Basic biodata for
Tributes to other deceased relatives,
LOVING, BEING LOVED, AND
John Henry Conran (1872-1955) and
Lena Oser Conran (1882-1956)
Kenneth Westhues, Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo, Canada
Contents of this essay:
For insight into an earlier chapter of John Conran's life, see the Essay on girls' rights written by his first wife, Bertha Whitman
(1876-1915), the mother of his
I have to tell you about my maternal grandparents because nobody else is likely to. They have been dead already for two thirds of a century. No more than a dozen people who knew them are still living. I'm their youngest grandchild, but already old myself. If I don’t write about them now, they may join the millions whose names, as Keats put it, were writ in water. That would be a shame. Lest life in years to come be nasty, brutish, and short, lots of attention must be paid to forebears who lived life well.
The task of writing these paragraphs became more urgent in 2020, with the deaths of no fewer than four of their grandchildren (whose photos, names and dates are in sidebars at left). Five grandchildren had died earlier. Now just four of us are left. It's high time this story is written down.
The story deserves reading even by people beyond John and Lena’s kin. The main lesson of how they lived is that beyond the bare minimum, money is overrated. It matters a lot less than caring and good will.
What John and Lena meant to me is much the same as what many grandparents mean to kids growing up: recognition, acceptance, attention, time to listen, honest talk, kind deeds, lax discipline. I enjoyed just being in their company, liked to be with them even without doing much of anything.
Grandpa was 72 when I was born, 83 when he died in 1955. Grandma died a year later. That meant they had slowed down by the time I knew them. The single main picture of Grandpa in my memory is of him sitting in his rocking chair next to the big tube-laden radio on his library table, telling funny or scary stories from decades past, and spitting Beechnut tobacco juice every now and then into a gallon can strategically placed on the floor next to him, with a sheet of newspaper underneath to catch splatter. I do not have in my mind a picture of Grandma so much as a video of her bustling about in her kitchen, baking bread or cookies or coffee cake or something else that had sugar in it. More than anything special they were doing, it was Grandpa and Grandma’s presence that I took pleasure in. I craved being near them.
The woman I called Grandma was therefore actually my step-grandmother, Grandpa's second wife. This made no difference to me. I had no "real" grandmother to compare her to. It did not seem to make much difference to my mother either. Sometimes she called Grandma “Mama,” sometimes “Lena.” I never saw friction between them. They were relaxed in each other’s company.
Grandpa and Dad were very different men. Grandpa was Irish, jovial, easygoing, while Dad was German, severe, impatient. Grandpa laughed a lot. Dad more often grinned. Dad pushed himself relentlessly, worked hard, always had projects and plans. Grandpa used to say he was not afraid of work, that he could lie down next to it and take a nap. Sitting outside under a shade tree in summer, Grandpa often whittled. Dad was more purposeful.
Yet Dad seemed to enjoy Grandpa’s company as much as I did. Dad even deferred to him. For Sunday dinner or when we had company, Dad would sit in the armchair at the head of the table in our dining room. Not pompously or in a domineering way. The armchair was just Dad’s place. Except when Grandpa and Grandma visited. At the age of five or six, I heard Dad say gently to Grandpa, pointing to the armchair, “You sit here, Dad.”
As for Grandma, Dad revered her as a saint, because she cooked, cleaned, mended, did chores and tended to others’ needs constantly and uncomplainingly. Grandma was German like Dad. Some part of him admired the Hausfrau in her, however enamoured he was with his outgoing, independent-minded wife, whose DNA was missing the Hausfrau gene.John and Lena were the more special because they were the only grandparents my siblings and I ever knew. Dad’s parents had died in the 1920s. Mom’s mother in 1915. The only grandparents whose hands I could hold were therefore the elderly couple I'm describing here.
Additional deceased grandchildren:
Bertha Conran Peralta
Judy Conran Suttner
Grandchildren living in 2021:
The bond of mutual love I felt with Grandpa and Grandma was not unique to me. All their grandchildren shared it. At family gatherings even decades after John and Lena were dead, the cousins in my generation routinely traded stories of fun events and escapades on visits to our grandparents’ farm.
Johnny, Lee and Dorothy’s son, was an avid hunter even in his youth. He used Grandpa's shovel to make dugouts near ground hog holes, hiding places where he would lie for hours with his .22 rifle in wait for the rodent to show itself. Grandpa didn't mind. Ground hogs were a perennial menace to vegetables and crops.
