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Iowa's Radio Homemakers: Interview with Tom Beavers

posted on February 26, 2010 at 11:29 AM

As an agriculture reporter and radio personality for KMA Radio in Shenandoah, Tom Beavers has personal experiences to share about growing up in 1950s rural Iowa and about the radio homemakers. This interview was recorded in on June 30, 2009 at the KMA studios in Shenandoah, Iowa.

Debra Herbold: Tell me about your memories of small town Iowa in the 1950s.

Tom Beavers: Rural Iowa in 1950s was quite unique from the standpoint of many areas had electricity for just a short time. Electricity on our farm came in 1947. Before that time we had coil oil lamps and we did chores with lanterns, coil oiled lanterns. When electricity came in 1947, it was wonderful because we had lights in the corn crib, and in the barn for milking, and then the chicken house for the chicken chores, and a yard light so we could see going from the house to the barn and to the crib.

Life in that period was very labor intensive. Many of the farmers still used horses besides having a tractor. Horses were used for some of the feeding chores. When we fed cattle, lots of times the horses would draw the wagon into the lot to scoop the corn into the bunk. Hog chores were all hand -- in other words you scooped the corn from the crib into the hog lot for them to chew it off the cob so to speak. The children had homework just like they would during today's time. And we often would sit around the table at supper time and discuss, you know, what went on in our life during the day. And then our parents would discuss what went on in their lives.

Saturdays usually were devoted to grinding feed, to doing chicken chores, like cleaning out the chicken house, which I dreaded. Cleaning out the cattle barn wasn't as bad. And then we cleaned the hog barn. It was all very labor intensive at that time.

Debra Herbold: What was the biggest change in rural Iowa when electricity was hooked up?

Tom Beavers: The biggest change about having electricity was the fact that you could be illuminated. You had a yard light. You could see to walk to the crib and to the barn. You could do the chores in the barn and so forth with lights. You could grind feed at night with lights in the corn crib. Of course, we had tractors at that time with lights and that facilitated field work, if we had to do some things in the evening. But primarily the change was dramatic when we got electricity.

Debra Herbold: Did it change the way you prepared food?

Tom Beavers: Prior to electricity, the food itself was prepared in a wood stove, a wood-fired cooking stove and the oven was heated by the heat from the burning wood. So cakes and pies went into the oven just like we do today with the electric ovens. The surface was heated, for example, skillets, were heated by the heat permeating up through the cast iron top on the stove. So you'd fry chicken, you would fry a lot of foods, whereas today you have your microwave oven and you have your crock pots and things to prepare your meal. We didn't have those in the 50s but most of the food was fried or baked. So basically you had the same types of food except for the way it was prepared.

Debra Herbold: Describe the role of women and men in the 1950s.

The woman's role in the 50s was completely different than the role of women today. Women in the 50s were expected to be at home taking care of the house chores, taking care of washing and ironing the clothes, taking care of the children when they returned home from school, because dad always wanted mom there when the kids returned home from school. In the 50s I was in high school. Prior to that time, we were in a one room school. Often we would come home and mother would have some fresh baked rolls and we would get a chance to eat one right after school - like a snack today for after school. But the father, or the man of the house, was in charge of the crops and livestock in order to earn money. So, he expected to be in the field for a long time. And when he came in at noon he expected a hot meal. When he came in for supper or dinner, as it's called in some households, mother was always there to prepare that meal. She did not work off the farm. Off farm started in the 70s in our area of Villisca, because there were a few women that had gotten an education degree and they started teaching in order to help earn money, to buy that 80 acres where they were starting up farming. But primarily the role of a woman in the 50s was in the home. And they expected her to do the washing, the ironing, and the cooking and all of those things.

Debra Herbold: Any memories of your mother doing those types of chores?

Tom Beavers: It's an interesting story about soap operas because we think about soap operas as being something of a modern era. But really, soap operas were going on in the 40s. My mother and sisters loved to listen to those because it gave them an outlet to the Hollywood impact, or the movie star. And they felt associated with that. My dad loved the Joe Lewis Fights and when Joe Lewis was fighting, dad expected that radio battery to run all the way through. Well, if mom would be ironing during the day, listening to these soap operas and run the battery low, then when the fights would come on in the evening at six o'clock, dad wouldn't be able to listen to the whole fight.

