Chapter 14: College Competition and ‘Oregon or Bust’
By Herbert W. Armstrong
On expert advice, I had put myself through the college of experience—or, as it is sometimes called, the college of hard knocks. First was a year of want ads on a Des Moines daily newspaper. Later came three years on a national trade journal—the largest in the United States, involving a great deal of travel, and intensive instruction, training and experience in writing advertising copy, dictating business letters, and later, writing magazine articles. After six months of chamber of commerce work, the seven-year career representing the leading bank journals of the nation began.
All these years I had studied diligently. My “major” in this study, of course, was advertising and merchandising. I studied what books were available. I read religiously the trade papers of the profession. I studied psychology. As a “minor” study, I delved into Plato, Epictetus and other books on philosophy, and continually read Elbert Hubbard (whom I became personally acquainted with) for style in writing. I read human interest articles and other articles on world conditions and on the business of living, in leading magazines.
At the beginning of World War i, I had been able to obtain written recommendations for entrance into the Officers Reserve Corps from such prominent Chicago men as Arthur Reynolds, president of the largest bank in Chicago and second-largest in America, testifying that I possessed more than the equivalent of a college education.
But I had not received my education in college.
The Challenge for College Competition
This request from my brother-in-law presented an intriguing challenge. I had taken a confidence-shattering beating in the failure of the Chicago business. But the vanity had not been crushed out of my nature by any means. Here was a chance to match wits with college students. Also it offered a total mental diversion from the Chicago nightmare. It was something I could “sink my teeth into,” with energy and a new interest.
But I knew nothing of how college orations were written or delivered or judged. As I mentioned, I asked my brother-in-law if he could bring me copies of a few first-place winning orations.
He brought out to the farm a number of them from the college library, printed in pamphlet form. Immediately I noticed that they were all couched in flowery language—the amateur college-boy attempt at fancy rhetoric, employing five-to-seven-syllable words which actually said practically nothing. All the orations were written on such altruistic and idealistic subjects as peace, or prohibition, or love for fellow man. They displayed ignorance of the way to peace, or the problem of alcoholism, or of human experience in living. But they did contain beautiful, high-flown language!
This became very intriguing.
“Tell me, Walt,” I asked, “what is the prevailing style of delivery? Do the oratorial contestants go at it hammer-and-tongs, Billy Sunday style, tearing their hair out, throwing chairs across the platform, thundering at their audiences—or do they speak calmly and smoothly, with carefully developed graceful gestures—or how?”
“Oh, they try to speak with as much calm dignity as possible—with graceful gestures.”
One Chance in TWO
“How many contestants will be in this contest?”
“There will be six, including me,” Walter answered.
“All right—tell me, now—would you rather enter this contest with one chance in six of winning, or with one chance in two?”
He didn’t quite understand.
“Why, with one out of two—but what do you mean?”
“Well, Walt,” I replied, “I guess I’m not much of a conformist. I often break precedent. I figure it this way: If you write a flossy, flowery oration with big words that say nothing, and attempt to compete with these upperclassmen of greater experience on their own terms, you are only one of six contestants, and you probably do not even have one chance in six of winning.
“But if you pick for your subject some red-hot controversial topic—if you have the courage to actually attack something, give the plain truth about it, open people’s eyes about it, and work yourself up to white-hot heat of indignation and emotion, and let it fly Billy Sunday style—to start a big controversy—well, either the judges will like your kind of oration, or the other kind. You have one chance in two. If they like the other kind, you lose out—you’ll be voted last place. Then they have to choose among the other five. But if they do like your style, there is no one to choose but you—you’ll be the only contestant with that kind of oration. So, I figure you will be either first or last. You will not be second or third.”
“Say! That sounds good!” exclaimed Walter. “I don’t want to be second or third. I want to win. If I can’t win, I might just as well be last.”
What to Attack?
“OK. Now we must find something to attack and expose—something that is wrong. Something that will stir up the people. What do you hate the most?”
He didn’t seem to hate anything or anybody. There was nothing I could find that he was really mad at.
