We buried Dad on April first, 1980. “I’ll be just in time for Spring
planting- - somewhere,” he would have said. He was a farmer.
That was all he ever aspired to be: THE HIGHEST CALLING. Dad would
have been eighty-nine that June.
WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN?
--Prologue to a Poem
Elmer Joseph Vivrett
My dad was born on the old John D. Hearst River Farm near
Vineland, Missouri, in 1891 - - maybe. Maybe, because along about
then St. Joachim’s partially burned. All the parish records - - birth,
marriages, deaths, that were kept in the basement suffered water damage.
His church birth record was blurred and a civil record suggested 1888.
St. Joachim’s is still there, the parish for La Vielle Mine - - the old mine.
Old Mines was a village in Missouri French Country – representing just a
part of King Louis XIV’s grand dream of a new France. Descendants of
these two hundred French miners who arrived with Phillipe Francois Renault
in 1723 to mine lead are still there, scattered among the hills, south of
St. Louis was a newcomer among French settlements.
Some of the first, like Cabanage a Renaudiere, about 1710, have long disappeared.
Others like Mine La Motte, 1714, at the origin of Big River, and a cluster
of communities in Washington County like Mine a Renault, 1724, and Vielles
(Old) Mines, 1726, are still there. The most famous village, of course,
was Ste. Genevieve, fondly nicknamed “Misere” – (Miserable) about 1722.
The Missouri French built their villages in clusters, since the Osage with
brazen impunity, would travel one hundred miles to steal a fine horse.
The land was divided into arps – a measure about 192’6” square. Each
lot was one arp wide but perhaps a mile deep. This close community
suited the social, fun-loving French an disgusted the first English and Americans,
reared in the glumness of their Puritan Ethic. The villagers were Catholic,
but less ardent than those in Canada or France. They practiced a frontier
religion in a frontier life. They were not lazy, but easy going and
gregarious. They enjoyed themselves much more that their American counterparts.
There was no brutality of man against man in those early days; no evidence
of a single duel among these villagers. The most common crime was horse
theft, and that was usually by Indians. They saw nothing wrong in dancing
on Sunday. In fact, Sunday was for celebrations; one ball in the afternoon
for children and another Sunday night for the adults. The men would
work in the mines and fields Monday and Tuesday from dawn till dark to get
enough work done by Wednesday noon so they wouldn’t have to return o work
till the next Monday. These extra long weekends they would play cards,
sing, dance, and tell tall tales. But these were a genteel people,
with elegant manners. The wives were treated as full partners and slaves
were usually treated as members of the family. Sometimes the balls
would last two or three days. The slaves and Indians were always invited
- - and they came. The early Missouri French hardly knew the meaning
of the word prejudice. Rough frontier travelers of the middle valley
were astounded to find imported silk, satin, velvet and silver; in this wilderness,
a genteel, compact civilization.
In the 1760’s, rather than offer allegiance to the despised
George III and England, scores of Kaskaki’s residents were persuaded
by young Auguste Chouteau to leave home and move to the west bank to occupy
his new village called St. Louis. A secret treaty in 1764 put this
land under the Spanish Crown but any government was better than the British
government. Thus it should be no surprise to anyone that the Missouri
French sided with colonist in the American Revolution. They preferred
the crude, uncultured, often lawless Americans for neighbors rather than
the British. They were probably unaware that the new American nation
had unfinished business: slavery still existed, Catholics still suffered
discrimination and women were denied equality. With their creed of
tolerance, the Missouri French would have found their new neighbors’ prejudices
hard to accept. For their part, the Americans, who regarded shooting
Indians as somewhat akin to squirrel hunting, did cause the marauding Osage
to retreat to Western Missouri. The Americans were much better farmers
and the Missouri French were much better at enjoying food and other finer
things in life. They learned much form each other in the next two hundred
These early settlers loved nicknames. The lightheartedness
of these French people was reflected in the nicknames they gave each other
and their towns. Kaskaskia was “pouilleux” - - (lousy_. Cape
Girardeau was “l’anse a’ la Graisse” - - (greasy cove). St. Lousi was
“Paincourt” - - (short of bread). The names they had for each other
were not derogatory, not used behind one’s back, but indications of warmth
and affection. Names like “Horse”, “Flakes”, “Possum”, “Bigfoot”, “Dizzy”,
“Funny”. The custom still persists today. Dad’s nickname was
“Buck” and it fit him well. He was short, about 5’8”, very strong and
stocky, not fat, but barrel-chested with broad shoulders, a thick 16 ½”
neck, and piercing blue eyes. He was quick to jump into a fracas an
stubbornly persistent in a cause.
