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Growing Up in Joplin in the ’40s and ’50s

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Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 10.48.41 AM   When someone says 1940 or 1950, what do you think of?  Whatever it is, hold it in your mind and think of how those ideas differs from today? A lot has changed: prices, integration, attitudes, school, rules, what is expected of you, and what is culturally acceptable are just some of the things that have drastically changed over the years. City life was different then than it is now. Mrs. Shirley Hunter, who has lived in Joplin all her life, shared her story with us.

When Mrs. Shirley was a little girl, she lived on 16th and Missouri in the central part of town. Her home, like most in the area, was simple. They were, in her own words “just little bungalows, like a living room, kitchen, two beds, a bath. That was the extent of most of the homes…” They lived very simply as well. By today’s standards they would have been poor. But you see, they did not really see that. Sure Mrs. Shirley didn’t get everything that she wanted, but she was alright with that. She had an uncle and aunt who bought her things, but not all the time, and it was fine. The attitude of needing all this stuff just wasn’t there.

Mrs. Shirley’s family did all their laundry by hand. She and her mother did laundry in a tub with a wringer on the side. They would put the laundry in the hot, soapy water and wring it. She  would rinse i

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t and run it  through the wringer again before hanging it out to dry. Laughing, Mrs. Shirley shared, “It was almost an art.” Hot water wasn’t always running. The heater had to be turned on and off whenever they needed it, because if it wasn’t turned off it could have gotten too hot and exploded.

Mrs. Shirley shared the story of the first time she and her husband went shopping. They filled up their car so full of groceries, they almost couldn’t get them all in there. The total cost for all of those groceries was around thirty dollars. Gas was nineteen cents a gallon. Her job as a teller at the bank paid thirty-five dollars a week. This shows how much time has changed things.

Emerson Elementary was close to her home, so that’s where Mrs. Shirley went for elementary school. They  haven’t always bussed kids across town to go to school. “If you lived in a certain neighborhood, that’s where you went to school,” Mrs. Shirley stated. There were around sixteen elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school.

Mrs. Shirley went to the old South Middle School. In middle school the division of the social classes became a little more evident. At this point in her life, she did not really see that she was poor because everyone around her lived the same way she did. In middle school there were kids from different parts of town. She said, “Some of their dads, maybe some of their dads owned businesses. Maybe they worked at the bank or something like that.  It was a little higher up in the level of the standard of living.”

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Following middle school, Mrs. Shirley attended Memorial High School. High school was very different than it is today, not in the way it was set up, but in the cultural aspect. Mrs. Shirley explains it like this: “Well to begin with, if we behaved the way kids behaved today we all would have been expelled.” Loving on your significant other would not have been tolerated, because according to Mrs. Shirley, you couldn’t even hold hands. If you tried, you would get chewed out by this lady that patrolled the halls whom they called Cowboy Reed.

School was very teacher-oriented and there was not a lot of student interaction. Students learned a great deal of history and they had a class on writing. In this class they learned how to properly write cursive letters. “Back then history had not been altered, and Christopher Columbus still discovered the new world,” said Mrs. Shirley

The schools integrated in the early 50s, but integration really wasn’t that big of a deal in Joplin. In the words of Mrs. Shirley,  “One day they weren’t [integrated] and the next day they were. There was no protesting or anything like that. We only had 4 or 5 black students.” There was a school for the African Americans on 7th Street, halfway between Main and Rangeline.

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For fun, teens would “drag” Main. “The nightly routine was that somehow you got to 1st and Main, and then drove all the way down Main to 32nd street. Then you turned around and you came back. Next you drove through El Rancho and saw who was there, and then you went across the street to CNA and drove through there. Then you went down to 7th street, turned on 7th, went out West 7th and drove to Keller’s and found out where everybody was. Finally, you decided where you wanted to go. If the right boy (or friend) was at the right place, well, that’s where you wanted to go, you know. So it was kind of a routine…” The CNA was on 26th and Main and El Rancho was just across the street. Keller’s was on west 7th Street. These places were all drive-in’s, kind of like Sonic, only they all had a place you could go in if you wanted to.