“Well,” I said finally, “we’ll have to find something that needs exposing—something you can really flay with forceful language. Come to think of it, right now labor leaders are resorting to some very foul practices. There have been murders and gross injustices, both against employers and against the union members themselves. I remember when I visited Elbert Hubbard at his Roycroft Inn, at East Aurora, New York, I read a pamphlet of his that really flayed dishonest labor leaders—and he has the best, most prolific vocabulary, and the most effective rhetorical bromides of any writer I know. Suppose we attack labor racketeering.”
He didn’t know anything about it, but he guessed this subject would be as good as any. Immediately we wrote to Roycroft Inn for this booklet I had read. Also we wrote to Governor Allen of Kansas, who had just been on a fiery debate on labor-leader racketeering that had made national headlines.
The Herrin, Illinois, massacre had occurred shortly prior to this—where many had been killed. We went all out to obtain facts on how labor leaders (some of them) were racketeering off of their own worker members. Walter explained to me that we were allowed to use a total of 200 words in the 2,000-word oration directly quoted from published sources. We quoted some of the most forceful phrases from Hubbard and Governor Allen.
We did not attack or oppose the principle of unionism. The first line of the oration stated, in the somewhat flowery language that Walter insisted on putting into it against my advice: “There was a time when the laboring man was brutalized by toil. Capital held the balance of power. Labor was cowed into meek submission.”
What was opposed and exposed was the wrong economic philosophy of labor leaders who assumed that management is the enemy of labor—that the two interests run in opposite directions—that laboring men ought to use force and the strike to get all they can, while at the same time they ought to “lay down on the job” and give in return as little as they could. The threat of calling a strike for blackmail purposes—asking a huge payoff from an employer to a crooked labor leader to prevent his stirring up the men for a strike—murders and violence—these things we opposed.
The First Course in Public Speaking
Now began my first real experience in public speaking. I had given talks before dinner groups of retail merchants three times—at Richmond, Kentucky, at Lansing, Michigan, and Danville, Illinois, upon completion of merchandising surveys. But I had never studied public speaking, nor looked into any textbooks on the subject. Before this college oratory experience was over I was to become acquainted with the authors of the two textbooks on the subject used in most of the colleges and universities throughout America. As I now look back over the events of those formative years, in writing this autobiography, it becomes more and more evident that the unseen divine hand was guiding me continually into the very experience and training needed for the great calling.
After the oration was written, Walter memorized it. He announced that he was finally ready to begin practice on delivery. We went over to the college chapel at an hour when it was entirely unoccupied. I took a seat about two-thirds’ way back. Walter went to the platform.
He started his oration. Consternation seized me. He was speaking it in his best attempt to emulate the prevailing college style—quiet, with dignity, and graceful gestures. Only, his gestures were not graceful. They were so obviously practiced, and not at all natural—and they were ridiculously awkward. The expression was not natural. I saw visions of “winning” last place in the contest.
This was a dilemma that had, somehow, to be solved. I saw at once that Walter did not grasp the real meaning of his shockingly powerful speech. He didn’t feel it. This labor racketeering crisis then so prominently on front-page news was something of which he seemed unaware. The oration was just so many meaningless words. Unless he could become aware of the situation, and really feel with white-heat indignation the scathing indictment of these criminal abuses of unionism, he had no chance of winning.
What to do?
An Incident Makes It Personal
At just this time a living incident made the whole meaning of the oration personal. A strike was in progress at the Rock Island Railroad division point in Valley Junction—now renamed West Des Moines. The morning Des Moines Register reported a bombing of the locomotive roundhouse. Eleven big locomotives had been destroyed.
We went to Valley Junction and managed to get through the lines to the office of the superintendent. The superintendent showed great interest in learning of the subject of the oration. He gave us considerable time. We went out through the roundhouse. We saw the twisted and tangled masses of steel of demolished locomotives.
We visited a home in town where the front half of the house had been blown off by a bomb. Inside the house at the time had been the wife and children of a worker who had taken up the tools the union men had laid down. For some little time the workmen who had accepted jobs after the union men had walked out had been kept behind barricaded walls day and night. Violence had become rampant. Nonunion workers had been assaulted upon leaving the yards and returning to their homes after working hours—hence they had been forced to remain behind defense barriers night and day.
Walter was now really outraged.
