by Letty Owings

The farm my father purchased in 1920 was referred to as the “Hicklin place” because it was a hundred and sixty acres carved from the Hicklin plantation. The designation “plantation” was given to land owned by a farmer if he had at least twenty slaves. The graveyard for the Hicklin slaves was on our farm. My father plowed around it, so it survived as a weed patch with tumble-down tombstones. As a kid, I sometimes walked there to have a look. It always gave me the creeps, especially when I noticed how many of the stones marked the resting place for children. I wondered what they had looked like and why they had died so young.

On rare occasion my mother would send me with a bucket of milk to our neighbors, George Duvall and his wife Minnie Hicklin Duvall. They were the only people in the area without a cow. The Duvalls were also different because they were not German speakers nor were they Evangelicals. Their home was more shack than house, a dwelling that had seen its better days. When I arrived with the bucket of milk, George was usually puttering around with his few chickens or working in his tiny garden. I do not remember exchanging any words with him. Minnie would call me to come in, but she never rose from her old velvet chair situated in her tiny living room. In order to come where she beckoned me, I had to push aside long strings of colored beads that divided the kitchen from the room where she sat on her velvet throne, in a long dress that covered her to her feet, which were clad in soft slippers and rested on a velvet stool.

Minnie told me stories. Always the stories were about her aristocratic Hicklin family who – before the Yankees came and made a mess of things – were slave-owning aristocrats. What she spoke about meant little to me because at the time I knew nothing of the history of the area or about the Civil War. I did know that our county seat at Lexington, Missouri had a cannon ball from a war stuck in one of the pillars of the courthouse. I also knew about a big plantation home called the “Anderson House” that had blood on the floors because it was used as a hospital when the people in the county killed and maimed one another. I knew my folks gave to the house- which was by then a museum- with cannon balls which were from time to time plowed up in our fields. My family also told stories about the rebels cutting my grandfather’s underwear off the clothes line and how bad that was since all thread was handspun and clothes handwoven and were nearly impossible to replace.

One day George Duvall died. The undertaker came and embalmed the body in the living room before it was laid to rest on the satin cover in his casket, a bed much nicer than he had known in life. Minnie had to scoot her velvet chair aside to make room for the casket. The funeral was planned to be held at a church in Odessa, a service Minnie announced she would not attend. My dad was always the one in the neighborhood to make sure proper care was taken of the dying and the dead. He told Minnie she was going to the funeral, and she did. I remember sitting in the front row, far too close for comfort to the coffin. That is all I remember.

With George gone, our family wondered what was next for Minnie. Obviously, she could not live alone. The Duvalls had a son and two daughters, none of whom lived in the area. I remember only the youngest daughter, Martha. She bobbed her hair, danced the Charleston, and married a dashing young man from Los Angeles. What little I saw of her, I was enchanted by her being so forward and charming, so different from the German women I knew. Martha picked up Minnie and took her off to a new life in L.A. The next thing we heard, Minnie had a short hair cut and a perm. She got decked out in stylish clothes and left behind the memories of George and his chickens. My parents were amazed, to say the least. Never again did anyone show up to finish cleaning the house or to visit George’s grave.

My connection to the Duvall house did not end with Minnie’s departure. It had been only partially cleaned out. It was left to collapse in a pile of rubble. I wonder if my mother knew I climbed the hill and made a few trips to the empty house. My interest was long-forgotten items in the dingy upstairs, which was more like an attic, reached by broken wooden steps. The floor was rotted out. I had to be careful where I stepped and always stood a good chance of crashing through the boards to the floor below. Martha had left a pile of magazines with pictures of dancing girls and stylish clothes. The real treasure I carried home was a box of mail that George and Minnie had collected over the years. The amazing thing about that box was how it ended up with me here in Seattle. I can’t imagine the journey of the box and why it came with me.

I took many months to sort and save each communication. Of all the hundred plus albums I have constructed, the Duvall communications are the most fascinating. They tell the story of life as it was back in rural America many long years ago. Among the cards is one my grandfather, my father’s father, sent the Duvalls after his second wife, my step-grandmother, died instantly following a shot she was given for varicose veins. The card was dated October 1929, a few days before the infamous stock market crash. Grandfather’s acknowledgement he sent included a fancy calling card he must have carried. The album of the Duvall cards will survive me and my telling the story.

Photo Courtesy of Jon Dickson on flickr

Crane-Station

Crane-Station

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