  The big thing to wear when Mrs. Shirley was a teen was saddle oxfords. “They had a leather sole. They were white on the toe and white on the sides and the back. And across the middle there was a black, sometimes brown, shape, and it looked like a saddle.” Mrs. Shirley gestured towards her shoe. They wore bobby sox with these shoes, which are similar to ankle socks, and they wore skirts all the time. Dresses and cardigans were also a part of their attire. When it was really cold, they might have worn a pair of jeans or slacks up underneath their skirts, but they never just wore slacks.

           Mrs. Shirley and her friend used to go to the movies very often and pay anywhere between ten and fifteen cents to get in. For a quarter they could go the movies, get popcorn, a drink and something else. The movies were typically westerns. The stars were Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Lone Ranger. Then there were biographies. “One of my favorites was … I loved Glen Miller, and there was a movie called The Glen Miller Story. Of course one of my very favorites, Jimmy Stewart, played the part of Glen Miller. And there was a Benny Goodman story. He was a famous, … clarinetist; he played clarinet,“ Mrs. Shirley recalled. The movies had no swearing and were very clean. There was no profanity, because that just wasn’t accepted by society.

There were two movie places in south Joplin and there were three downtown. The three downtown were the Orpheum, the Fox, and the Paramount. Movies would first show in the Fox and the Paramount for two or three weeks before moving to the Orpheum. The places down south were the last stops the movies made before leaving. They would show three movies, two cartoons, and a serial everyday. Moviegoers could get in for the whole afternoon for a dime. A serial was like a TV show that only showed one episode, and people would have to come back to see the next part. The Fox theater is still there. It is the Central Christian sanctuary now, however. Paramount was on the east side of Main between 5th and 6th streets.  The Orpheum was on the corner of 6th and Main.Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 10.49.46 AM

Mrs. Shirley and her friend would walk to and from the theater no matter what time it was, as the streets were safe. Even when they were twelve, it was no big deal. People hardly ever locked their doors, because most everyone was honest and kind. Mrs. Shirley said she felt very safe in her environment and was usually fairly happy.

Though she lived in the city, Mrs. Shirley had some cousins who lived on a farm. They called her the “city cousin.” When they would come visit, or she would go visit them, the cousins would run around together. At times, they would go into department stores and try on hats, even though they weren’t going to buy them. She said it was just to bother the people that were.

While she visited there occasionally, Mrs. Shirley never really learned the ways of the farm. She was a city girl and Joplin was her home. One of the last things she said was, “Have I given you a good picture? You know as I’m telling you all this, I’m seeing this in my mind.” We, too, can only wish that there was a way for her to actually show us her memories of growing up in Joplin in the ‘40s and the ‘50s.

Childhood Memories of Gardening


While growing up in Southwest Missouri, gardening and canning were very important aspects of the early life of Katherine Rowe.

Rowe typically began her mornings by getting up and going out to the garden to check on the vegetables. First, she would pull all of the weeds and pick the ripened vegetables. Then, she would take them in the house, clean them, and set them aside to dry. Meanwhile, her brother would go out and shovel cow manure to be used as fertilizer, which she recalls as “very amusing to watch because he hated it.”

Garden House

Rowe’s family had a very large garden with lots of different vegetables, including things like tomatoes and peas. She said that even though it took a whole row of peas for one bowl, and took a lot of work to harvest them, they still grew the peas. However, she said her favorite part of gardening was probably being able to take a bite of a freshly picked tomato, which she stated was “very delicious. I loved the tart flavor.”

When recalling the difficult aspects to gardening, such as having to plow the garden by hand or having to shovel the dirt, Rowe said that she didn’t like having to pull the weeds, because it was “hard, boring, and time consuming.” She said that even though the hardest jobs were given to the boys, gardening and picking vegetables were still hard jobs for the girls.

PeasRowe said that she enjoyed eating the freshly grown vegetables and loved the fact that she didn’t have to go to the market anytime she wanted fresh vegetables. She said that she still wishes she could have a garden today, and have the pleasure of biting into one of those delicious, tart homegrown tomatoes.

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