First of All

Startling memories of border rivalry

Updated: 2013-03-02T21:26:48Z

By DARRYL LEVINGS

The Kansas City Star

Want to know how far the sports rivalry goes back between Missouri and Kansas?

It’s way older than football.

Try a 20-mile horse race.

Between girls.

Riding sidesaddle.

Missouri won, I’m pleased to report.

This little gem of history came to me from a friend in the Bootheel, who discovered that my ancestors hail from Paris, Mo. His great uncle was Jack Blanton, the rather famous-for-his-time editor of the Monroe County Appeal, published in the county seat.

He had a column that often started off “When I was boy…” and would go on to recall aspects of life around Paris in the decades after the Civil War. Blanton was still writing in the ’50s, and he and his newspaper office even were the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The book made of his columns, which also ran in a St. Louis paper, offers startling insights into Midwestern life and how far we’ve come since the late 1800s.

Take funeral homes. There weren’t any. As most are aware, the deceased were laid out in a coffin on sawhorses in the front parlor of the family dwelling. But did you know that young people were often assigned to sit up with the dead as the begrieved family tried to catch some sleep? The old sage recalled one time when he had the sleepy duty at age 14. A “midnight lunch” of ham, bread, boiled eggs, pickles and pie was set out for them in the kitchen, and sometimes this duty became a quiet party.

But there was a price for that piece of pie: You had to open the coffin every hour and bathe the corpse’s face with vinegar. This is before embalming, often in warm months. Think about asking your teenager to do that for his late Aunt Edna.

No hospitals, either, for most country folk. Appendicitis? That was considered inflammation of the bowels. Hold a hot towel to your side and pray.

The doctors did a lot of that right there at the bed. If the patient died, well, the family had at least heard some mighty good words said over him by a learned man. If life should win out, the doctor’s reputation as a healer gained in two ways.

I was charmed/appalled by the tale of Dr. B.G. Dysart, who lopped off limbs and tumors in the dingy back room of his Paris office. No scrubs, no masks, no nurses.

“With knife and saw he went about his job, and with a success the present generation (the 1940s and ’50s), with its knowledge of germs and its fear of infection, could neither understand nor believe,” Blanton wrote. “I recall one operation to which that good old doctor admitted several small boys who ate gingersnaps and shared them with him while the patient was being deprived of a large piece of his anatomy.”

Another thing that surprised me was an aspect of coon hunting back then. When I, a lad from Center in the next county over, went chasing off into the dark after the song of the hounds — and running into barbed wire and falling into the creek — we just shot them off the branch where they had been treed, and someone went home with a pelt.

But back in Blanton’s time, if they couldn’t shake the animal off his perch, the hunters might spend hours that night cutting down a massive tree (on somebody else’s property!) to get the animal on the ground for the blood sport that was the whole point of the night’s exercise.

“Eager dogs always found in the coon a worthy foe. Usually, he could hold his own with most any dog in the pack, provided the other dogs were held back in order to give him a sporting chance,” he wrote. “Nothing was quite so embarrassing to a hunter as to see his dog turn tail and yelping away after the coon got the best of him. By turning dogs loose one at a time, the contest could be prolonged until the game coon was worn out and killed.”

Sporting chance, huh?

In winter, they even released captured raccoons on the floor of Margreiter’s Hall for such bouts, which often became boxing/wrestling matches between the owners of hounds and the critics of said dogs’ fighting fortitude.

I’d always known Mexico, Mo., some miles south of Paris, was horse country, but Blanton said both were widely respected. One column notes that the locals would lob off their worst stock on buyers for Kansas City trolly car companies.

Oh, about the aforementioned horse race.

Blanton said it was one of his earliest recollections of a race, so it might have been in late 1870s or early ’80s. It was held on the mile track at Sedalia, but no indication is given about from where the girls hailed.

Each got 20 horses, which meant springing down like a Pony Express rider after every lap. Except the mail wasn’t hauled by folks in ladies’ riding garb.

“One foot would be in the stirrup, while the other was slung over the pommel, or whatever it was called. To make sure that nobody would be shocked by the glimpse of ankle or stocking, a long riding skirt extended from waist to stirrup,” Blanton recalled.

In the countryside of northeast Missourah, there was little leftover love for Yankees in general, and for Kansans in particular, none at all — even before the arrival in Columbia of that numbered-jersey pestilence from Lawrence.

After the Missouri lass inevitably won, Blanton noted, “Practically every family in her home state felt like we had won a war.”

Those were the days.

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or email levings@kcstar.com.

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