A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 2
Along the way through town, I pointed out the sights up and down the elm-shaded streets. In addition to the depot and the two-story Lawler House hotel, my town had one funeral parlor with a jewelry store in front, a bank, a barbershop and a row of stores, plus three taverns catering to the railroad workers and farm hands. Horse watering troughs were on each block, much appreciated by thirsty teams. Several horses were tethered at the hitching rail outside Murray's tavern, but mostly Main Street was empty. The three bays and a black switched their tails dreamily, standing heavy-lidded with their heads down in the thick summer air.
“Gotta see where to put up my paper,” Len explained, his thin neck craning from side to side as an hungry owl seeking juicy mice.
Main Street was only ten blocks long. East to west. The volunteer fire department was at the west end, adjacent to Mister Munson's feed store and marked by a large silver-painted bell hanging about fifteen feet up on a wooden tripod. A frayed rope dangled from the clapper. Anyone seeing a fire was supposed to pull the rope, ring the bell and attract help.
“That's a great bell,” I told Len.
“All the kids throw rocks at it to make it bong. But that's okay, everybody knows those aren't real alarms. When there is a fire, there is a lot of ringing,” I explained.
I told Len that Lawler had a brand-new pumper engine. “You should see the horses that pull the engine,” I bragged. “We keep them stabled out back. The firemen are volunteers and get to the station really fast when the bell rings.
“My real Pa’s dead, taken with a fever in the Spanish Cuban War. My step-dad Louie helps out at the firemen's picnic. That's held every year over there in the town park.” I said, showing the way.
Len whistled, apparently considering my tour talking was worth having me along.
To the left of the feed store was Crockett's general merchandise and hardware outlet. Rolls of bailing wire, washboards, boxes of gloves, barrels of nails, piles of denim overalls and mounds of felt caps were always piled high on the floor and shelves. That was called being “organized,'” according to Mister Crockett's plan. He always came up with the correct item when asked, although no one knew how he could find anything. It seemed like such a jumble.
“That would be a good place to paper,” Len observed. “Lots of customers come in there and see the posters. We'll check on that later.”
It was easy to find our grocery place, directly across from Crockett's at the corner of Locust and Main streets.
When I told Len about the cookies I earned for helping clean the store, he smiled. His lips curled back like a grinning coon hound, showing off a mouth crammed with yellowing teeth.
“Sounds fine to me, too,” the lanky billposter agreed.
“That's Louie,” I said, pointing him out for Len's benefit. Louie Larson stood in the shade of the doorway, a white apron around his waist and his balding head underscored by a flowing handlebar mustache. It stuck out about two inches from either side of his ruddy cheeks. Louie was proud of his whiskers, tending them regularly each morning before he strolled downtown to open the store. Looking in a mirror, he used a small scissors and comb to keep his best appearance.
“Always look good and good things always happen,” he told me almost every day after finishing his grooming.
The store’s name, “L.A. Larson,” was set in beautiful yellow, purple and green stained glass above the big display window in front of the store. The “L.A.” stood for “Louis Albert.” The “C. Larson” from Pa’s name was long gone, just as he was at Mount Carmel moldering in his grave.
Len reined in the perspiring team. I jumped down from the wagon and ran to tie the horses to a hitching post at the sidewalk corner.
Louie stepped out into the afternoon heat and I yelled out that Ma said it was all right to help put up show posters.
Louie was always gracious to customers, except when there was more than one Keefe, treating everyone the same. I gave him that. He talked easily with the bachelor farmers who came to town when the fields were too wet to work. He chatted with them even when they muddied his floor. Louie was generally polite to the drummers, except when the slick salesmen gave their best out-of-town eyeball to any of the women shoppers. He was on to their ways but wasn't obvious about keeping the traveling men in line. Louie just did it. Back to that hairy eyeball that would skin paint from a barn side. Lawler's widow women loved him for his manners and his mustache. Maybe those were big reasons Ma fell for him. She just said, “He’s a fine man. You’ll learn to like him.”
Louie showed Len inside the store, the wooden floor creaking underfoot. Tins of this and that ran from floor to ceiling, their labels as bright as butterflies. Sawdust around the butcher's block to the rear of the building muffled the footsteps of Ada who was waiting on a customer. Six freshly cut, two-inch thick pork chops were being wrapped in crinkly brown paper. Overhead, wooden fans on the elaborate tin ceiling whomp-whomp-whomped in a friendly, cooling way. For me, that was a favorite place to stand on hot summer afternoon.
Inside were stacked towers of canned delicacies showcasing just about everything delicious under the sun. There was no mistaking L.A. Larson's place. It was the best in Chickasaw County, even better than the stores in New Hampton or Alta Vista. Farm folk came from all over to dig into his crates of crackers and retrieve Georgia peanuts from a huge barrel that never seemed to empty. Its smells were mighty fine, too.
