Summer jobs are a rite of passage for many high schoolers.
One I had in the late 1970’s was particularly memorable – detasseling corn.It was probably the most physically challenging work I have ever done. Although it was brutal, the hours were long, and we worked in all kinds of conditions, there were also many rewards.
Detasseling is the process of yanking the tassels off the tops of the corn plants.Why would you want to do that?So that different varieties can hybridize (cross-pollinate) to develop a better yield, be more hardy, or whatever the desired characteristic the seed company wanted.
Quite a few high school boys signed up for the job, but I was the only girl.For some reason, I wasn’t allowed to ride on the boy’s bus and instead rode a co-ed bus that ran from Brownstown to Altamont with several stops in between.
The meeting place was the high school, I believe 5:30am each morning.That meant I had to be up, get breakfast and get out of the house by 5:15.Although I didn’t live far, I had my driver’s license and even five extra minutes of sleep was heaven.
Once on the bus, the ride was probably an hour or so to whatever field we were working that day. The next time you drive by a corn field, look at how long it is and imagine what it is like walking down rows that are higher than your head, sun beating down, and not a breath of fresh air.Oh, and you are reaching up with each step to pull tassels off the plants.
Lunchtime would find us sprawled under a tree or the shade of the bus. Spam sandwiches weren’t uncommon and believe me, after five or six hours of work, one sandwich wasn’t nearly enough.Then it was back to work for the afternoon.Days could be 10 hours or so long, and by the time I got home I would be starving again.Then, not long after dinner, exhaustion would send me off to bed.I had to put the alarm clock on the other side of the room to drag myself out of bed in the morning do it all over again the next morning.
This went on for two weeks straight. If you worked every day, you got paid a bonus at the end.I was determined to get that bonus, but fate was working against me.One morning, I went out to get in the car and saw it had a flat tire.As luck would have it, I was running late that day, and it was already time for the bus to arrive.There was no way I could make it to the school on time.
As I sat on the back steps, seeing my dreams for the extra money dissolving, I heard something.It sounded like a bus.Sure enough, into sight comes the old yellow school bus, pulling up to my house!Would you believe that some of my new friends – from Vandalia – knew where I lived and talked the bus driver into picking me up? So I got the bonus after all.
We worked in ALL conditions – the field could be wet from rain, wet from dew, it could be raining or it could be stifling hot.Some mornings it was positively chilly. Walking down the rows, brushing against the corn, you could end up with cuts from head to toe.We worked at least one field with MILE-long rows. A lot of people dropped out because it was so demanding.
In the end, I earned my bonus, got an awesome tan, developed some muscle, and made some new friends. We also got an important job done and proved that we had what it takes to detassel corn.After that, we were confident we could do anything!
Communities are usually centered around a town square. Altamont has a triangle. Most people who grew up in Altamont have vivid memories of the triangle. From weekend band concerts to centennial celebrations and Halloween parades, the triangle has been at the center of our community since the town was platted in 1871. Here are pictures of the triangle throughout the years.
1871 plat of Altamont
The origin of Altamont’s triangle
The original plat of Altamont included the triangle in the bottom right corner. Railroad Street (the wide road pictured above) was Altamont’s main business district until a 1905 fire ravaged the area. Businesses migrated a few blocks south transforming the area surrounding the triangle.
The building on the triangle. Early 1900’s.
The building on the triangle
Pictured above are two ladies standing in front of Nicholas Reiss and Jake Hinger’s meat market located on the triangle. This building was torn down in 1916 to clear a spot for community events.
Notice the Immanuel Lutheran Church steeple standing above the surrounding buildings. (Also, check out the massive hats.)
Downtown Altamont early 1920’s.
Downtown Altamont with paved streets. 1925
Change in the 1920’s
Imagine sitting in your car. Your wheels are spinning furiously. But your car is stuck in a foot of mud on Main Street.
Main Street wasn’t paved until the early 1920’s, and downpours made Altamont’s streets impassable for horses and early automobiles. (Early automobiles had thin tires.)
Sidewalks were also rare. Wood boards were used as impromptu sidewalks throughout town.