The spelling of the last names has been changed over two
and a half centuries, Americanized to read phonetically in English close
to what they sounded like in French. In the Old Mines community some
of the most common names can be traced back to Quebec, New Orleans, and even
France. Names like Aubuchon, Becquette, DeGonia (originally DeGagner),
DeClue (De Clos), Merseal, Pashia (originally Page), Sancoucie and Politte.
But Boyer and Coleman are the most frequently found names. Dad’s cousins
were Polittes and Boyers and his mother was Marys Katherine Coleman of La
Vielle Mine (the old mine). A Catholic – of course! She spoke
only French and never learned more than a few phrases of English. As
recently as the early 1930’s, 90% of the parish member still used French
as the domestic tongue. The early Missouri French nonchalantly bestowed
their rugged pronunciations on other incoming nationalities and on places.
The Blue-Bellied Yank would have been an American with land so poor his belly
turned blue. Aux Arcs became Ozarks. This blending of cultures
in pronunciations and the isolation of the Missouri French led to the development
of a unique dialect probably difficult for the traditional French to understand.
Dad always referred to this dialect and he people as Paw Paw French, once
again there was the funloving insult – the reference to the Paw Paw Frenchman
who had to live on paw-paw in the summer and possums in the winter.
Dad’s father was William Washinton Vivrett, first born
of twelve children to Henry and Susan. Henry Jacen Vivrett was born
in Wilson Country near Nashville, Tennessee, in 1835. Henry was a farmer
and a good one but also an itinerant Baptist Circuit Preacher who help found
the Oakland Baptist Church on Big River. An amiable sort – who loved
to sing – one anecdote held he more than once closed a sermon by inviting
the entire congregation home for chicken dinner no advance notice to his
wife, Susan. Warm, cordial and friendly though he was, I’ve often wondered
what he thought of his oldest son marrying a Catholic girl.
I’ve traced old Henry back a bit. Two brothers came
from Alscon or Alason, a small village in France. This name runs throughout
the family for generations. The bachelor brothers came to American
before the Revolution and settled in Wilson County, Tennessee, near Nashville,
then Obion County, Tennessee on the Mississippi River.
In 1860, 74,000 American frontiersmen came into mid-Missouri.
For the most part, they were farmers and Missouri land was not only much
cheaper but similar to their beloved Tennessee uplands. Henry Jacen
Vivrett was one of them.
Another anecdote about Henry goes like this: As
a young farmer he was plowing a field near the Mississippi. It was
hot. He heard a steamboat whistle as it prepared to dock. He
tied off the mules’ reins and ran about two miles to the point where the
boat had docked. Henry reached into his overalls, showed the captain
his money and asked how far up river that amount would take him. “
St. Louis,” the Captain replied. And that’s one account of how Henry
married Susan Johnson on July 4,1860, less than a year before the Civil War
Old Henry Jacen Vivrett left people in Western Kentucky
and Tennessee. One of them, Alascon Vivrett, had sons - - lots of them.
There were Jim, who fought for the Union, Dee and Bob. Also there were
Cage, Rufus, Tom, and his son Sack. (Sack may not have been quite right
but he was strong as an ox). Such names! I’ve heard Dad speak
of Cage and of Rufus, who had eight daughters and ruled his farm patriarchal
My grandfather William was a stern patriarch too.
There was little praise and less affection to spread around. Still
Dad stayed home - - on the farm - - a bachelor who worked with mule teams
but courted with horses. He loved horses. In those days a young
man felt his horse must be fast, high spirited and have redundant four white
hocks. Few Missourians owned horseless carriages before 1910.
But the Missouri mule was of key importance on the farm.
When he was thirteen Dad went to the World’s Fair; an
experience he would never forget. Quite a culture shock for a farm
boy named Buck. St. Lous’ major claim to fame in 1904 was caskets,
shoes and beer. St. Louis was also the fourth largest city in the United
States. The glorious Fair - - with its innovations like iced tea, the
ice cream cone, the hotdog and Popsicles and its spectaculars like the “Pike”
and the ferris wheel with thirty six cars which could hold sixty people each.
