SMOKEY RAINBOW ala WHISTLE STOP CAFE

The Rainbow Café of the twentieth century was epitome of Midwestern culture. Akin to the Whistle Stop Café of Fried Green Tomatoes fame, the 1991 comedy based upon Fannie Flagg’s 1987 novel, Whistle Stop was fashioned from Irondale Café owned by Flagg’s aunt. The Rainbow Café sustained for nearly nine decades– in operation from before 1919 until its closing in 1995. Centered in the middle of diminutive Flora, Indiana with a hovering population of just over 2,000, it was archetypal specimen of Hoosier ethos lifeforce.

Although I was no Idgie Threadgood, the risk-taking character from Flagg’s book, I did defy norms and my independence congealed in impressionable years of service to the Café when naivety was eradicated. When I was a pliable preteen, my mother announced herself a restaurateur of The Rainbow Café. On paper, she and dad were the official titleholders, but mother was the brains, culinary whiz, and wheels of the operation, while dad (who preferred to farm) bestowed charm and heavy lifting to support mom. From that pre-teen impressionable age forward, I was tenant waitress, and my life was public. In many ways I revered the Cafe, and in an equal portion, I detested the mayhem that my mother’s entrepreneurial decision inflicted on my status quo.

THE NAME: In the world of 2022, the word, ‘Rainbow’ has far-reaching connotations. It is a term of diversity and conveys acceptance of all nature of orientations. In the cafe’s founding days of 1919 or thereabouts, rainbow was a mystical symbol of nature’s hope. In conservative Indiana of the 1960s, there was not much tolerance for deviation from the norm or rebellion. Wikipedia states a rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon caused by reflection, refraction, and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicolored circular arc. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the Sun. I would add that a rainbow is also a metaphorical emblem and in the 1960s, it represented an idealistic pathway to address life. In those days customs and expected behavior were shaped through subtle nuances and judgement, often in the form of gossip. One could learn of the latest scandals and improprieties at the Rainbow Café, a community gathering spot to share events and juicy info. Being proficient at making change on the spot, before the age of digitation or even the invention of calculators, required johnny-on-the-spot skills. (To this day, I remember the prominent man who allowed me to give him an extra $40 bucks in change and smugly smiled to himself. As he shut the front door to leave, I realized what I had done and debated about running after the well-heeled fellow to correct the matter but chose not to do so out of fear. I never had the courage to tell my mother what had happened, but my opinion of that well-respected community leader was forever changed, and I saw the silly greed and power that could so easily be fostered.)

1992 front page advertisement

For the years from 1965 through 1972, I was the waitress daughter at the Rainbow Cafe. At 5 a.m. I often went in with my mother to open the Café and we served workers from Mann’s Chevrolet, one of the larger employers, and businessmen (insurance agents, bankers, store owners, pharmacists), retirees, and regulars for their coffee. In the dawn of the reckoning age of tobacco, cigarette smoking muddled a cloud of fogginess that lingered over the dining room, but particularly in the morning hours. The waitress carried a glass carafe of strong black coffee and was expected to be ever cognizant of an emptying cup. There was a kind of dance in which your approach brought a near involuntary lifting of the cup for the proverbial pouring. There is of course, a metaphorical component to the smoke because it did hide the homogeneous determination of the 1960s Hoosier community which would eventually evolve.

I learned early in my pre-teen waitress days, that males were much more proficient at gossip than the proverbial belief that women were master’s at it. I can recall pouring coffee on almost every day and hearing a new story told with delight. The accounts were not always scandalous but often just deviations from the norm and names were readily mentioned.

Immediately I acknowledged that this institution, smokey Rainbow was shaking my perceptions and beliefs, and throughout my subsequent life, episodical memories metamorphosed into reflections (even a has). As my own children were making paths through high school, college, and law school, and perusing summer jobs, I offered my two cents worth. (Note that all three of them worked in waiter capacity; one at Dade City’s Kafé Kokopelli where I am indebted to the indomitable Gail Greenfelder as proprietor for guidance; another at Zephyrhills’ Sonny’s Barbecue and a third at a trendy establishment in Key West. They all concurred that work as waiters gave them a glimpse of human nature they may not otherwise have garnered.)

