Voices from the Past (1992)

Our oral history treasure

The Friends of the Stewart Library (now Drake Community Library) embarked on an oral history project in 1992. Their goal was to record the memories of a group of twenty Grinnell residents about their experiences during the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1940s. The idea grew out of a reading and lecture series featuring books about the experiences of Iowans during those difficult years. The project was funded with a grant from the Iowa Humanities board and was directed by Valerie Vetter. 

In an effort to document the impact of that period on the Grinnell area, volunteers conducted one to two hour interviews that were recorded and later transcribed. Photographs and brief biographies of each of the interviewees were produced for an exhibit about the project. A video describing the venture featuring six of those interviewed was also completed, “Testaments: Voices from the Past.” Video interviewees are Anna Ramsey, Sid Potts, Martin Pearce, Augusta Pederson, Dick Sears, and Grant Gale.

For each of the twenty participants, you can view a photo of that person, a short biography, a PDF of the interview, an MP3, and a link to that person’s interview in Digital Grinnell. For help on downloading PDFs and MP3s in different browsers, visit the Downloading Documents page

Since the time of the project, many of those who were interviewed have passed away, making this material more precious still.

"Testaments: Voices from the Past"

Grant Gale: 13:55, 17:49, 24:08

Martin Pearce: 7:17, 10:17, 17:08, 20:57

Augusta Pederson: 8:49, 12:05, 22:40

Sid Potts: 5:23, 20:22

Anna Ramsey: 1:50, 23:13, 24:31

Dick Sears: 6:37, 12:47, 15:51, 19:41

People Included

Armstrong, Everett (1917-2000)

Born in Chester Township on January 3, 1917, Everett moved into the city of Grinnell in 1930, where he graduated from Grinnell High School in 1935. After returning from a tour of duty in World War II, he founded Armstrong Electric from which he retired in 1980. He represented the Fourth Ward on the City Council from 1949 to 1951. He and his wife, Phyllis, were the parents of a daughter and a son.

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man wearing a coat with "Everett" on it at a working bench with a saw in it
“It just seemed like you had been gone so long that everybody was glad to see you and they didn’t come up and say, ‘I’m glad you saved our lives,’ and all this kind of stuff, you know.” On returning from WWII, 59:19

Arnold, Margaret (1906-1999)

The daughter of Dr. O.F. and Laura Parish, Margaret was born in Grinnell on June 14, 1906. She graduated from Grinnell College and taught fourth grade in Flint, Michigan, for a short time. She owned and operated Arnold’s Shoe Store in Grinnell for 53 years and retired in 1989. After retirement, she continued to live in Grinnell and enjoyed reading, which she could not do during her busy working years. 

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman looking at a framed newspaper on the wall with "Arnold's Shoes, Inc." in large text
“I said, ‘I don't have enough seats for these kids.’ She says, ‘I know. Flint is in a depression, there are no taxes, no money for taxes. We have no supplies, we have no textbooks, we have no pencils, we have no erasers, no blackboards’ I said, ‘What do you do? How do you teach school?’ ‘Well, that's what you're getting paid for.’ ‘Oh, that's right, I forgot.’” 18:00

Berman, Isadore (1924-)

Isadore Berman was born February 22, 1924. He graduated from Grinnell High School in 1941, served in World War II, earned a BA from Grinnell College in 1949 and, later, an MBA from Columbia University. He is continuing in the family scrap metal business. He and his wife, Ida, have a son and a daughter. 

