--Prologue to a Poem

Elmer Joseph Vivrett

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.

    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.  

    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 years.

    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 started.

    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 style.

    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 without.

    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 collapsed.

    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 him too.

    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 course.

    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 comfort—“Amazing Grace.”

    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 ones.

    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
                out 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 - -
            like him.
        Another, silent, dependable - -
            like him.
        The youngest, determined, perseverant - -
            like him.

    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
        with housepaint,
        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 death!”

    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 in 1726.
-- 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 started.
--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
Cal Coolidge
The ’26 Cardinals - - Me and Paul
Luck Lindy
The Babe
Brother can you spare a dime?
The War - - again - - WWII
The Nuclear Age
One small step - - in space
The Shuttle
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: viverette@yahoo.com