“When union leaders try to kill innocent wives and children just because their husbands have picked up the tools they laid down, that is just too much!” he exclaimed with heat.
Another nonunion home—occupied only by the innocent wife and children—had been rotten-egged.
Back in the superintendent’s office he told us one of his problems with the union leaders.
“I was powerless to hire or fire a man without consent of labor leaders,” he said. “In the railroad business it is just as serious a crime for an engineer to go to sleep in his cab as for a sentry to go to sleep on duty in the army in wartime. I had such a man. I tried to fire him. The labor leader refused. He said I did not have proof. I had to employ a professional photographer, and keep him here on the job constantly until this engineer went to sleep again on duty in his cab. When we presented the photographic evidence to union officials higher up, they finally consented to firing the man.”
The next afternoon at the usual time we went into the college chapel for rehearsal. As Walter began speaking, the words of his oration for the first time conveyed real meaning to his mind. These words described in dynamic language exactly the way he now felt. I had told him to dispense with all gestures immediately after that first rehearsal. Unless gestures are natural, automatic and unrealized by the speaker, they are not effective anyway.
But this time Walter was gesturing. He didn’t know it—but he was gesturing! They were not the most smooth and polished gestures of the professional speaker—but they were terrifically convincing! Today Walter was really angry! As the words poured forth, their meaning more and more expressed the very indignation he felt. The delivery was a little raw and rough—it was somewhat amateurish—but it was powerful and it was convincing!
“There!” I exclaimed joyfully when he had finished. “Hold it! Hold it right there! Just go into the contest exactly as you went into this rehearsal! Now you have a chance. Of course, the judges still may not like something so radically different from the established style of college oratory. But now you will be either last, or first!”
Comes the Final Contest
On the night of the local college oratorical contest, Walter drew last place. He was quite discouraged. He didn’t know, then, that the last speaker always has the advantage. He was terribly nervous.
The two students rated the best were, of course, very good as college speakers. Theirs were the usual suave, smooth, flowery big words, delivered calmly with smooth and much-practiced graceful gestures. They were highly applauded. This year the students had high hopes of winning a state championship—which Simpson had not won for eight years.
Then Walter walked out on the platform for the final oration. He started out calmly but nervously. But after some six or eight minutes the words he was speaking took him right back to Valley Junction. He forgot the nervousness that had seized him at the beginning. He thought only of the outrageous injustices he had seen with his own eyes. And for the first time he had an audience to tell it to! He began to gesture. He began to pace back and forth on the platform. He shook his fist. He was in dead earnest! He really meant what he was saying—and he was SAYING SOMETHING!
When he had finished, he knew he had lost—but at least he had gotten a message over to that audience! He had that much satisfaction.
The judges’ decision was announced. First came the third-place choice. It was one of the two supposed best orators. The other was announced as second. First place—Walter Dillon!
There was little applause. The two favorites had lost out to a green, nonfrat freshman! The judges had been moved by his speech. They had liked it. But the student body and faculty apparently disagreed.
In the days that followed there was only one topic of conversation on the campus—the merits or demerits of labor unionism. It became a heated controversy. The professor of economics took it up in class. He disagreed with Walter Dillon’s economics. He favored the union brand of economics. Apparently he had slight socialist or Communist leanings.
One senior said to me, “I hope Dillon won’t disgrace us in the state contest. We might have won this year, but now, with a green freshman representing us, we haven’t a chance. Boy! But wasn’t Sutton’s oration good?”
“Yes,” I rejoined. “It was smooth and well delivered. By the way, what did he talk about? I can’t seem to remember.”
“Why—why—“ stammered the student, “I—I can’t seem to remember, either. But it certainly was a great oration!”
“Well, really, was it—if neither you nor I can remember a thing he said? Everyone in town seems to remember what Dillon said. He really stirred up a hornet’s nest! Do you really think a speech is good if it doesn’t say anything?” He went away somewhat angrily.
The State Contest
A short time later came the state contest. It was held that year at Central College, Pella, Iowa. There it was the same. Walter was very nervous. I walked with him over the campus grounds while the first few contestants were speaking. Once again he was last speaker.
