Archive for Sunday, March 7, 1999

EUDORA RESIDENT RECALLS INDENTURED CHILDHOOD

March 7, 1999

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— Myrtle Landon was at eight different homes, including that of an Atchison minister who didn't tell her she was free to leave at age 18. She found out when she was 20.

Some people work their way through college. Myrtle Landon, one of the indentured thousands, worked her way through childhood.

Born in Lawrence in 1917, she became a ward of the state at age 9 after her father died and her mother walked away.

She was one of six children of Charles Dunser, a Union Pacific Railroad worker and German immigrant. He was dead at 47.

"I used to sit on my dad's lap and read the Prince Albert (tobacco) can," she recalled. "He had cancer and was sick for a long time. He worked in that depot" that now is the Lawrence Visitors Center. "I was sure glad to see them redo that. He couldn't speak very plain English. Other kids couldn't understand him. But I could. Everybody liked my dad."

Her mother, Josephine Nichols, "raised a lot of Cain" and "wasn't a motherly type."

Officials decided Landon's older sister couldn't care well enough for the family. Myrtle and the younger siblings were taken into custody.

State wards back then worked for their keep. She was sent to the home of a schoolteacher who had a new child and a farmer husband.

"They wanted someone to take care of the baby," Landon recalled. "They kept me all that summer. It was my first experience with people I didn't know in a place I didn't know. He wasn't much of a farmer. But he kept a pair of horses."

One very hot day he sent her to the pasture to fetch the animals to the barn.

She walked barelegged through the coarse pasture, burrs and weeds scratching. She herded the horses to the barn. They'd go there, then separate and gallop away. That happened three times. Her legs were stinging. It was hot. She couldn't catch the horses. She was 9. She lived with strangers.

The farmer, irate, ordered her to a step.

"When I tell you to get the horses, I want you to get them," she remembers him saying gruffly. "Sit on the step until I tell you to get up."

The farmer entered the house. He emerged with a shotgun.

Myrtle's misery turned to terror.

"Talk about someone scared to death. I thought he was going to shoot me. But the shotgun was loaded with beans or salt or something like that. I didn't know then the farmers would do that. They'd shoot salt at the horses to run them into the barn."

Her stay was short at the farm south of Eudora.

"They sent me back up to the orphanage because they didn't need me anymore." she said. "Then the woman from the state found me another place up by Vinland.

"The wife there decided she was going to visit her mother or aunt or something, and they got my mother to come and stay. I didn't know she was coming, and she didn't know I was there. I didn't even know she was back in Lawrence. That's OK. She never paid any attention to us kids anyway. She wasn't there a day before she got into it with that man. He was the one who tried to pester me all the time.

"I was upstairs and he was pounding on the door and out the window I could see my mother walking down the road. I yelled at her, `If you don't wait for me, I'm going to jump out the window.' She kept right on going. It was the last time I ever saw her. She didn't even look back.

"She married somebody. Last I heard from her (years later) she wrote to me for money. She was always wanting something. We didn't have any money. She died in her 70s in Chicago."

Rootless homes

Landon was at eight different homes, never really settling until she moved in with an Atchison minister when she was 14. She stayed with the family until she was 20.

"I wasn't adopted ever," she said. "I was too big to be little and cute."

But she had large hands and worked hard.

"Most of those people wanted me for one thing: work. They liked me for my big, capable hands. I still got them. They're still big and they're still capable. But I don't do a darn thing I can get out of.

"Most of them had an idea of what age girl they wanted. This was during the Depression. On Saturday at the market you could buy three pounds of coffee or hamburger for a quarter. But nobody had the quarters."

Her shortest stay was a night in Topeka, where she had been sent to an elderly woman who wanted company. Myrtle developed chicken pox. The woman sent her back

At another home, she cared for two young boys whose mother was ill. The woman died. Myrtle was turned out.

"Most wanted you for the summer," she said. "But when school starts, you're done. They didn't want to pay for the books and clothes. There was occasional kindness in all these places. So long as I kept doing my job."

Myrtle's last and longest placement began when she became housekeeper and cook for the family of the pastor in Atchison.

"I did all the ironing, the washing, the housekeeping, the cooking," she recalled. "He was a minister, so his shirts had to be just right."

She remembers little Christian charity in the home, even though "he was dripping with religion. And he could preach."

After Sunday school she had to walk to the minister's home to get dinner ready for the family's return from church service.

"People in church got to noticing and talking," Myrtle said. "So then I got to stay for church."

When movies of special interest came to town, the family's twin girls went to the matinees. Myrtle stayed home. The minister and his wife went in the evenings. Myrtle stayed home.

Little indignities such as that let her know she was unpaid labor not to be mistaken for family.

She wasn't allowed to attend school while living with the minister.

"I didn't have any school after grade school. They (families) wouldn't have took me if I'd been in school. After grade school anything I had since is through experience."

Life with the minister left her church-shy to this day, despite coaxing from a pious young relative.

"It's not that I lost my faith or anything," she said. "I just don't want to go to church. When I was young the only place I ever got to go was church. I'm my own boss now and I just don't want to go."

Belated freedom

When the minister was transferred to Springfield, Mo., Landon moved with the family. She mistakenly thought she had to stay with them until she was 21.

"Nobody told me different," she said.

She was 20 before she learned she had been free to leave at 18. An older sister living in Lawrence tracked her down and asked her why she stayed with people who worked her without pay.

When the minister's family went on vacation, Myrtle told them she was going to visit her sister. They agreed.

She came to Lawrence and fulfilled a pledge made more than a decade earlier. When she was 9, staying at her first home as a state ward on the farm south of Eudora, she befriended an 11-year-old boy, John Landon.

They made a youthful vow to someday wed. For 11 years they communicated infrequently through smuggled correspondence because "I wasn't allowed to send or receive letters" openly, she said.

When she arrived in Lawrence she called him. A few days later they were married in Oskaloosa. They lived happily together until his death in 1979, she said. They had two children, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

"He was 11," she said. "I promised to come back and marry him. I did. I married my childhood sweetheart."

Her husband eventually became Eudora city superintendent. After their two sons were grown, when Myrtle was in her 40s, she took a job as a checker at the Krogers store in Eudora.

"It was the most fun I ever had in my life," she said. "I was working someplace where I got paid.''

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is mshields@ljworld.com.

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