The triangle’s bandstand. Late 1930’s
Weekend concerts on the triangle
For decades, the triangle drew large crowds. The triangle hosted concerts from community bands on weekends. Farmers drove their families into town, kids would get ice cream, the stores stayed open late, businesses had raffle prizes, and older generations had conversations in German. During World War II, the triangle’s concerts boosted morale.
The triangle in 1946.
A Lions Club Fundraiser on the triangle. Late 1940’s or Early 1950’s.
Downtown Altamont 1960’s
The triangle on a snowy day. Early 1970’s.
A sack race during the 1971 Altamont Centennial.
Sandy Allen on the triangle in 1976.
The tallest woman in America vists Altamont
The tallest woman in America, Sandy Allen (7’7″) visited Altamont in 1976. The local garment factory made her a dress.
The triangle and downtown. 1990’s
The triangle today
The triangle stopped hosting weekend concerts years ago, and fundraisers and other events on the triangle seem to be fewer and fewer.
In today’s world, our iPhones and other electronics are like new appendages, and we have become socially isolated because our eyes are glued to our 4.7″ screens.
Maybe, we should look to the past and use the triangle as an example. The triangle strengthened the bond of our community. It hosted family friendly events enjoyed by multiple generations. People had fun without smartphones. People were connected.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, like many Americans, my grandfather Bill Wendling was sitting in the living room listening to the radio when the broadcast was interrupted. The radio broadcaster announced that a navy post in Hawaii called Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. My grandfather went to find his parents, and they sat together and listened as more details followed. The next day, the U.S. entered World War II, the most destructive war in history.
Before Pearl Harbor, most Americans knew they would eventually enter the war. On September 16, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which established the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. All men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register with a local draft board. In 1940, 2640 Effingham County men registered. In October, Kenneth Ray Dugan and Maurice Rickelman were the first Effingham County residents to be drafted. William Edwin Fischer was the first person drafted from Altamont.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, (which some Effingham County residents witnessed first hand) patriotism swept across America. Thousands of men enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted. Many Americans preferred the enlistment process because it gave them a wider choice of branches to serve. By 1942, the government made men between 18 and 45 eligible for the draft.
During the war, a rationing system was established to preserve goods for the war effort. Life during this time was dictated by the rationing system. Each family in America was issued a war ration book and tokens, which controlled the number of goods a family could purchase. The purchase of items including meat, sugar, milk, butter, silk, nylon, shoes, and more was limited by local ration boards. Cigarettes were a commodity, with 30 percent of cigarette production dedicated to military production. Alcohol production had similar limits.
Transportation was also limited. Most residents were restricted to three to five gallons of gasoline each week, so residents often hitchhiked to preserve their rations. Tire sales were restricted, so customers had to get their tires capped. Drivers were often told to drive under 35mph. Meanwhile, new auto purchases were banned after 1942, because car manufacturers were focused on producing military vehicles.
Farmers had a higher gasoline allowance. But farm machinery was rationed, and farmers were forced to use worn-out equipment.
Altamont residents lived a self-sufficient lifestyle. My great-grandparents, who lived on the corner of Division and Fourth Street, had a victory garden. (A victory garden was a garden planted to supplement the limited food supply during the war.) They raised chickens and ducks in the backyard, and sometimes my grandfather shot pigeons, rabbits, and squirrels for meat. When short on supplies, they traded vegetables and other goods with the neighbors. Local residents planted peach trees. My great-great grandfather produced his own wine using five, 50-gallon barrels and shared with neighbors in the Blue Point area. Home beer brewing operations were also popular. Clothing materials were rationed, so clothing choices were limited or expensive. Farmers sometimes cut holes in feed sacks for their children to wear as pants, and shoes were often patched up.
According to an angry letter published in the Sunday, June 4, 1944, Decatur Herald, Altamont during the war, resembled a farm. “My work takes me around a lot. Noticed quite an unpleasant smell in Altamont. Soon located its source. A hog lot with 50 or 75 hogs therein, and this within three blocks from the main part of town.” The author also described town lots with dozens of victory gardens and cow pastures.