Once again, after a calm and somewhat nervous start—not necessarily obvious to the audience—he relived the scenes of violence at Valley Junction. When he came to the Herrin massacre, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times plant, and the other outrages of violence covered in the oration, he really lived it! Again he paced the floor, shook his fists, rose to a crescendo of indignant and outraged power at the climax, then had real pleading in his voice in his final solution of these problems.
Again third place was announced first—then second. Again we knew he was either first or last. Finally the winner—Walter E. Dillon of Simpson!
Returning to the campus we witnessed a living example of the fickleness of public opinion. After winning the home contest Walter had been in disgrace. “It was just a fluke decision,” most of the students said. A freshman had spoiled their chance of winning a state contest. Walter was avoided on the streets. He was shunned.
But now, he returned the conquering hero.
Simpson had won the state championship! Walter Dillon was the hero of the campus. It was the first time any freshman had won a state contest. This was news. It even made the front page of the Chicago Tribune! He had bids to join fraternities. The professor of economics was out of town on vacation several days—until the reverse opinion on his economics subsided. For now the student body unanimously accepted Dillon’s brand of labor economics!
Well, it had been an interesting participation in college activity for me. It helped restore shattered morale. I had helped win something. I had begun to study public speaking. I had gained invaluable experience in speaking, which was later to be used. My brother-in-law had been deprived without a chance of his ambition to be one of five to win all-state honors in basketball. But he had won the state championship in oratory, which he didn’t have to share with anybody.
Walter Dillon continued in the field of education as a life profession, and, much later, he was to become the first president of Ambassador College, and its first instructor in public speaking.
Actually, our experiences in college oratory continued on another year. I promoted a number of entertainment programs in various towns in Warren County during the following year, with Walter billed as the headliner, and charging 25 cents and 35 cents admission. We brought in some comedy and singing talent from college. A year later, by early 1924, Walter Dillon was a smooth and finished public speaker. Following the national contest of that year, its sole judge, Professor Woolbert of the University of Illinois, author of a much-used college textbook on public speaking, heard him and told me he probably would have given Mr. Dillon the national championship had he been entered.
Doing Surveys Again
After the rest, and oratorical contest experience of the fall and winter of 1922–23, I realized I had to find something to do.
Once before, the reader will remember, when I was stranded without a dollar in Danville, Illinois, I had brought the merchandising survey experience to the rescue by selling a survey to the local newspaper. It had been highly successful for the newspaper, resulting in a big increase in advertising volume. Newspapers derive their revenue from the advertising.
At Danville, I had made one colossal mistake. Caught off guard when the business manager of the paper asked what my fee would be, I had set it at $50. It should have been $500.
Now the thought of entering upon a business of conducting surveys was uppermost in mind. My brother-in-law borrowed a car, and we drove to Ames, Iowa—seat of Iowa State College. The idea of the survey was quickly accepted by a Mr. Powers, who was owner or manager (or both) of the Ames Daily Tribune. This time the fee was $500. The price was accepted at once.
This time I put on a more thorough survey than the previous ones. Not only housewives in the town, but students and faculty members, and heads of departments at the college were interviewed. The newspaper put at my disposal a small car. I do not remember the make, but I believe it was smaller than a Ford. This enabled me to interview farmers in all directions.
The survey uncovered some peculiar and astonishing facts. About 75 percent or more of the day’s shopping on school days was done after 4 p.m., when rush hour began in the stores. The women of Ames seemed to prefer doing their shopping when the college girls did theirs—after class hours.
As usual, most of the trade in some lines went to Des Moines, only 30 miles south, or to the mail-order houses. I found out why. Interesting facts were uncovered about certain individual stores.
Curing a Sick Store
One department store, not the largest, and one of a small chain of three or four stores, about half or two thirds owned by the local manager, came in for the most criticism. Women were satisfied with their stocks and styles, and also with their prices. The big complaint was on the salespeople.
“Why, I’ve stood waiting 10 or 15 minutes to be waited on,” one typical customer said, “and then the clerk said they were out of the item I wanted, when I could see it in plain sight high up on a shelf. She just didn’t want to reach up that high to get it down.”
Women universally reported that the clerks never smiled. I learned it would be the most popular store in town if its sales force would be transformed into smiling, helpful, enthusiastic, wide-awake people anxious to please customers.