Waiting on people and serving humans food is an intimate experience; it gives a perspective of human nature that transform perceptions. For me, waitressing provided a glimpse at human behavior and shaped my vocational decisions. As an effective waiter, one had to be attentive to client’s needs, ignore the grossness of physical behavior, and build a set of skills and tolerance to camouflage authentic reactions. Sexist comments were the norm in the sixties and being talked down to was routine. Perfecting the skill of ‘small talk’ and plastered smiles were essential. A group of folks who frequented the Rainbow found social interaction indispensable as it was their only cradle of companionship. A handful of elderly clients visited every day for their main meal, and they flourished into dear friends. On the other hand, there were occasional deviants; a well-known pedophile (in an age when there was a lack of understanding and no mandatory reporting) came in daily for brunch and always had to do the age-old visual head to toe scanning of female’s body which made your skin crawl. (Many times, I have recollected that I never witnessed even one African American of Hispanic enter the Rainbow, yet we tolerated the likes of our small group of social deviants.) Businessmen and folks of prominence often barked condescending orders. Families with children who scattered food all over the table, chairs, and floors without intervention-built fortitude. Not unusual to smother a whimper, the skill building, empathy, and tolerance-fostering were significant to maturation and understanding.

DESCRIPTION:

In those days as one entered the Rainbow Café from Columbia Street’s sidewalk, you gripped a hefty door handle and heaved open a massive door with weighty glass windows. The half café curtains moved hospitably in acknowledgement. You could gaze to the right and then back to the left and see wooden tables with chairs carefully posed for seating; a metal coat tree sat to the side of the slightly protruding entrance area, draped with a couple of jackets. Five wooden booths adorned the left wall. On each table were the classic stainless steel napkin holders, small glass salt and pepper shakers, and cylinder sugar shaker. Over time there would be a few nick-nacks here and there. (I remember the triangular wood, golf tee game that captured the imagination of guests.) Later the 1972 frivolity of the Centennial of the town brought frontier decoration and costume. Not completely symmetrical in format, the right side of the interior held the glass candy counter, the soda fountain with every nature of sundae topping and flavors for cokes, and the aging cash register. Shelves of every nature of soda glass, sundae, or banana split glass were stashed neatly on the wall shelves. Perpendicular to the glass counter was the breakfast counter which was fronted by twelve swivel counter seats. On the counter were two pie shelves with one of the Rainbow’s delicacies, all nature of fruit, custard, and meringue pies. Behind the counter a waitress would be bustling about thrusting a paper order into the window that connected to the kitchen. One might hear a bell ring as food was returned for delivery to the customer. A cooler to the left had an array of gelatin desserts, dressings, and fruit confections that were popular on the menu. Also on the waitress’s counter against the back wall was the coffee grinder and the four-unit coffee area. A large aluminum milk refrigerator emblazoned with “Bordon’s” was to the far right just before the breezeway back to the kitchen.

The dark brown and tan linoleum floors, although scrubbed every evening by high school student, Joe Jenkins, often showed age with a bit of dullness, however the diagonal positioning of the tile gave an heir of Americana. The antique Hunter brand fans were usually on a slow pace and the movement contributed to the ambiance.

In the kitchen, one could encounter remarkable and highly unique ladies who I still recall vividly decades later: Vida ElmaTalbert, Mary Margaret Pearson, Geneva Virginia Bausum, Lucy Jane Crumet Krauss and of course, my mother. In the dining room, manager Lois Allen, Vera Shepherd, and Miriam Myers were also priceless. (Frankly, all of them had a teeny bit of the Idgie persona!) They were colorful personalities with strong post-Great Depression era work ethics and every one of them was a ‘survivor’ by nature. The kitchen was jam packed with two large cooking stoves, a monstrous oven, the elongated Hobart Dishwasher, and an ample steam table that would hold the entrees and various sides of yummy veggies. A deep frier sat beside the main stove used for short order cook that could fry up some cholesterol-packing items that served as sides as well as entrees. In a January 30, 1926, Hoosier Democrat quip, they printed, “Ain’t they delicious? Those toasted sandwiches at the Rainbow Café? Have you tasted a toasted at the Rainbow Café?” (Well, I can unequivocally say the toasted sandwiches were sensational. One could have a toasted cheese, toasted chicken, tuna or ham salad sandwich at any time on the short order menu. In the kitchen a radiant stainless-steel bowl of 100% golden butter sat on the side of the range top with a large brush. When a toasted order came through, the bread was painted abundantly with butter and the grilling was to perfection. Vida Talbert’s fried chicken would trump any fried chicken throughout the country, and it is the measuring stick I use for any fried chicken purchased or served. The roast beef manhattan was always a hit and included tender Hoosier roast beef piled on sour dough bread adjoined with freshly beaten mashed potatoes and smothered with Juanita’s incredible beef gravy. Lunch choices were very similar to contemporary “Cracker Barrel” choices as one would select a freshly prepared entree and three sides. (The recipe book I compiled several years ago entitled, “Juanita in Blue” contains the quantity recipes that were passed down at the restaurant.)

