Henry C. Phelps III Autobiography
Born 12-29-18 in Hot Springs, Garland County, Arkansas to a Minnie Hamilton, with a doctor Wooten in attendance, no recorded mention of a father. The birth name was said to have been Clarence Hamilton, but in my parents’ adoption process a couple of weeks later the birth certificate mentions me as Henry C. Phelps, III, after my adoptive father and his father of the same name. My family moved back to Cape Girardeau in 1919 or 1920 when I was about a year old after having been in Hot Springs about six years during which time they operated a Maxwell car and parts dealership, repair shop and storage facility at 329-333 Market St. under the name of the Phelps Auto and Supply Co. with a living quarters upstairs. They spoke of storing Barney Oldfield's car at their place when he visited Hot Springs.
I knew Hot Springs only from hearsay from my parents until 1972 when Gerda, Nancy and I went to Beeville, Texas to visit David and La Donna while they were stationed there. We took a 30 mile detour and inspected the town and ate supper there and went on to Texarkana for the night. The next year we spent a few days vacation at Hot Springs and I located a woman on the city council who had some old city directories and looked in one of about 1916 vintage and found the name and address of the old family business and found the place just as described and still in use as an auto dealership and dwelling. It was nice to locate this bit of my family’s history and verify stories of the town as told to me by my folks. I tried a few of their famous baths in the 104 degree water but couldn't tell they did anything for me.
My earliest memories of Cape Girardeau are set in a 6.5 acre piece of ground immediately north of Sloan’s creek adjacent to the Missouri Utilities Co. power plant across the creek to the south. This plot contained the 30 x 60 two story brick house oriented lengthwise east and west with an ample two story front porch, built during a remodeling, spanning the west end and about a quarter of the north side. The ground level deck was concrete and the upper floor was wood and roofed over. We slept on this upper deck many times in the hottest parts of the summers under mosquito netting and with a bucket of rags smoldering to smoke away the mosquitoes, which were plentiful this close to the river and creek. The 13 inch brick walls kept the place cool till the afternoons when the heat soaking through the bricks began to be noticeable and didn’t slack off till midnight or so. Attached to this was a brick sleeping room on the southeast corner, a concrete porch joining it and connected to two brick rooms to the east. This porch was roofed and latticed on the north and south sides and the storage cellar and heating system were accessible by steps and a covering hatch door through the porch floor. I can remember living in those two rooms when my 80 year old grandfather Phelps died when I was 4 years old. He looked like pictures of Mark Twain with the bushy white hair and mustache he had acquired by that time. We lived in the two first floor rooms while the second floor of the main house was remodeled, having a good-sized area at the top of the stairs housing my dad’s roll-top desk and an ice box in the proximity of the kitchen and leaving room for the later building of a bathroom. (Meanwhile, we used a “two-holer” out back near the woodshed.) Baths were possible by the use of a number 2 washtub, usually in a closed-off kitchen. Other rooms provided in the remodeling were the kitchen, a dining room, two bedrooms and a living room with an entrance door in the northwest quadrant of the room from the second floor porch served by a staircase from the first floor porch. All this was heated by wood and coal stoves in the kitchen and living room for which I was the stoker and ash attendant. The original hot water and radiator system having seen better days.
The reason for the remodeling was that my grandfather had built this place outside the city limits, escaping the city laws, to include a saloon with a large mirrored backbar across the east side of the west big square room on the ground floor and a dance hall on the other side of the partition , the second big square room on the ground floor. A walk-through door on the south side of this room led to a stairway to the second floor leading to a central hallway with small rooms off to either side where the “working girls” could be found. My adoption and other pressures caused the termination of the business and the house was remodeled to accommodate a home atmosphere and configuration.
Also on this 6.5 acres, fronting on North Main street to the west and East First street to the north, for which my grand parents donated the right of way for the streets, was located a four room frame house and three brick stuccoed four room houses on the east side of Main street and a five room frame house at the junction of First and Main streets and at the end of East First street by the Frisco R. R. tracks was a two room frame shack across First St. from the Brissenden saw mill. These houses were rented out by my grand mother and my observation of the rental process convinced me early on that I never wanted any rental property. This idea was reinforced later when I would help my dad repair these places between tenants. However, I must say that after my dad was “downsized” from his sales job with Union Carbide Company during the depression the rent money helped us get by. Other buildings on this plot were a nice garage with a concrete floor, a woodshed, a coal shed, a chicken house which contained a pigeon roost, and a small barn. The periphery of this land was planted with pecan, hickory nut and walnut trees providing good crops of nuts.