Assisting the war effort
Residents saved tin cans, used paper, food, and more for the war effort. While some residents took down their iron fences for scrap metal. The Triangle had a wire crate for aluminum collections later sent to factories for raw material. Blood drives, with people waiting in line for hours, were prevalent. Locals went to the First National Bank on the southwest corner of Second and Washington Street to purchase war bonds. Local schools had War Stamp pie suppers. Churches had special prayer services for the soldiers fighting overseas. Congregations wrote letters to members fighting overseas, and neighbors comforted the families of soldiers.
Eight million women in America joined the workforce. Many of them, including women from Altamont, worked in ammunition or military vehicle factories in cities like St. Louis and Chicago. Women also made up the majority of workers at the Pant and Glove factory located on the corner of Division and Third Street. Other local women joined the Women’s Army Corps.
Farms also had labor shortages. Farmers and farm hands went off to war, while elderly men, wives, and children were responsible for running the farms. Later, some men of draft age were able to receive farm-related draft deferments.
After Pearl Harbor, Altamont created a defense council headed by Mayor Klitzing, which made defense preparations in case of an invasion. The defense council duties included blackout tests. Altamont’s first blackout test occurred in February of 1942. (Blackouts were a tactic used to prevent the enemy from bombing cities at night. This was achieved by shutting off all lights so the bombers couldn’t see the city below.) According to the February 13, 1942, Decatur Herald, The blackout test was enforced by air raid wardens with the help of the local boy scout troop, while drivers were stopped and told to shut off their headlights. “The fire alarm siren sounded the alert at 7:37 PM and the all clear at 8:13 PM.”
News from the War
Every week, the people of Altamont flocked to the Main Theater located at the present site of Kull’s Funeral Home. Newsreels played before the feature films, showing our troops fighting in the Pacific and European theaters.
Altamont residents also sat around the radio to hear updates about the war, while families waited patiently for letters from their grandsons, sons, or brothers.
In 1944, word reached Altamont that local man, Sgt. James Greene had been rescued from the Japanese. In 1942, after the U.S. surrendered to the Japanese forces in the Philippines, Sgt. Greene was taken prisoner. He was forced to join the Bataan Death March, a 65-mile prisoner march between two P.O.W. camps. 75,000 Filipino and American P.O.W.s including Greene were forced to take the arduous journey. Soldiers starved and often had to eat live snakes that crawled across the road. Fatigued soldiers were bayoneted or ran over by Japanese trucks. Later, when the Americans invaded the Philippines, the Japanese transported the P.O.W.s out of the Philippines. In 1944, Sgt. Greene’s transport ship was sunk by an American submarine. He was rescued and taken to Australia. On December 4, 1944, by the request of the Secretary of War, Altamont welcomed Greene home with a celebration.
Unfortunately, news from the war wasn’t always positive. A year earlier in 1943, the parents of Sgt. Paul L. Fischer were told their son was killed in the Pacific theater. Sgt. Fischer was the first Altamont resident to die in World War II. (Altamont’s American Legion Post is named after Fischer and Frank Grobengieser, who was the only Altamont resident to die in World War I).
Altamont residents, deployed around the globe, fought bravely against the Axis Powers. Many of them were awarded medals for their bravery, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. 17 Altamont residents were killed in the war: Sgt. Paul L. Fischer, William Tappendorf, Stevenson Jenkins, Merle Gieseking, Sherborne Austin, Reuben Wade, Forrest Morr, Arnold Mueller, Cecil Dammerman, Walter Schwerdtfeger, Rudolph Siebert, Owen Cox, Harold Oliver, Seth McCoy, Hugo Voelker, Glenn Loar, and Granville H. Walling. Other Altamont soldiers, like my grandfather, returned home with injuries.
The soldiers’ return from war led to a period of economic prosperity in America. After years of warfare and rationing, people were ready to spend money, settle down, and raise families. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill gave thousands of Americans the opportunity to attend college.
The war dictated almost every aspect of life in America. But without the sacrifices made on the battlefield and the homefront, our country would be a very different place today.
