April 5, 2008
These are notes from a speech given at the Dodge City Music Club in the late nineteen eighty's.  You're welcome to add it to your web site if you choose.
Scott English
Lane County, OR

Thanks Scott, kind of makes you think about how tough folks were back in those days.  Makes me feel pretty inferior.  I hope many read this and enjoy it as much as I did.  Pete Thomas. ***

Wilma Watson English

Music in Cimarron, KS 1930-35
I was a student at Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas. I was to graduate, a music major; piano, voice, and teacher’s certificate in May, 1930. In April I was called to the Dean’s office. Cimarron, KS had asked for a music teacher. Forrest Luther had written the letter. I had the highest grades in Liberal & Fine Arts for three semesters. Also had many extra hours. Would I like to apply? I had no idea where Cimarron was but I was eager to locate a job, this one especially, the highest pay of any graduate.
So I journeyed on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and met with the school board (Mr. Jim English, Mr. Clyde Hannah and others) and signed a contract. I was counseled by the school board not to wear lipstick, not to loiter at the corner drug store, not to gossip about fellow teachers, and no “out of town” weekends. Wear sensible clothes and attend church. The contract stated, “Dismissal will follow if you conduct yourself in any manner unbecoming to the high calling of a teacher. The Board of Education will be the sole judge of guilt.” I lived in a teacher’s dormitory (a two story building on school grounds with a cook and manager. The grocery bill and the cook’s salary were paid by the teachers, $34 a month.). I was thrilled. My pay, $150 a month. I knew I wanted to teach, I loved the whole idea. I had taught piano privately the past four summers in Clifton, KS and three small towns close by. My father furnished the car and I went home to home, one hour lessons for fifty cents. In some homes the pay was my lunch, after the lesson. We gave recitals, printed programs, decorated with flowers, and sometimes had assistant soloists. Usually we held these in churches. I liked teaching. Materials were no great problem. Good old Jenkins Music Co. of Kansas City and I kept a great mail order business going at all times. This continued for over fifty years, never could have made it without Jenkins Music supplying my materials, programs and literature.
I was ready and September 1930 finally came! It was all I had hoped for. Great kids, great Superintendent, lots of enthusiasm (new teacher bit), support from community, great folks. I taught grades room to room (with pitch pipe) the old syllable reading method. Text books were selected by the State and required teaching. The High School classes came to the music room with piano and music books. It didn’t take long for me to find that my Professor at Lindsborg had been wrong about teaching the history of opera! Gracious, the kids wanted to sing and why not? So we did! Our first big program was downtown, upstairs in the Opera House. Big number was Singing in the Rain. A line of special girls, I asked them to each wear a yellow slicker (at Lindsborg everyone needed a yellow slicker rain coat), no problem, I thought. I was wrong, very few rain coats in this semi-arid area. We begged, borrowed from teachers etc. to do our performance.
We became very busy with the usual big chorus, glee clubs, trios, sextets, quartets, duets, Gray County contests, Dodge City contests. Our school had the largest enrollment of the five schools in Gray County and also a full time music teacher, so I felt I had an unfair advantage. I tried for years and years to change the activities to a Festival Day, all schools together, no scores in our county. Took a long time to sell that. The state activity board held contests all over the state. I took kids to Dodge, eighty students and a bus driver several times, dressed up and Gung Ho. To be graded; Superior, Highly Superior, whatever.
On one trip, I finally got everyone settled in an assigned room, went to get a schedule, came back to find fire and smoke in a waste basket. Very upsetting but no threat or harm. Now it was time for our soloist to go on stage. The boy who started the fire was one of my great discoveries, a hidden talent. He had no family, very little support but, “Oh, That Voice”. Absolutely heaven-sent, but a rebellious soul. I begged, threatened, tried every trick to get him to sing. So here we were, ready to “go on”. I tramped to the piano, he followed, I banged the keyboard, loud and vigorously. He knew he was in deep trouble, big trouble, but he sang. Oh how he sang, like never before! We left the stage in high gear. His rating was Highly Superior, the best. Oh, I could have strangled him. Well, we remained great friends for many, many years, even as adults and he always sang whenever I asked.
As the years went by I realized that Cimarron really took care of their kids, I admired that. I did church music and choirs, the works! Study Clubs, funerals, programs galore. We had banjo and guitar players. Male quartets (Mr. George Hagan and sons Wesley, Leon, and Ernest), and a Ladies Chorus. I had a great group from Extension units of Gray County, we were so good we sang at the new radio station KGNO in it’s opening days. Also had Gray County Christmas Choruses and Easter Cantatas. There were several good little dance bands playing Swing, I hope this will never be forgotten. There were dance clubs, Dance Halls. The first one I saw was a community building at Ravanna. That town later became a “lost town”. Disappeared from the face of the earth, but the hall remained for many years. There was a big dance hall at Holcomb, great band and great piano player (Marguerite Brown). Great band at Dodge (Layton). Cimarron Dance Club, evening dresses, danced in the hall over the Elks building (later the Globe). This was not square dancing; this was ballroom, swing, waltz, what have you, formal dress. Should mention also, a piano teacher from Dodge came to teach privately, home to home in Cimarron, he wore white gloves. One of his piano students was Henri Robinson.
