The Robert G. Price Family of Decorah, Iowa
Excerpts from the Autobiography of Sidney Price
Sidney Price (1906-1989) was the fifth and youngest son of Robert G. Price and S. Lillian Price of Decorah, Iowa. In his autobiography, written in 1979, he describes early family life with his parents and brothers in their home on Center Street in West Decorah, Iowa.
I was born and raised at 606 Center Street, Decorah, Iowa. I was born on Flag Day June 14, 1906. My parents were born and raised on farms north of Decorah. My father was born on a farm southwest of Burr Oak, Iowa and my mother was born on a farm near Locust, Iowa. My father's name was Robert Giffin Price and my mother's maiden name was Lillian Sophia Yager. My father was of Scotch-Irish and Welsh descent and my mother was of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. My father and mother each came from large families. My mother was the only daughter, with six brothers, Oliver, Frank, Simon, Will, Henry and Charles. My father had a sister, Lucy and brothers James, Marion and Edward.
Our home was high on a hill in what was known as West Decorah. It was a two story, 5 bedroom house that my father built. It was situated on a beautiful five acre tract, bounded by Center, State Road and High Sts. We had a beautiful large lawn with dozens of large Burr Oak trees. Our garden covered about an acre of ground and provided just about all the vegetables our family needed the year around. Our house was unique in that our basement floor was a natural flat limestone floor, so our house was well founded on solid rock.
My father was a city letter carrier for over 30 years and was a very industrious and hard working man. He and Mother both wanted each of us to have a good education and denied themselves of many comforts just to provide us all with the privilege of higher education. My boyhood was an exceptionally happy one. Summer vacation was particularly joyful - it meant going all summer barefooted, going swimming every day in the old swimming area in the river below Tavner's dam, hiking in the woods, playing tennis and once in a while, going camping.
Decorah, Iowa is a particularly beautiful city with the testy Upper Iowa (Oneota) River traversing through the middle of town. The glacier missed a small area of north-east Iowa and that is one of the principal reasons why Decorah is so beautiful. High limestone bluffs flank the river and inspired the local citizenry to preserve some of the beauty by establishing several city parks along the bluffs. Adding to Decorah's scenic wonders are several large and natural springs, Dunning Springs and Siever Springs. Near Dunning Springs is an Ice Cave. In the hot summer months, ice forms on the rock walls of this cave, caused by the flow of cold air from the subterranian depths meeting the warm summer air near the entrance to the cave. People would come from miles around to see this freak of nature. Then there is Pulpit Rock, a large limestone formation, quite small at the bottom, seemingly balanced in a precarious manner close to, but separated from a vertical limestone bluff.
During my boyhood days, there were two small dams across the Upper Iowa River - Tavners Dam and Bernatz Dam. Both dams provided a water head of 8 feet to 10 feet, sufficient to turn water wheels grinding feed and flour. Both mills were operating when I was a boy and provided a livelihood for several families.
Our home was located only two blocks east of Luther College. So my boyhood years were filled with many memories of good times attending special events at the college. The college had a world acclaimed concert band that frequently traveled to Norway and other European countries entertaining royalty and the public. I fondly recall going to these concerts, racing around the audience chasing some of my playmates like children are want to do. Luther College seemed always to have a winning baseball team, so I was a frequent non-paying guest, primarily because at that age, no one could catch me, and if they had, it would have been fruitless, because I didn't carry any money at that age.
At home, we always had chickens and a cow. We kept both the chickens and the cow until we were all old enough to leave home and go our separate ways. During the war, World War I that is, my dad bought several pigs, which it was my duty to feed pig weed, which I was required to pick out of our vegetable garden. I shall never forget the morning that we decided to drive the well grown pig (now a Hog) to market - as a gift to Uncle Sam to help the war effort. For novices, pigs are not at all amenable to anyone driving them anywhere. They resist and go every direction but the desired one. I do not recall all the details now, but I think it took us two to three hours to get that hog to go one mile and a half.
