In this episode, we listen to the oral histories of Margot McMillen. We hear from a river boat captain, a train engineer and an independent woman. These and several dozen other Missourians were the subjects of Margot’s late 1970s oral history recordings.
At that time, Margot was a young mother of two, a graduate student in English and a budding author. She was also was a listener.
When the Union Electric utility started buying land from farmers in Southern Callaway County for a nuclear power plant, Margot jumped into action. With her recording kit and an abundance of curiosity, she set out to preserve stories of a rural lifestyle that was rapidly disappearing. The stories illuminate what a different world we live in 45 years after they were preserved.
Hear more episodes of the Mo’ Curious podcast at MoCurious.com and wherever you get your podcasts.
Madelyn Paine remembers getting weighed at the Dalton elevator. Diane Pippens feels her light skin helped her pass for white or Mexican when she integrated her town’s high school. William Payne recalls the town’s annual reunion where he met his future wife.
It was at Dalton, Missouri’s annual reunion in 2021 that I did my first interview for this episode of the Mo’ Curious Podcast. Throughout that summer and ending on Labor Day of the same year, my collaborator Jennifer Thornburg and I conducted six oral histories with alumni from the former Dalton Vocational School in Chariton County.
Dalton, now listed as a village by the U.S. Census Bureau, had an official population of seventeen in 2020. Nathanial Bruce started the school for blacks in Dalton in 1907. Between 1907 and 1956, Bartlett Agricultural and Mechanical School (later Dalton Vocational School) graduated young men with skills in farming and machinery. Young women learned how to type and cook in preparation for future work in offices and as house-keepers.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separate-but-equal facilities like schools were unconstitutional. This led to the closure of the school perched on the hillside in Dalton. After the 1956 school year, active Dalton students attended now-integrated schools in their hometowns.
Now seemed like a great time to gather memories of Dalton Vocational School from the shrinking pool of aging alumni. This podcast tells the story of Dalton Vocational School—Missouri’s “Little Tuskegee”—in the former students’ own words.
It’s hard to always do the right thing. Hi, my name is Trevor Harris and I have high cholesterol. My body is genetically predisposed to higher cholesterol says the doctor. I also have a family history of heart disease. Those factors taken together led my doctor to suggest lifestyle changes. It seems like an extreme term for what is needed. I hear lifestyle change and I think about becoming trans or becoming a travelling hemp activist or something like that. None of that is required. The good doctor says to eat less meat and other high cholesterol foods.
And that is where doing the right thing comes into play. Most days I can eat oatmeal and kale and veggie burgers and tofu and love it all.
It is when I travel that I get off my nut as they used to say.
Last week I went to Missouri’s Bootheel on a podcast reconnaissance trip. In case you didn’t know, the bootheel is not known as a vegan hotspot. The hotel in the small town where I stayed for three days was near enough a McDonalds that I could almost smell it. So I went there. I went there three times in three days. There was also a Burger King visit in there somewhere.
I don’t travel too much, but when I do my diet such as it is all falls apart. Somehow, I psych myself into believing that food eaten far from home doesn’t count. Or at least that’s how I justified snarfling down those Quarter Pounders and yes, I’ll take fries with that thank you.
Back home, I can honor my mandate for health and eat at regular times. I am blessed to have a wife who is a committed vegetarian and a good cook. Lisa seems to genuinely enjoy creating new dishes for us to try. Although Friday night is always pizza night. When Lisa is here, she sees to it that our noon and evening repast happens like clockwork. We eat balanced meals and I am grateful. I am very good at dish doing. When Lisa goes to a work conference, however, my schedule shifts. I can be mercurial about when I eat and sleep. Not eating lunch until 3:00pm doesn’t bother me until I am on one of my regular mulch site runs and realize how hungry I am what with it now closer to dinner than lunchtime.
Suddenly the Boca burgers at home in the fridge are forgotten as I create a fast-food map in my mind. It takes a healthy dose willpower to skip the fried chicken at the first grocery store I pass. Then avoid other. I visualize how I could drive to KFC for a three-piece or over to Arbys for their gyros. My intellect battles with my stomach. The part of me that knows all the food at home is so much healthier works to suppress my stomach’s urge to navigate our Ford Ranger to the drive-thru for a full meal deal thank you not just the burger!
