By Doug Boilesen, son of Betty Ann Barr
Betty was born in 1924 and grew up on
a 640 acre farm which they called "River Ranch"
as it was located next to the North Loup River. She never
lived in a town until high school, however Elba, Cotesfield,
Dannevirke, St. Paul and Grand Island each would have influences
on her entertainment experiences while growing up.
As described in Betty Ann's story The
Hour of Charm,
the radio was an important source of entertainment for Betty
and her parents just as it was for other rural Nebraskan's
who didn't have access to professional entertainment other
than the occasional traveling show or band.
When Betty was around 14 she stayed at
the Keller's house as her parents had gone to York for the
Golden Anniversary of her Grandparents. She knew that her
Dad and brothers were giving her grandparents a radio for
an anniversary present so she called up to the radio station
and requested them to play "Silver Threads Among the
Gold," then she listened and waited to hear it play,
proudly thinking that someone at the party would probably
hear the dedication from Betty Ann Barr to her grandparents.
1933 RCA R-28 Cathedral
style tube radio
In the summers there were weekend silent
moving pictures shown in Elba during the teens and 1920's.
Since there was no movie theatre in Elba, the movies were
projected against the side of the Elba grocery store and people
sat in the empty lot next to the store on benches and blankets.
I don't think Mom remembered any of those silent movies in
the 1920's as she was much younger
than her siblings. But movies did become part of her entertainment
world in the 1930's and her story titled The
Blue Hat - Going to the Picture Show takes place on a
shopping outing to Grand Island and includes her going to
see Heidi starring Shirley Temple.
Mom's older step-brother Chris who was
born in 1907, however, does have a story about those outdoor
Elba silent movies that he watched in the early1920's.
According to Chris he would ride his horse
to Elba on a Saturday night when the weather was good and
if it a movie was going to be shown. This would have been
about a 2.5 mile ride from his mom's family farm outside of
Elba. Though not a great distance he still would have been
a teenager and it would have been quite dark as there were
no farm yard lights since the Rural Electrication Administration
did not yet exist. Lighting for his journey therefore would
have been primarily the light of the moon. But that was no
deterrent for Chris as he felt there was nothing better than
watching a good western moving picture on a Saturday night.
I don't know the name of the movie or
who the star was (perhaps Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, William S.
Hart or some other movie star of the day) but Uncle Chris
remembered a particular movie from some western serial (1)
which left him quite distraught. When the movie's single
reel ended for the night the situation was dire: the cowboy
and and his horse were stuck in quicksand and they were slowly
sinking to certain death.
Tom Mix, The Best Bad
What scared Uncle Chris and what he said
he couldn't understand was how that unfortunate cowboy was
going to survive all week in that quicksand.
Now he probably told me that story with
a smile that I didn't notice as I was young and he might have
thought I wouldn't get the disconnect that this was only a
movie. Or perhaps when he originally saw it he really was
worried all week about the fate of that cowboy. Suspended
belief, after all, has its own reality.
Either way, movies were an important part
of entertainment in the 1920's even in a small village like
Elba. The new wonder of moving pictures had a unique power
to captivate audiences and make lasting impressions.
was a small town in Howard County, Nebraska near Elba that
was settled in the 1880's and was named, of course, by the
Danish immigrants that settled there which included my great
grandparents. It's a town that my Dad wrote about in his story
Up - My Danish Heritage. When we visited what remained
of Dannebrog in the 1990's I learned that my mom used to attend
dances there when she was growing up. Interestingly, it was
here that she would sometimes see Dad at a dance but I didn't
hear that they ever actually danced together.
The Community Hall is one of the few
buildings still standing in Dannevirke so we photographed
it with Mom at the door as a reminder of where she had loved
to dance and of course for its connection to the man who would
be her future husband.
Dannevirke Community Hall
My grandparents loved to play cards and
it's a tradition they passed down to Mom and her siblings
and in turn has been passed down to succeeding generations.
Canasta and Hearts were my grandmother's favorite card games.
I think of my grandfather as more of a Pitch player. My impression
was that the women of my grandparents generation played card
games with their women friends and that the men played with
their men friends.
My grandpa Barr left me with several important
principles in playing cards:
"Bid 'em high and sleep in the
streets" was intended to remind me to not be overly
cautious in my bidding. I don't think he ever further explained
that in general you have to bid to win (because he was basically
a man of few words).
"Cut 'em thin, sure to win"
was another piece of advice apparently built on the belief
that luck and the cards dealt have a direct relationship
with how you cut the deck.
Finally, if the game was getting out
of reach go ahead and "shoot the moon". The final
score didn't matter if we ended up in the hole and the risk
was worth it because there was always a chance that we could
My grandma Barr had other ways to turn
the tide if the cards weren't going very well. Her advice
was to get out of your chair and walk around the table, counter-clockwise,
to reverse the direction the game was going. I'm not sure
she had a magic number of times to walk around the table but
I like the number three (3) as it has the most folktale/popular
culture associations for me, e.g, three wishes, what's behind
door number 3 (i.e., Let's Make a Deal aka The Monty Hall
Problem), three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats
gruff, three blind mice, three strikes and you're out, etc.).
Grandma Barr was also one who paid attention
to where the split in the table was for the leaves. My grandparents
had a round oak table where cards were always played and it
had multiple leaves that could be added for family and holiday
meals (which were taken out if cards were to be played). The
line that divided those two halves was said by my grandmother
to be a good place to be aligned when you played cards.
