Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date January 2, 2022
(Turn on your sound and press the play button to the right for the full experience!)
Gentle readers, my latest interviewee is Ellen Berg Mallinckrodt. Perhaps I wouldn’t even know her were it not for certain idiosyncratic circumstances of my life in Augusta. A few of you may know that I was once a squatter in Augusta. In the late 70s, I simply made myself at home at what was known in those days as Granny Parks’ place, but now known as Apple Gate Inn B&B, or as the home of Bob and Lynn Hofer. BTW Mrs. Parks was once the town midwife, but that’s a story for another day.
This dwelling was owned by Doug Solliday, who lived who knows where? The old house and its annex (or maybe cookhouse) were in a state of total disrepair…crumbling walls…no plumbing…no electricity. But the aforementioned annex was reasonably sound. It had no broken windows. The exterior door worked. And best of all, there was an old wood stove within. So, I moved in. True, it was uninsulated and drafty, but you should know that I once lived in a tipi in New Hampshire in the winter. Now if you’re thinking I was a rugged outdoorsman, you’d be off a shade. I was simply an idealistic young man who thought it was necessary to experience a little bit of everything on this earth while he was alive.
My neighbor to the south was Velora Moseley, mother of Benny. She seemed to think it was perfectly normal to have a stranger move in to the old vacant shack across the street. She told me to help myself to water from her outdoor spigot. What a sweetheart! And my firewood was whatever scraps I could bring home from working that day with contractor, Ed Leonard. My food and drink came from Fuhr’s grocery store. I bathed in an old washtub with water I heated on the wood stove. I slept in a sleeping bag. I read by candlelight.
Eventually, I notified the owner that I was doing a fine job looking after his real estate. He said something like…whatever. But about the same time, one of my friends suggested that I up my game and housesit the old Salem Schoolhouse for another fellow named Doug. Great, but this time I notified the owner upfront. He said something like…cool…enjoy. And I did. I enjoyed the luxuries of electricity, a deep well, and indoor plumbing connected to a septic system that probably wouldn’t have passed code in St. Charles County…even back then. There was no woodstove, but the building had a brick chimney built into the back wall. I recall I bought a used Ashley stove from Glen Frank at a reasonable price.
Now it’s 1980, and one day I arrived “home” at the schoolhouse only to find a notice on the door, posted by the IRS. It said no one may enter because the building was being seized by the feds for back tax. I tore it off, of course, and entered as usual. I contacted the IRS and the owner to see if I could just buy the house. The details of how this all worked out are quite interesting, but it’s not pertinent to my relationship to the Berg family.
I had a couple neighbors behind the schoolhouse, but I was most intrigued by the mountain of a man who, almost daily, drove his John Deere tractor through the right-of-way on my property, just outside my bedroom window. This man was Arthur Berg, the father of Ellen Berg Mallinckrodt. I guess Arthur was about 85yo, and he was seriously bent over from hard work, but he was still an impressive figure. I decided immediately to get to know him better.
I paid Arthur many visits at his old farmhouse. His wife, Erna Wissmann Berg, had died in 1974, after 52 years of marriage, so I suppose he was as glad for a little comradery as I was. Many times, we enjoyed supper together at the schoolhouse. I introduced him to pizza and tacos, unless he was just putting me on when he said they were new to him. I would ask him if he had ever eaten such and such, and he’d say no, but he wasn’t getting any younger, so he would try it now while he could. We also shared a party line telephone, which contributed to our communication. Arthur regaled me with stories of farming, WWI, of the MKT railroad, their quarry, local baseball, and logistics of everyday life back when you had to drive your Model A or T in reverse to get up Klondike hill. (They didn’t have fuel pumps; gravity feed to the engine was only accomplished in reverse on such a steep hill.) We would sit on his front porch, and Arthur would predict rain, based on the volume level of the hum coming from the Labadie power plant.
Eventually, I dragged him to several music jams and parties. He was always game. But what he liked best was our handful of trips to Busch Stadium to see the Cards.