And it was interesting because when people iron clothes today, they plug it in to the electrical outlet. When mom started ironing, she would heat the iron on the wood range and then she would press the clothes. And all of them had to be starched. That was back in the day when all clothes had to be starched. So, it's kind of interesting about radio, how the homemaker would listen and be attached to that, and I think that lead to the homemakers programs too.

Debra Herbold: Did rural women feel isolated in the 1950s?

Tom Beavers: Women on the farm, as I mentioned, were expected to be there all the time to do the housework, the cooking, and the cleaning and so on. So, they were really isolated. If they didn't have a neighbor come over to visit, they were by themselves. So they would turn the radio on in order to hear something from the outside world. And, primarily, the reason that homemakers became so popular was that they became a part of the household - that when a homemaker would begin her program, the housewife would be tuned in and she would have an attraction to that, so she would write the recipes down. And she would want to hear about their families because she couldn't tell about hers. But she wanted to get an outsiders view in regard to what was happening in their families, their children's lives. And that opened up a whole door for that person that was on the farm.

Debra Herbold: Tell what made a good radio broadcaster in that era.

Tom Beavers: Visiting, I think, is the key. In fact, the whole idea was that the homemaker never talked down to anyone. They always visited with them on their level. So, if they wanted to talk about their children, it related directly to that homemaker's, or the person on the farm, to her family. So if Johnny was in the fifth grade struggling in math, the homemaker would often talk about it on the broadcast. It would relate right to Freddy out on the farm that was having trouble in the fifth grade. And so it was an attraction because it opened the door for the farm wife to say if they're having trouble too, I'm not isolated, I'm not the only one having the problems. And that's the same thing if they had trouble with the wash, and maybe the bleach didn't work, or maybe the starch didn't work, the homemaker could relate to that and then the house wife would say, you know, I had that same problem. And they would write letters back and forth about that. So, it was a real attraction to have that homemaker on the radio.

Debra Herbold: Talk about Billy Oakley.

Tom Beavers: Bill Oakley was a real pistol. I knew Billy for a long time and I helped her during some cooking schools when we would have programs at the armory here in Shenandoah. She would have what's known as a "cookie tea" and that was a big event for homemakers. I know Evelyn was involved in it. Billy and some of the Kitchen Klatter folks were involved too. Ladies would come from all over in order to meet the homemakers. But it's interesting, the impact that Billy Oakley had because she was syndicated. She had tapes that were sent out to other radio stations. So, she was known far and wide just as Kitchen Klatter was. Just an aside -Kitchen Klatter started in Shenandoah with the Driftmier family. And when I was starting to be a broadcaster again in the 70s, I took several trips to national conventions. And if I was in Connecticut or California or Georgia or Texas or anyplace and would be asked "where you from?", I would say "KMA". And they'd say, "KMA? I know KMA! My aunt or my grandmother used to listen to Kitchen Klatter." They had tapes that went out to places like Lexington, Nebraska or St. Joe, Missouri or anyplace around that had radio stations. So they knew KMA through Kitchen Klatter. Evelyn Birkby was on Kitchen Klatter some and so that kind of led to her being well known.

Debra Herbold: Many people say radio homemakers were unique in their salesmanship abilities. Why do you think that was?

Tom Beavers: The idea of a homemaker advertising a product didn't start out just in that tone. They would have commercials. But later, they said if that homemaker would talk about the starch, or talk about the salve, or talk about the lotion, or talk about any of the products that were used in the house, the homemaker would draw on a very big audience. An example is what happened with Billy Oakley. Billy Oakley had been asked by one of the listeners about having a problem with her hands cracking. Jay Drug Company in Shenandoah sold a product called Bag Balm. Bag Balm is a salve that farmers used on the udders of cows to keep the teats soft. Every time they milked, they would rub this on. And they had no hand problems because they were using that to treat the udders. So, Billy got the idea that maybe we ought to sell that. So Jay Drug Company bought commercial time and Billy actually sold out all their product in about a week's time. They had to re-order many times in order to keep up with the demand. That's how popular homemakers became selling a product.

Debra Herbold: Tell me about syndication.