OWNERS:  Over the Rainbow’s illustrious history, there were at least twenty known owners who included: Jesse Wilcox, Jesse Kendall, Ruskin Carter, Paul Barnard, Edgar Krauss, Sr, Loren Brower, Lucy Krauss, Eddie Krauss, Jr., Bill Bright, Doyle & Juanita Jervis, Triple A Corporation, Morris and Connie McKay, Janice Fife Reef, Mr. & Mrs. Van Kaufman, Rick & Michelle Markley, and William Stoddard. It’s moniker was the Rainbow Cafe throughout the years except for a very short time when the Kaufman’s called it the Breakaway. Rick and Michelle Markley sold the restaurant entrails in 1995 which included equipment and restaurant furniture. The final/current owner, William Stoddard reopened the cafe space as a clock shop.

The longest-term owners and the most prominent over time were the Krauss family who owned it for 44 years, first in a partnership with Loren Brower and then as a family from April 1921 until 1965. When Edgar F. Krauss, Sr. died in 1954, his wife, Lucy assumed the reigns joined by their son, Edgar “Eddie” Krauss, Jr. Lucy was in management of the restaurant for the total 44 years and then continued to work at the Café for an additional ten years. Thus, Lucy Jane Crumet Krauss holds the very soul of the café as she influenced its operations for 54 years! Incidentally, Lucy did most of the pie baking over time. She was known for several recipes but particularly the old-fashioned cream pie, and she came every morning to open to bake fresh pies for the day. Her husband Edgar had been an active member of the Flora band.

The café was a family endeavor for both the Kraus family and the Jervis family.  Archives show the Krauss family hosting a birthday party for their son in 1950 with employees in attendance. A Christmas party for employees in 1952 with gift exchange was typical.

Open every day, a notice in newspapers reports that they will be closed for Thanksgiving Day. In 1955, for the first time during its management of 34 years, the Krauss announce the café will be closed for Mother’s Day and then operating every other Sunday thereafter.

For the Jervis family, I can attest to the fact that we hosted birthday parties and celebrations for the family. In the phase of Granny dresses, I was allowed to invite my classmates for a dance at the Café in 1966. The café hosted the rehearsal dinner for my own wedding in 1974.

Although I was away at college, the Jervis couple, my parents, reveled in all the activity and fun of the 1972 Centennial celebration for the city. Employees were in period dress, and the café was adorned with several antiques and even the menu reflected some vintage dishes.

THE LOOK:  The general appearance of the Rainbow changed in miniscule form during the ninety years. Research shows that in 1935, all the restaurant fixtures and equipment were moved to the Brumfield room just south of Brumfield grocery so that the space could be remodeled. A partition was removed, and a new floor added with expansion of the kitchen. New counter and redecorated transformed it into one of the most modern restaurants in this section of state! According to the news reports.  Later in 1962, Lucy Krauss and her son installed electronic air cleaners, said to be one of the first to install such a system in Indiana. The Electro-Aire air cleaner was touted as one of the latest developments in scientific equipment.

I noted from the experience of the over twelve years that my parents owned the restaurant that the equipment sale in 1995 was largely a listing of equipment I recognized from the late 1970s, so it appears little change was made after the 1960s.

PART OF PEOPLE’S LIVES

Lots of people talked of employment at the café. In 1932, Jesse Patrick related his experiences of working there years before, and later taking over the R. Long Restaurant. The newspaper reported that Dena Clem was there in 1943 for two years during WW II. The July piece also reported about the fourth of July being the quietest ever because fireworks were banned due to the World War efforts. In 1944, the Rainbow was listed on the honor roll for the War Loan Drive for funding of the war on the Homefront. Several classmates, cousins, such as Deborah Wilson, and even neighbors were employed at the Rainbow over time.

MILESTONES of the Rainbow Café are largely hidden in history. How many folks contemplated a job change, marriage proposal, or other life experience over a lunch or perhaps a cherry coke at the Rainbow?