My father was an exceptionally energetic person who loved children. As I think back at all the things he did to raise our large family, I am filled with awe at his energy. In those years, we had practically no labor saving devices. So everything that needed to be done around our large place had to be done by hand. Dad used to work by the hour cutting weeds and high grass with a scythe, and that is a mankilling job because I've done it. Day after day he would cultivate our large garden with a hand cultivator. Of course, as we boys grew older, we grew into most of those jobs. I can still remember at 4:30 AM, Dad would stand at the bottom of the stairs and call "Henry, Stanley, Charles, Warren, Sidney get up". With that authoritarian about, we did just that. And then we would all get out into the garden and work before breakfast. But then, when the circus would come to town, at about the same time in the morning, he would load us all into his Ford touring car and we would drive down to the Rock Island R.R. track and watch Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Bros. unload all their circus animals and paraphernalia.
Dad was a real competitive person and loved to challenge his friends and relatives to any physical or mental exercise. He loved checkers, and his invitation to a game of checkers was a command to all us children. I seem to recall that he challenged Stanley or Henry or both to a bicycle ride from our place to Burr Oak and back (my memory is a little vague - it could have been just one way). In any event, Burr Oak is 12 miles from Decorah. At that time, I must have been 5 or 6 years old and Dad would have been 49 or 50 years old. My memory fails me as well as to which one won the race. But knowing Stanley (who was equally competitive) he could have been the one winning the race.
While this next comment may be slightly out of time sequence, it further demonstrates Dad's competitive nature. When World War I Armistice was signed, Decorah, like other cities nationwide, went wild and a huge parade was organized. Without telling Mother or any of us boys, Dad borrowed two show horses and entered the parade, riding the two horses standing up with one foot on each horse. As I remember it, he rode the full length of Water Street in this fashion. How he kept those horses from throwing him, with all the noise going on, I will never know. At that date, Dad was 56 years young.
Dad was a member of the Decorah volunteer fire department for many years. He never missed a fire. When the old grade and high school caught fire in the basement, Dad and Uncle James risked their lives by almost singlehandedly putting out the fire, spending half of the night doing it.
Mother was the sweetest, kindest gal in all the world. She was a strong believer in good nourishment for children. She was an excellent cook and served us the right kind of food during the years we boys spent at home. She learned that Jersey cows gave the richest milk. So all the years we had a cow, it was always a Jersey. She was always partial to Rhode Island Red chickens because she believed that their eggs were larger and better for us. She, being the only girl in her family, was the one designated to care for her mother in her later years. I will always believe that the added responsibilities were at least partially responsible for her several strokes and illness in her later years. I particularly remember how she would take me to the Chatauqua whenever it appeared in Decorah. Over the years, she tried and tried to get us boys interested in Sunday School. But it wasn't until Warren and I were teen-agers that we finally decided to go regularly. During strawberry season, Mother used to make a 3 layer strawberry short cake every day for our dinner at noon.
It was on one such June day when the kitchen was full of freshly picked strawberries, when the darkest clouds I've ever seen showed up in the Northwest sky. Then it started to rain torrents and the wind blew with tornadic force. All of a sudden it started to hail and it hailed and hailed. I recall that we had a small 2' square hatch on top of the roof near the chimney that the wind blew off, letting a lot of rain water to come into the house. I was pretty young when that happened, but the memory had stayed with me. That is the only time I remember Dad and Mother taking all of us to the basement.
Dad was a somewhat gregarious, outgoing person who loved people and particularly his relatives. So after he bought his first car, a 1914 Ford, we would go visit some of our relatives every Sunday. So it became almost a ritual for our relatives to prepare a meal for our whole family. Then our relatives started buying cars and we would be hosts to them for dinner. Many is the time one of us boys would have to go out to catch a chicken, chop its head off, pluck the feathers and get it ready for frying.
It wasn't until I was in high school that we got around to putting water and sewer into our house. Prior to that, we had an outside privy - which was mighty unhandy in the cold winter months. Warren and I had the tough job of digging the sewer trench to the street. We struck solid rock just several feet below ground and had to hire an explosives expert to blast the rock. Shortly after that tough job was completed, Dad hired a carpenter to build an addition to the house, enlarging our kitchen, providing a bathroom and a sleeping porch.