Jimmy, Doug and Louise’s son, often told about how one night Grandma put him to bed on a spring-loaded fold-out couch that somehow malfunctioned and folded him in, so that he needed Grandma's help to wriggle out from under the mattress.
The teenage years were especially tumultuous for Bertha Marie, daughter of Doug and Louise, who had by then moved their family to Colorado. Solution? Send Bert back to Missouri to stay with her grandparents on their farm. It worked. Bert found her bearings and matured into a responsible mother and careerwoman.
During the 1930s, when my five older brothers and sisters were schoolchildren, Grandpa and Grandma would take each child for one week each summer, giving the parents a break and the child a special time. The result was a closeness that only deepened as decades passed. On his return from military service in 1947, my brother Gene rented land from Grandpa and Grandma and got a hard lesson in farming when his corn crop failed. A couple of years later, my brother Jim rented Grandpa and Grandma’s farm, and grazed cattle on it.
It was Lee and Dorothy’s daughter Joyce who best captured in words John and Lena’s special place in the lives of their grandchildren. As a high-school student in Kansas City in 1953, Joyce composed a poem about her “long and happy vacation days on their farm.” She sent the poem to the Glasgow Missourian, a weekly newspaper to which John and Lena subscribed. She asked the editor to publish it as a sign of her “deep appreciation.” The poem appeared in the issue of February 3, 1953:
Joyce’s poem divulges our grandparents’ most noteworthy characteristic, apart from their love for us and ours for them. The poem describes their home as shabby, and so it was. John and Lena’s level of living was lower than that of Joyce’s family or mine, well below average in mid-twentieth-century America.
They had not always been so poor. At right is the large white house with shutters, gingerbread, and a bay window, that was their home from 1921 to 1935. Essential to their story is an explanation of how they lost that home and ended up in one that even a loving granddaughter would describe as shabby.
Before explaining that turn of events, I describe in six short sections what their poverty entailed, as I saw it first-hand as a boy: their farm, house, location, car, physical condition, and lifestyle. The contrast between their home and that of my parents was stamped indelibly in my mind, on account of how often we visited them. My parents were small farmers of modest means, but Grandpa and Grandma’s home was a cut below: simpler, humbler, spartan.
Only twenty or thirty of their hundred acres were arable: two fairly level fields on either side of the Hurricane Creek. The rest consisted of wetland often flooded by the creek (it was called the slough), hillsides too steep to plow, and unimproved woodland so thick with brambles and buckbrush one could scarcely walk through it. The fences were a ramshackle mix of barbed wire and tree branches that livestock regularly breached.
John and Lena’s livelihood was a hair's breadth above subsistence agriculture. They raised vegetables, chickens, a few cattle and pigs, caught perch and catfish in the creek, and harvested pecans from trees that grew alongside it. They picked pails of blackberries. Dad and I once helped them harvest pawpaws. Their table never seemed to be short on food, but most of it was from their own farm.Dad maintained a dozen beehives at home, both for pollinating his orchard and for honey. The alternative at Grandpa’s was to go into the woods, find a hollow tree with a large swarm in it, fell the tree, and extract big honeycombs from inside. Dad knew how to handle bees and did the work. I stayed close to Grandpa and watched from a distance.
My parents had built our dormer-windowed bungalow when they married in 1922. It had four rooms and a bathroom on the main floor, two bedrooms upstairs, porches front and back, a shingle roof, a basement, a furnace fired by coal Dad mined himself, and a cistern fed by rainwater from the roof. For twenty years before I was born, this home had had electricity, telephone, and running water. It was the reality I grew up in.
Grandpa and Grandma's home was an unpainted, tin-roofed shanty built in about 1880: two rooms across the front, plus a kitchen and eating area in a lean-to across the back. No indoor plumbing, no upstairs, no basement, no furnace. Water was bucketed from a well 50 feet away. The cast-iron pitcher pump had to be primed to make it work. At right: John and Lena stand outside their back door in 1949, gazing up at an airplane high in the sky, an uncommon sight.
I cannot find a picture of the exterior of the house, but you can find many that look just like it by an image search on Google for sharecropper shacks or Florida cracker houses. At right: Grandpa after lunch at the dinner table in 1949. Note the kerosene lamp. No electricity meant no refrigerator or other appliances. Whenever Grandpa went to town, he would buy a big block of ice for the icebox and transport it home on the floorboard behind the driver's seat.