My grandparents didn't have a bathtub
in their house but for some reason my mom later added to the
table alignment strategy by saying that the chances of good
hands could be increased by partners in cards being seated
in alignment with the bathtub's direction in the house. My
dad and mom played a lot of bridge so maybe that alignment
was part of their game plan. I don't remember ever actually
implementing that as a corrective action if the cards went
bad. For me, circling the table 3 times counterclockwise seemed
the only logical countermeasure to bad cards.
Phonograph and Records
When Mom was growing up only one of her
neighbors had a phonograph. She later wrote about hearing
that phonograph: "When we visited them, sometimes during
the evening we would all go to the parlor and listen to a
few records. What wonderful phonograph memories."
As to her own home, they never had a phonograph
or records although like everyone else they did have a radio
and much of the entertainment on a radio was courtesy of the
Phonograph. So in a way she listened to records all of her
For the story about one of the more memorable
songs she remembers from her youth, see her story "Shuffle
Off to Buffalo."
Listen to Shuffle Off to Buffalo
courtesy of TCM on Youtube.
Checkers, cards, and parcheesi are games
I know were played in the Anna and Manley Barr home. They
had a Carrom board with pool sticks and red and green wooden
rings and on the other side there was a checkerboard, which
I believe was simliar to this Carrom Viking "Q"
from the late 1930's.
Parcheesi game board, ca
Mom also told the story of
the mysterious powers of the Ouija board which she saved for
use only when a girlfriend would spend the night. It was probably
during one of those stay-overs that an Ouija board confirmed
who she was going to marry.
This Ouija Mystery Board
from a Montgomery Wards & Co. Catalogue in 1930
A game mom said that she always wanted
to play growing up was croquet. Perhaps she had been inspired
by a croquet image or a story that she had read. On their
farm there was a flat, weedy area close to their house that
she always wanted to keep mowed as a potential croquet court.
They never did own a croquet set and although that field was
mowed by their goat it never did host a croquet match.
Years later, however, croquet
games would be played on her
own backyard lawn in the suburbs of Lincoln, Nebraska.
On that court playing croquet would become a family tradition
particularly after a holiday or birthday party dinner.
Alice playing croquet
with flamengo and hedgehog, 1865 John Tenniel
September 5, 1931
The newspaper featured comic strips that
were something everyone in the family looked forward to reading..
Bringing Up Father, Little Orphan Annie, Mary Worth, Gasoline
Alley, L'il Abner, Mutt & Jeff, The Katzenjammer Kids
and many more.
Bringing Up Father
by George McManus, June 4, 1930
Mutt & Jeff
by Bud Fisher
1936 by Harold Gray
Panel from Mickey
Mouse's first comic strip, January 13, 1930
Mom had several Little
Orphan Annie Big Little Books when she was growing up.
I remember seeing some of these on my grandparents bookshelf
in the 1950's, perhaps put there for the grandchildren to
Book 1948 (2)
Little Orphan Annie
and Punjab the Wizard, The Big Little Book, 1935
Mom didn't have many dolls but her favorite
was a Shirley Temple doll similiar to this doll from the 1930's.
She also had a doll that she named "Beverly"...
a name that she would later give to her own baby daughter.
For her most memorable Christmas story
involving a doll, see her story The
Shirley Temple ca. 1935
Paper dolls were a popular
playtime activity for girls in the 1930's and Shirley Temple
was naturally a favorite.
The Balky Mule was a tin
toy made by Lehmann's between 1897 and 1938. It was one of
the most common of the Lehmann wind-up toys. When I was very
young I saw a toy simliar to this in a trunk in my aunt's
garage in Elba. My aunt told me that the trunk had belonged
to my mom. I don't know what happened to this toy or if The
Balky Mule was the same windup toy that I saw in that
garage.. A more likely toy for her was probably the "Balking
which was a Marx knock-off of the Lehmann toy.
Besides mom's Shirley Temple
doll, the only toys that survived were a small wooden kitchen
cabinet where she kept her doll's china, a wooden bed, a tin
toy cook stove, some doll cups and sauces and a few small
dolls including a hand-made stick doll in red clothes. I don't
know if my grandfather made the cabinet and bed, and they
may even have first belonged to my mom's older step-sister
(which would make them ca.1912). These toys are now part of
the Stuhr Museum collection in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Wooden doll's bed, homemade circa
Wooden doll's kitchen
cabinet, homemade circa 1928
Tin toy kitchen stove
Mary had a little lamb
doll china plates and sugar bowl
Growing up in rural Nebraska
in the 1920's and 1930's was a time of significant changes
and challenges. The USA would go from the Roaring Twenties
to the Great Depression to entering World War II when Betty
was in High School.
Home entertainment would
see the rise of the radio's domination over the phonograph
while movies would continue to redefine entertainment with
the addition of talking pictures and Technicolor.
I believe Mom's most enjoyable
entertainment, however, came from her own imagination and
from the visits of relatives or girl friends coming out to
their farm. She loved reading and writing (see an early poem
from grade school in Education
- Growing Up in Elba) and going to school where she could
be with her friends. And she always looked forward to trips
to the big city - Grand Island.
She also enjoyed simply observing
strangers. She once described how she would stand by the railroad
tracks near their farm as a young girl and watch the passenger
train go by and look at the people sitting on the train and
wonder who they were and where they were going.
Although her family would
lose their "River Ranch' in the Depression and although
her 'entertainment' opportunities may seem very limited compared
to 21st century options, I think her world of entertainment,
growing up where she did and in the time period that she did,
resulted in experiences that she valued at the time and in
later years which she enjoyed remembering and sharing with
family and friends.