Well, as we say, we were all “going strong”, a pretty good life, mostly made our own rules and laws and let the chips fall where they may. Rather affluent era. One friend had a Stutz Sports Roadster, another had a big black Hudson, some owned farm equipment, combines and so on. There was the big, beautiful Lora Locke Hotel in Dodge. A large department store, Eckles, was close by in Dodge City. I soon learned that mileage meant very little to Cimarron folks. Coming from Eastern Kansas where driving to another town, seven or eight miles, was a big deal, I was amazed how often folks made the twenty-five mile drive to Dodge City. The beautiful new movie theater, the elaborate Fred Harvey dining room in the Santa Fe station were frequently visited. The Good Life? I would say yes.
But someone has said, “What goes up must come down.” There was an insidious slowing of the economy, businesses were struggling, wheat sold at twenty-five cents a bushel, money flow became very slow. In March of 1932 President Roosevelt ordered all banks closed, a Bank Holiday. What a day! I went to school early because I had a big project, a program that night, and was greeted by the 4th Grade teacher, Malee Trainer, who announced, “The banks are closed!” That was unbelievable, the banks don‘t close! In my purse I had one nickel. Five cents, that was it. I’d been busy preparing a show for that date, using High School and town folks on stage in the movie theater downtown. Charging admission to cover rental, etc. Panic? Oh, yes. I ran to my wonderful School Superintendent, Horace Baker; councilor, guide, and mentor… the greatest. Baker later became a professor of Education at Wichita University. His words, “Let’s go on with the show. Let everyone in free.” We did and we had a crowd. I don’t think we cheered anyone very much, I would doubt that. Hard to imagine the following days, businesses tied to nothing, frightened people, teacher salaries cut in half. The world seemed upside down, never to be the same again, at least not very soon. But life does go on, daily living, jobs, chores, and survival.
To add to the misery… drought and high winds devastated the beautiful countryside, covering fields, roads, houses with fine dust like talcum powder, rolling in from the sky, mind boggling. Great drifts of dust covered field implements and filled ditches. Much illness, dust pneumonia. Black, suffocating, destructive clouds of dust, blocking the sun at times. We huddled in tight, shut houses and tied handkerchiefs over our noses. Outside we wore goggles and masks. Pitch black at 3:00 P. M. on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935.* Babies and the elderly suffered pneumonia, the hospital at Dodge was more than full. This was too much. The school board paid the teachers, closed the school, sent the teachers home, and turned the dormitory into a hospital for pneumonia patients. It was soon filled. (Dr. Klemt?) Volunteers tried to control fine dust that seeped in around doors and windows. Death came almost daily to this little town. Many were driven from their homes. Weight of the fine dust in the attics caused ceilings to fall. Air we breathed was “swept” by wet towels and sheets. Suffering and hardship were everywhere. School could not continue, teachers were paid, $720 for nine months, and sent home. Santa Fe trains still ran and a bus now and then. I went to Lindsborg. No one believed my Dust Bowl stories. They were pretty unbelievable, I admit. I thought I would never go back to Cimarron… but as the song says, “I left my heart…” So I was back on the job the next term, 1934-35. Contracts read that if women teachers married the contract was void. Jobs were very scarce, no family should have two jobs. I elected to marry and join the citizenry, not an easy decision, I still loved to teach. I loved the kids. Liberal asked me over and over to reconsider but I was married November 1935. Many years later I did teach again, back in the business and a business it is. Not a side-line or hobby. Making a living.
What did I see, hear and learn about the arts, the music of Gray and Ford Counties in those fast moving years? We are dealing with a very spirited people, strong willed, strong minded. I always felt an undercurrent of determination. Energy to make things better, a better life, searching, seeking. A hunger for something beautiful, something real, something honest, and never stop trying. So there we have it, isn’t that the essence of the Fine Arts? Is it any wonder this environment produced a jewel here and there? Many artists from this area became well known. Through the years I’ve heard many times, “You are so isolated.” as if it were a bad word. Perhaps it’s a good word, isolation makes us dig deep into personal resources, community resources, people working closely. By so doing we find depths and talents that may have never surfaced; nothing wrong with discovering ourselves.
I’ll close with one fast, true church story. Church music and choirs seem to go on forever. We had a Methodist Church choir that was getting pretty good. We were getting a new preacher, coming from New York City. Gracious! We’d better be pretty special for him. So, we prepared! He arrived; a meek, quiet little soul, a peaceful, thoughtful, student type. Boy, did we sing, we did our anthem number, it was great, our responses perfect. (Hagan brothers and their wives… some singers!) Miss Dorothy English was to sing a solo, I stood and sang How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings, got to the word “tabernacle” and fainted, yes, fainted. Next thing I knew I was stretched out, on my back on a pew bench in the choir room. Someone took me home. Have never known who. That afternoon as I rested in bed, a feeble little knock brought my husband, Howard, to the door. It was the preacher, he told us that someone in the front row had also fainted and had to be carried out. Then it came to the point in the service to read the bible text for the day, Isaiah 40:31: “…those that look to the Lord shall win new strength…they will run and not feel faint.” Poor man, too late to change the text or the sermon. This shouldn’t happen to a nice man on his first Sunday in a new church. Now he had come to apologize. I would guess he learned grace and mercy are pretty hard to come by in our weary world.
Wilma Watson English
Speech given at the Dodge City Music Club, circa 1988


*Further Reading: The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, chapter 16