I gave a private confidential report to each store, which the newspaper did not see, in addition to the general report and summary which was supplied the newspaper. I distinctly remember the personal report I made to this particular department store manager. The confidential report hit him personally right between the eyes. I had discovered that he underpaid his sales force. He never smiled at them. He maintained a secret spy system, spying on clerks. He was dumbfounded to hear from me that all his clerks were well aware of this.
“The whole thing is your fault, personally,” I said. “But I can show you how to correct it and double the size of your business.”
“Vell,” he said at last, in a Scandinavian accent, “this is the hardest ting I have ever had to take in my life—but I guess ve can take it. Vhat do you advise me to do?”
“First, raise salaries—and in a rather dramatic manner.”
“Vait!” he cut in. “Look! A store can only pay a certain percent of sales in salaries. I am paying them too high a percent already!”
“Yes, sure, I know that,” I responded. “But the way to get the percent of sales paid in salaries down is to raise salaries, and get your sales force on their toes—happy—smiling. Then sales will double, and the percent paid in salaries will go down.”
LOWERING Salaries by Raising Them
“Tell me how ve do it,” he said dubiously.
“All right, here’s what I want you to do. I don’t want you to do any additional advertising in the Tribune at all—until this new system has been working for at least six weeks. Big-space advertising right now would ruin your business. But, once you get this thing corrected, big-space advertising will quickly double your sales volume. First, I want you to plan a big party for the sales force. Have it on your second floor, in the women’s ready-to-wear section. Try to arrange for the home ec department out at the college to prepare the biggest and finest dinner you ever saw. Hire a dance band. Don’t try to beat down the cost—pay what it costs to get the best. Then invite all your employees. Let them know you expect them to be there. I think I can pass the word along through some of them, so they will all come. I have made friends with some of them.
“After they have had the finest dinner they ever ate, and the dance band has them feeling good—and have all these dunce caps, noisemakers, confetti to throw—everything to get them into the most gay mood—then rise and make a speech. Start out by telling them you have been making a big mistake. You have not treated them right, and they have not treated customers right—but you never realized it before, and probably they didn’t either. Then tell them immediately that you are announcing a substantial raise in salaries for everybody. Tell them that from now on they must smile while waiting on customers. They must be alert. You intend to treat them right from now on, and they must treat customers right—or you’ll get salespeople who will. You’ll probably be paying the highest salaries in town. They have to sell enough goods to earn it—at a lower percent of sales than present salaries! If they don’t, your high salaries will attract the best salespeople, and those who do not respond will be fired.”
He said he would do it if I would come to the party, and sit by his side to bolster him up, and make a speech myself.
The party was held. It had an electric effect.
“Now,” I said to the manager, “hereafter you must personally stand by the front door between 4 and 6 each afternoon, greeting customers yourself with a smile, and being sure they are promptly waited on.”
Winning With a Smile
Next afternoon about 4:15 I dropped in. There he was, trying to bow and smile stiffly at incoming customers. Quickly I drew him to one side.
“No, no!” I exclaimed. “That will never do! You are acting like you never smiled before—like your heart is not in it. Look at those fine people coming in here. They are customers! They are coming to spend money with you. Don’t you like them?”
He did, but he had never thought of them in that light before. With a little coaching, he began to realize how much he did like these people. He began to smile a natural smile, like he meant it!
After six weeks, this store began really big-space advertising, with the slogans I had suggested—something like “most prompt and interested service in Ames.” Or, “Where you receive quick, attentive, interested service with a smile!”
I heard later from traveling salesmen who made Ames regularly that this store had more than doubled its sales volume in six months. Also an Ames shoe store, which had come in for some special criticism and correction. The newspaper doubled its advertising volume.
That was my kind of salesmanship. The newspaper paid a fee of $500, and doubled the size of its business. The merchants found what was wrong with them, and doubled their business. The customers got better service, and were happy. Everybody benefited! Unless everybody does benefit, salesmanship is not honest! But not many salesmen know that, or the secret of intelligent and practical salesmanship!