Twenty million tourists visited this fair for an average of 100,000 per day.
What a grand time it must have been!
Buck had an agreement with his dad. If he stayed
with farming and worked their two farms, one owned and one leased, then someday
it would be his. So he farmed. But he was dreamer. The
St. Louis and Iron Mountain tracks went by the house and invariably brought
at least one adventurer who would hire on for awhile and then move on.
On Sundays, the young men would grow restless, catch a
freight with its engine laboring to climb a grade and ride as far south as
Poplar Bluff or sometimes into Arkansas; then catch another one home.
Dad marveled at the trains, their powerful engines belching smoke, the far-away
places the drifters talked about. And he always envied his cousin Sid
Boyer, just a little. Sid ran off an became a brakeman, then a conductor
for the Missouri Pacific. If a brakeman got hurt, he was immediately
unemployed. Not much security there, Dad reasoned, so he worked part
time as a brakeman once, but always there was the farm. In 1898 they
leased a river bottom farm from Lavina Blackwell of Blackwell, Missouri.
To a Missouri farmer, bottom land is the best. Dad loved that bottomland
farm and the river that ran through it. Big River then called it, and
still do. He told of working in the fields - - getting hot and racing
his brothers to the river, diving in clothes and all. But it could
be treacherous too and the hill folks had many stories of drownings and under-currents.
Still he loved that river as he did his horses and the trains. But
most of all he loved the land. He was a boy, working the land, when
Orville and Wilbur Wright made history. I asked him once what local
people thought about that flight and he responded, “Not much, on way or the
other”. Of course it was considerably after the fact by then.
Dad was working the land when the Yanks first went “over there” and when
they returned in triumph.
But all that changed! In June, 1922, his father, William
came to him and announced that he had traded the farm for an apartment building
on Wells Avenue, Wellston. By 1920 the close-in St. Louis suburb of
Wellston had grown by 22%. The Wellston property consisted of thirteen
apartments or flats, but Buck thought it was a bad deal, and he said so.
Dad was undone. He felt used and without a livelihood. After
thirty-one years of working towards a goal, suddenly there was no farm.
All but 40 acres was gone. Then he met my mother. They married
in May, 1924. dad was unemployed, had eight grades of education and
was thirty-four years old. The stage was set for forty years of doing
From then on, times were always hard. In a letter,
dated November 3,1924, from St. Louis Dad writes his father that “a lot of
poor devils are out of a job but everyone says after the election things
will pick up.” But things did not pick up and babies began to arrive.
America had indeed lost its innocence and although Cal
Coolidge, elected in the above reference, seemed to represent solid virtues
of an earlier era, his leadership was inadequate in a post-war world.
Coolidge did not lead. He suggested and withdrew. The post war
prosperity was very fragile for the common man. Prosperity seemed more
attracted to some areas and some people than others. The “filter down”
theory of wealth never seemed to filter down, even then. Soon everything
In a letter dated June 20,1930, from Vineland my grandfather
pleaded with my Dad to “come down as I am in trouble. They came out
yesterday and took away my car.” Unable to help his son, old Henry,
the care-free farmer who had abandoned his team for adventure, was dead by
that November. My grandfather, William, died the next February.
How frustrating it must have been for my Dad to be unable to help either
of them when he was needed most. But his young growing family needed
Dad always liked Jews. Until his last days he repeated
the following incident as one reason. His bank had closed and $600
- - all their savings was unavailable and foreclosure on the flats was imminent.
In desperation, and uncharacteristically, he confided his frustrations to
a friend, Mr. Feischman, who immediately offered to help. Dad drove
him to the bank. He somehow was admitted and returned shortly out a
side door with the cash. With the banks closed and so many out of work, a
helpless public wanted reassurance and action. And got both!
Out parents were confirmed Democrats and one would have
thought F.D.R. invented the twin concepts of Hope and Happy Times or at least
he knew the road to travel to get there. Just mentioning Hoover’s name
would start Dad.