In regard to archives, in 1992, the Midwest Living Magazine featured the Rainbow Café as ONE OF TWELVE RESTAURANTS WITH THE BEST BREAKFAST IN ALL OF THE MIDWEST in 1992. Judith Cebula wrote, “to the regulars, the Rainbow means homemade raisin toast, sauteed potatoes and coffee which starts flowing at 5 a.m. every morning.

Talk to the regulars. They’re as important to this place as the food.”

–Lifelong resident, Cullan Eikenberry related that he had been coming to the Rainbow for as long as he could remember.  “I come to hear the malarkey. They talk about Purdue basketball, the football and basketball talent coming out of Carroll County, and more.”
–Lee Shambaugh at age 82, proclaimed he was a 60-year customer. As a young man, Shambaugh would head for the Rainbow late Saturday nights. “After taking girlfriends home from a night at the movies, the guys gathered at the diner ‘just to talk.”
–Mable Cecerle walked to the Rainbow every afternoon to visit with the owner, Juanita, and enjoy her main meal of the day for the last two decades of her life.
–In 1920’s the news reported that house specialty, Plain Dream cost ten cents. Malted milks had jumped in price.
–Group events were abundant: such as the Presbyterian Ladies Bazaar, basketball team reunions, Rainbow Café Concert Series, Fire Station Christmas party, and so many more.
–The Markley’s started a community theatre, The Rainbow Players featuring Flora residents and also had a professional troupe who appeared at the Rainbow Café.
–At least one wedding rehearsal party was held there; namely the festive dinner for the wedding party of Madonna Jervis and Ernest Wise in 1974.  ‘
–Results of the 1986 “The Indianapolis Star’s” Byway Cafe’s project designed to uncoer popular small town restaurants across the state; the Rainbow Cafe was named one of the best byway cafe. 

When the Rainbow closed in 1995, it was transformed into a clock repair shop. The irony is not lost that a place with so many memories could be kept by a timekeeper.

“It’s funny how a little place like this brought so many people together.” ~ Fried Green Tomatoes

TIMELINE FROM ARCHIVES Of FLORA’S RAINBOW CAFE

1920: (January): Jesse Kendal, a businessman of ability, has purchased the Rainbow Café on Columbia Street from Jesse Wilcox and is in possession of the same at present and he promises to give the public a first-class restaurant.

1920: Jesse Kendall (April) sold half interest in the Rainbow Café to Paul Barnard.

Mr. Kendall has built a large patronage. “Plain dream” is selling at ten cents per dish pus war tax, but sundaes and sodas come higher…Malted milks have jumped to 20 cents and ice cream in quantitate is selling at 55 cents a quart.

1920 (December): Ruskin Carter, Well known and popular young businessman of the city, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henty Carter, Tuesday purchased the Rainbow Café on Columbia Street of Jesse Kendall and took possession at once.

1921: Ruskin Carter who had owned the Rainbow Café since December sold the business to Edgar F. Krauss and Loren Brower, two of the well-known and well-liked young men of the city who took possession in the evening. Mr. Brower has been employed at the café for over a year. Mr. Krauss has for the past three years been an employee of the Flora Produce Company and a member of the Flora band. The firm name will be Krauss & Brower

1921: The Logansport Morning Press prints regular advertisements of “Service-Quality, The Rainbow Café for the Best meals and soft drinks; high grade candies and ice cream and short orders at all hours, Krauss & Brower, Flora, Indiana.”

1923: Presbyterian ladies will hold a market and bazaar at the Rainbow Café on December 15.

The ladies of the Progressive Church held a market Saturday at the Rainbow Café.

1926: Hoosier Democrat reports, “A’int they delicious? Those toasted sandwiches at the Rainbow Café?”

1932: Jesse Patrick who for the past few years has been employed at the Rainbow Café took over the S.R. Long Restaurant at the corner of Main and Center Streets

1935: All the fixtures and equipment of the Rainbow Café will be moved to the Brumfield room just north of the Brumfield’s grocery next week, to make room for completely remodeling and rearranging the café, according to E.F. Krauss, proprietor. The partition will be removed, throwing the two rooms into a large room. A new floor will be laid, and the kitchen will be enlarged, a new counter and other fixtures will be installed, and room redecorated, making it one of the most modern restaurants in this section of the state.

1936: Merchants of Flora will start a cash fund-give away at the Flora Theatre each Tuesday night. Merchants who are participating include E.F. Krauss of Rainbow Café

1937: Basketball squad of 1924-25 enjoyed a reunion of a Swiss steak dinner served at the Rainbow Café. Coach Ralph Pearson and Coach Pearson and former players, Eddie Murphy, Fred McCune, Kenneth Quinn, Virgil Parks, Harold Catrol, Joe Snell, Walter Moss, and Kenneth Brubaker.

