

M: That’s interesting! Have you ever asked yourself why they thought it wasn’t important to teach science?

A: That’s a very good question and in fact I have. And I think it was because in the 19th century literature, writing and philosophy were considered much more important and respectable than science. Art also had a bigger importance.

M: Yes, that’s a good suggestion. I’ve never really thought about that.

C: How was the relationship between teacher and students at that time? Are there any differences comported to today?

A: Oh, I would say the relationship was very good. But I can tell you about the differences I found out during my visits in Europe. The first time I went to Europe in 1939, I visited many schools in Germany and Austria and one school in Switzerland. I observed that in Europe the teacher was “The Authority!” There was a strict discipline. The students had to stand up when the teacher or a visitor entered the room or when the teacher asked a question. In Germany maybe it might have been more extreme with the discipline because it was just before World War II broke out. When I visited Europe my last time in 1977 I observed a very big and at the same time very scary change. There was no discipline at all any more! Students laughed and talked while the teacher was trying to explain something. So you could see a real change after W.W.II. It’s also a change that shows very clearly, what power the dictator had at that time and how tense the people were. In American schools the relationship between teacher and students has remained pretty much the same all over the years. I think it has just never been as extreme as I observed in some schools in Europe. For example I never had to stand up when the teacher entered the room or when I wanted to say something.

M: That applies especially to public schools. I’m sure that was different in Catholic schools.

A: Yes, that’s true. I just remember another point about the relationship between teacher and students. There is a difference between a college and high school, I think. I would say the relationship between a college teacher and his students is closer than between a high school teacher and his students. That’s because it’s common for a college teacher to sometimes invite his students to his house, just to talk and meet each other. The students and also the teachers appreciate those meetings very much. It’s to get to know the personalities of students and teachers better, It’s a good tradition. I don’t think high school teachers do this, do they?

C: No, I don’t think so. When did you actually decided to become a teacher? Why?

A: When I was 18 or 19 years old. I took German at college and was just fascinated by this language.

C: A last question about the school. What about the school vacations? Did you have more or less? Or has it been the same over the years?

A: No, it didn’t change. It has always been pretty much the same.

C: The reason why I asked you this question is because in Switzerland it wasn’t the same like now at all! My parents and my grandparents had six months school without any vacation and the next six months there was no school at all! But they didn’t really have much free time in this six months. Most of them were away from home during all those months. They had to go to work to earn money. The boys always went up in the mountains helping the shepherds with the sheep and goats and the girls worked in a hotel or in a restaurant.

M: Six months! That’s a pretty big difference to now!

A: Yes, I’ve never heard this before.

C: I can remember that my grandma told me once those six months she spent in a hotel had been her only opportunity to ever learn German. They didn’t teach German at school yet.

A: So you don’t speak German at home? From my visits in Switzerland I know you have four languages: German, French, Italian and Rumantsch. Which one do you speak?

C: I speak Rumantsch.

A: Oh really! How many people in Switzerland speak Rumantsch?

C: Only 0.8 percent! I speak Rumantsch at home and with some friends. The primary school was in Rumantsch and I learned German as the first foreign language. Now my school is all in German. Everyone who speaks Rumantsch speaks German as well. It wouldn’t work without German because everything is in German (TV, school,…)

A: That’s interesting!

C: I have two questions left. These two questions are about Mt. Vernon. How did Mt. Vernon change over the years? What was different when you came here in the 1940s?

A: Oh, that’s a good question! It’s bigger for sure. More people, new houses outside the town, more modern…

M: The bus service doesn’t exist any more. It was called the “Greyhound company.” That was around 1950.

A: The passenger trains There were twenty trains a day that passed through Mt. Vernon. Ten east and ten west. Another point is that both parents work now. Mostly they work outside of town, what makes Mt. Vernon today a “bedroom community.”

M: What I can remember is that until 1973 you couldn’t buy liquor anywhere! The only places were state liquor stores. The main reason for this was that there were extremely religious people. There weren’t even any bars in town!

A: At college alcohol was strictly not allowed. You could get in very big trouble. And there were four grocery stores in town until in the 1950s. There weren’t any stores where Gary’s is now. It was too far away.

M: There were beauty parlors for women and barber shops for men when I came here in the 1940s. The men often went to a barber shop only to sit and talk. It was like a men’s club.

A: In 1922/23 almost every farmer had a car to go to town and buy things. Town people didn’t have a car because they didn’t need one. They had everything they needed in town. My father bought  his first car in 1916.

M: The town didn’t look as nice as now. I can remember how I was sitting on a bench waiting for a bus and I looked at a building in front of me and thought: “How can I live here?” At that time the buildings weren’t fix up and most of them didn’t even have paint.

C: Now to my last question: Someone told me once that Mt. Vernon acts like a city although it’s just a town. People don’t know each other… What do you think about that?

A: That might be true. In 1940 quite everyone knew each other. But the town developed to a “bedroom community” because there isn’t enough work for everyone in town.

M: People also met when they went shopping because all the stores were in town. There weren’t any shopping malls yet. Many stores disappeared during the years because they built malls and the people went there to buy everything because it was cheaper. Cornell College, before 1936 was also a fact which held the town together. The students who came to Cornell lived within town. For the families it was profitable in two ways: First they would earn a bit of money by renting the students a room in their house and second they kept the contact with the college and so with the other people in town. When there was a theater or a concert they went to watch it and so they met all the other families from town. But after 1936 Cornell College began to build dorms and to encourage the students to live on the campus. And so the contract between the town people broke up.

A: That’s true! The wives were more involved in the college, too. When there was a banquet they came to help serve.

M: It’s a very nice town to live, but there are too many people with different interests.