The Depression hit my folks late. With five children,
they got caught in the squeeze, couldn’t make the mortgage payment and lost
the apartment building that finally had been left them. In 1939, my
family, like Steinbeck’s Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, became dispossessed
vagabonds, and uprooted victims of the relentless laws of supply and demand;
controlled by faceless, powerful forces in a nightmare world of bank runs,
foreclosures, day work only, and hang-me-downs, and hungry kids; always hungry
kids. There were “haves” and “have nots” and at that point, my family
knew which they were. Because I was the baby, I always had enough -
- though someone did without. I know who that was.
Steinbeck told us the land fell into fewer hands. But
he also realfirms the power of potential of unity; “two men are not as lonely
and perplexed as one” and Ma Joad says “… they ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why
we’re the people, we go on.” That’s the same way our mother held our family
together. A bond was there – stronger than economics and stronger that death.
“It’s blood.” Buck would say. “Yes Dear, “Mother wold respond, through she
knew the cement was Christian love – more than anything else.
As a family, 1939 was our hardest year. We struggled –
merely to survive. We were not alone! The typical family in 1940 was poor.
In 1940 half of all families in America earned less than $5,000. we were
poor – but clean. And Like the Missouri French two hundred years before us,
we were rich in the joy of each other. We settled in a small rural Missouri
town close to where Dad was born.
I don’t think Dad ever traveled east of St. Louis. He
finally got work as a sign hanger for Keller Sign Company of St. Louis and
was on the road a lot in Missouri. When World War 2 broke out, bother parents
worked seven days a week. After that, for a time we saw him only on weekends,
if at all. When the war ended, he went to work for himself as a house painter,
working eighteen hour days to make ends meet. Dad loved to paint. He felt
he was making something new again. He could paint equally well with either
hand and from first light till dusk, six days a week. I’ll never forget his
insisting that I sty on a fully extended ladder while he moved it from the
ground, and I can still hear Mother, budgeting, say “We have $700 saved.
If we can just make it through the winter…”
I can remember gathering times. As a family we’d go to
the woods for walnuts, hickory nuts, sassafras and persimmons. But most important
was to cut the Christmas tree. I can’t remember a “do without” Christmas,
though there must have been some – for our parents. Always there was security
and warmth of the cercle familial de joie (family circle of joy).
In 1954, Dad had a heart attack. He was sixty three years
old and he was tired. For awhile he just gave up. But he was a bull! After
a period of despondency he was back up again, seemingly stronger than before.
This was my senior year in high school. The others were all grown and gone.
My dad had an abundance of common sense, the kind of wisdom
not learned from books, but from life. For example, I was a long distance
runner but Dad refused to go to a meet. When I asked why, he said “ I can’t
see any sense in it. You’re just going around in circles.” He was right of
In 1968, Dad had another heart attack. This one was massive
and nearly fatal. By this time I was through graduate school and teaching
at a junior college in Illinois. I realized how bad he was when he introduced
me to a nurse as the president of the college. I remember the wall by his
bed in the I. C. unit. Everything was white. Electronic devices and screens
were everywhere it seemed. I didn’t expect to see him again.
Dad loved our Mother and he loved his children. After
Mom’s death he would spend time each day reading the Bible and marking favorite
passages to reassure himself for what was to come. He believed in maintaining
respect for one’s name, the sanctity of marriage and the harbor of love in
a family. The last time we saw him, his two favorite hymns were sung at his
request: one a question – “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and the other a
Just ten miles north LaVielle Mine on Highway 21, along
the turn off road to Big River, past rows of ancient cedars my Dad planted,
the land he worked and loved is still there. Along this road, on a corner
of the old homeplace farm, is the last home our parents shared, the cottage
where the two old men died. The large granite family marker he helped place
is still our there too. Like a lonely sentinel, the monolith stands on a
hill next to the road, a tribute for all seasons in reverence to the old
There is a mine on this, the family’s little farm too.
It too was an open pit mine, once quite active yields of lead and barite.
Periodically, the monolith, the memories and the mine
still call be back from my suburban mind – set to a simpler way and familiar
fields and woods I used to know. “Revenez encore a La Vielle Mine.” Come
back again to the Old Mine. And I do.
A bull named Buck
of hearty French stock
Crashing eighty successive seasons
against life’s corral gates
and never down long - -
but back again,
head lower than before
Asking no one for help
except, maybe, God
and Him not too often.
