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Tell It Like It Was - Walter Kamphoefner Chats With Paul

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Adapted from the original email letter by Paul Ovaitt on February 14, 2023

Walter Kamphoefner Part 1– Have We Ever Met? – meadow mushrooms – The ’51 Flood – squirrel hunting with Gert – The Language of God and Luther

Gentle readers, when first I began to write…about you and me…I often received feedback from people like…me and you. Your response was a great payback, but I guess the novelty of stories coming from ye olde, taciturn, towne painter wore off, and the responses dwindled to nearly none. That’s okay. Like Gillian Welch, I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay. Matter of fact, here’s my version of that song.

However, I still have 2 readers who add to my knowledge of this end of SCC. They challenge me,

enlighten me, and seemingly laugh with me. One of them grew up around here, still has relatives in the hood, owns a good German name, has a PhD, and teaches at Texas A&M University in the Department of History. His area of expertise is the history of Germans in America. He’s a member of Boone-Duden Historical Society and has given financially to FHA and TILIW.

On, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, he will be our interviewee and guest speaker at the monthly live TILIW interview at Harmonie Verein. His name is Walter Kamphoefner.

Paul: Have we ever met, Walter?

Walter: I do not think so. I can’t recall...

P: Nor I. First of all, I’ll just say that I’m slightly nervous to do this because…you’re the real deal (we laugh) and I’m…but that said…

W: I know a lot more about the real old stuff than the more recent stuff. I mean I haven’t lived in the community…I haven’t lived in Missouri since 1978…so…

P: That’s a while.

W: My mom, while she was alive, and my brother kind of kept me up on who died but (chuckle) …especially a lot of the new people in Augusta…

P: That’s really hard to keep up with…they come and go in Augusta. They always have, as long as I’ve been around here.

P: Oh yeah…I am going to introduce into the article the fact that I’ve known some of your relatives. I worked for Mary Belle (Diederich). Now, she would be your aunt, correct?

W: That’s right. Oh, did you do some painting or repairs?

P: I did a little of both. I enjoyed working there; it’s a nice spot, but also, she confirmed to me what a meadow mushroom (Agaricus campestris) looks like…I’ve been eating them ever since.

W: Yeah, I picked them when I was 10yo. I knew the difference between them and death angels (Amanita ocreata).

P: Yeah, that’s important. And of course, I knew Carolyn (Diederich – married to Bob Kemner)…and Louise (Diederich – married to Dan Kemner). And you’re first cousins with, for instance, Patsy (Kemner Baravik) and Brenda (Kemner Ford).

W: Jeanie, Gayle, (Marla)…you name it. Yeah, I recognized Patsy’s voice on the Jane Leesmann interview there…I see why you didn’t transcribe it though (we both laugh). (Jane Leesmann’s interview.)

P: Of course, in those days, I wasn’t transcribing anything. That’s the pleasure of doing videos…it’s a lazy man’s thing…you just walk away from it when you’re done. Whereas these articles…well, I’m not as precise as that guy that did that one-room school interview with you, in terms of…I don’t put every uh and ah in there…

W: That’s nice of you.

P: I also break it up…if it makes more sense to the story…I hold that piece of information until later in the story. So, I do mess with these things a lot and I hope people don’t mind…

W: Yeah, I think organizing is not distorting.

P: So, where were you born?

W: St Joseph’s Hospital in St. Charles, 1948.

P: What’s your first memory on earth?

W: Good question. I remember the ’51 flood pretty clearly. (The Diederich/Kamphoefner farm is between Matson and Defiance.)

W: A couple of things I remember…we drove over the hill to Matson store, and the water was lapping up, you know, right near the gas pumps there…and Carolyn made me dip my feet in the water; scared the hell out of me. There were a couple of guys from the sawmill (Beumer’s sawmill) who were rescuing some…up to their chests in water, rescuing some lumber from the flood. I also remember walking down our drive to the mailbox with my mom and dad and brother and a cat named Tommy. A little brother and the cat were getting in the ditches and slowing things down.

P: Let’s back up…you said over the hill. Are you talking about dirt roads…where you guys lived…or how did you get to Matson without getting wet?

W: They weren’t even roads; it was just through the pasture. But there was a gate going over to Howell’s place…in the direction of Hickory Hill, and then you pick up Howell Road, and Matson Hill Road, and you come down there to Matson store.

W: And sometime around then, I also remember an incident…we were having gravy breads for supper…white bread with beef gravy on them…and my little brother was apparently really chowing down on them, and Mom told him, “You better quit eating all those gravy breads or you’ll get fat.” And Paul says, “Mom must be eating a lot of gravy breads herself.” Mom and Dad just about fell off their chairs laughing…she was about 7 months pregnant or so with my little brother. Those are things from my 3rd year that I remember pretty clearly.