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man sitting in a chair, with glasses
“A person was on the telephone and so forth and who wanted to tell somebody where he was at, he didn't say that he was at Berman Scrap Yard or something like that. He said he was at the Jews. [...] That was early in– Maybe in the late eighties. And I called the fact– The attention to the individual that we do have names." 24:04

Breiting, Gene (1913-1999)

A lifelong resident of Grinnell, Gene was born July 23, 1913. He graduated from Grinnell High School, and was drafted into service during Word War II in 1943. He worked at various jobs in Grinnell, and in Amana for eleven years. He and his wife, Doris, had a son and two daughters.
PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man sitting in a chair, outside
“And then I worked for the water department for a couple of years. And then I went to work for the Thermo-gas Company. I think I worked for them for about five years. And then I went to work for the Department of Agriculture, in the Weights and Measures Division, operating an LP gas meter prover.” On finding work after returning from WWII, 58:14

Dunham, Marian (1919-2008)

Born February 10, 1919, two miles north of Grinnell, in a house which had been built by her grandfather, Marian was a relative of J.B. Grinnell for whom the town and college were named. A graduate of Grinnell College, she studied Library Science at the University of Denver. She was the Librarian at Stewart Public Library for 22 years and at the Des Moines Public Library for 19 years. She then returned to Grinnell and resided at Mayflower Home. 

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman sitting with a book, looking out a window
"Got to school at 8:15 and Miss Cook told me that my essay on tuberculosis had won a prize and that the prize winners were to read their essays at 9:00 in the auditorium. Dorothy Showalter won first prize which was two dollars and a chance to compete in the state contest. I won second which was one [dollar and] seventy-five cents. Janette Frazier won third which was a dollar and a quarter. The money was enough even without the glory.” Reading from her 1934 diary, 59:30

Flanagan, Leo "Slim" (1908-1999)

Leo was born in Sully, Iowa, on January 19, 1908. He farmed, worked in service stations for 21 years, and in automobile sales and management for 20 years. He and his wife, Blanche, had three children.

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man reflected in a car's side-view mirror
“It was a family of– They had sixteen children, John and Mary Kriegel. [...] And all of their kids bought cars. After I'd retired I got to thinking about it. I wondered how many cars in those eighteen years that I'd sold to Kriegels. So I went down and we always had a card for every car. White one was a new one and a yellow one was a used one. I went through all those, it took me about seven hours, I guess, and I found out that I'd sold the Kriegels ninety-eight cars.” 24:56

Gale, Grant (1903-1998)

Born December 29, 1903 in Prentice, Wisconsin, Grant was educated in Wisconsin and Michigan. He came to Grinnell in 1928, and in 1929, was joined by his bride, Harriet. He was a professor of physics at Grinnell College. An observatory on the campus is named in his honor. He had three children. 

Video: 13:55, 17:49, 24:08

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man sitting outside in profile, looking at a large sculpture
“We didn't get that. But we did have twelve hundred students, you see. And the question is, how did we manage? [...] Well, the men lived in some Quonset huts, but they also took over some of the women's dormitories. They took over Read Hall. So we had a staff that we got together. I had nine people teaching physics because we had to teach physics to practically all of these people.” On Grinnell College providing a regular college degree program alongside special training programs during WWII, 60:39

Hartzell, Josephine (1902-2004)

A resident of the Grinnell area her entire life, Josephine was born on November 29, 1902. Until 1980 she worked on the family farm doing chores and taking care of animals. At that time she moved into town, where she enjoyed reading and sewing in her retirement.

Video: 13:55, 17:49, 24:08

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman sitting on a coach looking at a book
“Because when I was in high school we had a flu vacation, two weeks, but we also had a coal vacation. They couldn't get enough coal to heat the school house–none of the school houses. And with the flu I walked clear two miles to go to school and I found out there wasn't a cold or anything and I asked the janitor, ‘What's the matter. Aren't they having school? Nobody told me.’” 75:56

Hiser, Velma (1904-1996)

Velma Bissell Hiser, born July 10, 1904, graduated from Dexter (Iowa) High School, attended Grinnell College and graduated from Northwestern University. She received her M.S. degree from the University of Iowa. She taught at Grinnell College from 1937 until her retirement. For a time, she and her husband managed the Monroe Hotel. Breeding and showing Boxer dogs was a major interest of hers.