Because the house was not on a hilltop but down by the creek — Dad described it as being "under the hill" — radio reception was poor. Across the north wall of the house a strand of wire was strung between two ceramic knobs. This served as the antenna for Grandpa's battery-powered radio, perhaps his single most prized possession. The radio was never played as background. That would be a waste of the battery. When the radio was on, whether for news or entertainment, Grandpa gave it his full attention.
My parents’ farm lay 3.5 miles northeast of Glasgow. To get there from town, you took a paved highway across a two-lane bridge at the city limits and up a long hill, then followed high ground the rest of the way. Except after a winter storm, travel on Route V, a farm-to-market road, was quick and easy.
My grandparents’ farm lay 5 miles southeast of town on the Schnell Road – narrower, less gravelled, poorly maintained. You had to cross three one-lane bridges surfaced with clattering wooden planks. The hills were steep. During winter and spring, farmers often needed chains on their tires to keep from getting stuck.
At last, just before turning into my grandparents’ lane, you had to ford the Hurricane Creek. There was no bridge, just a single-lane concrete slab across the creekbed. This was called a revetment — an uncommon word of French origin. During periods of drought, the revetment was dry. More often, a few inches of water flowed over it. A car or truck could safely drive through. After snowmelt or a heavy rain, the water would be two or three feet deep, rushing and turbulent, making the revetment impassable (and washing away the fence that ran through the water gap at the property line).
The net effect was that Grandpa and Grandma were regularly cut off from everybody else, isolated sometimes for a week or more. Having no telephone, they were incommunicado when the creek was up. They could not walk even to their one close neighbor, a bachelor named George Holtwick who lived on the other side, nor could they get to their mailbox at the top of the hill.
The photo at right shows the revetment in 1968, after additional concrete had been poured on the south end and after Grandpa and Grandma's house was abandoned (you can see it in the upper left corner).
That my grandparents’ home was not easily, reliably reachable reinforced their backwardness amidst postwar prosperity. Their location made visiting them seem like an adventure into a different world.I was about four years old the evening Mom and Dad took me with them to visit Grandpa and Grandma, only to find the creek swolllen and the road muddier than usual. Dad said we should leave the car and walk the rest of the way. The water on the revetment was maybe six inches deep. I held Mom’s hand but somehow slipped and fell, was soaked to the skin. When we got to the house, dimly lit with kerosene lamps, Mom took off my clothes, wrapped me in a pair of Grandpa's heavy long underwear, and made me stand by the stove to get warm. I was mortified.
Throughout the twentieth century, cars were the single main status symbol in America. Grandpa bought his first one in 1915, at the age of 42. That Model T must have made him proud. Just 25 motor vehicles per thousand population were registered that year in the United States. He was in the small minority that could afford horseless carriages.
By the late 1930s, two decades later, the rate of motor vehicle registration had increased ninefold to 225 per thousand population, but Grandpa, now in his mid-sixties, was back travelling by horse and wagon. This must have been a bitter pill. Cars had become the norm. My parents, Olive and John, had both car and truck.
About the time I was born, Grandpa was able to buy a car again, not a new one, instead a 1929 Model A that he called the jitney (shown at right). This is how he and Grandma got around until they moved to town in 1951. I remember watching eagerly from our front yard for the Model A to turn in our driveway when they came for Sunday dinner. My excitement was not for the rusty old car but for the good will its occupants showed toward me and all my family.
Grandpa and Grandma spent almost no money on health care. That Grandpa had no teeth was not unusual. Neither did most people his age. But most people had dentures. Grandpa did without. I remember asking him how he managed to eat. “I just gum it,” he replied.
Further, by the time I knew him, his eyesight was poor, but glasses cost money and he did without. Mom bought him off-the-shelf reading glasses, but he said they made things worse. He very much wanted to vote in the 1948 election, when Harry Truman was running for president, but was afraid he could not see the ballot. He got permission from the election officials for my sister Margie, then 16 years old, to accompany him into the voting booth, read the names to him and mark his ballot for him.
Grandpa continued to drive from farm to town and back, holding to the middle of the road. He relied on Grandma, who never learned to drive, to watch for oncoming cars. She would tell him to “get over” when one approached. “Let him get over,” Grandpa would reply. Thankfully, traffic was light on the Schnell Road.
The one time I remember Grandpa scolding me was in the Model A. I was about five years old. Mom and Dad met Grandpa and Grandma in town, and let me ride with them back to their farm. I jumped into the back seat and started bouncing up and down, raising clouds of dust from the cotton upholstery and savoring the distinctive “old-car smell.” Grandpa told me sharply to settle down. The last thing he needed, I suppose, was a distraction when he could barely see where he was going anyway.
