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Two gramps in hard times
By JOE MEEKER
For The Beachcomber
Sinus Block sounds like a nasal problem, but it was also the name of my maternal grandfather. He came to America from Germany as a boy of 12 in 1884 and grew up in an almost archetypal immigrant story: During his youth he was a farm laborer with no schooling; he saved his money to buy a small furniture business, married an immigrant woman who bore him three children and by midlife was one of the wealthiest men (a mortician) in Waterloo, Iowa, a pillar of his church and a bigot.
Sinus lived until I was in my mid-20s, but I think we never had a conversation, just the two of us. He was stern, distant, evidently uninterested in young people. I don’t have a single personal story I can tell about Sinus Block.
Joe Meeker sounds like me, but it was also the name of my other grandfather. His ancestors had been in America for a long time, since their first arrival in New Jersey from England in 1635. From that time until Joe Meeker was forced to sell his Iowa farm during the economic crash of 1929, all Meekers had been farmers. Since then, none have been.
Joe died when I was only 5, so I have few personal memories of him, but even so I feel that I know him closely. He was a musician and an armchair philosopher, as were all 10 of his children. Music, spirited argumentation and storytelling filled the house whenever I visited, before and after his death. In the photos I have of him, he shows a wry smile under a shock of unruly white hair, and he holds a fiddle.
The values of these families were defined by the men who led them. The world of Sinus Block was grim, from the poverty of his youth to the business of death that made him wealthy.
His German-Baptist fundamentalism kept him always mindful of the sinfulness of life, but it also gave him a simple but clear moral stance that sharply distinguished between good and evil.
A similar polarization governed his political life, where patriots inhabited heaven, and hell was for all atheists, socialists, Bolsheviks, unionists and other purveyors of perverted doctrines. According to my mother, Sinus was a great patron of patriotic festivals, especially the Fourth of July and Decoration Day (our Memorial Day), which was in Sinus’ time an occasion for visiting cemeteries, his place of business. Sinus always invested in bunting to decorate the town and usually led the parade, especially after he bought the first motorized hearse in town.
The flag was also, of course, good protective coloring for a German immigrant during the anti-German sentiments of World War I. His ideologies were conveniently good for his image — and for his business.
Grandpa Joe never managed to do anything that was good for business. He was, by all accounts, a mediocre farmer who failed to put in the 18-hour days required for success. Joe seems to have been interested in his family and in music. Politically, he revered Eugene V. Debs, who preached the dignity of poverty and the evils of wealth. After World War I, Joe organized his family into The Meeker Orchestra, in which all of his children (plus one adopted orphan) played the instruments he had taught them, and they traveled the muddy roads of Iowa to play at dances in grange halls.
My mother, Annamae, was born into the home of Sinus in 1900. She grew up in the biggest house in town, situated on the town square, with funerals in the parlor, hearses in the garage, embalming in the basement and caskets displayed on the third floor. The household maintained a grim dignity befitting its role in the community.
Mother remembered being on display rather often, at funerals and driving with her father when he bought the first automobile in town. She and her siblings were expected to lead exemplary lives. They could never be seen in dirty clothes, and they were forbidden to ride bicycles. The only book in the house was the Bible.
Grandpa Joe presided over a very different household. Everyone had plenty of work to do with the daily farm chores. My father, Russell, was the eldest son, born in 1898.
When the chores were done in the evening, the family gathered for music and reading. Each child began to play an instrument as soon as dexterity allowed. Everyone learned on the piano, then took up another instrument. Grandpa Joe presided with his fiddle, conducting and cajoling them into a semblance of unison.
Some evenings were for reading rather than music. Grandpa Joe subscribed to the Haldeman-Julius series, a regular publication of “Little Blue Books” that came in the mail ($5 for 50 books). There were excerpts from Greek and Roman classics and a strong sprinkling of selections from enlightenment authors, such as Voltaire and Locke. Joe would read aloud, followed by discussions, often arguments, about the meaning of the texts, far into the night.
By the time of my birth in 1932, the economic depression had struck in full. Franklin Roosevelt was elected that year, largely because he showed promise for recovering from the economic disasters left by the previous decade of unrestrained business excesses. Unemployment and property foreclosures were abundant, and most Americans were suffering from poverty, hunger and despair. But not all.
Sinus Block had acquired wealth during the boom time of the 1920s, and now he used it to snap up bargains of foreclosed Iowa farms. The land holdings he bought during the Depression increased his status and power. And of course, it was a profitable time to own a large funeral business, for many were dying. Sinus did well for himself.
Joe’s strategy during the 1920s had been to use the easy credit that was available to buy enough farm land to keep his large family together. As his children matured, he helped each to buy adjacent farmland so that all could share and remain in one place. That worked until food prices dropped so low that the loan payments couldn’t be met. The banks foreclosed, and the Meeker land became a bargain for investors like Sinus Block. The Meeker children, including my father Russell, dispersed in search of whatever work they could find.
After a failed first marriage, my mother, Annamae, was alone and unemployed with two small children. Sinus helped her a bit, but still she needed a husband with a job. When she met Russell, recently fled from the foreclosed farm but with a government job with the U. S. Postal Service, they were married in 1930.
Russell and Annamae brought to their marriage the values and habits of mind they had absorbed from their parents, Joe and Sinus. Like many Depression couples, they raised chickens and vegetables at home to minimize food costs. When Russell gave food away to others who had nothing to eat, Annamae objected. Those people are lazy, shiftless, dirty and undeserving, she said. That, said Russell, is exactly why they need some food.
My grandfathers, and perhaps yours, went through all of this some 80 years ago. We should be attentive to the best that we can inherit from them. There may be major differences between the Depression era and the time we live in today, but there are also similarities. Unregulated banks and businesses have failed and left many people homeless and distressed. Clever investors are busily buying foreclosed properties at low prices. Unemployment rises daily. Stock markets tremble and fluctuate wildly. A newly elected president offers hope and the belief that “we can do it.” And desperate people again need help. That is why we should be there for them.
— Islander Joe Meeker notes that a poem by Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” tells of the difference between acting from love and acting from need. Google the title to read it.