1941: The Rainbow Cafe posts it will be closed all day for Thanksgiving.

1943: Hoosier Democrat reports Dena Clem resigned her position at the Rainbow after two years to join her husband, Corporal Morris Clem at Camp Livingston, Louisiana. Also reporting it was the quietest Fourth of July in history due to the banned fireworks during the war.

1944: Hoosier Democrat reported a list of honor roll employers for the war effort from the Treasury Department of the US for the Fifth War Loan Drive which included the Rainbow Café. Information was from Ora F. Shirar, County Chairman of the War Finance Committee.

1945: The Rainbow Café posts in local newspaper it will be closed all day for Thanksgiving.

1950: Birthday party was held at the Rainbow Café for the son of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Krauss, named Eddie. Those present along with the Edgar Krauss’s were the employees as well as Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Krauss, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Condo and sons, Sonny and Tommy.

1952: December brings the annual Christmas part of the Rainbow Café employees with exchange of gifts and refreshments from the proprietors, Mr., and Mrs. Edgar Krauss.

1955: For the first time during the management of 34 years of the Rainbow Café, operated by Mrs. Edgar Krauss and son, Eddie Krauss, has decided to remain closed on Sunday, starting with Mother’s Day. For the past ten years the café has been closing every other Sunday.

1955: Edgar F. Krauss will was probated. Edgar was owner of the Rainbow Café for 34 years. By its terms. Mr. Krauss left his entire estate to his wife, Lucy Krauss, and her death to his three children: Mrs. Josephine Condo, Mrs. Mary Louise Hipsher and Edgar Krauss, Jr.

1962: Rainbow Café installs one of the first electronic air cleaners in the state. Ayres Hardware Inc announced this week the installation one of the first electronic air cleaner in the state. The Electro-Aire cleaner is one of the latest developments in scientific equipment…

1964: Carroll football fans are encouraged to purchase their tickets for net Tuesday’s game against Lewis Cass with 75 cents for adults and 40 cents for students. Tickets are on sale at the Rainbow Café in Flora or the Bleghlers Super 98 in Burlington.

1965 (March): Bill Bright of Flora took possession Monday of the Rainbow Café which he recently purchased from Mrs. Lucy Krauss. The restaurant had been in the Krauss family since April 1921 when Edgar Krauss Sr. and Loren Brower purchased the restaurant form Ruskin Carter. Mr. Krauss bought out Brower’s Share. Mrs. Krauss has worked in the restaurant for the past 44 years and her son, Edgar, JR. has been associated with the business for 18 years.

1965 (October): Doyle and Juanita Jervis purchased the Rainbow Café from Mrs. William Bright. The popular restaurant was sold to Mrs. Bright on March first by Mrs. Lucy Krauss.

1980: Mr. and Mrs. Ernie McKay have purchased the Rainbow Café in Flora from Triple A Corporation. McKay recently retired from Penn-Dixie Corporation in Kokomo; his wife is a medical secretary for a Kokomo physician

1982: Morris and Connie McKay sold the Rainbow Restaurant to Janice Fife Jervis Reef

1983: The Rainbow Café was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Van Kaufman of Delphi who also own the Flora Pizza King. The Café will be renamed to “The Break-Away Inn” and they plan to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.

1986: Named one of the best byway cafes in the state, the Rainbow Café offered summer concert series with Rock n Roll Specter concert.

1986: Cree/Knop International Inc. purchased JoAnn’s Restaurant (it was operated as Joann’s in 1979 by JoAnn Miller who retired. The restaurant was leased to Rick and Michelle Markley, owners of the Rainbow Café. When Markley purchased the restaurant in 86, he was told that it had to be called the Rainbow. When another owner had changed the named for a few years, but it didn’t go over well.’

1992: Pharos Tribune reports that The Rainbow Café ranks high in Midwest Living Magazine. Owner and cook Rick Markley boasts of homemade foods; also, Howard Parks who was once a waiter at the restaurant as a teen, now in his 80s reports most of the restaurant’s regular clientele have been coming to the café for most of their lives. Meredith Butcher said, “in the old days, the guy that owned it had a breakfast special for 35 cents. A similar breakfast would cost $2.99 today.  Bill Winter said the café’s success hasn’t changed through the years; “you have to get down here and get the news before it’s stale. It changes every hour.”