Important Job Offered
Next I went to Forrest Geneva, then advertising manager of both the Des Moines Register and the Evening Tribune. He had worked in want ads on the Register at the same time I did on the Capital, and we were old friends.
The Des Moines Register was rated (I think still is) one of the 10 really great newspapers of the United States. It has a statewide circulation, and is delivered in nearly all parts of the state early the same morning of publication.
But the Register was not getting the big department store advertising in Des Moines. This is the biggest part of the advertising revenue of any newspaper. It actually meant multiple millions of dollars to the Register to be able to carry the big-space store advertising.
“Forrest,” I said, “the one most important thing in this world to the Register is to be able to crack through the barrier and carry the department store business—and all the other larger stores. I can do the job for you. I can crack down that stone wall and get you the big-store business.”
After I had explained in detail the method of the surveys, and how I proposed a statewide survey, to show how the Des Moines stores already were drawing a tremendous volume of trade from local stores in other smaller towns and cities all over the state, and how a campaign in the Register, with its statewide circulation, which was tremendous, would greatly increase their out-of-town business as well as the Des Moines business, Mr. Geneva expressed his confidence that my method would accomplish the result. Only one dominant morning newspaper, as I remember, in all U.S. major cities, was carrying the local department store advertising. That was the Chicago Tribune.
“Herb,” he said, “I believe you have the idea that will do the job. Give me a few days to take this up with the officers higher up. I’m really enthusiastic over the idea.”
A few days later I returned.
“We want you,” said Mr. Geneva. “But we have run into a certain situation. As you know, I am advertising manager over both papers. We also have an advertising manager for each paper, under me. Right now we have no advertising manager for the Register. I cannot get the management to approve the addition at this time of both a new advertising manager and you as a special expert. They want you to fill both jobs.”
“But Forrest,” I protested, “I would be tied down with the executive job of managing the work of your eight advertising solicitors on the Register, besides all the specialized work of the survey.”
“Right,” we agreed.
“But that will kill everything. I am not an executive. I can’t manage the work of others. I’m like a lone wolf. I have to do my own work in my own way. I often work in streaks. When I’m ‘on’ I know I’m good. But on the ‘off’ days I couldn’t sell genuine gold bricks for a dime. I’d have daily reports to make out, and that’s one thing I just never have been able to do. I’d get way behind on the reports.”
“Look, Herb,” he came back. “I know you will make good on the executive job. I won’t let you fail. If you run into a lapse, or your reports are not in, I’ll stay down myself evenings and do that part of your work for you. No one will ever know.”
But I had no confidence in my ability to direct the work of eight men, and make out daily reports. So I turned down the offer to become advertising manager of a great newspaper.
I was to learn much later, beginning with 1947 when Ambassador College was founded, that I could become an executive and direct the operations and work of many hundreds of employees, besides doing about seven men’s jobs myself. And long before that I learned to overcome lapses and streaks. But, had I taken that job I might be there today—an employee on a newspaper, instead of directing the most important activity on Earth. We might have averted several following years of financial hardship. But I know now, in the light of events—“the fruits”—that I was being prepared for this Work and was being brought down to the depths of defeat and frustration until I would give up the false god of seeking status out of vanity.
We Migrate to Oregon
The remainder of that summer, and through the following winter, I put on a survey for a local weekly paper in Indianola, and worked part time writing advertising for local merchants. But most of the time was devoted to working with my brother-in-law on his oratory. We wrote a new oration for the following year, which involved many experiences, although, having won, he was not eligible to enter again at Simpson College.
I was beginning to bog down in the mire. My wife was worried. We were in a rut. I didn’t seem to be selling more surveys to daily newspapers. Mrs. Armstrong knew we needed some change to jolt us out of the rut. My parents were living in Salem, Oregon. A complete change of environment might get me started again.
In the late winter of 1923–24, she began to suggest the idea of a summer trip to visit my parents and family in Oregon. “But, Loma,” I protested, “we can’t afford a vacation trip like that.”
But, she had it all planned. We would go in Walter’s Model T Ford. We would take a tent and camp out nights. We would prepare our own food, avoiding restaurant costs. She would ask her sister Bertha to go along, paying her share, thus helping enough with expenses to make the trip possible. Bertha was teaching school and had a regular income. I had earned some money and we still had a little. Along the way, I would contact newspapers and line up surveys for the future—thus getting a foundation laid for a future business.