During the winter of 1951, Grandpa fell seriously ill just when bad weather made the last half-mile of the road to his and Grandma’s house impassable by car or truck. My brother Jim walked that last half-mile to tend to his livestock, then stopped by the house to say hello. He was alarmed to see how sick Grandpa was, declared he was going to town to get Dr. J. W. Gardner. Jim said he would drive the doctor to the top of the hill, then walk with him that last half-mile.“No,” Grandpa said, “he’ll charge me a dollar a step just to get here.” Jim fetched the doctor anyway. I never learned what medicine he gave Grandpa, how much he charged, or who paid the bill. Grandpa recovered, but before the next winter came, he and Grandma moved to a two-room apartment in town.
Let me not exaggerate how poor my grandparents were. They at least owned their decrepit farm, home, and car. Many Americans then as now, especially in the urban underclass, were worse off. Besides, Grandpa and Grandma’s children helped them out in small ways. By his own labor on our farm, Dad mined enough coal to fuel not only our furnace but John and Lena's Warm Morning stove.
My grandparents’ poverty did not mean they were needy, just lacking in money. Signs of this stand out in my memory. Store-bought baseballs could always be found around our house, since boys in my family all played ball. At Grandma’s house, by contrast, there was a single ball of yarn she had tightly rolled herself and encased in colorful leftover fabric. It was about the size of a softball. Kids could throw this homemade ball back and forth over the roof of the house, shouting each time, “Andy over!”
Like my parents, Grandpa and Grandma had a Christmas tree every year. Theirs, like ours, was a cedar brought in from the woods. Ours, however, had store-bought colored lights, ornaments, tinsel and candy canes. Theirs was decorated entirely with the Christmas cards that came in the mail from relatives and friends.
My older brother Gene, deceased in 2020, reminded me some years ago that John and Lena did not give presents to my older siblings for birthdays or Christmas, nor did they to me years later. Gifts came from our parents and each other, never from our grandparents. For a special occasion Grandma might bake a cake or pie. Presents cost money they did not have.
When my sisters Dolores and Margie moved to work in Kansas City in the early 1950s, Grandma began sending them, issue by issue, their hometown weekly, the Glasgow Missourian. She would take the copy delivered to her and Grandpa, since they had a subscription, roll it up with an addressed scrap of paper, wind scotch tape around it, put a stamp on it, and drop it in the mail. Marg told me Grandma said she might have to stop doing that on account of the cost of the stamps – at that time two cents each.
My mother and Grandpa himself told me a lot as a boy about his early life in Missouri, his marriage to Bertha Whitman, their move to Colorado, and their life on the plains, but nothing about Grandpa’s financial history. No mention of the moment of truth in 1935. The paragraphs below come from my piecing together, long after Grandpa and Grandma were gone, bits of information from my parents, older siblings, and public records.
The eight years on the prairie east of Colorado Springs, 1910 to 1918, failed in their main purpose, namely to cure Bertha of TB and restore her to health. Her death in 1915 left John with three young children but without their mother, the woman with whom, by all accounts, he had been head over heels in love. He and the children felt this loss for the rest of their lives.
Financially, however, the Colorado years were a success. The family arrived from Missouri with just enough money, maybe $1000, to buy a claim made a few years before under the Homestead Act. The family then lived on that quarter-section of land long enough and met all conditions required to “prove up” the claim and have clear title. I do not know how much Grandpa sold the homestead for in 1918, possibly as much as $10,000. It was enough that he could move back to Missouri with a car and with sufficient capital to buy land, machinery and livestock with which to resume farming.
Having decided to make the Glasgow community home, Grandpa first bought the farm identified as No. 1 on the map below, in the southern watershed of the Hurricane Creek. This was in 1919. He sold that farm the next year. Mom said she never knew why. My guess is that, in the context of a booming economy and rising land prices, he seized a chance to make a profit, with the goal of buying a bigger, better farm.
In 1920, Grandpa bought what the map shows as Farm No. 2, in the watershed of the same creek. It had more than 200 acres, was mostly high ground, on a decent road, with a barn, outbuildings, and the commodious house pictured earlier in this essay. Almost certainly, this purchase required a hefty mortgage, but this would not have worried Grandpa. Farmland had risen in value pretty steadily throughout his 48 years. It seemed a safe investment.