It is in these choices each day that I imagine my body is healthier instead of in some stage of the inevitable decline that we will all experience. I’ll know more about my cholesterol when I go back to the doctor for my next annual check-up. This is of course a First World Problem. Billions got rice and beans today or less and I am worried about an elevated LDL. I saw on Al Jazeera last night that the Philippines is soaked after a typhoon and many are suddenly homeless. I heard on NPR this afternoon that 8% of Africans are vaccinated and the continent probably won’t wipe COVID out until 2024. My African brothers and sisters not getting enough daily calories and access to the COVID vaccine is truly tragic.
This all makes my concerns about heart health seem kind of petty.
What kept my will power strong today is indeed the global picture. I am not deeply concerned about cholesterol. I should be more so, I know. I am concerned about climate change. What I believe in more than that oatmeal can lower my cholesterol is that eating meat increases methane in the atmosphere. The BBC reports that almost a quarter of greenhouse gasses come from agriculture and that livestock are a major part of that.
Call it altruism or call bullshit on me. I don’t care. What I do care about is having a livable planet on which to dwell. I don’t want to evangelize. I did enough of that in college and afterwards. I am sorry if you were on the receiving end of it. I am much funner to be around now. I swear. I do believe that the climate on our one precious planet Earth is changing. I want the young people and the future people to enjoy nature as much as I have and do. I also believe that eating a plant-based diet can slow the damage as can avoiding plane travel and minimizing unnecessary car trips.
You do what you need to do and I am going to do what I feel is best for the planet and my arteries. I am far from perfect. My cholesterol and my quite likely my karma tell the tale.
Whereas much of modern, industrial, late stage capitalism is based around competition for scarce material resources, there are a few among us who choose to work together to achieve a standard of living that’s good enough. In an intentional community, or commune, people organize themselves around cooperative activities.
In the first part of this two-part episode, we explored what 19th and 20th century Missouri utopias were like. In this episode, we head to Northeast Missouri’s Scotland County to meet some contemporary communards and hear what draws them to the land in search of a more intentional and low-impact life.
Thanks for listening. Let me know what you think and share ideas for future episodes.
Contact me at Trevor@RecollectionAgency.com.
The Mo’ Curious podcast is generously sponsored by Missouri Life.
We’ve lost a lot in the pandemic to date. Many Americans have lost their jobs, their health, their loved ones. When the rent came due and her fellow Kansas Citians faced eviction, Diane Charity helped organize tenants to fight from losing their homes, too.
In this Field Notes, Ms. Charity talks about her mother’s influence on her activism, the culture of sharing at Parade Park and why she still fights the good fight.
We talked on March 26, 2021 at Kansas City, Missouri’s Black Archives of Mid-America.
When you look back on this time in a generation or so, what will you tell those who came of age after the pandemic of 2020-21? How can you describe the fundamental ways that life on Earth changed while humans dealt with the coronavirus?
Through my business, blog and podcast, I capture peoples’ stories. Often the stories from 2020 were not explicitly not about the pandemic (although it comes up every time.)
To write that the past year has been challenging is an understatement. Shutdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing make it hard to feel connected to the rest of the human world. At the same time, I feel truly blessed to be healthy, employed, well-fed and sheltered during this time. The same can not be said of many of my neighbors here in the Kansas City area.
The past year saw several trends play out. First, the virus sent work and meetings and civic life online where much of the world already was. Second, culture continued to splinter where every imaginable show, film or concert can be found available to stream most anywhere, anytime. Third, the look-at-me culture continued to dominate how we talk to and past one another.
In launching my Missouri history podcast, I touched on – for better or worse – each of on those 2020 trends.
Podcasting has certain conventions. The craft – if we can call it that – is aural in nature, not visual. Most podcasts have a recurring theme, bed music and hosts. Many creators edit audio productions that are of a consistent length and on a consistent schedule. I learned all that this year when I started Mo’ Curious.
The podcast and these Field Notes function as a way for me to feed my curiosity about a subject while telling the world “Hey, this is what’s on my mind right now.” As it turns out, doing the work of creating a podcast and audio blog is satisfying during the pandemic. It forces me to call other people and have a focused conversation. It lets me take my study of a topic in whatever direction seems most fitting and useful. I ultimately want that work to prove educational and entertaining for you with each shared post.