Tom Beavers: Tape broadcasting was very popular for the homemaker shows from KMA like Kitchen Klatter and Billy Oakley. Most of the programs that aired on KMA weren't taped. They were just broadcasted that particular day and then the next day the homemaker came back and it was a brand new program. So, if a person missed a program like a Florence Falk show, for example, from Essex, they could order the tape and hear yesterday's program. So, later Kitchen Klatter said, we need to syndicate so we can send these out to various radio stations and expand our trade area and help sell our product - because they were selling Kitchen Klatter products over the radio. So they expanded their coverage but not all homemakers had that ability.

Debra Herbold: Tell us about your personal experiences coming back on the air and the response you received from listeners.

Tom Beavers: I graduated in 1959 from Iowa State College and I was going to become a teacher of agriculture. But during my student teaching, in November of 1959, I went to KGAN with the FFA boys for some FFA week commercials. I saw that as a really exciting thing and maybe I wanted to be a broadcaster. So, I had applied after that at KMA to Tony Kelker, our manager, and he hired me to start in June of 1960. Well, I went through five years and I wanted a higher salary. They didn't give it to me and I left for a few years, went into banking for 20 years, and came back in 1984 as a salesman at KMA. In 1989, the farm broadcaster that everyone in the whole United States knew, passed away from a heart attack. At that time, our station manager asked me to come back on the air. I said, "It's been too many years. No one will remember me". He said, "Let's give it a try".

So, on my first program I introduced myself as Tom Beavers, and said, "A lot of you may not remember, but I used to broadcast on KMA". Well, it was unbelievable the amount of phone calls and letters that we received saying, "Yeah we remember you and we're glad you're back". It's kind of been a family affair really - my broadcast years have made me a part of their family, just like the homemakers become part of their family.

Debra Herbold: Describe Saturday nights in town in the 1950s.

Tom Beavers: Produce like eggs and cream were very much in demand in the 50s and prior years to that. So, we would gather the eggs, clean them and put them in crates. The cream would be separated from the milk. We would then have a five gallon bucket of cream and thirty dozen eggs and we would come to Villisca. You would come early so that you would find a parking place around the square, so that you would be within walking distance of the store that you wanted to shop in. And it was not uncommon o have people still visiting at 10 o'clock at night on Saturday's. Saturday was the shopping day for farmers. They didn't go to town any other time except Saturday.

Debra Herbold: How important was a garden to farm families in the 1950s?

Tom Beavers: Gardening to kid was absolutely miserable. But to the family, it was necessary, because all the produce that were grown were (in the later years, when we had electricity) either frozen or canned. You didn't have a lot of fresh produce. You put it away. So a visit to the cave brought up all the vegetables that you had grown during the summer season and you ate them during the winter. So, the canning was really important. The gardening was extremely important because, as I said, that's where the produce came from. Very few products were bought in town other than sugar, flour, salt, and the products that you needed on the farm such as batteries and tires. But a lot of it you raised your own. You slaughtered your hogs and your cattle. You did all of that so that you would have the meat and produce to live on.

Debra Herbold: Some have said that people in the 50s lived more within their means than people do now – your feelings on that?

Tom Beavers: I don't know if they really lived within their means because I think we had families in the 50s, just like we have families today, that overspend. But primarily where I grew up on the farm, it was pretty frugal. We didn't have a lot of money. In fact I had to beg my dad when I was a kid to get a dime so that I could buy something, because a dime to him was a lot. So, I don't know that they were extravagant at that time. I'm sure there were some families that didn't make it because they spent too much, but generally, living on a farm was very frugal, very tight. We didn't have things like they had in town.

Debra Herbold: Describe the differences you felt between your family and a town family.

Tom Beavers: You know, we didn't associate a lot with town people until we got into high school because in grade school we were with our neighborhood kids and so our association didn't take us to the towns. Whereas in high school, then we met town kids and then we grew to associate with them through parties and entertainment like skating, dances, and things like that. But we really didn't understand town youngsters. We felt that they were different. And I guess they felt we were really different. When we came to school we didn't dress like they did. We had kind of a work shoe. Many times kids came to school in overalls because that was their wear. You had a clean pair to wear to school. You had an old soiled pair to chore in. So you -- you had just basically two outfits. You had two pairs of shoes - one was for good and you didn't dare scuff those because you wore those to school and to church. And then you had your work boots you worked around the farm in.

Debra Herbold: As you spent more time with town kids, did you start to blend together?