On the night of January 14, 1905, Railroad Street (Adams Street) was quiet. The street, lined with taverns, grocery stores, and restaurants wore a coat of snow. Railroad Street, located close to the depot, was the busiest street in town.
In the early morning, an overheated stove started a fire at Joe Hielegenstein’s Bottling Works. By 3:30 AM, the townspeople woke up to the sound of the roaring inferno. Shop owners rushed into their stores to save their valuables before the cramped, wooden buildings lining Railroad Street ignited. The volunteer Altamont Fire Department and the local townspeople rushed to help. However, the volunteers didn’t have the manpower and equipment to extinguish the fire, which they could only attempt to tame.
Mayor Laatsch, a man familiar with crises (he dealt with a deadly smallpox epidemic just years before), guided the firefighters and townspeople. He sent firefighters to the western edge of the block to halt the fire’s advances towards Altamont’s train depot, which was Altamont’s economic hub. However, Laatsch realized the efforts of the townspeople and firefighters weren’t enough. The snow halted the progression of the fire, and the wide alley south of the buildings prevented the fire from spreading. But, Laatsch knew eventually, without assistance, the flames would spread and swallow most of Altamont.
A telegram was sent to Effingham, with whom Altamont had a toxic relationship. (In 1902, an editorial in the Effingham Republic said Altamont’s filthy living conditions were the reason Altamont suffered from a Smallpox epidemic. This accusation didn’t sit well with the people of Altamont.) Effingham understood the severity of the telegram and sent a train with firefighters and supplies. Meanwhile, Laatsch ordered multiple buildings torn down, to give the Effingham Fire Department space to work.
When the train arrived, the townspeople cheered. The Effingham firefighters unloaded their fire pumps and hoses and extinguished the menacing inferno. According to the Altamont News, the train reached Altamont from Effingham in 13 minutes, which even with modern technology would be a miraculous feat. (Trains in the early 1900’s usually reached 30-45 mph.)
With the flames extinguished, the morning sun illuminated Railroad Street. According to the January 15th, 1905 Decatur Herald, Railroad Street was “a mass of ruins.” The casualties included Joe Heiligenstein’s Bottle Works, C.W. Zanhow’s Meat Market, Linebaugh’s Restaurant, Mrs. L. J. Hutchinson’s Millinery Store, and Highland Brewing Co. Most of the businesses rented the buildings from landlords. The majority of these landlords lost their main source of income because they never purchased insurance, which was expensive in those days. But some shop-owners were able to save their goods.
Laatsch later thanked Effingham and the citizens of Altamont in an Altamont Newspaper letter for coming together and saving the town. After the fire, most businesses moved to Main Street, Washington, and Third Street. With the decline of the railroad in the 1960’s, Railroad Street lost much of its importance. Today, only a few old buildings survive on Railroad Street (Adams), including Luke’s Bar & Grill’s building, which was rebuilt after the fire. (A similar building is seen in pre-1905 photos of Railroad Street.) Other old Railroad Street buildings include Kull Furniture’s warehouse and the R & H building.
The Loudon oil field is an area located in eastern Fayette County and parts of western Effingham County. The discovery of its oil stockpile in the late 1930’s, transformed Altamont, St. Elmo, and other surrounding communities.
By the 1940’s, according to some accounts, the Loudon oil field was the second largest oil producer after Texas. This is the story of the Loudon oil Field.
Early Oil Drilling.
Before the oil boom, multiple people hoping to strike it rich tried to drill for oil in the area.
In 1924, Stock Holders Oil & Gas set up a drill, a mile and a half southwest of Altamont. During construction, the company ran out of money and planned an audacious effort to raise enough money to continue construction. The firm threw a fundraiser, which included a carnival, rodeo, and wedding. According to legend, the bride’s name was Laveta Jelly, and the during the shenanigans, the rodeo cowboys lost the horses they borrowed from Altamont locals George Duckwitz and Fred Tappendorf. The drill never found oil.
In the 1930’s, a drill hit oil on the Henry Lilly Farm, north of Wright’s Corner in Fayette County. The drilling process used on the Lilly Farm was inefficient and expensive, meaning the well failed to produce a significant amount of oil. (“Hen” Lilly later became famous for refusing to sell his land to big oil companies).
