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The Life of Richard Shafer
©1988 Glenn Shafer


Except for my years as a soldier in World War II, I have lived all my life in and around Caney, a town of two or three thousand people on the east bank of the Little Caney River in southeast Kansas.

My parents, Harry Albert Shafer and Tempa Beulah Esson, were married in Caney in 1919. Both had moved to Caney with their families from Missouri, Harry in 1902, when he was ten years old, and Tempa in 1914, when she was fourteen years old. Both the Shafers and the Essons had been moving west for several generations. Harry's father was born in Illinois, his grandfathers in Indiana and Ohio. Tempa's father was born in Ontario. Her Grandfather Esson was born in Scotland, and her Grandmother Esson was born in Ireland.


My Grandfather Shafer, George Washington Shafer, was a dominating figure in our family. I doubt whether he had any formal schooling, but he was a shrewd businessman. He was successful in farming, truck gardening, and buying and selling property. When I was a child, he was my picture of a boss. When he walked into the room, the boss was walking in. His sons addressed him as "Boss," not as "Daddy."

G.W., as he was called, moved his family to a farm east of Caney in 1902. He had started his family in Rich Hill, Missouri, near Springfield, and before moving to Caney he also lived in Deerfield, Missouri, near Fort Scott, Kansas. He traded a grocery store in Rich Hill or Deerfield for the farm, sight unseen. My Uncle Elmer once told me about living in the back room of that store. "That was no place to raise a bunch of boys," G.W. had told Elmer.

The family moved to Caney on a train. G.W. and two of his boys rode in a box car with the farm equipment and livestock, while his wife Frances May rode with the other children in the passenger car. The two boys who rode with G.W. were my Uncle Ben, his oldest boy, and my father Harry, who was only nine. My Uncle Elmer was older than my father, but he rode with his mother, because he was good at getting the younger children to mind.

  The house on the Shafer place, seen from the front. The horse riders are Aunt Anna, on the left, and her cousin Eva Pullman. Uncle George and Aunt Louella are at the far left.

G.W.'s new farm consisted of 120 acres, about one and a half miles east of Caney. The farmhouse was located on a section road that ran eastward from Caney's East Third Street. That farm and farmhouse have great significance for me. G.W. made his fortune there, and I spent eleven years of my own childhood there.

The people who traded the farm to G.W. supposedly told him that it was good for nothing but cockleburs. But he knew how to build it up, and he knew how to put his boys to work. He kept wagons at the livery stables in Caney to collect manure for his boys to spread on his gardens.

He was a truck gardener. He raised lettuce, onions, radishes, sweet corn, and berries. He was especially well known for his strawberrries. He had as many as forty acres of strawberries at once, and he sometimes had as many as a hundred people picking them.

  The Shafer Place

I have often had people tell me about picking strawberries for G.W. He paid by the box. Just a few years ago, Carl Killion, who was my basketball coach in the seventh grade, told me about G.W. catching him putting straw in the bottom of his boxes. Apparently it wasn't hard for G.W. to tell that the boxes were not full of strawberries. "The old man just dumped them out," Carl said.

Caney was a good market for produce in the early 1900s. It was a boom town. The discovery of natural gas, around 1900, had made it the nearest source of natural gas for smelting the zinc and lead that was being mined further east in southeast Kansas. At the height of the boom, before the gas played out, the town had three brick plants, three glass plants, a smelter, and a refinery.

Bartlesville, twenty miles south in Oklahoma, was another good market in those days. The oil men and Indians had a lot of money, and the people who owned land in Oklahoma were cattlemen, not vegetable farmers. G.W. managed to get fresh vegetables to the Bartlesville stores early in the morning by shrewd use of his Economy Truck, a closed-in truck with a two-cylinder engine. In the evening, between six and eight o'clock, he would dispatch two wagons of produce to Bartlesville, each with a hired man and a team of mules. Then about four in the morning he would send my father and Uncle Elmer in the truck with another load. They would drive around Bartlesville and peddle their produce to merchants. Then they would meet the hired men, transfer the produce in the wagons to the truck and peddle it, too. My father did the driving, and Elmer did the selling. Elmer was a super salesman.

