‘Listening in’ on an Ozarks Telephone by Alice Curtice Moyer Wing

Alice Curtice Moyer Wing wanted equal voting rights for women. She traveled the Missouri Ozarks with her horse La Belle in the 1910s, talking to people about voting rights. Her experiences were chronicled in a series of articles published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1916-1919. Missouriwomen.org is featuring Moyer Wing’s articles as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights. For more information about Moyer Wing and her activism, see Alice Curtice Moyer Wing and Woman Suffrage in the Ozarks, 1916-1919.

The following was Moyer Wing’s twenty seventh article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 23, 1918:

The “sufferage womern” hears some things about herself and is entirely converted to the natives’ custom of taking up the receiver every time the bell rings – her hostess is not superstitious, but just the same she is going to try Alfie’s plan for making sure that her eggs shall bring forth laying hens – The new moon, and the host’s story of how one just like it presaged peace in the Civil War

By Alice Curtice Moyer-Wing

“Now you jist make yourself at home whilst I he’p Zi with the night work. I don’t never trust nobody but myself to do the milkin’, because they won’t nobody, hardly, take the trouble to save the strippin’s, and it’s the strippin’s that makes the butter. Shore is.”

There was a pause while my bustling little hostess gathered up the milk buckets. Then:

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“Here’s the newest farm magazines. They’s always a good story er two in ‘em, love stories, mostly, but we always read ‘em. They ain’t nobody, I reckon,” she added apologetically, “but what likes love stories once in a while.

“And if our phone rings, you can jist answer it if you will. I’m expectin’ to hear frum my neice, Alfie Cowden, about bringin’ my quilt frames home. I want to git a right smart of quiltin’ done before busy garden time. Our ring is a short, two longs and a short. Jist make yourself at home and wait.”

It was a pleasant waiting. I leaned back in the splint-bottomed rocker, with my feet to the pine-knot blaze in the “far” place. By turning my head ever so slightly I could look barnward from the window beside me, where La Belle’s graceful head was thrust out through the window of the guest stall, watching “Zi,” who was headed in her direction with a bundle of sheaf oats.

In another direction I had a view of the February sunset. It was very beautiful as it came through the gray, bare trees and so engrossed did I become and so completely had I forgotten the phone I was to tend that I was quite startled when suddenly I realized that it was persistently ringing “a short, two longs and a short.” I woke in the pause that followed, rang the “short” answer signal and said hello.

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“Hello,” someone else was saying. “That you ringin’ in, Alfie? I purty nigh knowed it was, because you’re too busy to listen like the rest of us and don’t never know when the line is in use. I was jist atalkin’ to Mittie Graves about the sufferage womern.”

“Did she pass your house today, Alfie?” asked another voice, evidently Mittie’s voice.

Whatever qualms I might have had about listening to a conversation over the phone was forgotten at first in my desire to put in a word for my hostess and deliver her message, but at the mention of the “sufferage womern” I laughed to myself and held the receiver the more attentively to my ear. I knew then and there that I was in a fair way to catch it – or had already caught it – this habit of my hill friends who think no more of listening when a neighbot’s ring is on the line than of inviting the neighbor to dinner, and dinner invitations are informally plentiful.

“Alfie, did you hear me?” the new voice asked again. “Did the sufferage womern pass your house today?”

“No,” said Alfie. “I wisht she had. I was kinder hopin’ she would happen along about dinner time. I wouldn’t miss seein’ her fer nothin’.”

“You wouldn’t!” Mittie’s voice registered horror and surprise. “Why, when we seen her a-comin’ this way we all run into the house and drug the bed against the door,” triumphantly. “We’ve shore been a-sufferin’ enough as it is, without nobody bringin’ us any more of it me a-grunting with the neuraligy and Jehosiphat a ketchin’ the eatch and the children jist a-gittin’ over the whoopin’ cough – and measles in the neighborhood. You cain’t tell jist what this sufferage person might bring to you.”

“Shorely, MIttie, you don’t think sufferage means – but say!” ignoring what Mittie thought it meant. “Say! Wouldn’t you like to vote if you had the chance?”

“Wouldn’t I? Why, I would be the fust one to the polls. As I was a-tellin’ Jehosiphat t’other day, here I was a-workin’ and a-earnin’ and a-savin’ jist the same as him, and I didn’t have nothin’ to say about taxes ner nothin’, and if he was to die it would be the same old way; I’d have to go on payin’ taxes, and still have nothin’ to say. Wouldn’t I vote? Well, you jist better reckon.”