Arthur and Erna had four children: Marion, Melvin, Ellen and Leona. I believe the first to meet me was Melvin, who on a visit to see his dad, caught me skinny dipping in the pond in the Bergs’ quarry. I suppose by that time, the whole family was aware that another hippie had moved into the neighborhood and was dragging their patriarch all over creation. Anyway, Melvin averted his eyes, kept his cool and thanked me for visiting his dad. I think I met Ellen’s husband, Hubie Mallinckrodt, next. He sold me a cord of firewood. At some point, Marion, who was married to Calvin Buenemann, hired me to do some exterior painting on their home in Defiance. I don’t remember when I first met Ellen, or if I ever met Leona.
But I do remember when Ellen called me in 1994 to ask me to be a pallbearer at Arthur’s funeral. The man who had never spent a day in a hospital, had finally died at age 99 ½. I felt honored then, and I felt honored again on October 22, 2021, when Ellen spoke with me for this written interview. Please assume anything in parentheses is my writing.
Paul: I guess you know what my first question is.
Ellen: I was born in 1933 at our family farm. Our doctor was Dr. Clay from Augusta, so I guess he was there during the birth. I have no idea.
P: Are there any interesting circumstances surrounding your birth?
E: Not really. I had an older brother and sister, and they kind of helped take care of me. And later I had a younger sister.
P: Let’s list your siblings now. Who’s the oldest?
E: The oldest was my sister, Marion. She was married to Calvin Buenemann. They lived in Defiance, but Marion is now in assisted living in Washington, MO. I had a brother, Melvin. I was next. The last child was Leona.
P: I guess I don’t know Leona.
E: They don’t live here. They actually live in Vienna, MO. They lived in Branson first when they were married. She married a Schoene from St. Charles.
P: So, growing up you lived only at the farm where Augusta Shores is now.
E: Right. It’s the only place our family lived, and my parents were married in 1921. It stayed in the family until Dad died. I lived there until I was 18. I graduated from high school, and then went to work in St. Louis.
Gentle readers, Bill Schiermeier recorded additional info on that topic. In a book entitled “The Berg Family in America 1833-1970,” by Thomas Berg, Bill discovered Arthur’s grandfather, John, bought a large tract of bottomland in St. Ch. County around 1866. He built a 6-room frame house. But with the river eating away at his farmland, John decided to move his house. He dismantled it and carefully marked the pieces. He reassembled it on a distant high knoll where it still stands today at Augusta Shores. A year later John signed the farm over to his son, Herman, and he moved on to Nebraska. Herman had 4 children including Arthur, who continued to live there after marrying Miss Erna Wissmann.
P: What did you do in STL?
E: I worked as a secretary at Union Electric…downtown. Two of the girls I graduated with…we all 3 got jobs at the same place…in different parts of the building…but we lived together.
P: In my “Wheylaid” story https://www.augustamomuseum.com/post/tell-it-like-it-was-wheylaid-lucian-dressel-and-mount-pleasant-winery-pt-2 you told me about your 7 or 8 dairy cows, and how you sold milk and cream. What else did you do around the farm?
E: Well, we always had a large garden. We mowed grass, of course, and cleaned, and we ironed…we canned food. We didn’t go anywhere during the week…we did whatever we had to do, and that was it.
P: Can you elaborate on how your folks made a living besides the dairy income?
E: Dad had row crops. He had corn and wheat. I think there was 178 acres, but not all of it was tillable. We kept the corn for our livestock. We raised hogs and sometimes beef cows.
P: So, it sounds like his approach to making a living was…survival. It must have been challenging…that type of life, especially if you had a bad year.
E: Well, I can remember going to the store, and about the only thing we bought was coffee, flour and sugar. That was just about our grocery list. Even with a big garden, if we should run out of something, we just did without until the next year. We also had peach and apple trees.
P: Is there anything interesting about uncles, aunts or other relatives nearby that you would like to tell me?
E: Not necessarily, other than they were pretty much the Sunday entertainment. It was church in the morning and then visit the relatives on one side of the family or the other in the afternoon…no movies or anything like that. It was just visiting the relatives, and go home, and get ready for the next week.
E: On Mom’s side of the family there were quite a few relatives because she was also related to the Knoernschild family. Her mother was a Knoernschild, but more closely related to the Bob Knoernschild family. (Bob, now deceased, was the husband of Ellen Knoernschild of Centennial Farm.)
P: Didn’t you tell me your uncle lived up behind the schoolhouse? You didn’t have to go far to visit them.