W: Also, a Christmas program at Hickory Hill…I think that was just before my 3rd birthday, and I don’t know if it’s memory, or if it’s what Mom told me but…recited a couple of verses of Little Children, Can You Tell? ...and kind of tripped going up or going off the stage, and then applauded myself, they tell me. But I have a little, vague picture in my mind…of being in that schoolhouse.

P: And Hickory Hill…you’re talking roughly in the early 50s…was it still operating as a school then?

W: It must have been one of the very last years, yeah. I just heard in Jane’s (Leesmann’s) interview, she went to Hickory Hill too for a year or so.

P: Was the Lutheran school (in Augusta) already open…or was it a big deal that they (parents) would rather take their kids to the Lutheran school, but Hickory Hill is so close…

W: Yeah, I mean, some of those Lutherans are pretty hardcore, you might have noticed. In fact, my mom and her sisters went to Hickory Hill…it was less than a mile walk for them, although pretty muddy sometimes. But then, they went to one or two years of parochial school (Lutheran) in Augusta for their confirmation. In fact, my mom repeated the 8th grade because then they had enough…her sister and her cousin…to carpool…then go for confirmation instructions.

P: Can you describe a bit of your farm as you remember it when you were a kid?

W: It was about half bottomland and half hill land. There was some pasture up in the hills…and one wheat field, that probably shouldn’t have been tilled, and has now been turned into hayfields. Way in the back there’s some woods that goes all the way to near that lake on Koenig’s, you know. (I covered that lake, the Katy Reservoir, in my All Aboard for Augusta story:

W: The bottomland ran all the way to the river. And Dad also rented some additional land from Jule Kessler that’s directly below Defiance.

P: I have walked out there all the way to the river, on the Conservation Department’s land…several times. Was that area slightly lower and hence they gave up farming back there?

W: Yeah, I think it was Ottmer Nadler who actually had some of that cleared and farmed it for a while, but, you know, after the big flood, decided they may as well turn it back to nature ‘cause nature was coming after it anyhow.

P: Anything interesting you might want to tell me about the town of Matson back then?

W: Well, it one time had an elevator, and actually, a siding (low speed side-track for trains). I remember my grandpa hauling wheat to that Matson elevator when I was a little kid, just big enough to ride on a tractor. It probably got shut down…mid-50s would be my guess. And Reinhold’s store also had the post office…all-in-one kind of. Matson kids used to go there and get candy every day on the way home, it seemed like. We only went…either to Matson or to Defiance to shop groceries when there were still grocery stores there. Particularly, my grandma went to Reinhold’s store in Matson more than my folks, the best I recall. I used to ride along…had 2 gates to open so they were always happy to have kids…open the gates…didn’t have any cattle guards back then.

P: Let’s see…Schiermeier had the store in Defiance. Would that be Bill Schiermeier’s (author of the Cracker Barrel Country News) dad?

W: Yeah, it would. I knew him (Bill) quite well. In fact, he’s the one that got me that photograph of my great-great-grandparents that I used on one of my book dust jackets. (The Westphalians: From Germany to Missouri – Princeton Legacy Library).

P: It’s pretty amazing, all the writing he did. I’m still flabbergasted when I look at his books. I mean, what I’m doing is hard work, and he had to put way more time into it than I do.

W: Yeah, although a lot of people did their own research…and he turned it into a story…but yeah, very appreciative of all that stuff.

Gentle readers, goodreads doesn’t need my help in promoting their biz, but this link, gives you a quick view of 10 books that Walter wrote, and or, edited. And while I’m interrupting the flow of this conversation, here’s a link to a podcast interview that I especially liked: The topic is Germans in America, of course. Walter’s voice is so friendly and relaxed as he dispenses his encyclopedic knowledge.

P: Did you play baseball?

W: I played a little in Little League, but my brother (Paul) was always a lot better than I was. You know, those Defiance kids would play on the square everyday…we’d see them going by with a hay wagon bringing hay out to Kessler’s farm back in the hills. We rented the bottomland from Kessler. With hay…the landlord gets a third, so we hauled the bales to his place out in the holler. We’d go by these kids playing baseball, but of course, our baseball time was considerably more restricted than the Defiance kids.

P: And where was the town square?

W: It’s still there…kinda across from Nadler’s garage, next to the hall…didn’t have a real deep outfield, you’re right. And next to the corner of what used to be the Defiance Bank building.

P: Hey, do you have anything you want to say about that bank building?

W: Well, I know it went under in the Depression, and it was kind of an annex to Kessler’s Store. The Bank of Dutzow is about the only local bank that survived the Depression, and as a result, people had a lot of confidence in the Bank of Dutzow. In fact, I had my first checking account there.

