Heirlooms are reminders of what past generations endured

My parents recently started passing on family heirlooms. A few years ago, my dad refurbished a dozen old woodworking tools as a Christmas present. Dad, along with my maternal grandfather and a great-grandfather, used these tools throughout the 20th century. I keep them neatly installed in my home office as a reminder that my ancestors spent long hours working with their hands.

A year ago, my mother gave me a ration book that my grandmother, Wilma (Burton) Farr, and my great-grandmother, Dillie (Farnum) Burton, had used during World War II. In late August 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration to control the cost of consumer goods and limit consumption. The war had disrupted world trade and large quantities of goods were rerouted to the Allied armies. The OPA rationed automobiles, gasoline, rubber, sugar, coffee, meat, butter, and medicine. Rationing, in the opinion of the Roosevelt administration, was the best way to fairly distribute limited goods. Americans hated it, but rationed it anyway. The generation that endured the Great Depression had learned to live without it.

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When she retired, Grandmother signed up for a writing course at the High Street Methodist Church as part of her refresher apprenticeship scheme. For a mission, she wrote a story of her life in Muncie. This too has become a precious heritage. In a section on the war, Wilma wrote that in 1942, “Gas rationing hit us, along with coffee, sugar and shoes. Book rationing has become a familiar part of our lives. At the time, Wilma drove the family’s 1934 Nash LaFayette. With fuel rationed, “we saved our gas for the weekend so we could shop and shop.” On other days, she was content to walk or take the bus.

Wilma Burton, circa 1919, at her home at 2224 S. Jefferson.

Wilma has lived in Muncie all her life, mostly in Congerville; the informal name given to the neighborhood at the western end of the current Southside neighborhood and the southeast Thomas Park/Avondale strip. Old Congerville is bounded by Memorial Drive to the north, Madison to the east, Franklin to the west, and 26th Street to the south (although specific boundaries vary by source).

Like Boycetown, Industry and Whitely, Congerville grew during the gas boom for factory workers. Before the boom, the area was mainly used for agriculture, with huge tracts owned by William Watson, Rebecca Anthony and Charles Kimbrough. It was Lenape land in the early 1800s and before that Native American land of Myaamia for centuries.

The land that became Congerville was first covered in 1889 by the Muncie Natural Gas Land Improvement Company. Right after the boom, a Dayton restaurateur named Nicholas Ohmer bought $60,000 ($1.8 million today) worth of real estate, part of which later became the northern part of the neighborhood. Memorial/12th Street was formerly called Ohmer Avenue in his honor.

In the early 1890s, George McCulloch and James Boyce of the Citizens Enterprise Company (think of it as the Chamber of Commerce at the time) convinced an Ohio industrialist named Arthur Conger to develop the land south of Ohmer Avenue along Walnut Street. Conger’s syndicate built several residential streets and was responsible for bringing Midland Steel to Muncie. Known to locals as the ‘Midlands’, the sprawling rolling mill west of 18th and Walnut has employed thousands of people over the years. Many workers buy houses in the aptly named neighborhood of Congerville.

Some were from Ohio, like my great-grandparents, Dillie and Gale Burton. Dille had recently married Gale after his discharge from the United States Army, where he served as a telegrapher during the Spanish–American War. The Burtons moved back to Muncie after Gale landed a job as a long-distance bandleader in 1901.

The Burtons first rented a small cottage on South Jefferson Street. It was here that they had their first child (Donald) in 1906. When Gale got a job in the Midlands, they bought a house a few blocks north at 2224 S. Jefferson.

My grandmother Wilma was literally born in this house a decade later, in 1916. A severe August thunderstorm had knocked out the phone just as Dillie was starting to go into labor, so Gale, as her daughter would later write, “went on his bicycle to fetch Dr. Surber, who delivered me.

Don Burton, founder of WLBC.

This house is also notable as the birthplace of WLBC, Muncie’s first and oldest radio station. Wilma later recalled that her brother Don started the WLBC in 1926, when he “received his first broadcast license. My father built a small building at the back of the garage to store the transmitters. Mother gave Don her living room for a studio and WLBC was born.

Grandmother attended Garfield Elementary School although Roosevelt School in Center Township was closer. All of Congerville did not fall within the city limits at the time, but the northern part was. Muncie eventually annexed the rest of Congerville in 1919. A year later, the Congerville Flyers football club became the Muncie Flyers and co-founded the APFA, a precursor to the NFL.

A photo of Wilma's Garfield Elementary School from the early 1920s.

Wilma graduated from Wilson Junior High School in 1930 and Muncie Central in 1933. She then attended Ball State Teachers College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1937. Her first job was teaching at Harrison School, located in west of the present Rosebud Coffee House. . She transferred to Roosevelt School in 1939, where she taught for another eight years.

Wilma (back row, far right) with her students from Harrison Elementary School.

She married my grandfather Luther Farr in 1946. Farr had just returned from the South Pacific, where he had served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. The Farrs bought a house in Congerville at 2200 S. Mulberry, about a block and a half from where Wilma grew up. They lived there for decades and raised my mother, Kathleen, and my late aunt, Patricia Savage.

In the 1960s, Wilma returned to the classroom, teaching third grade at Riley Elementary. After Luther’s death in 1979, she retired and sold their Congerville home. A social butterfly, she spent her later years traveling, reading and enrolling in numerous adult education classes in Greater Muncie. She died in 2010 at the age of 93, loved by her family and who will always be remembered for her lightness, her tenderness, her curiosity and her love of animals.

Wilma Burton in the early 1930s.

I keep Wilma and Dillie’s ration book next to my ancestors’ carpentry tools. Whenever I catch myself complaining about work, COVID restrictions, or gas prices, these legacies remind me that much better generations than mine had resisted much more.

Grandma and her peers endured many challenges including two World Wars, the Spanish Flu, the Depression of 1920-21, the Great Depression, numerous recessions and the Cold War. Through it all, Wilma managed a teaching career that spanned decades; educate the children of Muncie and maintain a home through it all. Wilma’s generation was not great because of some innate quality, but because it rose to meet the challenges of the mid-twentieth century. They were great because they chose to be.

Delaware County Historical Society

Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana”. For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit delawarecountyhistory.org.

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