E: We didn’t visit there too often because they didn’t have any young kids to play with. On Mom’s side of the family there were a bunch of kids. We’d play softball, badminton or something.
P: I know that Leslie Meinershagen’s family once lived in that log house behind the schoolhouse (somewhere under Augusta Shores Lake.) I assume you were friends with the Meinershagens.
E: Yes, friends…not only through church, but when it came time to butcher beef or hogs, we’d be there at their house. I can remember seeing the logs on that big front porch.
P: I recall that Leslie’s son, Paul Meinershagen, was also a pallbearer at Arthur’s funeral at the Lutheran church.
E: Paul and my son, Brent, were in the same class together. But it sticks in my mind that at Dad’s funeral, it was such a cold day. It was icy and horrible. Paul and Chub Bade were both pallbearers with you, and within two months they were both gone…that same year, 1994.
P: It may not be wise of me, but I’m going to bring up religious affiliation now. Arthur was buried in the Lutheran cemetery in Augusta, and yet I see several Bergs in the town cemetery.
E: Dad’s whole family was United Church of Christ, which was the Evangelical Church at that time. Mother’s family was Lutheran, and she won the discussion over who goes where. So, he joined the Lutheran Church then.
P: It’s my observation that so many of the Lutherans once lived east of that church, e.g., Stelzers, Diederichs, Nadlers, some Knoernschilds. And many of the UCC folks lived in town. So many Catholics lived west of town where that church is. Is that just a coincidence?
E: No, I think it’s probably where they settled. I mean Augusta roughly was a Mallinckrodt (Evangelical) settlement, and here on Schell Road…that was a lot of Struckhoffs. So, it’s true. That’s pretty much how it was.
P: Where did you go for grade school?
E: I went to the Augusta School for 6 years, and I went to the Lutheran School for 7th and 8th. They did that for confirmation purposes…in order to be confirmed in the church. We had our confirmation instructions at the end of lunch hour. We gobbled our food and sat back down for school. We did that, three days a week. Then I went to high school at Augusta for four years.
P: Does your association with Patsy Kemner Baravik go back to your school days?
E: No. When I retired from the Augusta School, I was looking for a moonlighting job. I was only 65. My children weren’t home anymore, and I needed something to do. So, I started cleaning houses with her. And then I got involved with Montelle Winery. Patsy is quite a bit younger than I am. But we played softball together.
P: Remind me what your work was at the school.
E: I was a secretary, and I was there 25 years. It was time to move on to something different, but it was really convenient working in town. When I started, our youngest daughter, Lisa, was three, but we had grandparents. They were good cheap babysitters. And when she entered school, I didn’t need a sitter anymore. A mile and a half to work for 25 years…that’s kind of unusual.
P: How about clothing? Did you or your mother make any of your clothing?
E: Yes. We would go to Reinhold’s store (the Knoernschild store in Matson) https://www.augustamomuseum.com/post/tell-it-like-it-was-edith-knoernschild-matson-store…buy 50 lbs. of flour…and we’d go along because it was time for a new dress, and we got to pick out the design on the flour sack, with the approval of Mom, of course. That’s pretty much what we wore…we were not wearing jeans or that sort of thing when I was in school. It was always a dress or a skirt.
P: Generally made from a flour sack? Silly me! Whenever I heard about making clothing from flour sacks, I always pictured plain white or gray.
E: We were modernized in those days. The sacks were really pretty. They were made for that purpose…they weren’t plain like the way they are now.
Gentle readers, thus ends part 1. Check out this link if you want to see some not-so-sad-sacks: https://littlethings.com/family-and-parenting/flour-sack-dresses
I also have a few photos for your enjoyment. One shows Hubie and Ellen fresh out of high school in front of a vintage Chevrolet. Another has Arthur on his tractor. The photo of Arthur in coat and tie, was taken during the banquet dinner when he was inducted into the St. Charles County, Amateur Sports Hall of Fame (1990.) I’m sorry I have no photo of the Berg farm. Friends, I nearly tossed in a pic of what Augusta Shores “preserved” of Arthur’s old house, but I couldn’t detect even the slightest shadow of his ghost hanging around, until I went to the back side of the building…and found Arthur chuckling at the official…Private – Augusta Shores – Berg House sign.
Stay well and curious,