Tom Beavers: Oh, yeah. We're having our 55th school reunion of our graduating class of 1955 over the fourth of July and the kids that grew up in Villisca are just like all the rest of us. All the ones that grew up in the country - we're all alike.

Debra Herbold: Did you take your lunch to school? Food in high school?

Tom Beavers: In grade school I started carrying a lunch bucket with a thermos of milk. When I got into high school, the first two years I had to carry my lunch, and then they started the hot lunch program in Villisca. And that was great because then we had a different meal than old dry sandwiches and an apple or a banana and a cookie.

Debra Herbold: Tell us about your feelings on the importance of food in the community?

Tom Beavers: I didn't realize it at the time, how important food was, until I matured. But I know as a kid growing up, it was always a common practice to have shared responsibility in the rural community. My example would be if Burt King got injured with a ram, a male sheep, he got severely injured; everyone came to the farm and harvested his crop. All the women cooked the meals for all of the men that were working. If someone had died, sometimes a casserole dish or some food item would be taken to that family. And that didn't really strike me as being something. I just took it for granted until I matured. And then I realized, you know, that's a common practice throughout the whole world, I think, of helping others.

Debra Herbold: How do you think Evelyn Birkby inspires the community here?

Tom Beavers: I think longevity is perhaps one of the reasons that she continues to inspire people. I'm not sure how old Evelyn is, she'd probably tell me if she was in the room, but I k now she's older than I am by quite a bit. So with her being around yet and people having listened to her years ago, they still feel that bond between them. And so Evelyn is just a unique individual. She talks to people on their level, as all homemakers do, and she visits about her family. Some of the men always said when the homemaker was on, they would prattle on about some of the things that were happening in their household with their kids, etc. The men always kind of pooh-poohed it. But yet Evelyn had a lot of male listeners. A lot of dads listened to Evelyn. And that story about the recipe just strikes me as so funny because a man in the field wrote the recipe in the dust of the fender on the tractor and then dashed to the house so the wife could copy. That's the influence that Evelyn has on people's lives. They attach themselves to Evelyn and they become part of her family and this is wonderful. And that's the way farm broadcasters are. They became part of the family.

I know my youngsters, when they were in grade school and high school, they would hear homemakers talk about the family and they never thought much about it. Well, when I got to be a broadcaster again the start of 89, I started relating about their experiences and what they were doing and they would say, "You didn't say that did you dad?!" And I said, "Yeah. I told them that because the folks that are listening want to hear what's going on in your life". And it was quite unique. And I think that's what makes broadcasting unique.

Debra Herbold: What do you think the biggest change has been from the 50s to now?

Tom Beavers: Well, you could talk all day about the change of attitudes. When people grew up as youngsters in the 40s and 50s, they had respect. They had honor. They had abilities that they wanted to learn. Our attitude has changed dramatically with our young people in regards to respect. We have lost a lot of respect of our young people and maybe it's a fault of the adults not having the respect for their young people. But this is one of the major changes that have caused so many problems in education. The fact that young people don't want to learn and don't have respect for their elders. And I think that's one of the major changes that have happened in our society.

Debra Herbold: How do you think media plays into that?

Tom Beavers: Well, of course, as a grandparent, I see some of these programs that these young people are listening to and I think some of it propagates lack of respect. I think some of the young people that are on some of the YouTube things that our granddaughters listen to and watch -- I think it illustrates sometimes a lack of respect. They only want to talk about themselves. They want to know what's good for them and not what's good for the other person. So, I think that has an influence.

Debra Herbold: Before radio, TV, and the internet – seems like rural Iowa had to rely on each other and community was an important thing....

Tom Beavers: Oh, very definitely - communities stuck together. I'll give you an example. If you were going home from school and you slipped over the fence and got an apple from the neighbor's tree, that neighbor would mention it to your parent on the sly. They'd say, "Did your boy like the apples from the orchard?" Now I personally did not see the neighbor watching me but he was watching me and he related it. If anyone got into trouble, it got back to the parents. It was a shared responsibility of growing those children. And if you did something wrong, it was going to get back to your folks because that family wanted to see you grow up right. So, I think that was a main change. I mean you couldn't do that today. If you saw someone doing something wrong and then you went to that parent and said, "I saw your son or daughter doing that", they probably wouldn't believe you to start with. And even if they did they wouldn't do anything about it.

Tags: history interviews Iowa radio rural Shenandoah