Is it a measure of manhood
to say you’re not hungry
when little children are?
Two daughters but three sons - -
One, uncompromising, obstinate - -
Another, silent, dependable - -
The youngest, determined, perseverant
He hears only what he likes - -
in the Oriental fashion
Though he’s never been East
of the Illinois side.
What matter of man is this
who does without so long
and doesn’t become hollow?
who fights the battle of the cardiograph
in white hot intensity,
and gets up to walk out.
His understanding - - from wisdom;
his wisdom from life’s one-room, schoolhouse.
This master painter –
out of the hills
to create beauty
dreams from sweat.
Ride the rails you, Blackwell boy!
Someday - -
Catch an engine
on a climb,
and ride those same rails
On the last weekend in June 1971, we had a reunion of
the immediate family at my house to celebrate dad’s eightieth birthday.
The Missouri French loved family social gatherings and he enjoyed this one.
We didn’t have gambling or strong drink but there were activities inside
and out: great food, games, singing, much visiting between families
and home movies. I had edited and spliced together years of 8 mm film
and kept the film on continuous showings: pictures when mother was
alive, pictures of large family gatherings, and babies growing up.
Pictures of a warmer time. When it came time to unwrap birthday gifts,
the poem was given in a frame, brown ink on a parchment paper. I think
he liked it.
Mother had been gone for a year and a half and Dad’s last
years were lonely. He, too quickly, sold his little farm and just as
quickly felt homeless. “I do not have a home of my own anymore,” he
wrote in a dairy. And another place, “I should have kept my home till
I tried to visit him on weekends and he maintained his
dry wit and sense of humor. The early winter of ’79, he gave
up driving and I knew that was his way of preparing himself for the end.
This presented practical problems for him too, because his room was some
distance from favorite eating places - - and ice was coming.
On the weekend of December 9, I went to ask him to come
live with us. “I won’t be any trouble,” he quickly responded.
“You have my word on it.” For a moment I was silent, choked with emotion
- - and then very angry with myself. Why hadn’t I invited him to make
his home with me years ago? And I thought of Robert Frost’s great definition
of home: “Home is where - - when ya hav to go there - - they hav ta
take ya in” or “I should have called it something ya somehow haven’t ta deserve.”
Dad deserved better from me!
Those last months were pleasant - - together at Christmas
and afterwards gathered around a toasty fire every winter evening.
He loved to talk and eat and he’d laugh out loud at our son, wearing the
Siamese cat for a collar - - but a cough persisted: fluid building
in the lungs, our internist said.
Early on the morning of March 29, 1980, Dad died in the
bathroom but fully dressed - - just as his dad had, almost fifty years earlier.
He was gone before he hit the floor.
With his passing, a personal closeness with a slice of
Americana was gone from me. His life represented a span nearly one
half or our nation’s existence.
-- From the frontier roots of the Missouri French when Phillippe Francois
Renault was appointed director general of mining operations in New France
in 1719 and arrived in Kaskaskia in 1723.
-- the string of mining villages that followed, including Vielles (Old) mines
-- 1835 when Henry Jacen Vivertt was born near Nashville, Tennessee.
-- 1860 when seventy four thousand migrated to Missouri.
-- 1860 when Henry wed Susan Johnson less than a year before the Civil War
--then more quickly - - the decades flash by - -
The Panic of 93’
The silver-tongued orator
Remember the Maine!
The Wright Brothers
The St, Louis World’s Fair
President McKinley assassinated
The Yanks are coming
The ’26 Cardinals - - Me and Paul
Brother can you spare a dime?
The War - - again - - WWII
The Nuclear Age
One small step - - in space
The Global Village
They say history is the essence of innumerable biographies.
This was the story of one American’s Love affair with his land - - this glorious,
ongoing encounter with the land - - the gradually unfolding faith in the
land…what could be grown on it or what might be found under it.
Mid America had come of age and matured during his sojourn
in Missouri’s hills - - and like the steam engines he loved - - he belonged
to a bygone era - - a much simpler time when your word was your bond and
a handshake signed the contract.
…and how do you like this blueeyed boy, Dear Lord?
Written by Bill Vivrett
#3 Great Knight Court
Manchester, Missouri 63011
This page was created by Raymond Viverette. Any questions about its contents should be directed to the following e-mail address: email@example.com