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman and a boxer dog, sitting outside
“But, anyway, [my husband] said, ‘Well, if we raise dogs, I want it to be boxers.’ I had never seen a boxer. But we always went to the horse show at the Iowa State Fair. Well, that day there was a young man riding a horse and there was a boxer dog following him.” 77:53

Jones, Virgil (1912-1995)

Born in Grinnell on September 10, 1912, Virgil graduated from high school and attended Grinnell College for a time. He worked in retail sales and traveled for the Grinnell Shoe Company. After service in the Navy during World War II, he and his wife, the former Ona Whitaker, joined in the operation of the Grinnell Livestock Exchange until 1973. They continued to live on the south edge of town. 

PDF:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man sitting at a desk with many papers
“And I always said that, like I said before, when you'd go out to look at something, livestock, you're always invited in the house to have coffee and donuts or they'd have cinnamon rolls or something homemade.” 56:09

Lannom, Dorothy (1912-2003)

Born in Cedar Rapids on November 3, 1912, Dorothy Williams came to Grinnell in 1934 as a graduate of Coe College. She taught home economics until her marriage in 1936 to G. Sharp Lannom III. She was interested in politics, and went to the Far East with the Iowa Development Commission and Iowa Governor Harold Hughes. Three of her four sons carried on the family manufacturing business.

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman sitting at a chair, inside, under a painting
“Oh, heavens, yes. I worked every way you could. I took a group of college students down to Victor one political year to get names that could vote, because Victor has part, parts in Iowa and parts in Poweshiek.” On working the polls, 79:00

McDowell, Arthur "Art" (1902-1996)

One of nine children, Art was born south of Grinnell on June 22, 1902. After graduating from high school and working for three years at the Farmer’s Elevator, he began his career in insurance. Upon retirement, he was Secretary-Treasurer of the Poweshiek County Mutual Insurance Company. He and his wife, Mildred, married in 1930, and had a son and daughter. He then lived in the Mayflower Home and continued his hobby of golf. 

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man sitting at a typewriter with glasses
“My daughter came into the world at five minutes to twelve. And Margaret had called O. F. Parish, but it was a little after midnight by the time he got there. [...] So there’s a question then, was our daughter going to have a birthday of July 1 or June 30? Since my birthday is June 22nd, why, I thought it ought to be June 30. So he conceded that maybe that was right.” 27:42

Parish, John (1904-1997)

The son of Dr. O.F. and Laura Parish, John was born September 23, 1904. After graduating from Grinnell College in 1927, he studied medicine at Harvard and interned at Johns Hopkins. He served in the Navy during World War II. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had three daughters. After retiring to Arizona for twelve years, they returned to live at Mayflower Home. 

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man sitting on a chair, smiling, with glasses
“The woman was in labor alright, but not, not imminent delivery. It looked like it'd be several hours. Rather than drive back, I decided to stay. Well, this was a small country home. There were other children in the family. I looked in the first bedroom to see if I could find a place to lie down for a while. Looked in there, there was the husband and a couple of children. Looked in another room, there were two or three children. Here was a large bed where the woman in labor was lying, and she was having pains, and they would be every five or ten minutes, not very often. I laid down beside the lady and she and I slept part of the night in the same bed.” 46:00

Pearce, Martin (1916-1998)

Born February 8, 1916, Martin grew up and farmed in the Westfield area on the farm on which his father and grandfather had lived. For a short time he worked in the meat packing industry in Des Moines, but returned to farming until moving to Grinnell in 1992. He and his wife, Doris, had two daughters, and a son who is engaged in farming.

Video: 7:17, 10:17, 17:08, 20:57

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man in overalls standing outside in front of a tractor
“Well, I was born right on this farm that I'm living on now. In fact this farm goes back well over a hundred years. My great grandfather was one of the first settlers in this Westfield neighborhood.” 0:28

Pederson, Augusta (1904-2005)

Since her birth on October 29, 1904, Augusta has lived in or near Grinnell. After her marriage to Leonard Pederson, she was his partner in farming, active in Grange and church work, and a busy homemaker and mother. She was an accomplished cook, baker, and quilter. She and her husband had three children.