C: All right, those were all my questions. Thank you very much for the time you took to answer my questions. It was very interesting!


A+M: Thank you too for this interesting talk!


Interview 2

Name: Jean M. Stoner

Age: 83

Occupation: farmer’s wife

Residence: Mt. Vernon (countryside)

C: Cornelia

S: Jean M. Stoner

C: Mrs. Stoner, did you grow up here in Mt. Vernon?

S: No, we moved here when I was 11 years old, in 1931.

C: Have you always been a farmer?

S: Well, I have seen myself as a farmer. You can be a farmer in different ways. You can be involved in different decisions. I was married to my husband for 60 years and I did the bookkeeping and records all those years. I grew up in a farm family as well. People used to call farmers “hicks” anything! Well, that’s not true at all. I graduated from Cornell College. I’ve heard a lot when you ask the kids at school where the milk comes from they answer: “Out of the bottle!” or “from the grocery store”! You have to know a lot as a farmer, about organization, chemicals, food…

C: Did you want to be a farmer or didn’t you have another choice!

S: Well, I married a farmer! I graduated from Cornell on Monday and got married on Thursday! After my husband died two years ago I thought about moving away from the farm. But I decided to stay here because it’s my home.

C: How did a day as a farmer look like for you and your husband?

S: I’ll tell you about the first two years because a lot has changed since then. My husband got up every morning before me to feed the cattle. Then I got up to prepare breakfast for him. I gave him breakfast all those years. Nowadays a lot of farmer wives don’t do this anymore. I had my own chickens, 300 heads. We either sold or ate them. We kept the hens and sold the eggs or hatched them. We had chicken, horses, cattle and hogs. What I never did was milk the cattle, but I always helped to deliver calves. My husband was on the field. Since there are now tractors and machines they sometimes are in the field until 2 am. Before they had to leave the field because the horses didn’t have lights.

When I asked Mrs. Stoner how she thinks farming changed during all the years, she had the perfect answer for me. A few years ago she wrote a paper with the title: “75 years of change in farming practices.” I decided to take the whole paper as her answer because I couldn’t describe it in a better way. (last two pages)

C: Who had to work more? Man or woman?

S: The man had harder physical work but the women were important, too. We had to give our men good food three times a day. But we lived in a period of time when men thought women wouldn’t be important in the house. That was such an old-fashioned idea. But I had a good marriage. We have five sons and my husband was always a good father to them. My hardest time was during World War II. My husband didn’t go to the war for two reasons: First because of his age and second because he was a farmer. All the other men went to the war and so their women had to take their husband’s work. Because we had our sons in a short period of time, three of them were still babies. I needed help but I couldn’t get any because all the women had to work for their husbands who were in the war and my husband also had to do all the work on his own. On top of that one of my sons fell and broke his leg. I was alone at home, with three babies, 300 chicken to take care of, a big garden and all my home work! That was a tough time!

C: Was it hard to earn enough money for the whole family?

S: Well, we’ve always done well with lots of hard work. But there were farmers who had a terrible time because they didn’t produce enough.

C: How often did you have to go to town? What for?

S: In the 30’s we did one trip a week to the town and we bought everything we needed (sugar, flour salt…). The reasons we went to town were to buy groceries and to go to church. But mostly we couldn’t go to church because we didn’t have enough money for gas for two trips a week to the town. At that time we couldn’t afford many things. We sold a hog to buy a pair of shoes! Today the situation is completely different. My sons never think about how who lived during the depression years took a lot from their experiences during this time with them. Those years left such an impression even today. We don’t take more than we need. If the bread runs out today I don’t go to the town only to buy bread. I make biscuits.

C: When did you have the first car?

S: My dad bought his first car in 1918, my husband in the 1930s. In the late 1920s we drove a horse to school. Or my dad drove a horse to meet the mailman because he couldn’t come the whole way to the farm.

C: What about traveling? Have you ever been further away than this area?

S: We went sometimes to Nebraska and South Dakota to buy feed. We called those trips vacations.

C: Have you ever had time to relax and do anything for yourself? Was there any time to meet friends to talk?

S: That didn’t work all the time. But I joined the neighborhood club called “social circle club” and later the “federated women’s club.” We always met in the afternoon on the last Thursday of the month. I read a lot, played the piano and organ a lot, I’ve always been a volunteer. Sometimes I substituted as a teacher at Cornell for a few days. I also ran a used clothes room in Lisbon for eight years. I’ve had a garden until the last two years. I also traveled a lot with my children and my husband. I’ve been to Canada, Hawaii, on a cruise, Europe…. Some of the trips we did we could do because agriculture. My sons sell seed for a company and have for many years and after a certain time they win a trip sponsored by the company. One of my sons just won a trip to Brazil last year. Now I have more time to do what I always wanted to do.

C: My last two questions are about Mt. Vernon. When you look at Mt. Vernon now and 70 years ago, how did it change? What is different?

S: The main thing is that it got bigger! There used to be a lot more businesses; three or four grocery stores, a meat market, a book store, barber shops, a train station, a taxi service, buses, an interurban (before we moved here) a shoe store, a women’s dress shop, a shoe repair… At that time the doctor’s made home calls. Cornell tripled the buildings. In 1937 all the dorms west of Merner Hall weren’t there. There also used to be hotels in town. One where the Memorial Park is now.

C: Were the people different?

S: Generally it has always been a friendly town. It just became more of a “bedroom community” than it used to be. I always liked to live here.

C: Thank you very much for this interesting talk, Mrs. Stoner.

S: Thank you, too.

Phot of a paper on agricultural changes through the years


Agricultural changes through the years

Photos of Jean Stomer through the years and one photo of a young Alan Duvall

Photo of the Stoner Family

photos of Jean Stoner and Alan Duvall