GROWING UP IN AMES DURING THE WAR YEARS
Young people had plenty to do during the war years, from 1941 when we officially got into the war through 1945 when it was finally over. There were scrap metal drives, paper drives and a host of other activities in support of the war effort. There were often dances Friday after school, and a youth center on Main Street that even had a soda fountain along with a juke-box, ping-pong tables and the like. It had storefront glass windows that many of us converted to displays of articles and artwork. And of course there were the athletic events like the year Ames won the state basketball title in Des Moines and our city treasurer won the game ball with the highest bid in war bonds.
But the recollections I want to share are those of the mostly weekends my friends and I spent hunting and running trap lines. Some of those things would not be acceptable today – even inhumane. For example, we formed the 12th Street Fish and Game Club and became aware of conservation efforts sponsored by the Iowa Department of Fish and Game. They published a number of pamphlets dealing with threats to wildlife, including one that caught our attention – one we felt we could help correct. It described the damage inflicted on the pheasant, quail and duck populations by wild farm cats. Since we spent a lot of time in the field, occasionally encountering one of these destructive creatures, we did our part in addressing the problem, very efficiently, I might add.
Seen here from left to right: Lew Andrus, Ron Scott and Bob Fitz
During the war, hunting was an acceptable – even laudable means of putting more meat on the table – meat being rationed, and all. Most of our hunting was done in or around Coon’s Bottom, well out of town at that time. One episode in particular stands out; the one of the duck that wouldn’t stay dead. Coon’s Bottom included a good-sized portion of wetland. Some of it standing water with a fair sized pond toward the north end. One day my good friend and hunting companion Bob Fitz and I were there hunting ducks. I should mention that ammunition was hard to get, being rationed, and the only way we could get more was to go to Des Moines, make the rounds of the hardware stores and sign up as farmers who were allowed to buy a limited amount at one time – for rodent control don’t you know. Anyway, after sneaking up on the pond, Bob and I spotted a couple of Mallards. We stood up and fired away with Bob bringing one down. We sloshed through the weeds to retrieve it and, as was common practice, picked it up by the head and wrung its neck to make sure it was dead. Our attention was distracted for a moment and the duck took off – flying back over the pond. As we were about to shoot again, another hunter on the other side of the pond rose up and downed our duck. We went over to try and negotiate its return, even offering a shotgun shell or two in return. No sale, but I guarantee that duck was tough eating, being as full of buck shot as it was!
On another occasion, Bob and I spotted four geese. Thinking they were domestic birds because they were in a farmers yard, we kept on walking and were surprised when they took off. They settled out in the open near the pond mentioned above, so we carefully stalked them through the wetland, and when close enough raised up to shoot. Luckily I downed one, seen here in a photo taken in our basement on the corner of 12th and Harding.
Lew and Bob
While many young people had part-time jobs, Bob and I ran a trap line to earn extra money. Of course trapping animals for their pelts did not have the negative stigma that it has today. It was actually fairly lucrative with the added advantage of providing plenty of fresh air and exercise. Most of our line was in Coon’s Bottom and to the east on Skunk River. We would usually go out on a Saturday morning, place about twenty traps, and return the next morning to collect them and whatever was in them. The rest of the day was spent skinning and preparing the hides for drying. As I recall, a raccoon hide would bring $9; a muskrat $2.50; skunk $3; and mink $22. That was good money in those days at bread 10? a loaf. Over the three years we trapped, we split about $300. The buyer, surprising enough, was Sears Roebuck in Des Moines.
Bob and I quit trapping when prices fell so low the animals weren’t worth killing. It all came about when we took two raccoon hides in and were offered only $2 apiece. Instead, we decided to have them made into coonskin hats. We were directed to Cownie Furs on Ingersoll Avenue in Des Moines, a very up-scale furrier established in 1907. (Frank Cownie, mayor of Des Moines, is the current owner.) I should explain that the coon hides were stretched flat, dried stiff, were greasy and had a distinct odor.
We marched right in the front door with them under our arms and found ourselves in their show room, then occupied by some very well dressed ladies, a model or two, and a couple of sales people. You can well imagine their reaction! We were hustled back out the front door and around to the back door that opened into a workshop where furs were being readied for manufacturing. Our request for hats was greeted with enthusiasm because the request was so unique. They turned out beautifully, as you can see here.
The fall pheasant season was special. My father had joined the Corps of Engineers as his contribution to the war effort and was gone a good deal of the time. Bob’s father, Dave Fitz, owner of Fitz Electric, sort of adopted me during that time and included me in the annual pheasant hunting trips he organized.
One winter the pheasant population was so large that farmers were complaining that pheasants were getting into their yards and eating a lot of chicken feed. In response, the F&G Department held a spring season in February. We went north over the weekend, near Buffalo Center as I recall. There was snow on the ground with clear and sunny days. I have light blue eyes and the reflection of the sun caused them to become sunburned. It could have been quite serious, but fortunately I fully recovered in a couple of weeks, wearing dark glasses and applying a salve of some kind to my eyes. I remember sitting in study hall one day with tears streaming down my face – a reaction to the salve, and everybody thought I was crying about something. It was a productive trip, however, with everyone getting their limit.
Lew and Bob
I got acquainted with the zookeeper at the Brookside Park zoo. I can’t recall exactly where in the park the zoo was, but I think it was north of the west end of the footbridge. It was a fair sized zoo with birds and animals, and I seem to remember a bear as well. I spent a lot of time at the park’s zoo where the custodian even allowed me to feed slices of bread to the animals through the bars of the cages. I was especially fond of raccoons and decided to purchase one of the zoos for a pet. The custodian tried to discourage me, explaining that fully-grown raccoons were poor, and potentially dangerous candidates for pets. But I wouldn’t be dissuaded and he finally agreed to sell me one for $2.50. (When he opened the door to the raccoon cage wearing a very heavy pair of leather gauntlets, I should have taken serious note!) The raccoon cages were pretty good size and he had to go inside to catch one. The raccoons, of course, were not in a cooperative mood and the whole thing turned into a catch-me-if-you can melee. This went on for a few minutes and only ended when the target raccoon took a firm grip on the custodian’s hand with its teeth, piercing the leather gauntlet and a good deal of skin within. When he finally shook it off they were near the open door, which the custodian had left ajar, allowing the raccoon to escape. The raccoon gained its freedom, the custodian gained a nasty hand wound, and I lost $2.50.
Somehow I got interested enough in taxidermy to enroll in a correspondence course offered by the Northwest School of Taxidermy in Omaha for $10. I completed the course and in the process managed to mount a fair number of birds and small animals that looked more or less natural when completed. I even managed to attract a few paying customers and community publicity.
One day I got a call from the zoo custodian, one of their Golden Pheasants had died and he asked if I wanted it to mount. I did indeed and the result wound up in a display case at the high school for many years.
The biology teacher at that time was a Mr. Trump who released a pair of ground hogs in the center court of the high school building. The court was left open and planted with grass and some small trees. Why he chose to do this I won’t even venture to speculate. Whatever is was, it didn’t work out to his satisfaction. Hearing of our trapping experience, he asked us to trap his ground hogs. For some reason I can’t remember whether we caught them or not, and they may still be there for all I know. If they are, there must be quite a large colony by now!
These are a few of the good times I enjoyed with good friends and I hope you enjoyed reading about them.
Lew Andrus AHS ‘46