Video: 8:49, 12:05, 22:40

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman looking down at a quilt, working on it
“We had a telephone all the time. And it was, of course, a party line. And it was then– Of course every once in a while you’d listen in on a conversation, but they listened on mine too.” 22:47

Potts, Lucille "Sid" (1910-2007)

Lucille McDowell was born in Grinnell on October 19, 1910. A 1928 graduate of Grinnell High School, she attended business college in Quincy, Illinois. In 1937 she married Dick Potts. She began her banking career in 1929 as a bookkeeper at Citizen’s National Bank (later Poweshiek County National Bank and then Wells Fargo). She retired in 1975 at which time she was an officer and board member. She then continued to live in Grinnell. 

Video: 5:23, 20:22

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman sitting on a coach below a painting of a flower
“Oh, oh, I know at that time it was, but now it wouldn't mean very much. But I made a lot of friends. Maybe I paid for their friendship, I don't know [chuckle], but I made a lot of friends that way that have carried through, and have remembered me by that. But it was fun, anyway.” On giving pennies to children who came into the bank, 57:44

Preston, Stanley "Stub" (1903-1999)

A resident of Grinnell all of his life, Stanley was born on May 3, 1903. After graduation from Drake University, he joined his father in the clothing business. In more recent years, he and his wife, Carmen, often wintered in Florida, where he enjoyed fishing. He had one son. “Stub” then lived in the Mayflower Home. 

PDF:
Man sitting at a desk with a large swordfish above, on the wall
“It seems to me that I could get on the train at four o’clock in the morning and get into Chicago at eight, and work all day and come back on a train that came in about eight or nine o’clock that night. It was a source of merchandise that you couldn’t get anywhere else. When merchandise was short during the war, I’d go into Chicago and I’d go to Kansas City to get goods.” pg. 10

Ramsey, Anna (1908-2008)

Anna Ramsey, the daughter of Frank and Alice Knight, was born on November 22, 1908. She graduated from Grinnell College in 1930. She married Fred Ramsey and had a son and a daughter. Before retiring, she worked as a secretary at Grinnell College. She continued to live in Grinnell. 

Video: 1:50, 23:13, 24:31

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman sitting on a chair, inside, in a skirt suit, smiling
“But, anyhow, those were the war years. And I remember in 1945– [pause] Oh, first I want to say when I asked Rick what he remembered about the war–you know–he was born in '38, you know. And they were over here– They had been five or six years old. And he said, ‘Well, not very much, except soldiers marching and they would march down the streets.’” 38:07

Sears, Richard "Dick" (1914-1992)

Dick lived on the same farm in Chester Township, north of Grinnell, his entire life. After two years of high school at Chester, he graduated from Newburg High School. He was active in the Poweshiek County Farm Bureau, the Ayrshire Breeders’ Association, community organizations and was also an auctioneer. He and his wife, Lola, had three children.

Video: 6:37, 12:47, 15:51, 19:41

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Man standing, outside, by the sign "Dick Sears Auctioneer Grinnell IA"
“And everybody was obligated to work their poll tax, or hire somebody to do it. And they would have a township maintenance man that would decide where you was going to go to work, and that was still in effect in 1936, I remember, because it was so hot, '34 was hot.” 65:26

Wieman, Laura (1913-1997)

Laura, the daughter of Henry and Merta Matlack, was born in Grinnell on July 19, 1913 and lived in Grinnell until 1936. She returned to Grinnell in 1966 with her husband, Henry Wieman, to her family home. She received a BA from Grinnell College and an MFA from Southern Illinois University. She taught in public schools and at SIU. She was a skilled weaver.

PDF:
MP3:
Digital Grinnell Link:
Woman sitting at a weaving loom, looking down
“We were born Republican, because that's just what we were. This is a very Republican community, and my brother voted Republican until he died because his grandfather had voted Republican–my mother's father. We became Democrats during the Depression, and my first vote was for Franklin Roosevelt as a presidential candidate. So, we became very liberal later on. It was partly influenced by an interest in social problems. You couldn't help but become a little more liberal from that point of view.” 45:03