Other items of interest in this neighborhood besides the Missouri Utilities power plant and a coal gas manufacturing plant with it's big gas storage tanks were a foundry along the rail spur north of the saw mill and the Friese threshing machine factory right north of the foundry. Mr. Freise, a local man, had invented and patented what turned out to be a popular threshing machine, some examples of which are still in existence. Of course, this was before the days of the combine which does all the wheat harvesting in one pass through the field. "Uncle Harry" Frazier-more about him later-was the head machinist at this threshing machine factory and when hard times closed the factory N. H. Frazier built a general machine shop behind his house at 1111 north Main St. and that is where I could be found most of the time after about 1929.
We had a cow, from which my mom sold milk and butter. Guess who churned the butter! We had 6 to 10 hogs most of the time, some of which supplied us with meat. The acquisition of the hogs is another story. Had about fifty Indian Runner ducks till some pollution from the utilities plant got into Sloan’s creek and their web feet appeared on the top side of dead ducks. There was no such thing as ecology laws in those days. We were out of the duck business. I had white rabbits, gray rabbits, white rats and mice and around 15 assorted dogs at one time. It was my job to haul garbage to feed the hogs with a model TT ford truck. We would mix bran and shorts (left-overs from wheat milling) and expired buttermilk from a local creamery, and stale bread from local bakeries and some hauled-in corn to augment the garbage. The truck is the one bought new for a” house car” (now called mobile home) trip to visit Montana relatives and other purposes. A whole other story. The house car body was removed and a flat bed was built for general purposes with no cab. That was to be added later for the beer business, another other story. We had room for about 1 ˝ acres of garden growing lettuce, radishes, turnips, tomatoes, peppers, parsley, pumpkins, corn, green beans, peas, red raspberries, black raspberries, peaches, apples, cabbage, a grape arbor and about four acres were used for pasture land and when that use was over with the four acres were leased to a carnival once a year and some outdoor advertising signboards on it leased to the Operle Outdoor Sign Co. brought in monthly revenue. My grandmother taught me how to prepare and market parsley to hotels and butcher shops of the day for my spending money. Two dollars of this money and a pair of white rabbits bought my first used bicycle from a neighborhood older boy. I never did have a new bicycle but traded up to a real good used one later on through my experience of running what amounted to the neighborhood bicycle shop.
I enjoyed all that and would not have asked for a better life or place to live. It was like a small farm, yet close enough to walk to town, if necessary. And I got very good loving parents in the bargain.
The Hog Story. Our hogs were obtained by a barter arrangement. At the time, about 1931 or ’32 we were members of the First Christian Church at the northeast corner of Themis and Sprigg streets. Also members were Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College President, Joseph A. Serena and his wife. My mother and his wife were friends and got their heads together to make a trade. My mother raised canary birds which she sold to interested people. On the college farm, in the agricultural program, they raised registered Poland China hogs. Mrs. Serena wanted a pair of canary birds. We wanted a starter pig so a trade was made- a pair of canaries for a sow pig with the right to breed the pig to some of the college farm stock when the pig matured. That was the start of our raising hogs which continued till I went to work at the Midwest Dairy Processing plant at 25 S. Spanish St. in 1937.
We always had renters in the five extra rooms on the ground floor of our house. We managed to stay out of each other’s way. There was a succession of fairly diverse and interesting people as tenants over the years. The address was 1 East-First St. and it lay just north of Sloan’s creek which ran by the north side of the Missouri Utilities Co. electric power and water plant. They also manufactured coal gas there before natural gas was brought into this part of the country. I understood from my folks that the land for this installation and that of the Roberts, Johnson and Rand shoe factory, a five story, block and a half long, building was sold to them by my grandfather. An aside to this is this company’s shoe brand at the time was the Red Star brand and so many people living in the north end of town worked at the shoe factory that the area was called Red Star. This company later became the International Shoe Company and they also made a superior line of shoes under the name Florsheim.
