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merwin vanita smithLet me introduce you to Merwin “Bud” and Vanita Smith of Urbana, just in case you don’t know about them. Bud finds humor in just about everything and Vanita just smiles at him as if to agree. I asked him how he got the name “Bud” if his name was Merwin. “They tell me my Mom started it, but I’m not sure. If someone calls out to me as Merwin, most people don’t know who they’re hollering at,” laughs Bud. Vanita said when they were first married an elderly lady in their church told her that she was his wife and she should call him Merwin. Bud says, “She didn’t know what to think.” But Vanita spoke right up and said, “No, his mother doesn’t even call him Merwin.”

Bud was born in 1917 and Vanita three years later. They were both born in the Urbana area. Bud’s parents were Walt and Opal Smith, and Vanita’s were Clifford and Myrtle Ferguson. Bud teasingly told me, “I married a younger woman so she would be able to take care of me!” I think he was quite a “rounder” in his younger days, because he still is!

We were interested in seeing what life was like back in the “good old days”, and a little birdie told me that they would be a great couple to talk to. And, lo and behold… they were!

Have you ever asked your parents or grandparents what it was like without electricity or a phone? What in the wide world did people do without televisions, X-Boxes, video games and computers?

Bud and Vanita were married March 19, 1939.Right Merwin, I mean Bud? Of course it has been blissful, not always easy, but blissful. They started farming as soon as they were married. Vanita misses living on the farm, but where they live, on the edge of Urbana, there is an 80 acre cornfield right across the highway, so she can still enjoy watching the farmwork being done.

I asked them how they met. “Well,” says Vanita, “our parents were in the same club and we got to know each other that way.” The Smiths had three children: Delmar and his wife Marcia Smith, Jay and his wife Billie Smith, and Jolinda and her husband Jim Andrews. They now have 6 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, to whom they are “Granny and Gramps” or “Grandma and Grandpa Bud.” They really enjoy them immensely.

All of the children were born at the hospital in Vinton, which was unusual at the time, but Vanita had a lot of trouble with their first one, Delmar, so the rest of them were born there too. A lot of women went to a home in town where there was a midwife or they would give birth at home. Vanita recalls when Delmar was born that the doctor came for 15 days, no matter what time of night it was, before he went to bed. The total bill was $50 which included the delivery after she went into the hospital! Can you imagine that now?

Life on the farm was hard when the Smiths were first married. They worked alongside each other and got the work done. Wives did not work off of the farm at that time, unless they were a school teacher. They lived 8 or 9 miles from town, so you just didn’t run into town every other day to get groceries. They ate what they raised and raised what they ate, except for things like flour, sugar, and coffee. So Allbones Grocery sent a wagon out to all of the farms and the wagon would stop once a week – they went somewhere every day. “They had everything,” says Bud. “They even had meat that they kept cold in an icebox.” Bud rode with Joe A. Smith a couple of times to help out. “It was the biggest highlight of the day,” says Vanita.

“We lived down by the river,” says Vanita. “They would put up ice all winter in the icehouse. We had iceboxes to keep our food cold, and would use the ice that was stored in the icehouse. That was nice.” They didn’t have electricity, so the icebox was a luxury as well as a necessity.

Vanita recalls, “We got in on all of that good stuff – washing on a board, no dryers – all that good stuff.” “I got her by pretty good washing on a board when we were first married,” grins Bud. “But then one day, Joe Smith went by with the grocery wagon and seen her washing on the board so he stopped.” Bud started laughing as he told how Joe said to him, “You must not think much of her if you haven’t got her a washing machine yet.”

“I went out the next day and bought her a washing machine,” laughed Bud. Vanita says she remembers when Maytag would bring out washing machines and demonstrate them. “We thought those wringer washing machines were the greatest invention ever made,” she says.

“We milked seven cows,” says Bud. “Shellsburg had a creamery where we would sell our cream. They didn’t sell milk at that time. The creamery would come every week and pick it up and bring you your paycheck from the previous week, in cash!” he says. “In cash!” he says as he holds out his hand.

I commented that they had lived through a lot of changes. They have seen all of the wars, assassinations, the invention of electricity and televisions. “Yes, I think our generation has probably seen more that a lot of people.” says Vanita. “I still wonder if those weren’t the best days,” ponders Bud. “They’re getting carried away now.” Vanita agrees as she tells how people were more neighborly back then. “We always got together. It always seemed like someone was dropping in,” she says. “If you needed help, there was always someone there when you needed it.”

They saw electricity come to the farm in December of 1943. They both said that was the best Christmas present ever. The farmers actually got power before the town did, because they had a big herd of Holsteins. They had telephones before that, but not electricity.

At this point, Bud says, “I’ll tell you something else. Do you remember Marshall J?” he asked. “Well Marshall J (whose given name was Jay Alexander) lived right up here north of us where the radio towers are. We were on a party telephone line; I think there were six or eight of us. If the phone rang late at night, we’d all get up and listen because we knew it would be him. Here Marshall J would be talking to Gabby Hayes and people like that!” The Marshall J Show began on March 1, 1954, on WMT-TV until he left for San Francisco. Two weeks later he was replaced by The Dr. Max Show.

They also remember Cal Eldred growing up here, and Bing Miller, who was another great sportsman. Urbana sure has their share of celebrities and Bud and Vanita remember them all.

