Sunday, October 02, 2011

William Elwood Dillow: A Man for All Seasons

When I used to pop over to my Uncle Elwood's house in Vanceburg, Kentucky to play around with his accordion, I could tell even then he was a different kind of guy. His house was filled with Mexican things and he was always reading a book or listening to the radio. In the 1950's people in this river town didn't have Mexican things in their house, much less ever seen a Mexican. But I shall get to that later.

Elwood was Ramona's oldest brother, first born to Jacob with the blue, blue eyes, and Grace, a handsome little woman, in 1906. Vanceburg was still a bustling river town at the turn of the last century, but the Dillows and their growing family lived on a farm just outside of town. Jacob, a farmer and teacher, brought up seven well educated kids.

By age two, Elwood already had a grown up seriousness needed to head this bunch of kids.


1912, Elwood, Maurice, George Jacob,

He would have worked on the farm while getting his education, and Ramona recalls he started a chicken raising business on his own on the hillside behind the farmstead. He already had a confident attitude by his high school years.

In the summer of 1923, while still in high school, he took a summer job at the Howell Cutting Plant making buttons, and wrote about this experience in the June 29, 1972 Lewis County Herald,

Each employee stood before a machine, in design much like an engine lathe. A stepped pulley in the machine enabled the worker to determine a speed correct for the button blank that he was then cutting. Individual machines took power from overhead shafting.

The employee would place a mussel shell in his hand held tong. All the while the tubular saw in the headstock was revolving. The tail stock had a wood plug movable longitudinally. As stated above, the worker moved the shell into the revolving saw by using a rachet in the tailstock. The buttons were sawed quite rapidly, many blanks being cut from the shell before it was discarded.

The spool in which the saw was mounted was unique in that the tapered tubular saw was secured by a handmade key. The keying of the saw within its spool, the aligning of the spool within the head stock, the filing and jointing of the saw would at times tax the most skilled employee.

As an experiment, some of the discarded shells were spread on the Vanceburg hill road.

After high school, Elwood completed two years of college in preparation to be a teacher, most likely at Morehead State Teachers College, and the July 8, 1927 Portsmouth Daily Times reported the Lewis County school board had announced teachers for the rural schools for the year. Elwood was assigned to Rock Creek, a rural school upriver past Quincy. It would have been one of those one room school houses for the early grades before children were bused to a consolidated school. Commonly, the rural school teacher would board with a family in the area, returning home on the weekend if they had means of transportation. Given Elwood's ingenuity, he would have had transportation. In a letter to Ramona, he described fixing up Jacob's 1909 Ford Coupe that had been caught in a flood at the confluence of Gander Branch and Dry Run and washed a couple hundred yards downstream. "I bought the damaged Ford, put another body on it and had a serviceable auto".

In 1930, he was still living at the farm with 5 younger siblings. His next younger brother, George Jacob, had died in 1925 at age 17, diabetic at a time when insulin was very new.

In 1932, he married Goldia Richmond from Camp Dix back in the hills of Lewis County, also from a large family of 11 children whose Kentucky roots went back several generations, and a year later they had their only child, a daughter, Delores, "Tootsie" we called her, red haired from the Dillow side of the family.

Tootsie recalls her Dad building a camper on the back of his pick up truck when she was in the third grade and traveling the family to Roma, Texas on the Rio Grande and now a center of drug trafficking, kidnappings and gruesome murders. Why did the family go to Roma in 1941, and why Roma? Tootsie recalls the purpose was for Elwood to immerse himself in Mexican culture and study Spanish. He had a Mexican lady come to the house twice weekly to tutor him in Spanish and Tootsie went to school. Roma was likely picked at random as the family drove toward Mexico and this was a rural town as far as they could go without actually going into Mexico.

They stayed only 3 months, Elwood reluctantly returning as Goldia was lonely and homesick. In a February 1942 letter to Ramona soon after their return to Vanceburg - Ramona had moved to Hartford the previous year to marry Raymond - Elwood writes,

Dear sister,

In your last letter you asked me to tell you about our trip, stating you would be interested. In starting to tell you of our return trip I would like to remind you that Roma was located 88 miles down the river from Laredo, Texas, a city of some 40,000. First we traveled some 70 miles down river to a little Texas town called "Hidalgo" from which I crossed International bridge on foot to Reynosa, Mexico, where I purchased a small basket full of Mexican wares. Goldia reserved for herself the choice and you can't blame her. The remainder was insufficient to go around. At her home, I am told they clamored for more Mexican cigarettes. Many articles can be bought but the "turista" is compelled to pay a plenty. Much crude earthenware is offered, grass woven articles, serapes, huaraches, etc. On my return I stopped in a music store where I bought a few used records, all in Spanish or by Latin American artists. Eloise has one "Sur de Rio Grande" and on reverse "Mi Unico Amor" (My Only Love), a very beautiful and typical Mexican melody. I have a recording of the "Hermanas padilla" (Padilla sisters) which I treasure very much. It could be quite easily true local people here do not enjoy such melody - be that as it may, I enjoy some of the Mexican music, the language and think some most beautiful women can be found south of the Rio Grande.

To continue with the trip - we traveled 3 days and still weren't out of Texas. But to go back a bit, we came up near the Gulf Coast, taking a side trip of some 35 miles in order to see a part of Gulf of Mexico. A glimpse at any map will show you Texas is almost land locked by long chains of islands... 85 degrees when we left the border with south wind at out back = radiator persisted in boiling over every time I was compelled to stop. It got so cold on our return in Kentucky we had to use hot water before the Ford would start. As for trouble on our entire trip we had nearly none. I had one puncture in 3500 miles... wore a pair of old tires "bald", unable to have them retread, so like many another North American, I'm in a pickle. Crossed 3 tall bridges on our return, paying first at Greenville $1.90, then 80 cents to cross Tennessee and last and least 45 cents Tyrone Bridge across Kentucky River.

Texas is a large and progressive state. There one sees nearly everything. In some areas you can see countless oil wells with many tanks mammoth in size in which to store the crude, cotton lands, hard and softwood forests, experiment farms for brahmas and their crosses, beautiful highways, bridges, and luxurious roadside parks.. south of San Antonio the never ending semi-desert, a real contrast to anything to be seen elsewhere, a region apparently belonging to Texas-Mexicans. Would venture to say 95% of the people in some counties are Latins, always speaking their Spanish, not the best Spanish to be sure because time, space, and alienation from the madre Espana has resulted in many changes.

Why did I come home? Simply because Goldia could not adjust herself to the desert and different people and had worried herself sick. I urged her time and again to return by bus leaving me but she would not take the step. Since her return, she's happy indeed. Toots re-enrolled in school. Goldia back on the job. Much the old routine with plenty of Kentucky winter to mix with it all. My trip was most enlightening and enjoyable, one I shall never forget, money wisely invested. For further study of the language, I may this year go to Northern Metropolitan Center where I can locate Mexican, Cuban or others. I could never get Goldia interested. War came on and I was unable to enroll Toots in Mexican schools. If you want to know anything else, ask questions. I include my last available Mexican coin. Elwood Dillow

Roma, Texas, 1942,

Wasn't it like the times to sign a letter to your sister with your full name, and to give her your last coin?

Back in Vanceburg, Elwood went back to farming and teaching. He had his radio fixed to receive Havana, Cuba, and read his Spanish books and listened to his radio until he could no longer see or hear.

He died in 1993 and is buried at Morgan Cemetery at the head of Grassy along with his wife of 61 years, Goldia.

1 comment:

Pat said...

There was obviously a side to Uncle Elwood that I never saw.