My paternal grandfather, Henry Clay Phelps, Sr. Served the union army in the civil war and during this time he passed Cape Girardeau on a troop boat. He liked the looks of the town and determined to come back here after the war. We had a city directory in our bookcase that contained the story of how H. C. Phelps, Sr. Came here from Beardstown, Ill. With two dollars and fifty cents in his pocket and spent most of that getting acquainted with the town. I don’t know how he got started, but he had to be some kind of entrepreneur to have acquired a lot of farm equipment with which he did custom harvesting. I remember stories of how he took my dad on some of these harvesting missions where he learned to chew tobacco when he was four years old. And he never quit. Grandpa was well liked by everyone and was known as “Clay Phelps.” He built the five story Terminal Hotel on Water St. It had the first elevator in town. It was hydraulic and used city water. He also operated a motor launch to haul passengers between Cape and Thebes, Ill. The boat was lost in a gasoline bilge fire. Grandpa had the characteristic of loaning money too freely and with insufficient collateral and was close to being broke when he died. His monetary estate was not large and most of it went to pay for the necessary vehicles to take a trip to see relatives in Montana, including some other purposes and sidebars. Story elsewhere.
My paternal grandmother, Eliza L. Costello Phelps, ancestors from Cork, Ireland was a better than average educated woman with a ramrod straight patrician bearing, a stern look in repose and an impish sense of humor. She had a keen eye for fashion and neatness of dress without being snobbish. Her ample knowledge was widened by subscribing to the Kansas City Star newspaper in addition to what was available locally. I guess she was responsible for my early interest in newspapers-I don’t remember when I didn’t read them. She had a lot of patience with an all-around likable but happy go lucky son and me, a grandson who didn’t always meet her requirements soon enough. She saw to it that I was exposed to such things as the U. S. Marine Band under the direction of John Philip Sousa when it came to Cape Girardeau once and to such as the St. Louis Municipal Opera and recordings on our old Edison phonograph of Enrico Caruso and Madam Schumann-Heink. She pushed culture, but not to distraction. She would have appreciated the horticulture story that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t lead a whoretoculture , but her sharper edges were not abrasive. Her unexpected death when I was in school one day further saddened me because I had not completed some chores she had set up for me. I was 16-she was 70.
My mother was a very loving woman who gave me everything she could within her circumstances and my deserving. She managed to cope with the aberrations of my dad who never seemed to grow up completely. His playful nature really exasperated my mother and grandmother. My mother came from Sikeston, Mo. And was more rural than urban but she managed to fit in very well in our family scheme. She had to work hard on the way up and that characteristic never left her. Also, she knew how to squirrel away money to be available for “have to” cases. She would have adopted another child or two had circumstances permitted.
My dad seems to have been a spoiled kid who had been given too much too easily. He attended the old St. Vincent grade school at Spanish and William streets for an undetermined time and also went to the old Lorimier school that stood where the city hall is now. Then young Henry Phelps was sent to the Western Military Academy at Alton, Ill. Much of this training stayed with him, especially in his grooming, the rest of his life. His calling was in sales, which he could talk his way through, and he was never very "work brickel," as an old saying went. Very good at playing pool and cards. Plying these skills helped sustain his income during the depression and so disgusted my mom that she made such a case against these activities that I never got started at either. She would not go into a pool hall and sent me in to fetch him when necessary. My dad spent several years as a traveling salesman by train and by auto selling lighting systems to farmers in both modes of acetylene gas and electric. The engine driven generator and battery sets producing 32 volts D.C. He was a member of the Southeast Missouri Drummers Association.-a drummer being one who got out and drummed up business. During his out of town trips my mother and I would walk to town and shop. Among other things, we would get about three bags of groceries for around $5.00 and take a model T ford cab back home for a dime. Some times my dad would get back from a trip from Illinois, Kentucky, or Tennessee and the ferry boat would be closed for the regular day's business and my dad would fire his pistol three times to get A. C. Jaynes' ferry to cross the river and haul him over to Cape. This same territory was covered later with the Chicago Portrait Company selling photo coloring (tinting) and enlarging services and the biggie, selling picture frames for the enlargements. That's where the money was.
My maternal grandfather, Robert Williams, died before I got to know him.
I knew my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Williams from some visits to her sharecropper’s shack in the Portageville, Mo. Cotton country and from her visits to us in Cape Girardeau by train. She would usually arrive with some left over cheese and crackers she packed for the trip and I inherited what was left. I have liked cheese all my life. She was uneducated, deaf and blind in one eye. She couldn’t read or write but in her head she could out perform an adding machine. A good old gal-died in the mid thirties. We threw a rod in the old Senior Six dodge on the way to her funeral at Portageville but made it O K anyhow, having started early. When times had gotten tough one of her daughters, my aunt May Collins, uncle Jeff Collins and their children, my cousins, Clara, Madge, Cletus, Earl, Catherine, Stella and Gail lived in the two big rooms in the downstairs of our house for about two years. During one of our floods cousin Earl took me about four blocks distance toward school in a rowboat every day for a week or so.