G.W. and May beside old greenhouse on the farm.  

In 1912, G.W. built a greenhouse on the farm so he could raise leaf lettuce in the winter. Unfortunately, there was not enough water on the farm for a greenhouse the size he wanted. He dug four wells trying to find more. One, near the house, was sixty feet deep. None of them produced much water, but the holes were still there when I was a boy. He also tried to supply pond water to his greenhouse and gardens. He built a reservoir on the side of a hill northwest of the house, and he planned to pump water into it from a pond on a small draw on the north side of the property. Unfortunately, the rock near the surface in the draw made it impossible to build a dam that would hold water.

In 1915, G.W. built another greenhouse down the road, near the Caney city limits. The property there was on the north bank of Mud Creek, and there was plenty of good water. My father, who was about 22 then, was involved in designing the greenhouse and supervising its construction. It was solidly built, and it remained in operation until it was closed down because of high fuel prices in the late 1970s. Towards the end of his life, my father told me about an understanding that the greenhouse was to be run as a joint undertaking by G.W., Elmer, and him. G.W. was to supply the money, and the two boys were to run the business. G.W. would get three-fifths of the profits, and the boys would each get one-fifth. That's not the way things worked out.

  G.W. and May Shafer, my grandparents, with their children, about 1921. Back row: Fred, Ethel, Elmer, Anna, Tom, Lillian. Front row: George, Harry, G.W. and May, Ben, and Louella.

My Grandmother Shafer, who went by May, was from a better-to-do family. She was better educated than G.W. I remember she read aloud well. My sister Helen remembers her as pleasant, but not warm. She certainly never talked very much with her grandchildren.

G.W. and May had ten children, six boys and four girls. From oldest to youngest: Ben, Elmer, my father Harry, Anna, Claude (always called Tom), Ethel, Lillian, Fred, George, and Louella. The first six came to Caney with them. Lillian, Fred, George, and Louella were born on the farm. G.W. died in 1945, at the age of 80, and May died in 1960, at the age of 88. They are buried together in Caney's Sunnyside Cemetery.


  The Esson girls in a studio in Lawrence. My mother Tempa is the one with the bow. Inice and Bessie are in the back row. Georgia, Tempa, and Evelyn are in the middle row. Vivian is in front. Bessie was very short. Here she was standing on a book, with a sheet of paper to protect the book. That became a family joke. Bessie was a book and a sheet of paper shorter than Inice.
  The Essons eating watermelon at their home north of Lawrence. From the left: my grandmother Electa, my mother Tempa, Forrest, Vivian, Earl (Bessie's son), and Inice.

My Grandfather Esson, George Thomas Esson, was a stone mason. Yet his family was a farm family. They would rent a farm, and my grandfather would put in crops. Then, whenever the crops didn't need working, he would take masonry or carpentry jobs, while his wife Electa and the children carried on with the milkcows, chickens, and garden.

He seems to have been a restless type. The family moved a lot. My mother Tempa was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and she also lived for a long time in Osceola, Missouri.

The Essons moved to Caney from Osceola in 1914. They first lived at the Ledom place, about a mile east of the Shafer place. Then they rented the Jack place, a farm of about 125 acres across the road south of the Shafer place. Electa, my grandmother, died there from typhoid at the age of 55, in 1918, before I was born. She is buried with her mother and father in the cemetery at Hale, Kansas.

During my childhood, my Grandpa Esson was a sickly and not very prosperous widower, who moved from place to place looking for work, generally living with his children, who were scattered across the country. He stayed with us for several periods. He was not at all like my Grandfather Shafer. With Grandfather Esson, a quiet man walked into the room, and a quiet man walked out. My sister Helen and I would play tricks on him when he lived with us. He had a ninth-grade education and liked to write letters to his children with his Eversharp mechanical pencil. We would sneak into his room, screw the lead out, and then watch through the keyhole for him to break it off when he started to write. His favorite phrase was, "Take care, take care." That meant that we kids shouldn't pester him.