My wife knew I liked to travel. I had been over most of the United States, but never yet as far west as the Rocky Mountains. A trip to the coast—seeing my parents and family again—was really intriguing.
Walter and Bertha were swayed by her persuasion.
In the meantime, about March 1, 1923, my father-in-law had moved from the farm he was renting from a brother-in-law, sold his stock, and bought a small-town general store at Sandyville, only a few miles distant.
I began to make preparations for our trip. On the second floor above my father-in-law’s store was a sort of cabinet-making shop. I had taken manual training in high school. So I began to work out a design and to make folding wooden cots and canvas tops for our trip. Later we purchased a used tent of the type that fastened over the top of the car, so that the car formed one end of the tent. We procured a secondhand portable gasoline stove.
The morning of June 16, 1924, we piled the two seats of the Model T high with bedding. We put our suitcases between the front fenders and the hood. The folded tent, boxes of food, the rest of the bedding, the folded cots, the portable stove and all the rest of our earthly belongings were piled on a rack on the left running board high up on the side of the car. There were no trunks on the rear of Model Ts.
How we piled all this stuff on that little car I can’t conceive now, but we did—and an extra spare tire or two besides!
I had said to a friend of my wife, previously, “We’ll be back in the fall.” But when I wasn’t listening, my wife told her: “That’s what he thinks—but we are not coming back!”
So, “D-Day” had arrived, the morning of June 16, 1924! (“D” for Departure.) Walter cranked up the Model T, and we were off for Oregon. One thing we had on the car was air-conditioning. Except for the luggage piled high up the left side, it was all air—open air. The closed cars, except for very expensive limousines, had not yet come out of Detroit. But we had side curtains to button up in case of rain.
In case of rain, did I say?
Yes, as, unhappily, we were to experience that very night! We had reached Greenwood, Iowa, the first day out, and pitched our tent beside the car—with Mrs. Armstrong and me, our two little daughters—Beverly, age 6, and Dorothy Jane, age almost 4—Walter and Bertha Dillon—all trying to sleep on those flimsy, swaying folding cots I had made.
And then the rains came! We soon discovered the tent leaked! Hurriedly we arose from our rickety cots, delved into the food and utensil box, procured our one wash pan and a fry pan and a stew pan to catch the leaking drips. There was little sleep. In Iowa, you know, there are sharp and blinding flashes of lightning, followed by deafening claps of thunder when it rains.
For three days and three nights we were marooned there. In those days there were no cross-country paved highways. We were traveling on Iowa mud roads.
Tent Cities—No Motels
Finally, we decided to make a try over the still muddy roads. A try is what we made. Just outside town the car skidded in the mud, and two wheels bogged down hub-deep. Walter and I started out slogging through the mud to the nearest farmhouse. An obliging farmer hitched up a team and pulled us out.
We managed to keep chugging along until we reached Silver City, Iowa, near Council Bluffs. Later, as we proceeded farther west, we found roads more gravel than mud. Once on dry roads we were able to amble along at a steady gait of between 18 and 20 miles per hour—when we were not stopped by some new trouble, which was much of the time.
Most days we awoke by 5 a.m., breakfasted, the women made sandwiches for noon lunch—there could be no stopping through the day—we packed everything back on the car, and climbed up on those bedding-covered seats with the car cranked up by 6 a.m.
Most days we drove until nearly dark—allowing time to get the tent pitched and staked, cots and bedding arranged, and dinner cooked before it became too dark to see. We did carry a kerosene lantern. Walter and I took turns driving. We generally managed to negotiate about 200 miles in a 12- or 14-hour day of driving.
At night we stopped at campgrounds, provided at every town in those days. That was before the days of motels or trailer-camps. Tourists all carried their own tents and camping equipment. Every town along the way had its tent city which usually filled up by sundown. These camps provided water and sanitary facilities—of a kind. As we journeyed farther west a few cabins began to appear at some of the campgrounds. These were bare one-room, unpainted board cabins. Some had rickety old beds and metal springs—but not mattresses or bedding or linen, and little, if any, furniture. There might have been an old wooden chair.