Producing a quality podcast deserves real work, so I aim to be honest with myself about my capacity. In 2020, I produced three full podcast episodes and 11 shorter Field Notes interviews all of which live at RecollectionAgency.com. I’ll aim to match that in 2021. No pressure.
A couple of generations from now, when you think back about the pandemic and try to explain it to someone born in, say, 2022, what will you tell them? From what will you draw upon for your memory? All now born digital, our photographs, e-mails and texts are ephemeral mementos.
Consider using this time to journal or record your experience of now. Or you can hire me to capture your story. Either way, these are strange times. Once the virus is gone, we’ll all crawl out of our homes one day blinking at the bright sun. We will be different then compared to how we were before the pandemic. I’ll be glad to tell stories around the real world campfire in 2040 about how it was during 2020.
I can also tell them, “You want to know how it was then? Take a listen to my podcast.”
Late last year, Lisa and I migrated to a much bigger city.
My wife’s new job paid for the move. We rented a house with a backyard for the dog that is close enough to downtown that Lisa can bike to work. When I got to town, I immediately got a career-oriented job, too. This new role fit into my pattern of filling a series of interesting albeit entry level non-profit jobs. I worked my new gig for a few weeks and found the deep bureaucracy and endless driving to be distasteful. I quit effective immediately.
Lisa continued to go to her full-time job. I started volunteering. As a way to find like-minded folks, we’d go to lectures, movies and happy hours when Lisa got off work. Then, the coronavirus shut down the world.
Lisa now works from home. I work across the hall. From my home office I am developing my new business. The Recollection Agency allows me to use my listening, interview and audio production skills to help my customers preserve and share their life- and career-defining stories. Like Lisa’s job, my business can also be done remotely.
Since most social things aren’t really safe to do in-person right now, Lisa and I have both participated in catch-up calls with distant friends, talked online about recent reads with our book clubs and sang along at birthday parties on Zoom.
How we lived before the coronavirus and how we live with it and how we live after it are all different things. I acknowledge my privilege that lets me shelter-in-place. Many people now are not able to safely do so.
I sit and breathe into the emptiness that the pandemic has created. I meditate more and do less now. What I hear during our Great Pause is less traffic, fewer airplanes and the feeling of my heart still beating.
I have a hard time feeling settled however. I feel the need to go to an office that I no longer have. I have no job nor a boss or a matched 401K. I am figuring out how to be self-employed as the world resets itself for the post-coronavirus years. To ease the restlessness I garden and explore the urban grid by bicycle and ponder what my role here is now. My growing business is a grounding element.
These feelings of stillness – waiting for the new world to arrive – are familiar. When I was a kid, my mom would drive my brother and I to her parents’ house or to one of my aunt’s homes most summer weekdays. At the sitter’s, my cousins and I would watch Johnny Quest and CHiPs, hurdled shrubs in suburban yards, and swim at city pools and in repurposed stock tanks. I grew restless in the timelessness of these days. I recalled watching my cousins watching Wheel of Fortune, again, and wondering when my real life would start. I occasionally felt trapped in my childhood waiting for time to get us to the good stuff. I had my material needs met but often felt ready as a kid to skip the adolescence and get right to the glories of adulthood.
I can see my fourth grade gap-toothed self gazing out the wavy glass windows at my Catholic grade school as Sister Pat diagrams complex sentences on the chalkboard. I wondered when school and the numerous church services that accompanied it would finally be over. I counted only seven more years until high school graduation and felt demoralized at the interminable wait ahead for real life to begin. I finally arrived at real life sometime around 1994 and have not looked back much until now.
Today, I feel a similar emptiness as I wait for a future time with no announced ETA. Unlike my childhood feelings of waiting in limbo I am now an adult capable of making my own life choices. While I wait for whatever is coming, I build my business, visit in a socially distant manner with our neighbors and walk the dog. I wonder when life will be normal again or if this is what it is now. Where do I nominate Social distancing, PPE, intubated and curb-side pick-up as the buzziest words and phrases of 2020?
This waiting for a new world to arrive can be a gift especially when I use my time to reconnect with long-lost friends and family a few branches over on the family tree.
How are you spending this time? During the shelter-in-place days have you talked by phone or in person to any older relatives or colleagues who told you how it was ‘Back in the day?” If these stories of your earlier days are worth preserving, please contact me. I can help you clarify who you want to interview, about what. We’ll work out a when and where that works for everyone. It works to gather stories remotely if that’s what we need to do.