1992: Journal and Courier reporter, Judith Cebula reports Rainbow Café makes list of best bets. Just the kind of restaurant you’d find in Charles Kuralt’s CBS New archive under “slice of Americana. “To the regulars means homemade raisin toast. Midwest Living features the Rainbow one of twelve restaurants chosen as the best breakfast places in the Midwest.

1992: Journal and Courier has front page advertisement stating, “A HOT SPOT…Flora’s Rainbow Café…best place for breakfast.”

1995: The former Rainbow Cafe of Flora was renovated and became the site of Bill’s Clockworks, officially opening in November 1995 by William (Bill) Stoddard.

El CAMINO LADY–FROM BERNICE TO KATE SMOKER!

BeatriceSmokerin1927Kate Smoker was an remarkable and iconic woman of my little berg in Carroll County, Indiana. Many decades after I left the area and settled elsewhere, I think back on anecdotes, lessons (some of parable-proportion), great joys and heartaches of that conservative Hoosier locale!

Having led historical groups and written a few books including two about Carroll County characters, I found myself perusing social media during the highs and lows of COVID 19 quarantine. Admittedly I was in my mood/demeanor of advocating for women in leadership, having just been chastised by a former colleague about the spunky gal AOC who had just been lambasted by elected representative, Dr. Ted Yoho on the steps of the U.S. Capital. What man old enough to be her grandfather, shouts out, “You fuckin bitch” to a fellow elected representative? But after so many years of being in the limelight and a woman boss, I was accustomed to the demeanor, and still eternally hopeful the inherent misogynistic belief that ‘women should know their place’ might change in the age of my daughters and granddaughters.

Bernicein1949Well, what did I discover but a Facebook page called, “You Know you Grew up in Carroll County when…”? The first post piqued my attention. The name also brought back hazy memories…Kate Smoker. I found myself perusing posts about Kate! Several were atrocious and mean-spirited but others were keenly insightful, warm and provided lessons about human life.

I was particularly taken by entries of Tina Gilbert Siefert and Mike Swisher. Tina had the thoughtful wisdom to see the multi-dimensions of a human being, and I liked her analogy. She said…Kate lived next door to my Grandma…and you know the character Weeza always reminds me of Kate!

Wow, I thought. Reflecting on the fact that my own retired school administrator’s group led by a remarkable woman leader coined themselves the Steel Magnolias, I pondered on Ouiser (pronounced Weeza).  Shirley MacLaine’s character in that iconic movie, Steel Magnolias, Ouiser Boudreaux proclaimed, “I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.” And yes, she had a lovable and courageous sarcasm that many envied, and she had long ago shed phony trivialities of earlier years.

Yes, indeed Kate Smoker was Carroll County’s own Weeza. I concurred.

The other worthy social media poster was penned by Mike Swisher:

“Kate was a kind and a gentil soul. I worked for her from the time I was seven or eight years old for fifty cents an hour ‘driving’ her cattle and sheep down Cutler road. Then I joined the Air Force and did not see much of her after that. Kate not only taught at IU of K she also taught at Grissom Air Force Base. I believe she taught GED classes back in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember driving her to Kokomo so she could have a dress fixed by a lady on Armstrong Street then we would go to Laughner’s Cafeteria for supper. She taught me about table manners and how to get along in life. She told me not to be nasty towards people and to treat everyone with the same respect I wanted (even when people looked down on me). She was truly unique and an inspiration. I think about her often and cannot help but smile and laugh at the things she used to do in Burlington. What a hoot!”

“If you knew her, you could not help but love her. I remember getting the hiccups when I was working for her. She waited until I was not paying attention, then yelled at me, scared the hiccups right out of me. I almost peed myself. I am still laughing about that.”

Impressed with what Mike had written, I could see that he was pleased with spotlight on his mentor but wanted to subtly weave the tale to assure the real essence of the lady was revealed to all in a kind manner. Had I still been teaching and Mike were a student, I would have adorned his paper with enormous specific praise!