This was the farm where John and Lena began their married life in 1921. I doubt that Lena brought much if any money to the marriage. She came from a relatively poor farm family. Her parents were immigrants from Baden, Germany. As her five siblings married and moved away, she had stayed home to help her parents. Then her mother died in 1912, at the age of 65. Lena stayed on after that, keeping house for her father, until she and Grandpa married.
From 1921 to 1929, John and Lena lived frugally but well. Neither had expensive tastes. They both worked hard on the farm, tending the usual mix of horses or mules, cattle, hogs, turkeys, and chickens, as well as crops of corn, wheat and vegetables. Sometime in this period, they had a telephone installed. They may also have had electricity. It was a simple but more comfortable life than John had had on the Colorado homestead, probably also than Lena had had in her parents’ home.
Then Missouri’s agricultural economy collapsed, precipitated by the stock-market crash in October 1929. Prices plummeted for land and for just about everything farmers produced. To make matters worse, severe drought devastated crops, hayfields and pastureland in four of the next five years, especially in 1930 and 1934.
Generally, farmers who were debt-free and had money in the bank when the depression began survived it well enough. Some prospered. On the other hand, the hundreds of thousands who were deeply in debt faced ruin. John and Lena were in the latter category. They could not pay the interest on their mortgage, let alone pay down the principal, and the farm now was worth far less than they had paid for it.
The long and short of it is they lost the farm. One day in 1935, a couple from Iowa arrived at John and Lena’s door, explaining that the mortgagee had repossessed the farm and advertised it for sale in a magazine, that they were the new owners and were there to take possession. John and Lena would either vacate the property voluntarily or be evicted.
This was the event that was never talked about as I was growing up. Undoubtedly, it was for Grandpa the worst thing that ever happened in his life, apart from Bertha’s death twenty years earlier. Mom told me decades later Grandpa had always said, given the longevity in his lineage, that he was going to live to be a hundred, but that after 1935, he never said that any more.
The new owners from Iowa were apparently not sticklers, because they were content to share the large farmhouse with John and Lena for several weeks, until the latter could find a place to move to.
Lena’s father, Joseph Oser, by then 84 years old, came to the rescue. He had money enough, probably about $2000, to buy what is shown on the map as Farm No. 3 – smaller than Farm No. 2, decrepit, overgrown, run down, but better than nothing. Grandpa Oser agreed to turn this farm over to John and Lena, provided they would care for him there for the rest of his life.
Such is the chain of events that led to my grandparents living where they did and as they did when I formed my bond with them during my first dozen years of life. Lena’s father died in 1938. After that, a landless bachelor named Otto Voss lived with John and Lena, did some farm work in return for room and board. He slept in a tiny pantry at the south end of the lean-to across the back of the house. Grandpa called it “Ot’s room.”
The farm stayed in the family after John and Lena died. Their son-in-law, my father John, bought it from Lena’s estate in 1957. He had been renting it since 1951, when John and Lena moved to town.
The house was beyond salvaging, but Dad wrought a transformation of the land, aided by new technology. With a tractor-pulled “brush hog,” a super-sized, Herculean rotary mower invented in 1950, Dad cleared acre after acre of brambles, thicket, and scrub, creating pasture and a few small fields of arable land. He hired a bulldozer to dig a pond where the ice house used to be, built stock pens and a loading dock for cattle, strung miles of barbed-wire fencing, and stretched a steel cable across the Hurricane Creek, so that cattle could no longer get out through the water gap.
Mom and Dad’s grandchildren, the offspring of my older siblings, came to regard the “creek farm” as an enchanted place, a fairyland not unlike how my generation regarded it when John and Lena lived there. Hunting, fishing, berry-picking, picnicking on the revetment, poking around the ruins of the house, walking through the woods – these became cherished memories for many of them. One of my nephews, living in Florida, travelled with his girlfriend back to the creek farm, choosing this as where he would propose to her.
The creek farm remains in the family even now. Shortly before he died in 1970, Dad sold the place to my cousin Judy, Lee and Dorothy’s daughter, the girl pictured at the start of this essay, and to her husband Kenny Suttner. For their children, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren, the farm took on meaning that echoed its past. Judy died in 2012. Kenny still owns the property.
The farm remains, of course, not John and Lena’s legacy itself, just a symbol of it. Their legacy was humble, kind, peaceful, good-natured resignation to the tribulations and blessings that add up to the mystery of life.“How are you, Grandpa?” I would ask as a boy, though I knew his answer in advance, the answer he always gave with a smile: “Just wearying along.” I took great comfort in that reply, still do.