“That’s what I thought. If the sufferage lady makes a speech at the schoolhouse, you jist go and hear it. Maybe, if you do, you won’t bar up the door the next time you see her comin’. But I’ve got to ring off. I’ll have to have a early supper so we can go over to Aunt Rushie’s awhile tonight. She wants her quiltin’ frames fer tomorrow mornin’.”

“You never can tell what you’re a-goin’ to hear frum listenin’,” a host has said to me once. “And it ain’t no use to make yourself keep frum it, when everybody else does it. Great news happens along sometimes that you wouldn’t a-missed fer nothin’, and once in a while you hear things about yourself, too, that is plumb surprisin’.”

I hung up the receiver, completely converted to “listening in.”

“I’m shore glad you’re goin’ to git to see Alfie,” said the hostess when I told her about the quilt frames and we had laughed together over the phone conversation in which I had figured as a prominent subject.

“You’ll be plumb crazy about Alfie. Everybody is. She’s the workin’est person, and the successfulest. She jist sticks a thing in the ground and it grows. Shore does. Seems like the earth knows her and jist likes her better than the most of us. They’s some people jist that-a way, you know. And the chickens she raises! She always aims to raise a small, early breed fer layin’ the next winter, and carries out the eggs fer ‘em in her apron. When she wants ‘em to ear er sell, she sets the big kind of eggs and has her man carry ‘em out in his hat.”

“Why?” I began.

My hostess laughed gently. “Alfie is my favor-ite niece, and of course, she knows they ain’t nothin’ in it, but if she wants the eggs to hatch hens, jist to lay, she always does that – carries ‘em out in her apron. Never fails. But if she wants big roosters jist to eat er sell, she makes her man tote ‘em out in his old hat, the older and raggeder the better. It’s plumb funny, and, of course, they ain’t nothin’ in it. Zi, he laughs at Alfie a heap about it, but, between you and me and the gatepost, I’m a-goin’ to try it myself, this spring, and never let him know it. He’s got as many funny idees as the rest of us, if you jist watch him.

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“But as I was sayin’, you’ll be plumb crazy about Alfie. She’s smart, Alfie is, and plumb good lookin’ if I do say it. Knows how to dress, too. I’ll show you her pitcher, tuck in her Sunday cloes – and you’ll see fer yourself when she comes. She’s shore my favor-ite niece.”

The host came in from the barn. “Did you notice the moon, the new February moon, a few nights ago?” he asked.

His wife looked at me with a smile and just the suspicion of an I-told-you-so wink. I told him I had noticed how horizontally it had lain the first time I saw it, and someone had said it was a “dry” moon.

“Maybe; but that wasn’t what I was thinkin’ about,” he said. “I ain’t a man to believe in signs, but the February moon was shore a unusual moon. I was jist a little feller in the Civil War times, but I remember as well as if it was yisterday, of my father callin’ my mother to come and look at the new moon about a year before the war was over. I was the youngest of a big fambly and my two oldest brothers was away, a-fightin’ on the side they thought they belonged on.

“‘Look how bright the old moon is a-showin’ with it.’ my father says. ‘You can purty nigh see the man’s face in it. And the new moon is a-holdin’ it in its arms and s-singin’ to it, like you rock and sing to little Zi here when he’s sleepy.’ He put his hand on my head. ‘The war is more than half gone,’ he says. ‘I don’t know jist how much more; but it might last only a few months. The moon says peace. My father,’ he says, ‘ told me about this very sign when I was a little feller and said it was handed down frum the Revolution.’

“I remember how my mother laid her head against his shoulder as they stood there and looked at the new moon which my father believed meant so much. Well, the February moon looked almost exactly like that old, new moon I seen so many years ago, and while I ain’t a superstitious man and don’t believe in signs, still, if it meant things before, maybe it will again.

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“Not that I want peace,” he hastened to assure me, with a glance at the bustling little wife who had suddenly grown serious as he spoke of war. “Not that I want it unless it can be the right kind. I ain’t one of these here peace-at-any-price fellers. Not by a jugful. Why, it is all I can do to keep frum takin’ my old shotgun and lightin’ out fer France myself, and the thing that gits next to my skin is that I am too old to take a hand in the fightin’. But if the thing could end the way it ort – the way the President and country knows that it has got to end – well, I don’t reckon they’s anybody but what would be gladder than anybody else. And as fer myself, well, I’d jist everlastin’ly be willin’ to believe in signs the balance of my life and not keer a darn who knowed it. Blame me if I wouldn’t!

“Here’s a splinter,” he remarked, with a complete change of subject, handing me a small oak fragment, “that come off of a tree where it was peeled by lightnin’. If a person picks their teeth with a splinter off of a lightnin’ struck tree, tuck right off frum where the ligtnin’ streaked down the side of it, they’ll never have the toothache agin as long as they life. Don’t keer who they air.”

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