My aunt Alice was married to Jim Martin, a lumber scaler of Caruthersville, Mo., had one daughter, Willene Lentz of Puxico.
My aunt Ona Smothers of the Marion-Benton, Ill. Coal country had two boys, Henry Williams and Jack Smothers-never saw much of them. Henry Williams never learned to read but could find his way around the country by the numbered route signs while driving a coal truck.
From a small boy on I always had a compelling interest in mechanics, as did my dad, who taught me lots of things he had learned in his various jobs and life experiences. To help in this respect I happened to fall into the favor of a neighborhood machinist at 1111 North Main St., about a block and a half from my house. He was Noah Harry Frazier, or “Uncle Harry,” to all his friends. He and “Aunt Maggie,” his wife, had no children. I was a friend and schoolmate of his two nephews, who lived next door to him, and used to make a brief visit to his shop with them as relatives do at times. Uncle Harry kept the neighborhood kids cleared out from his place but I became a special case, along with his nephews, and when our common traits came to light he put me to work in his shop at various times like after school, Saturdays and school vacations. Then our association and friendship strengthened when we discovered we shared the same birthday thirty-three years apart. We used to exchange simple gifts. He came here from Pueblo, Colorado, where there were lots of Spanish and German speaking people and he liked to sprinkle a few of their words into his conversation. On our birthday when I was 15 he said he was acht und vierzig. 48 I figured out later. Uncle Harry was a mentor and like a second dad to me. We were always in touch until he died in 1952 at age 66. After getting out into the regular working world I was able to provide him with various jobs of machine work from Midwest Dairy Products, Heuer Truck Sales and Harris Truck and Trailer Sales. Uncle Harry used to brag that everywhere I went I shortly became shop foreman. I can imagine his pride and that of my parents when I later was on the board of directors as vice president of maintenance for Tucker Truck Lines-Inman Freight System, but they were never to know about that. I count myself lucky in that all my working life I was doing what I liked to do even though I could probably have made more money in other pursuits.
Another boss-mentor of mine was fleet superintendent E. E. “Tommy” Thompson of the DuQuoin, Ill. Midwest Dairy Products Co. home office and main truck maintenance site. As Tommy traveled through the territory of dairy plants and 16 coca-cola plants in southern Illinois, Cape Girardeau, MO., Paducah, Ky., and Memphis, Tenn., he would stop now and then at the second biggest ice cream and milk processing plant at Cape Girardeau where I was the plant maintenance engineer. After hearing sad stories from Tommy and our local plant superintendent about how the fleet trucks were giving the company trouble with poor repairs and high expenses I got his go-ahead in starting a truck repair shop which was successful to the degree that the first year we saved $5000.00 over the previous year, quite a bit in the day of $100.00 a month pay. That got a raise for me and set the tone of the rest of my work life. This experience and the reputation I developed easily got my next job at Heuer Truck Sales when Midwest Dairy Products Co. sold out to the City Ice and Fuel Co. of Chicago. I didn’t like the way things developed and couldn’t change them so I made the move.
