A century ago in Kamrar

These two simple, run-of-the-mill school spiral notebooks sit on the bookshelf in my office. They don’t look like much really-just your basic lined paper school notebook. Pretty unimpressive, at least till you open one up.

That’s when you’ll see line after line in each notebook filled with the story of my grandmother’s life, as written in her clear, even longhand. Grandma was past 90 at the time she recorded her memories, a first-person look at what life was like in small-town Iowa during the first few decades of the twentieth century.

When she was 12, my grandma moved with her family from Gilbert to Kamrar, where her father bought a general store. There were three such stores in town then. The school in Kamrar went only through the ninth grade at that time, but in 1914 tenth grade was added, and Grandma graduated from that.

“We graduated in May, five girls and one boy,” she wrote. “It was in the old Woodman Hall on a very rainy night. We girls made our dresses of white organdy trimmed with pink rosebuds. My part of the program was a piano solo, Moonlight on the Hudson.

“Kamrar was quite a town at that time,” she goes on. “There were four general stores, also a meat market, furniture store, hardware store, drug store, barber shop, telephone office, a bank with doctor’s rooms above it, and then a garage.”

“The Modern Woodman Hall was used for all entertainment such as Lyceum courses, town programs, bazaars, and dinners by the church-always held on thanksgiving. Also sometimes a movie, silent ones that you read what was happening.”

At that time, she continues, “stores were not as easy to work in. Very little came put up in packages. Sugar, beans, coffee, etc. came in big bags and had to be weighed up for the customer. Coffee had to be ground by hand in a big grinder. Cheese came in a large round, was put on a large wooden mat with a glass cover. It had to be cut with a big knife mounted near it. Butter was bought from farmer wives-came in gallon crocks and resold as wanted. Vinegar came in large barrels with a spigot. Eggs were brought in packed in oats to prevent breaking. Bananas came on a large bunch, which was hung up and cut off as sold. Cookies came in large tins.”

“Our store was a general merchandise store, so we carried everything-dry goods, men’s clothing, shoes, china, etc. We measured material by large-headed tacks in the counter. Our store was heated with a large heating stove near the center of the store with seats nearby where customers could sit and visit. With every bill of groceries sold, a small sack of candy was always put in “for the babies.”

“One year we gave a phonograph with so much trade and then they had to buy the records for it. I remember when grapefruit was first to be sold after they were “crossed” or patented. We thought they were white, full of seeds, and sour.”

The story goes on, of course, all of it offering a compelling look at life in one small Hamilton county town a century back.