In spite of nearly 12 years in journalism and advertising -- two of the world's most social and in-your-face professions -- I remain a pretty shy person when it comes to approaching people I don't know and asking them personal questions.
As a result, I took the path of least resistence when plotting out my interviews in my quest to uncover the memories of place harbored by Brainerdites past and present. Instead of driving down to Brainerd, setting myself up in a motel and making the rounds, I first hopped on a plane to Toledo, Ohio, to spend some time with my grandmother, Stella Weigand. Her fond memories of her childhood in Kansas had fired me up on my 1994 road trip and ignited my interest in Brainerd. She lived in Brainerd from 1911 to 1915, and visited four times during summer vacations after that. Her last visit was in 1922, when she was 12 years old.
I conducted my formal interviews with Grandma in her dining room in March 1999. During our tape-recorded conversations, I asked her to describe the townscape and surrounding landscape as she visually remembered them, taking care to distinguish her own first-hand memories from stories imparted to her later on by her brothers and in letters and photos we've discovered in her garage and attic.
At the end of the interview, Grandma marked down places and buildings she remembered on a blank street map of Brainerd (a tracing of the 1905 plat map, with all landmarks and street names removed).
The Brainerd Connection
My great-grandfather, Austin Binger, moved his wife, Flora, and a one-year-old Stella and two of her adolescent brothers from their Newark, Ohio, home to Brainerd in 1911. My great-grandmother had literally worked herself into a state of exhaustion, and several relatives suggested the family relocate to Kansas for the cleaner air and more temperate climate.
Flora's sister, Laura "Doll" Leach, had moved West from the family homeplace of Somerset, Ohio, in the 1880s with her new husband, Levi Mellor, the carpenter who settled in Brainerd and built many houses and schoolhouses in Milton Township. Laura and Flora's younger brother, Burt Leach, followed in the 1890s. Burt eventually married an El Dorado girl and farmed a 40-acre tract near Furley, in Sedgwick County, about 10 miles southwest of Brainerd.
This strong family base and the promise of limitless carpentry work from Levi combined to convince my great-grandfather to bring the family West in 1911. So they rented out their house in Newark and made the long train trek to Kansas. They settled in Brainerd, in a house on Jacob Street, between Broadway and Ellet.
Their drafty new abode was about five minutes walking distance from the Mellor place, which was located on a lot between Neiman Street and the Missouri Pacific tracks. Austin worked as a carpenter with Levi Mellor on several jobs, but was later bedridden by a bad fall from a wobbly ladder. The family returned to Ohio in December 1915, after Austin recovered from his fall and was offered a job working at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad shops back in Newark.
Despite the brevity of the family's stay in Brainerd, both Stella and her brothers retained powerful memories of their time there and maintained telephone and letter-writing contact with friends and relatives in the area through the 1980s. Stella's brothers, Clarence and Harry, both attended the Brainerd School, and are pictured in the 1910/11 class portrait on file at the Frederic Remington Area Historical Society. Stella was five years old when the family returned to Ohio, but experienced Brainerd anew on her four summer visits there from 1916 through 1922. She's been reliving it a great deal in recent years, when she's finally had the time and quiet to look back on the ups and downs of her 89-year life. Brainerd was her big adventure, and her memories reflect this sense of wonder.
General Brainerd Memories
Though she had not been to Brainerd in 77 years, Stella displayed a remarkably accurate unaided memory of the town's physical layout. "It was a community -- possibly four blocks long," she recalled. "There was a lot of open space and wild grass. There were dirt roads at first. And in '22, there were gravel roads."
Many of her memories about the townscape revolve around nature -- the wind, the trees and the prairie grasses in which she played, with her dog, Bucky. "They always had trees in Kansas. They planted a lot of trees to protect the houses, and particularly if you had a lot of land," she remembered. "People did what they could -- planted flowers, planted gardens, mostly, because you couldn't go to the store and buy everything. You did a lot of canning."