(Back many decades ago, I grew up on a farm between Cutler and Bringhurst, Indiana in Carroll County. My dad farmed, and my ingenuous mother, owned/operated a Café in nearby Flora. I was called upon to help at both locations and found solace in 4-H until I ventured off to Taylor University, an ultra-conservative college, spurned from Methodism. The odd thing however, is that I began to realize the isolation of Carroll County while there. At the time of my youth, the socioeconomic configuration of Carroll County was one hundred percent homogeneous. Everyone was Caucasian and most were protestant.  Admittedly it would take years for me to enter the world of openness, and even after decades, the old prejudices re-emerge subliminally on occasion. My cousin Darlene and I seemed to be the only ones to have ‘flown the coop’ from our clan so we swap stories yet today. Growing up there was protective but also a bit like a Stephen King social experiment. Expectations, deviances from the norm, and even philosophical explorations were non-existent and unknown. I recall only two high school teachers who led open discussions. When first I came home from Taylor spouting Christian Existentialism, my mother was aghast. I digress from my story to share my upbringing, in order that the reader acknowledge my affinity to Kate Smoker!)

Mary Bernice Chittick was born on October 25, 1894, to the town’s prominent physician and his wife. Her only sibling, Beatrice was born four years later. Bernice and Beatrice lived in a cultured atmosphere. Notices of piano recitals, church socials and education abound in the public archives. She chose to attend Kokomo High School because of the quality of education provided at a larger city school. Both Bernice and Beatrice graduated from the Muncie National Institute (forerunner of Ball State teacher’s college) in 1916. She married Jake Elsero Smoker in 1919 at age 25.

Bernice Smoker was a consummate educator. She did stints at Burlington Elementary, Koro Elementary and several other primary schools in the area and then went on to teach for several years at the high school level in Indianapolis and throughout the state. She instructed chiefly as a high school English teacher but also taught math and even guidance. Throughout her career, she consistently attended seminars and training on educational innovations, and eventually earned a Master’s Degree from Indiana University. At one point she was the Welfare Director in the county. Her passion for teaching and taking care of people was a constant life thread.

TEACHIGATRUSSIAVILLE1959Journal_and_Courier_Sat__Aug_22__1959_

In the years after she worked in Indianapolis, she taught at the most challenging locations, the Indiana Boy’s School and the Indiana Girls School for troubled and incarcerated children and adult prisoners, and later at the college level. Her philosophy of education was ahead of the time as she frequently spoke at PTA, community groups and other professional organizations and advocated for individual student needs and meaningful curriculum and downplayed rigid discipline. For example, in a 1956 address she said students needed subjects to fit their needs rather than institutional formats. Historical reviews find her teaching in  1917 through 1966, and in the final years of her life she returned to her home town to care for the farm land and livestock she had inherited.

From the contemporary Facebook posts, a few thoughtless folks wrote of their knowledge of Bernice in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. She was a curmudgeon of Weeza genre or perhaps a character that Maggie Smith, iconic Katherine Hepburn or even Betty White would have emulated on screen in 2020. The bozos wrote of her choice of vehicle, an El Camino, her general grooming—missing teeth, red hair in disarray, mismatched clothes, with no brassiere, and her often colorful language.  They were generally fixated on her practice of visiting the laundromat across the street from her house, and transporting the clothes basket upon the car hood to carefully mosey on home after the load was complete. A woman who could have purchased many an electric washer and dryer chose to use the laundromat and frankly, didn’t give a damn about what folks thought. She had lived a life of strict conformity and chose to ‘let her hair down’ in the last couple of decades of her life. She didn’t have much of an occasion or interest in cooking or homemaking as she was a professional woman throughout her life.

Toward the twilight years in a time in which she was known as “Kate,” almost as if she preferred a new moniker for a more relaxed part two of her life, and the El Camino appears to be a metaphor for the metamorphosis of the woman and her vehicle.

Iconic, the El Camino became a legendary cult classic—perhaps true of Kate as well? Chevrolet promoted the El Camino as both “beautiful and able to shoulder a load.” It was said to have originated from an Australian farmer’s wife who sought a vehicle that could transport her to church and shuttle livestock to market during the week. Kate as the hybrid—an intellectual who could spout Shakespeare and configure calculus, speak to the public, play bridge and orchestrate contests and events for the Lion’s Club; could also tend to the cattle and perform hands-on the tasks of the farms.

D.L. Avery posted, “She was  indeed a college professor and a free American “a sleeper,” for sure. Never judge a book by its cover as Kate is a case in point..”

At a time when norms were rigid for women and brutal, particularly for an old school marm who deviated in any manner, Kate decided to live the later years of her life more freely and not adhere rigidly to the expectations and conformity placed upon her throughout the previous sixty years.

And why not? Fate, had not been particularly kind to dear Kate!