George and Electa Esson had eight children, two boys and six girls. From oldest to youngest: Bessie, Roy, Inice, Evelyn, Georgia, my mother Tempa, Vivian, and Forrest. George died in 1933, at the age of 77, at his daughter Bessie's house in Bogard, Missouri, and he is buried at the Van Horne cemetery near there. My mother went to the funeral with her sister Vivian, who also lived in Caney.


  My father, Harry Shafer, after hunting rabbits, about 1916.

My father Harry was an easygoing person. He was not a rebel like my Uncle Ben or a shrewd businessman like my Uncle Elmer. He went to McKinley school on the southeast side of Caney, the same school I later attended, but I think he only finished the fifth grade. My grandfather was more interested in putting his children to work than in sending them to school.

During the years before World War I, my father seems to have been content living at home and working with and for his father. He was the family chauffeur and mechanic, and he must have enjoyed driving his father's fancy cars at a time when few people had cars at all. Whenever G.W. bought a new Ford, my father would go to Detroit to drive it home. Aunt Lillian remembers him taking her boyfriend home to Niotaze one evening in the family's seven-passenger Studebaker.

He had a couple of motorcycles of his own, and he had a lot of fun with them. I remember his story about how he let the clutch out too fast when his sister Anna was sitting behind him, leaving her to drop to the ground. He also told me about a mule that kicked him and broke his leg when he passed it. He got up, cranked the motorcycle up again, and rode it back home with his broken leg.

Daddy on his motorcycle with Aunt Anna.  
Daddy with his motorcycle.  
  Daddy standing outside the "Tabernacle," the Sunday School building that stood across the alley south of the Caney Christian Church during the late 1910s. It was torn down in the early 1920s, after the new brick church was built.

He was always a faithful churchgoer. I think he got the rest of his family involved in the Christian Church in Caney. He also got my mother involved there. I don't know about her own mother, but her father was certainly never a churchgoer. When I was a child, my parents were the staunchest churchgoers in the family. My father was a deacon. He never became an elder. G.W. and Elmer were elders. I remember them standing up saying prayers over communion. My father didn't want to do that. He wasn't that type.

My mother Tempa was a redhead, strong-willed and temperamental. She persisted farther in school than my father did. She got a couple of years into high school, at what was then the new Caney High School building, before she finally had to quit because her family could no longer support her.

When my mother and father argued, she would scream and throw saucers at him. He would just laugh.

  My father and mother courting.

They were courting well before the United States entered World War I. My mother was close to my father's sister Ethel, and she would often spend the night at the Shafers' house. She would stay up so late sitting and talking in the kitchen that in the end she would sleep with Ethel rather than go home and disturb her parents. She told me that she once dreamt that she simply pushed the salt and pepper shakers out of the way and spent the night on the kitchen table.

The United States entered the war in April, 1917. My father was drafted the following year. He reported for service on July 22, 1918, when he was 25 and my mother was 18. His training was at Camp Funston, an Army camp near Fort Riley, Kansas. When the Shafer family got a telegram that he was about to be shipped to France, they loaded up in the Studebaker, taking my mother with them, and went up to see him. Aunt Lillian tells about camping while they were there. My Grandmother Shafer didn't sleep much, because she was keeping her eye out for what was going on around them.

When my mother and the Shafers got back to Caney, there was sickness in the Esson family. It turned out to be typhoid, from drinking water from a contaminated spring. The outhouse was too near the spring. My Grandmother Esson died from the typhoid on August 22.

My grandparents, George and Electa Esson, on Mothers' Day, 1918. She died that August.  
The Esson family the Sunday after my grandmother Electa died. Standing: George, Bessie, Roy, Evelyn, Georgia, and my mother Tempa. Seated: Vivian and Forrest.  
The Essons, Summer 1919. George, Forest, Evelyn, Tempa, & Joe dog. Taken where the Caney stadium now stands.  

My mother avoided the typhoid because by then she was living mostly in town. She waited tables in the Clifton House, a hotel with a thriving restaurant. As long as I can remember, the Clifton House has been a large white clapboard building on Fourth Street, next to the Christian Church. But at that time it was located a couple blocks south, at Sixth and Main. My mother usually stayed either there or at her sister Georgia's house, across the street.