However, news of the discovery reached Carter Oil Company. Carter Oil built a test well on the property of Mary Miller in northeast Fayette County and installed a new, more efficient drill. The rotary drilling rig, powered by two diesel engines reduced the average drilling time from three weeks to four days. Crowds of bewildered locals gathered to watch the transportation and installation of the massive rotary drill.
In September 1937, the Mary Miller test well No. 1, hit oil at 1600 feet. The oil boom had begun.
The oil boom attracted hordes of workers from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, and the largest oil companies in America like Shell, Texas Co. (Texaco), and Standard Oil set up operations in the area.
By 1940, St. Elmo’s population increased to 3,000 and Altamont’s grew to 2,100. The influx of workers created a housing crisis. With a lack of vacant living space, workers rented rooms in family homes, and some workers slept on the floor in barns next to the horses.
Altamont, during this period, had a quiet, residential feel, which attracted office workers and oil workers with families. Oil workers stayed in the Altamont Hotel at the end of Adams Street, near the present-day government housing. They also lodged with Altamont residents including my Great-Grandfather, Louis Wendling who rented out two rooms of his house to workers.
In 1938, Carter Oil Company built Carter Camp, a group of houses in the northeast part of Altamont for Carter Oil Company employees and families. (Some of the Carterville houses are still standing.)
The boom, which happened during the latter part of the Great Depression, brought employment opportunities to Altamont during a time when they were desperately needed. Some companies moved their business to Altamont, including Halliburton, which for a brief time rented a garage for cement production. The oil fields also hired local high schoolers including my grandfather, Bill Wendling. He hitchhiked from Altamont during the summers, to repair oil pumps near St. Elmo, in sweltering 90-degree weather until he was drafted into World War II in 1945.
While Altamont was affected by the oil boom, St. Elmo was the epicenter of the blast. St. Elmo’s population reached 3,000 around 1939. The once quiet streets of St. Elmo were flooded with people, movie theaters were built, restaurants had long lines, and multiple taverns were built. Wooden oil derricks sprung up around the town, engulfing the once starlit nights with artificial light. The St. Elmo airport runway, where Charles Lindbergh once landed his Spirit of St. Louis plane, was congested with oil company airplanes. St. Elmo even had a football team, a rarity for most small towns in the area.
The oil boom also brought rampant crime. St. Elmo’s taverns were filled with drunks hellbent on starting fights, which sometimes escalated. One story involved a WPA worker (A Works Progress Administration employee, part of FDR’s New Deal.) The drunk and rowdy man stumbled out of the tavern and was beat to death by a woman wielding a two-by-four. Illegal gambling rackets were also popular in St. Elmo taverns.
By the 1950’s, much of the crime had diminished. But the legacy still remains. (This crime wave is supposedly the reason why St. Elmo doesn’t have taverns anymore.)
Workplace safety was also an issue. A news clipping from a Nov. 20, 1938, Decatur Herald, recalls a story about a Beecher City man knocked unconscious by a machine on the oil well. He fell into the oil pit below and luckily was saved by his terrified co-workers. Not all workers were lucky. Some suffered severe burns, or were crushed to death by collapsing oil derricks. In 1941, Carter Oil Company began offering banquets to oil crews that could go six months without disabling accidents.
The flammable nature of oil also brought a separate type of calamity, explosions. In 1938, an oil refinery on the outskirts of St. Elmo exploded with flames reaching 400ft. into the air. An article from the Oct. 12, 1938, Decatur Daily Review states “residents piled belongings into cars and wagons, ready to evacuate the town, only a wind from the south kept the fire from sweeping into town…the worst blast occurred at 10:30 P.M. when streets two blocks away were so brilliantly illuminated, persons could recognize each other.”
Oil production in the Loudon oil field declined in the 1960’s. The Carter Oil Company, which became Exxon, sold its shares in the Loudon field in the 1990’s.
Production in the area isn’t near the levels of the boom days. The wooden derricks, the explosions, packed movie theaters and bustling Main Street are now fading memories. But oil production still plays an important role in the area, with multiple oil facilities still in operation.