But, having experienced life in the tighter urban confines of Toledo and Newark, Stella was also very aware of the housing stock and the streetscapes, recalling the "run-down" condition of some of the older, original homes, many of them occupied by "mostly single bachelors who had some very bad habits -- drinking, eating, personal hygeine." And she remembered walking home by moonlight, without the aid of the street lights to which she later became accustomed as a girl in an in-town Newark neighborhood.
Brainerd People and Places
Stella's most vivid memories center on the interior of the Brainerd Store and the houses in which her family and the Mellor family lived. Rather than try to summarize, I'll let her tell most of these stories verbatim.
"I remember particularly the general store," she said, "with the aroma of smoked meat and leather, which they used for harnesses and saddles. And open kegs with candy and other edibles. And then going over to fabric for house needs, or for wearables or personals. And the smell of old wood, particularly in the fall and spring, when you get that feeling of old wood that has aged well through the years and absorbed some of the other scents.
"As I remember, it was one very large room. You came in the doors and the fabric was on the left, and the harnesses and the leather were in the back on the right of the candy you could buy for a penny apiece, dried beans -- a lot of the dried foods were in open kegs. That was sort of to the circular back end of the store. Everything was dark inside, because they had coal oil lamps and there weren't many windows -- I only remember one.
"I know I was always thrilled to go there. There was one long step to go up, and then you'd go on a porch which ran across the front of it. I remember that from the outside it was old looking and then it had a big sign across the roof where the spouting was, and that said, 'General Store.' It was on the main highway, I would say a block from our house. They had absolutely everything there!"
While her memory of the store's specific location was off by about a block, her near-photographic description of its interior attests to the powerful hold this long-gone place has exerted on her imagination over the past eight decades. This is consistent with the memories of Edgar Harder, who describes his recollection of the store later in this section.
Stella's recollections of the clapboard house in which she lived with her parents, two brothers and several livestock are equally detailed. She admitted, however, that many of her visual memories of the house's exterior were derived from looking at photos of it later in life. Still, she described it as a two-story house with "nothing outstanding about it" save a front porch and a number of large trees.
"To the left, looking from the main highway, there were two more houses beyond my house, one occupied by a woman they called Grandma Coleman," she said. "Then there was another house on the corner. It did have trees. My mother hung out the washing when we first moved there, and of course there were no dryers and the washers were the hand (type)... The wind blew the sheets to shreds."
The house was wallpapered on the interior, with wooden floors, carpeted with a makeshift assortment of rag strips on top of heavy paper. But that didn't keep out the elements: "In the winter time it was so cold it would have frost on the walls. My mother always dressed me in a wool dress, stockings and long underwear when we lived there. It was so cold that she'd worry about the baby pigs and she'd bring them into the kitchen to get them warm. They never made a big mess."
Pigs were definitely off-limits in the tonier confines of the Mellor house, which Stella described as "roomy," with a "long" kitchen that boasted a built-in leather lounge, gas stove, coal stove, pantry and a congoleum rug under which sand was blown by the wind. "It was one of the nicest houses in town," Stella recalls. "They even had a windmill." (Stella was saddened when her cousin, Hazel Mellor Roth, wrote her family in 1976 and informed them that the old Mellor house had fallen on hard times. "A German family bought the Mellor home and they let it go to pieces until it looks like Skid Row," said the letter.)
Aside from the store and the houses described above, Stella remembered the church, the Brainerd school and the railroad depot, the point of entry and departure for all of her visits to the community. "The station had a boxed-off place for the stationmaster, and there was always somebody there waiting for us with a horse-and-buggy," she said.
On several of her summer visits, Stella journeyed farther afield, away from Brainerd's city limits for car rides with her cousins and the occasional ice cream soda in downtown Whitewater. She also visited her Uncle Bert and Aunt Nell Leach on their farm near Furley.
Here, she experienced her first tornado and mad dash for the storm cellar, and grew to appreciate the open spaces of this part of Kansas. "Every mile was a crossroads," she remembered. "And you'd look for miles and you'd see the same thing -- no rolling country. I think if I had lived there all my life, it might have become boring. But it wasn't -- it was exciting."