Oral History Interview with
First cousin of Harry S. Truman
Mary Ethel Noland
September 16, 1965
James R. Fuchs
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Noland Oral History Transcripts]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Mary Ethel Noland
September 16, 1965
James R. Fuchs
FUCHS: We might just start with the tale you remembered while we were talking a little bit ago.
NOLAND: Yes. This is in line with what we were saying last time about what a carefree time we had, It certainly was the "age of innocence"--just a hilarious good time, and remarkably within the bounds of propriety, I think, looking back on it now. We had no intention of getting out of bounds at all, but we didn't feel restricted, we didn't feel cramped in any way. It was just a hilarious good time whenever we were together. And one of those boys that played in that group out here when they lived at the Pittman place was going to be married in 1913, and so, we were invited to the wedding, and he was marrying a girl of considerable
means. In the meantime this young fellow, whose name was Manley Houchens, had gotten into the hardware business and was doing very well in Toledo, Ohio. But he had come back for his bride and they were having a very formal wedding. The word went around that they would be very much pleased if everybody came in formal clothes. Well, of course, Nellie and I had new dresses, and Harry had--I don't know whether it was his or not--but he had a tuxedo, and he borrowed a top hat from Frank Wallace. Now I think it wasn't Frank's hat, originally; Frank had two uncles that had been in social life a good while and they would have that sort of thing. One was named Frank Gates and the other was Walter Gates, and many of their old belongings were still over there in the Gates attic. Well, Frank had resurrected what was called an "opera hat," and
it was a collapsible hat. You sort of flipped it this way and it opened out. And, so, Harry and Frank having the same head size, Harry borrowed the opera hat. Well, on the night of the wedding, which was at the First Baptist Church, it was in late October, and instead of having typical beautiful, balmy October weather it rained, and it snowed, and it blew and it was a terrific night. So Harry called a cab--horse-drawn of course, then--and after the wedding was over we got in the cab to go to the reception out here on River Boulevard at the home of the bride.
FUCHS: What was her name?
NOLAND: Her name was Frances Clemens, and as he leaned out of the cab to tell the cab driver the address he struck his head and the hat
collapsed. You can't imagine anything funnier looking than that little fried egg thing sitting on top of his head. Well, we began one of those hilarious laughing spells, and we laughed and we laughed and he could see that he must look awfully funny and he left it that way, and the more we looked at it the more, we laughed. Well, when we got to the house we were laughing so we didn't want to get out. We didn't want to go into the wedding reception just dying laughing, and we sat in the cab until we recovered from that laughing spell, and he straightened up the hat, and so we went in with great decorum; all of which shows that we could laugh about almost nothing, because we were carefree and a little irresponsible, I think.
FUCHS: Well, I'd like to have seen that. Too bad you don't have a picture of that--him with that hat on.
NOLAND: Oh, I'd like for you to see it, too. I don't even know where the hat is. I imagine they've cleaned out that attic more or less and stored more valuable things. They have a good many things that were gifts to them that are still over there. They had to remodel that attic after they came back. It was, well, they put a ventilation system, because of, I suppose, spontaneous combustion might occur, you know, so many things were there; and so they put in ventilators and things of that kind.
FUCHS: It's pretty crowded in that attic, I guess?
NOLAND: Well, I think they've taken some things out to the Truman Library because they always intended that the things that were given them should be for the public and not for their own private use, wherever that was possible.
Then there's another little story--I don't
know whether it's of great importance--but I thought of this after our talk week before last, about when my grandfather and grandmother lived in Platte County, I told you they went over there when these children were quite small, my mother and Harry's father. And about the Civil War during that time, there was no fighting around there, but sometimes the Kansas Redlegs would come over and they wou1d shoot a harmless old man because he was a Southern sympathizer, or sometimes they would even hang one; and sometimes they would shoot a young boy who was almost too young to bear arms, but they would trump up excuses because they were really a band of desperados, not real soldiers. Then, of course, they came to this side of the river, too, and Quantrill, though, kept them pretty well terrified; but it was nip and tuck between Quantrill and the Redlegs, and a little bit hard to
tell which could outdo the other when it came to vengeance. But the Quantrill band, originally, was formed for protection for those raids that were going back and forth, so it depended on which side you were on just how black each one was. Well, in Platte County, my great grandmother, Nancy Tyler Holmes, would spend time with each child. She had a number who had moved out here and my grandmother was one of them. So one time during the Civil War, they were disturbed by a great commotion across the road from where they lived where there was a family by the name of Davis. And one night the old colored woman whose name was Hannah--she was the main one of their Negroes (they never called them slaves; they always spoke of them as "our people")--they were very considerate of
Hannah, and they were of all others; they treated them with respect. I remember my great-grandmother wrote a letter--I still have it--to my grandmother and she said, "Mary, I want you to get Hannah a new bonnet. You know how Hannah loves to go to church and you must get her a new bonnet, so she'll be presentable," And this old colored woman was really dear to them. On this particular night she came from the quarters and she came to the window of my grandmother's room and she called in a half whisper, "Miss Mary, Miss Mary, they're killin' them all over at Mrs. Davis'!" And with that my grandmother, got up and dressed and my grandfather got up and everybody got up and dressed. And my grandfather took his gun and went over to see what was the trouble with the Davises. And the rest of them all took to any place away from the house, running. And my great-grandmother
at that time must have been about eighty-something or other, and she and some little boys among them Harry's father, little John Truman, went to a cornfield a long way from the house, and way into the cornfield, and it was early fall and the cornstalks were there, though I suppose they had gathered the corn probably; but she had never been in that place before in her life and there she ran with those little boys. And my Uncle William must have been with them, but he was older, and then little John was about ten years old, because he was born in '51. And with him was a little neighbor boy named Charley Hinkle. They finally got to a place in the cornfield where they thought it would be safe to stop and they were all out of breath, and probably a good many of the little colored people were with them, because there were little children in the colored
That reminds me that my mother recalled a wedding or two that these young colored women, Hannah's daughters, were married during my mother's childhood, and my grandmother would make the wedding dress; and they would be married to some man that belonged to a neighbor because all of our people, as they called them, were women. And so one of them married a colored man who belonged to a Rogers' family, and my mother described the wedding dress that my grandmother made for Mary, especially, and then, of course, the families were not united, but it was the best you could do under those slave conditions.