From 1921, until her death she lived with enormous loss! A life changer for her was the 1921 death of her only sibling, her sister, Beatrice Unger. Kate adored her sister and had served as her mentor. They graduated together from the state teacher institute and served as young teachers. Beatrice married Roy R. Unger in 1918 in the midst of the epic flu epidemic. The wedding was held at the parents home and the attendance list was limited because of the pandemic flu. By November of 1920, Beatrice was back at their parents house with the impending birth of her first baby. She wanted her physician father to deliver the baby so she and husband Roy agreed she would reside with the parents until the delivery. A most horrendous labor and delivery, Beatrice’s baby girl was stillborn and Beatrice herself lingered for several days but succumbed to infections from the agonizing birthing experience. Beatrice died at her home with her sister nearby and her grieving father helpless to do more. Many said that Bernice (Kate) was so affected by the death of her sister and niece that she often took a lantern to her sister’s graveside as she recalled that her dear sister had been afraid of the dark as a child. The impact upon the family as her physician father attended to her with the assistance of her mother and sister was enormous, as numerous news accounts reported the community was in shock!

In December 1923, just before Christmas, Kate lost her beloved father, Dr. Andrew Chittick. He died at their home from complications of diabetes. News reports quoted Kate as she discussed that her father had been a patient in an Indianapolis hospital for complications of his long term diabetes. Kate’s father practiced medicine in their home town for forty-three years and had just returned to his practice a few days before he succumbed. A tremendous loss for the community, Kate was then left to attend to the land owned by her father and care for her mother.

Truly the eighteen years from 1923 and 1941 were productive for Kate. She was very active professionally and the social columns were full of notes about she and her husband and their social outings—travel, friends, and commitments, while her husband cared for the land and livestock.

In March of 1941, Kate received a phone call that her mother Cleona had been struck down near the homestead. Hearing that a new bright red fire engine would be passing on the street, Cleona was coaxed by a neighbor to step out of her home to get a glimpse of the fire truck as it passed by. As she started back to her house, a car struck her and knocked her down to the pavement. She sustained several broken bones and numerous bruises and lingered for six weeks in the hospital but never recovered. Highly attentive to her aging mother, she and her husband had attended to Cleona’s needs and visited frequently. Although the loss came when her mother was at the mature age of 81, Kate knew that the passing of this nurturing mother who had always given such unconditional love and encouragement to her life and goals, would again alter perspectives and reality.

Wielding the largest scythe, the reaper came calling again  in 1943.  Just back from her teaching assignment and settling in for the winter holidays, Kate received word that her husband Jacob was in an automobile accident at Ball Hill near Cutler. Rushing to the hospital, she discovered he had suffered broken leg and arm and crushed chest. Hopeful her beloved Jake would recover, she stayed with him throughout the agonizing week to no avail, as his ultimate passing again trampled her life.  Preparing for yet another life-changing funeral, she was reminded that her 52-year old husband was so beloved as a community member and revered in the county for his amateur baseball career with the Delphi Comers and later coaching and managing the county champs in 1928, not to mention his service as a World War I veteran (all of which had attracted her to him!) The goodbyes were excruciating. They had been married just six months short of their 25th wedding anniversary. In retrospect, one wonders about the absence of children. Perhaps the record of severe Scarlet Fever that nearly took Kate’s life in late adolescence or the conditions suffered by Jacob during World War I had rendered health concerns that letft them childless. Their devotion to young people however, was an endearing quality and routine practice. One of the Facebook posts keenly attested to this as Willy Overmyer wrote, “ I shoveled many wagon loads of corn in the 1950’s for fifty cents an hour. Kate was a good person. She offered to pay for my brother a college education.”

Yet Kate persevered! She continued her beloved teaching with full responsibility for the farming. She spent vacations from her teaching assignments at Burlington, and remained active in the community until her retirement from teaching. Her commitment to education lingered; she set up a legacy scholarship trust at one of her favored universities, and donated to the first library in the community-a library that was first housed at her actual homestead!

BERNICEOBITKateSmoker1979Chad Wagoner further shared,  “I think Kate would have LOVED this thread. She was a kind and decent human being, as referenced above. It is a privilege to have grown up the way we did. I feel a little sorry for the kids today but then they probably feel sorry for us too. They must look upon these things, these relics of our memory-laden  pasts, and think it must have been terrible to have grown up without technology, with so many hardships, so fiercely different from today, but it was, in fact, the best days of my life.

Weeza was beloved and proud of her own individualism—a woman ahead of her time! God Speed, Kate!BerniceOBITCometobitofKateSmokerBerniceObit

 

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