These above-mentioned fellows are gone now and as with so many things in life the realization of the value of their friendship and help comes too late. I would really like to be able to thank them face to face for all they did for me. Another man I had it made with was the owner of Harris Truck and Trailer Sales, Charles N. Harris and I had the opportunity to go by his house about a month before he died and express my gratitude for everything he had done for me and my family. When my wife, Gerda, and Pete Bremmerman’s wife both got sick and the insurance ran out Harris started an in-company insurance called the Workman’s Welfare Fund. In the cases of Gerda and Pete’s wife they were taken into the program at half payment of bills since they were both already sick at the time. Pete and I managed to pay the other half of the expenses. Pete’s wife died soon after that but Gerda struggled on till late in ’77. By making my payments to the insurance fund I was allowed to stay in the program by a special vote of the board of directors after going to Tucker Truck Line in the spring of ’63. C. N. Harris had bought Tucker Truck Lines a year or so earlier and the supervisor of maintenance, Loy “Ham” Hampton, who was very good at his job, failed to understand that “the boss might not always be right, but he is always the boss,” words on a sign on Harris’ office wall. In one of their Saturday morning confabs Charles and Ham were discussing some recent Mack diesel tractor additions to the fleet. Ham hated, resented and objected to these trucks and during a little dust-up Ham became disrespectful to Charlie and was fired on the spot. Harry Messmer, Tucker’s president, said “now what will I do for a fleet super?” Charlie said, “what do you want to do?” and Harry told him he wanted Henry Phelps from Harris Truck and Trailer. Charlie came over and explained it to me and cited the conditions of employment, pay and other benefits Saturday afternoon and asked me to take the job which I did the following Monday morning in April, 1963. Ham left a fleet he had grown up with, so to speak, as he was there when every piece of equipment was added and knew every one by heart. I arrived with no preparation, taking over the maintenance and later the buying and selling of rolling stock, fuel, tires, parts, etc. for 188 units of trucks, tractors, trailers, cars, dump trucks, farm tractors, fork lifts and terminal buildings. This steadily increased over the years till we had 440 tractors and 1200 trailers. I had a lot to learn in a hurry. And on top of that, about three months later it was decided to build a terminal in a different place in Cape Girardeau and to move the shop there also. A three stall addition was built on the original shop a couple of years later. Others took care of the office building and I was given the job of drawing the plans for the new shop which was built by the Glenn Bishop Construction Co. I did most of it at home at night so I could use a sheet of paper as big as our desk. We did all of our major maintenance here and had satellite shops at some major terminals and local for-hire repair shops at other points. I kept up with the national trends through trade journals and noted that while the national average cost for freight line fleet maintenance was 10% of gross revenue our average over the years was between 7% and 8% of our gross revenue of 10 million dollars the first few years and increased to 20 million in later years so I never got fussed at for wasting money.
About the time I joined the L. A. Tucker Truck Lines they were buying out St. Mary Truck Lines head quartered in St. Mary, Mo. And was owned by H. G. Schmidtz. They had rights over routes parallel to ours and were permitted to haul different commodities and to serve every small town not covered in our rights and was an improvement to our service. Other acquisitions as time passed: Gordon Hart Truck Lines at Dexter, Mo., C. E. S. Truck Lines with terminals in Ester, Crystal City, and St. Louis, Rinker Truck Lines with terminal at Taylorville, Ill. and Decatur, Ill. Then the Bonnifield Bros. Truck Line gave us terminals at West Frankfort, Ill., Metropolis, Ill., Herrin, Ill., Chicago, Ill. and Evansville, Ind. All the while increasing the numbers of tractors, trailers, city delivery vans, forklifts, company cars, farm tractors for terminal lot maintenance and other assorted goodies required to run such a business. I just never did run out of something to do. And due to the degree of support I had from Charles Harris I never did have to worry about company politics, which can keep one busy looking over his shoulder in many places.
When Gerda and I got married in early 1942, with the assistance of Adolph Koenig as best man, I took off three days from my maintenance job at Midwest Dairy and we went on a short honeymoon in the areas of St Louis and Belleville and it was back to work again. The next year on the day, April, 15, that Harold Locke came on board as plant manager from Centralia, Ill., our first child, Julia, was born. I was called to military service on June 16, 1944 and was able to pick the navy as my choice wherein I became a refrigeration repairman. Second child, Dan, born in Feb., 1945 while I was in Norfolk-they wouldn’t let me come home for the occasion. Third child, David, came along after somewhat of a gap in time in January, 1948. I was still at Midwest Dairy at the time. Then a change was made to Heuer Truck Sales. During my year and a half there Betty was born in April of 1949. Started working at Harris Truck and Trailer Sales at the end of 1950. Donna was born in January of 1951 right after moving from 1015 Good Hope to 1022 Independence. We had joined the glorious fraternity of homeowners. It would be ours in 20 years! In August of 1952 Pete joined the group. It wasn’t long before doorknobs began to disappear. About the time we thought our child-bearing time was over Nancy came along in December of 1955. The old folks used to say she was what the shoemaker threw at his wife,-the last. For those of you in Rio Linda, that was a cast iron foot-shaped form on which a shoe is repaired. One big bonus that came with the above mentioned marriage was the best pair of in- laws ever created-Ruth E. and Peder A. Johnsen who I would have been glad to have as parents. They were always very good and helpful to us with a complete absence of anything resembling interference or intrusion. We always enjoyed our visits with them and their family.