P: I know Bob Brail covered that topic pretty well in one of his writings on his blog. (Gentle readers, if you haven’t read Bob’s work, you’re in for a treat.

P: What were some other youthful pastimes you might have had?

W: Well, squirrel hunting was one of them. I must have been 10yo when I shot my first squirrel…(and) picking blackberries with my mom. She made a hundred jars of jelly one year…and pretty much picked them all herself except for me helping. Nobody else much liked to pick ‘em, but I liked to get out in the pasture and in the woods. My grandpa said he wouldn’t pick them unless they were bigger than his thumb. See, my maternal grandparents lived right down the hill from us. Spent a lot of time with my grandpa, you know, rode on tractors, and stuff like that.

Gentle readers, let me introduce you to Walter’s family with a photo, circa…early 70s? Front row: Dora (nee Greiwe) and Walter Diederich (maternal grandparents). Middle row: Alma (mom) Diederich Kamphoefner, Lois (sister), Kathy (sister), and Fred (dad) Kamphoefner. Back row: Paul (gravedigger), Walter (scholar), and Ed (brother).

And have a look at home butchering 1966…in which you see Dad, Grandpa, and dog Sandy (but no fan of Little Orphan Annie). I just quoted Walter via email. He also said, “We largely gave up home butchering of hogs when I was 6, but apparently not entirely, or they just worked up the heads and had the rest of the processing done at the New Melle locker.”

P: You mentioned squirrel hunting…and I started thinking about what Gert Goebel says (in his 19th century memoirs as a German immigrant to Franklin County) …he talks about squirrels, and how they were the absolute enemy of the farmer. They sometimes would travel in herds, practically, to go to another cornfield…and could wipe you out if you weren’t vigilant.

W: Yeah, that anecdote is pretty amazing, in fact, I read that as a kid in Missouri Conservationists’…and when I was doing (editing) the Goebel thing, I managed to Google up the original article where I read that. I’ve never seen anything like that…in this day and age. Although, sometimes when they’re cutting on hickory nuts, they migrate a lot…and seem to travel some in groups…but nothing like…covering the ground is what it sounds like back then.

P: Well, that Goebel thing (Longer Than A Man’s Lifetime in Missouri) should be required reading in school…for Missouri kids. It’s just fascinating.

W: Yeah, and he does a good job on the Anglos as well as Germans. He knew a lot of those guys and hunted with them, and I think he was pretty fair all around with various groups in the community.

P: Yeah, and all the footnotes at the bottom of pages…did you write most of those?

W: Most of them are mine; a few of them were taken over from Schroeder.

P: They’re really impressive…boy, you covered some material.

W: Yeah, it took a lot of detective work, I’ll tell you.

P: Let’s talk about school days. I guess 1st grade was right there at the Lutheran school, true?

W: It was. Started out with 6 in my class, 3 guys and 3 girls. By the end of the year, all 3 girls had left. The whole rest of my 8 grades was just 3 guys.

P: And then you went to Augusta High or Washington High?

W: Neither. See, I was supposed to be a Lutheran pastor, and got sent off to a Lutheran boarding school in Concordia, MO. I said from small on up that I wanted to be a preacher…and everybody really supported that. By the time I got to 8th grade, I kinda had my doubts about it. On the other hand, I didn’t like some of them young hoodlums that I rode the school bus with to Augusta High. And I think my opinion of Augusta High was confirmed by…closing down before what would have been my senior year… So, I went through high school and junior college at Concordia, and actually finished my BA before I decided to jump off and go to grad school in history instead. In other words, out of the community, except in the summers…all the way from my 14th year on.

P: Did Concordia draw students from outside the state?

W: To some extent, yeah…a lot of them were Missourians, or Illinois, or Kansas…Iowa…nobody much beyond the adjacent states.

P: Did going to school there give you any new perspective on the world?

W: Well, it introduced me to the language that God and Luther spoke. I started out with German already in my sophomore year. For whatever reason, maybe genetic, it came to me easily, and it served me well all through my life, really.

P: So, God spoke German too?

W: (Laughing.) The Lutherans would tell you yes.

P: That’s good to know.

W: At least…you had to know German to do Lutheran theology, basically.

P: After your BA then, did you go to Mizzou?

W: I went to Mizzou for all my grad school…for a simple reason: in-state tuition was all I could afford. I think you know the phenomenon.

P: Yeah, I’m sure that’s why I ended up there.

Gentle readers, at that point, Walter and I looked into the past and reminisced a little about Columbia, MO in that era. I’m only a couple years younger than him, so undoubtedly, we were pounding the same pavement about the same time. And now, allow me to look into the future, and predict a part 2 (at least) to this story. We’ll be back!

Sincerely curious,


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