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I was three-years old in 1956. That is the year my mother took a job at Terry's Produce in Lenox. Or so I am told, as I was too young to remember. My sister tells me that Mom worked at Terry's before I was born and that after I arrived she did not go back to work for three years. I suppose economically Mom was forced to return to the workforce, so my sister took over the task of rearing me, at least until I was old enough for school. As I grew older hanging around the produce building became a normal part of my life. The tiny entry room where my mother sat behind the counter answering phones and customer inquiries also contained shelves of medicines for various ailments in chickens, hogs, sheep, and cattle. In fact I remember one day when Mom tilted my head and pronounced, "You have Pink Eye." She reached on the shelf and opened a bottle of Pink Eye medicine labeled for cattle then she proceeded to squeeze a powdered substance into my eyes. After a few treatments the malady was cured.
Periodically, on any day except Sunday, rough-dressed farmers would shoulder their way through the door and place orders for feed, seed, medicine, or to deliver eggs and cream to be sold. Most paused to engage in a little gossip about crops, prices, the weather. In the depth of winter they often lingered around the red-hot stove, reluctant to venture back into the Iowa deep freeze. Farming done for the winter they had no need to hurry home. I donít now recall each their names but of course they were the fathers and grandfathers of my schoolmates so I knew them. I do remember they each possessed their own personalities. If they were naturally cheerful they would charge through the door with a loud greeting and a smile. If taciturn, they would come in quiet using as few words as needed to get back outside and on with their life. Some were just plain grouchy as if they were constantly setting on a burr, nothing in life seemed to please them. It was a wonderful place for a small boy to collect all of the personalities of our small community.
In the summers especially I would chase through the various rooms, the egg candling room, the refrigerator room, and the cavernous back room piled high with palettes of bagged feed for various types of farm animals. The produce sold Garst and Pioneer seed and Gooch's Best feeds. Gooch's Best was a mill in Nebraska and along with their extensive line of animal feeds they sold grocery items such as flour and pancake mix. I remember my mother using Gooch's products to cook with, I am sure from loyalty to the brand but also to get the coupons on the bags. To entice customers Gooch's Best bags were printed with coupons of various value, 25, 50, and 100 points per bag. These coupons could be cut off and redeemed by kids eighteen and under at the Gooch's Best Auction in Salina, Kansas each summer. The coupons acted as money and kids bid according to how many they collected. I recall that it took a whole lot of points to buy a steer, many thousands. In the early 1960ís my brother bought a beautiful steer at the auction. He fed it up to a prizewinner. A few years later I bought a Duroc sow and began raising my own hogs.
Bill Terry who opened the store in 1945, Mom, and several local youths staffed the business. At such an early age I paid little attention to who those young men were but one was Mervin Shawler and in 1959 Terryís Produce became Shawler's Produce when Bill retired and Mervin took over the business. By then I was getting old enough that my mother thought if I were going to be hanging around I should be doing some work. I was sent on errands to grab needed items from the back, but my most important job was candling eggs. The eggs came in from the various farms in the immediate area that still raised chickens. Each egg had to be placed onto a small projector that shot a light through the eggshell. That way one could see if the egg had been fertilized, or if it contained a spot of blood, those eggs were set aside, to be discarded. The good eggs were then graded by size, medium, large, extra large. We had a hand stamp and stamped the boxes of eggs Grade A, Grade B, or Grade C. It was a bit tedious but I enjoyed it anyway and I felt I was a real help.
Mervin Shawler had a younger brother, Galen who was still in high school at the time. I remember Mervin employed his brother and Donny Young to load and deliver the heavy bags of feed. Galen often drove the panel truck making rounds to farms where he would deliver a small quantity of feed but more importantly to pick up eggs and cream for those who did not want to drive into town. I often accompanied him on his route. I was a young boy learning the invaluable secrets of older boys.
I donít think it will come as a surprise to anyone who knew me growing up but I was an ornery little cuss. Quick and mouthy, I loved to taunt Donny and Galen. I was much younger but quick as a cat. Unless they were less than an arms reach away they could never catch me. Some times they would even chase me into the stacks of feed bags stacked in the back, where I would scramble into the rafters and perch until they got tired of waiting for me and they had to go back to work. Inevitably when one of them got fed up with me, and Mervin or my mother, were not around, they would get me cornered and grab me. One would pull down my pants and the other stamp Grade D on my butt with indelible ink. My punishment generally ended with them throwing me into the cooler. The cooler had a huge wooden insulated door that locked from the outside. I would be tossed inside and left in there for an extended period. Usually I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, brrr I can still feel the cold. Of course it was all in good fun. I figured someone would find me, eventually. Although there were a couple of timesÖ
A few more years passed and the boys became men. Tragically Donny was a fragile diabetic who eventually became blind and later passed because of his disease. By the time I was in high school I was the one Mervin employed, part time to heft the bags of feed and help load and unload the straight truck as we made our way around to deliver to various farms. For me it was a great way to stay in shape for football and wrestling and earn extra pocket money. Time went by, Mom got sick and had to quit working. I would still help Mervin when he called, usually when he had a delivery of a couple of tons of feed. Soon enough I too was off to college and my days at the produce were finished. Sadly in 1988 Mervin died suddenly while working at the produce where he had spent so much of his life. After Mervinís death the produce was closed and the inventory liquidated. A 43-year institution in Lenox faded into history.
In 1990 the old produce building was sold to Larkin and Johnson to become a funeral home. Eventually becoming Larkin and Shelly. In 1998 my father, Bob passed after being bedridden for several years. The irony was certainly not lost on me when the funeral home that did his service was located in the old produce building. It seemed to me a most fitting exit from this world. After all, it was all in the family.