Our first stop after leaving Greenwood was Silver City, Iowa. My wife’s uncle, Tom Talboy, owned a drugstore in Silver City. We drove to the store.
“I don’t know which one you are,” said her Uncle Tom approaching my wife, “but I do know you’re a Talboy!”
Mrs. Armstrong’s mother was Isabelle Talboy before marriage. There are definite “Talboy” characteristics, and Mrs. Armstrong has them written all over her face. The Talboy family came from England. My wife’s great-grandfather, Thomas Talboy, came to the United States from England somewhere near the middle of the 19th century, and started the first woolen mill in the Middle West—at least west of the Mississippi—in Palmyra, Iowa. At that time Palmyra was larger than Des Moines. There was no Des Moines—except Fort Des Moines. The woolen mill grew and the town grew with it. But today there is no Palmyra—except a few farmhouses.
My wife’s grandfather, Benjamin Talboy, was a lad of 18 when he came from England with his father, Thomas. He and his wife, Martha, whom my wife as a little girl called “little curly-haired grandma,” reared a sizable and successful family of nine, of whom Isabelle was one of three daughters. “Uncle Tom,” the druggist, as my wife called him, was named for his grandfather Thomas.
We visited the “Uncle Tom” family for a day. Grandpa Benjamin Talboy was living there, age 93. “Little curly-haired grandma” had died at 84. She had always warned my wife against Grandpa Benjamin. He, she affirmed solemnly, was an atheist. My wife warned me against listening to him. But later we learned that he had dared to look into the Bible for himself, and, discovering these teachings diametrically contrary to the accepted popular version of “Christianity,” had rejected the “Christianity.” Later we learned that he was probably more of a true Christian, in belief if not in deeds, than his well-meaning little wife!
Our Troubles Continue!
We continued our journey westward from Silver City.
At Fremont, Nebraska, I took out time to contact the daily newspaper office. Another survey was tentatively lined up for the fall, on our return. But this newspaper call consumed a half day, and we decided not to take out any more time for newspaper calls along the way. Everybody aboard was anxious to reach Oregon.
It was at about this juncture that our tire troubles began. These tire troubles seemed to multiply the farther we traveled. They were an excellent training in patience! We had puncture after puncture—blowout after blowout. There were eight of them within one mile on one occasion! We carried a repair kit and patched our own inner tubes. We carried along a few “boots” to plug up blowout holes in casings. Many hours were spent along the drab, dusty roadsides, one wheel jacked up, kneeling beside it, fixing tires.
We bought several used tires—we could not afford new ones—and these usually blew out about five miles out of town—just too far to go back and express our minds to the dealer who sold them!
We made an overnight stop in Central City, Nebraska, at the home of my Uncle Rollin R. Wright. His son, John, was one of the two cousins (on my mother’s side of the family) I had visited so often as a boy. The Wrights had then lived at Carlisle, Iowa, where Uncle Rollin was an insurance agent. He is the one who gave me and Johnny a good sound spanking that time when he caught us shooting off a .22 revolver. John was, within a day, one year younger than I. Now the Wrights were operating a dairy in Central City. It is always somewhat exciting to visit relatives you have not seen for several years. Next morning I went on the milk route with John. Today he is a minister in the Friends Church and has visited us a few times in Pasadena.
It seems we got as far as Grand Island, Nebraska, before our next vexation. We had made a temporary stop under shade trees because of the intense heat. Little Dorothy Jane, almost 4, took off one of her shoes and laid it on the right running board, from where it fell to the ground. The loss was not discovered until we had traveled too far to return to search for it. The child had to travel the remaining days of our journey with only one shoe. To buy new shoes on this trip was not within our means.
We made an overnight stop in Ogalalla, where I had intended to visit the other of these two cousins I had grown up with—Bert Morrow. He had been running some tourist cabins there, but had moved before our arrival.
It was somewhere along western Nebraska that we encountered something worse than a rainstorm. A driving sandstorm came up. The road became so clouded we could not see to drive. We had to pull over to the side of the road, button up the curtains on the Model T, cover our heads with bedding to keep sand out of our hair, and remain marooned there until the storm subsided.