I asked them about other inventions that made life easier. With the coming of electricity came the radios, and later the television. “When we first got our television, all we could get was Davenport and Rock Island,” says Bud. “We had one of the first televisions around in that neighborhood.” “It was so snowy we couldn’t hardly see it,” says Vanita, “but we thought it was wonderful!”

“I can remember when Jolinda was born, which was in March,” says Vanita. “It was so cold and I had washing to do. I was getting ready to have Jolinda so Bud hung out one pair of jeans and said it was too cold out there! He went right to Walker and bought me a clothes dryer. I never will forget that. It was truly a blessing for wash day.”

They drove a Model T, but everywhere you went there were mud roads and “you could get that thing stuck pretty easy,” remembers Bud.

Okay, so what did they do for entertainment before television and radio? Cards – they played a lot of cards, especially “500”, which they still enjoy very much. “We used to go to the movies in Vinton for 50 cents,” says Vanita. When the kids came along, they would play games with the kids, like dominoes, and they would keep themselves amused for hours outside making roads for their trucks. They entertained themselves, and they had a pony to ride. People back then visited neighbors a lot – they were just plain neighborly – it seems we’ve lost that in this day and age. But when television was new, that’s where you could find everyone. “That was something when we got that TV,” says Bud shaking his head as he remembers. “They were fascinating,” says Vanita. “It was a wonderful thing in a way, but then it’s just like everything else. We take things for granted.”

As the kids got older they were kept busy going to their basketball games and such. “It was a lot of fun,” says Bud, “but you know, nowadays, I think half the problem with sportsmanship is the parents. They just go too crazy, they’re just not sportsmen anymore.”

Bud remembers when he was in high school, that there was an Allis Chalmers dealer in town. There was a farm right across from the school and the farmer had bought a new Allis Chalmers that was all on steel. “Us kids would stand up at that window and watch him plow corn with that tractor, we always thought that was the best thing,” laughs Bud. “Golly…”

Bud and Vanita lived through the Depression so they truly appreciate what they have. We started talking about the price of gas. Bud bought a filling station right out of high school. He remembers that he would sell three gallons of gasoline for half a dollar. “If I made a dollar sale, I really made a good sale. I made 3 cents on the dollar selling gasoline.” I told him I had paid $2.81 a gallon the day before! My, oh my, I think life was simpler back then! Bud says there were four filling stations and four grocery stores at one time in Urbana. Now they don’t even have one grocery store. Hmmm, was life simpler then? I guess there’s more than one way to look at things.

Bud and Vanita built a new house and moved into Urbana in 1967. Bud then went to Cedar Rapids and worked as a carpenter. When they were on the farm, he would work for a neighbor who was a carpenter when it was slow on the farm, and that’s how he learned the trade. Vanita smiles as she says, “You wouldn’t know it by the looks of this place!” Just like a mechanic’s wife whose car is always the last to be worked on!

Vanita starts telling about how Bud was with the Carpenter’s Union, and how another carpenter’s wife called down to the Union to hire some work to be done at home. Bud quickly jumps in and finishes the story. The lady was from Walker, but he couldn’t remember her name (I’m sure she will when she reads this story). She kept hollering at her husband to get something done around the house and he hadn’t gotten it done, so she decided she was going to call down and hire someone else to do it. “She called down there,” said Bud, “and says, ‘now don’t you tell him who called’, so they didn’t and someone came up and got her work done. Her husband told her ‘from now on, when you want something done, I’ll do it!” he laughed. “They never did let him live that one down!” We all laughed. That’s one way to get something done!

Vanita worked in Younkers for 13 years beginning right before they moved to town. She recalls having to wear nurse’s outfits, right down to the hats and shoes. After she became manager of the department she got a new boss and he asked her what changes she would like to see. She said, “Yes, can we stop wearing these stupid nurse’s uniforms? The kids are scared to death of us!” Now who remembers that at Younkers?

I asked them what was the worst thing that had happened in their lifetime? “When they bombed Pearl Harbor I went to get a load of wood, and listened to it on the radio,” remembers Bud. They also got their news from the grocery wagon before the days of radio, or when neighbors were doing field work, they would stop and visit “across the fence.” The assassination of President John F. Kennedy probably shocked everyone the most, they both say. “That’s probably the most terrible thing,” says Vanita.

Their son, Jay, was in Vietnam, and their other son, Delmar, was stationed on an island in Alaska for a year. They were keeping an eye on what the Russians were doing. And they had a granddaughter in the Air Force.

“Time passes by fast and the kids grow up just as fast, but you enjoy them,” Bud tells me. Both Bud and Vanita are thankful for their family and have taken everything in stride through their many years. They say they have really been lucky to have their health. Bud and Vanita say that in this day and age, kids are exposed to so many things that they didn’t even hear of back then. It’s just scarier now raising kids than it was back then.

Well, our visit with the Smith’s has come to an end. They have lived a combined 180 + years in the Urbana area. They have watched times change, people change, people coming and going. But they’re still here. They have seen both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars, and now the Iraq War. But it hasn’t been all bad. There’s always something coming along to make life easier, but they both think that life was easier and simpler, back then…

Delmar and Marcia Smith
Jay and Billie Smith
Jim and Jolinda Andrews