My father served as a medical orderly in France. He was there during the last three months of the war. He told me about stacking the dead up in the hospitals. He drove an ambulance to pick the dead and wounded up from the battlefields. That was a significant job, because not everyone was a driver in those days. After the armistice, in October, 1918, he was assigned as a driver for a captain. The captain must have had business all over France, or else he liked to go sight-seeing, because Harry saw a lot. He told me many times about the Eiffel tower and the half-mile high Ferris wheel in Paris.

Harry Shafer in World War I, probably in France.  
Daddy in his uniform.  
Daddy in a make-shift fortification in France during World War I. This, he told me, was Fort Verdun.  

My father got back to the United States from France on June 30, 1919, and he was discharged from the army on July 9. He and my mother were married on September 18.

  Daddy at the greenhouse.
  Harry & Elmer, July 10, 1920.

When my father got home, he found he was not a partner in the greenhouse after all. His father had turned the business over to Elmer. So Harry worked there for wages, and farmed on the side with Elmer and his father. He felt he had been treated unfairly, but he was not a person to hold a grudge, and he must have felt prosperous in those early years after World War I. He was a member of a prominent family, and he was saving money.

My mother and father lived on the greenhouse property, in a little square house just west of the greenhouse itself. G.W. lived right across the road from the greenhouse. He had built a large house on five acres there and moved to it from the farm in 1919. Elmer and his family lived in a house just east of G.W.'s.

According to my sister Helen, we were both born in the house on the greenhouse property. Helen was born on September 21, 1920, and I was born on January 7, 1922. I was born a healthy baby, but according to my mother, I bawled for six months. I quit bawling after she started feeding me solid food, and she decided then that I had not been getting enough milk.

My parents depended on a motorcycle with a sidecar for transportation during the first few years, but there wasn't enough room in the sidecar for my mother and two babies. So in 1922 my father bought a new baby Overland, a touring car with canvas sides at window level that could be snapped out in the summer. The top was canvas, too. I think the car cost $600.

My father never got my mother on a motorcycle after that. I remember a motorcycle he picked up at a sale once, but it needed some parts, and he never got them. My parents would never even talk to me about my having a motorcycle. "That's just an old death crate," my father once said to me when I told him about a motorcycle I wanted.

My father continued to work in the greenhouse until 1924, when we moved to G.W.'s farm. We lived at the greenhouse for most of that time, but we lived in a house on Smith Street, right at the city limits, for about six months at the end. My first memories are of playing in the moss on the north side of that house, when I was about two years old.


  Harry Shafer's family tree

The Children of George Washington and May Shafer
     Married December 25, 1888

Benjamin G. (Ben). Born 10-22-89. Died 6-19-62. Buried in Caney.

Elmer Thomas. Born 9-18-91. Died 3-6-82. Buried in Mesa, Ariz.

Harry Albert. Born 9-26-92. Died 2-20-52. Buried in Caney.

Anna May. Born 1-4-95. Died 3-18-82. Buried in Holdenville, Ok.

Claude Edwin (Tom).Born 8-3-96. Died 9-6-68. Buried Wewoka, Ok.

Ethel Born 12-20-99. Died 3-7-78. Buried in Caney.

Lillian Ellen. Born 9-9-04.

Fred Monroe. Born 5-10-06. Died 1-20-73. Buried in Salem, Ore.

George William. Born 11-1-09.

Louella Ellizabeth. Born 10-15-11. Died 9-19-33. Buried in Caney.


  Tempa Esson's family tree

The Children of George and Electa Esson
     Married March 14, 1880

Bessie Estella. Born 1-26-81. Died 3-1-48. Cremated in Los Angeles.

Clarence Leroy (Roy). Born 1-29-84. Died 11-4-70. Buried in Ok.

Inice Lulu. Born 10-2-88. Died 9-5-75. Buried in Michigan.

Evelyn Christine. Born 3-6-93. Died 12-1-56. Cremated in L. A.

Georgia Ann Nighty. Born 8-15-89. Died 11-2-64. Buried in Caney.

Tempa Buelah. Born 11-3-99. Died 4-21-74. Buried in Caney.

Prudence Violet Vivian. Born 11-14-01.

Forrest Milo. Born 5-12-05. Died 6-26-70. Buried near Long Beach.


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