There were little children and probably some of the little colored children went with them to this cornfield, Well, it was cold--the nights were cold you know--they are cold in
the fall. And the little boys were shivering fit to kill. They were really in misery. Well, my great-grandmother had on a billowy, hoop-skirt and she felt that she should protect those little boys, little John and little Charley Hinkle, and whoever else she could gather together; but of course, these two were the ones mother was telling me about. And so she gathered them up and spread her hoop skirt out over them to protect them from the chilly air. Well, after awhile, my grandfather went back to the house, and he began to yoo-hoo for them to come back; but he did a lot of yoo-hooing because they had scattered far and wide. They all got back but the grandmother and the children, and they had to hunt for them. Well, being in a cornfield, it's hard to find your way out. They finally found her after so long, chilled to the bone. But the little boys were
fairly comfortable in that tent, you might say, that was made by the hoop skirt.
FUCHS: What did they find out was going on over at the Davis'?
NOLAND: They found out that one of the Davis boys was going away to join the Confederate Army. The Redlegs hadn't come, but the Confederates had come to take one of the Davis boys into the service, and so they had escaped the Redlegs as they did during the whole war.
FUCHS: Hannah had just thought there was so much noise and commotion over there?
NOLAND: They were crying, they were weeping, they were wailing, you would have thought they were all being murdered, and, so, that was not what it was all about.
FUCHS: What do you recall of Harry's piano playing? When did he start and do you have any memories of that?
NOLAND: Yes, I do. His mother had taken music lessons at the college where she went in Lexington, Missouri. It was called the Lexington Female College, I believe; it's no longer in existence. But she had been a student there and she had learned to play; though she had a musical ear I think she played better by ear than she did by note because if she once heard a tune she could play it without watching and so that made her a little careless about watching the notes; it was too easy playing by ear. And he had the same desire to play, so that when they had a neighbor move in next door to them out there by the name of Burrus, they...
FUCHS: Was this on Waldo?
NOLAND: Yes, it was on Waldo. Miss Florence Burrus was a young lady at the time and she had taken up a plan for teaching "shorthand," music, I think it was by numbers rather than by notes, an easy and painless way to learn to play the piano. So, Harry took music lessons from her. I think it was more novel as a plan than it was thorough, but he learned to play and finger and so on.
FUCHS: About what year did he start?
NOLAND: He was about twelve, I should say--twelve or thirteen. But he took music lessons from her, and he was pretty faithful about practicing. He liked it and learned to play. It was a start, but after he moved to Kansas City, he began to take from a really fine teacher, Mrs. E. C. White, who was one of the best to be
found in all this locality.
FUCHS: He was about nineteen then.
NOLAND: Yes, he was.
FUCHS: And he was still taking?
NOLAND: Yes, he was, and he took for a number of years, in fact, I think he took lessons pretty well up until he went to the World War.
FUCHS: Even after he was on the farm?
NOLAND: On the farm--he went back and forth and took lessons from Mrs. White. Mrs. White and Harry's mother were great friends. They thought a great deal of Mrs. White, and Harry really became a fairly good piano player. And of course it was classical music and we thoroughly
enjoyed it because it was--a fine world of music that he has enjoyed ever since--he likes good music; he knows good music. Mary Jane took lessons from Mrs. White, too, a long time.
FUCHS: He must have taken lessons nearly twenty years.
NOLAND: Well, he did; he took a long time. And then there would be times when he wouldn't be taking and then he would go back and take again, because he just liked it and he liked Mrs. White and her-mother, too, the grandmother. Harry was fond of older people, He was brought up to be fond of them. They were devoted to the Grandmother Young. He was a person that age meant very little to. If he liked a person, it didn't matter whether they were old, young, or whatever they were.
FUCHS: Do you have any vivid memories of Grandmother Young?
NOLAND: Yes, I knew her well. She lived to be along in the nineties so that she's one of my earliest recollections. She was of Scotch-Irish descent. Her name was Gregg, and her mother's name was Scott, so they were typically of the red-haired, Scotch-Irish type. She was a very quiet woman. I don't remember hearing her talk very much, but a woman of fine judgment and fine principles.
FUCHS: What about Solomon Young--of course you would have been pretty young, I guess. He died in 1892, I believe?
NOLAND: I think it was 92.
FUCHS: Do you recall much of him?
NOLAND: Well, he was what we might call a very old man at that time because he was born along about--I don't remember the exact date, but it would be 1816 or something like that. So he was pretty well advanced. Now, he was not like his wife. He was a talkative man and a man who liked to talk about his adventures in life, and it had been interesting. He used to freight across the plains and as far as Salt Lake City, where he made friends with Brigham Youn