It was a magical place. Not quite the same as when Pa had it, but I suppose it seemed all right for an out-of-towner like Len.
When he was introduced to Louie, the billposter wiped his narrow, sweaty face with a large white handkerchief pulled from a back pocket. The two men shook each other's hand.
“Glad to meet ya'all.” Len's Mississippi drawl seemed to go on forever.
He always appreciating good-spoken manners from a man. “Shows he's got sense.”
“Louis A. Larson,” my stepfather replied, his voice flavored with herring and cigars. “Pleased.” Louie was a man of few words until he got to know another's business.
As Ma often said, he “ate slow” at dinner, too. Always chewing carefully and thinking.
After Len explained his plans to help promote the Wild West show, Louie said, “Get to it, guess we could use a bit of color out there.”
With that, Len papered his first poster on the side of the store. It showed ol' Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody himself, all gloriously rigged up in a fringed leather coat and a white hat, riding a palomino horse ahead of a rank of Indians, Canadian Mounties, Rough Riders, Cossacks and a mounted artillery unit. Elaborate lettering on the poster screamed out. In my mind, it would be the best poster in town. The sprawl of paper was certainly big, reaching almost the length of the store's west side, the one facing the volunteer fire department.
“That outta get their attention,” said Len, his Adam's apple bobbing.
Instead of one large piece, the poster was made of sheets assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
“Each sheet is twenty-eight inches by forty-two inches,” Len explained when we started work, piling rolls of paper on the plank sidewalk alongside the store. “Any combination of sheets makes a display.”
Once he got everything in order -- ladder, brushes, paste and poster sheets lined up correctly -- Len decorated the building wall in less than an hour.
I helped stir the paste, to keep it from getting hard. Hardly spilled any of the gunk, either. I also handed Len the next proper roll when he called for it, rather then have him come down from his ladder.
“That's a thirty-two-sheet poster, Cobb,” he drawled, stepping back to admire his handiwork's rainbow sprawl when it was finally plastered across the length of the building. “Been doin' this a long time,” he said proudly.
The sunlight exploded back from the splash of crimson, ochre and yellow. It was enough to hurt one's eyes. The horsemen seemed about to burst out of the poster and charge down Main Street.
After doing the wall, there wasn't time to dawdle. We had a large territory to cover and Len wasn't a slacker. We piled the equipment back in the wagon and moved on. With a turn of his head, I saw Louie standing in the street admiring the Indians and cowboys galloping across the side of L.A. Larson's Food Store.
“I guess they don't have Wild West shows where he came from,” I said to Len. The skinny billposter laughed, the roar shaking his thin frame. With hardly a second breath, the Mississippian then flicked the reins and off we rattled to the next untouched building.
As we jounced around Lawler, I was strong curious about Len, so I asked him, “Back when you started with Colonel Cody, did you ever have a regular job? Like working in a store or something? Won’t catch me working in a store when I get older.”
Len eyed me up and down before he spoke.
“Nothing wrong with working in a store, Cobb.”
“My Pa wouldn’t have done it. He worked on a steamboat. Prospected for gold. Joined the army. All sorts of stuff. Kinda like you.”
“But your step-dad seems right nice.”
“Folks can seem nice when you don’t have to live under them,” I grunted when a wagon wheel hit a pothole.
“We all got to live under somebody.” Len never stopped looking around as he talked, always mentally figuring where to put his posters.
I looked over at him. “Not you.” My words rose up with the dust as our wagon rolled along.
Len laughed quietly, his yellow teeth showing.
“You may be more of a first-of-may than you thought,” he chuckled.
Over the next two days, it seemed that all of Lawler and almost every nearby barn and hog shed in eastern Chickasaw and western Clayton counties were papered by the bill posting teams. There was hardly an open space left bare, a silo uncovered, a store window not fancied up. Everywhere anyone looked, Buffalo Bill and his hard-riding crew thundered past. Numbers rolled around in my head. Mentally figuring out combinations of paper sizes and what pictured scenes would fit on the available opening was more fun than any arithmetic lesson at school.
For the bigger spreads, Len handed out show tickets like they were candy to folks who let him paper their buildings.
“Makes people feel good about Buffalo Bill. And the giveaways encourage 'em to come to the show,” Len said. “They spend more money then, buying cotton candy, souvenirs and other flash. And when we come back next year, they'll remember and let us put up paper again.”
“These show posters are the best in the business, better even than what the Ringling boys have,” Len continued, carefully putting a stack of rolled paper in the wagon bed behind him. “I heard tell the printer done have artists who only draw horses and others who do the people.”
Looking at the sprawl of paper everywhere we went, I didn't doubt Len at all. I wondered what it was like to draw Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. But I figured I'd rather see them in person and be a real cowboy on the Wild West show.
The words on the posters were a drumbeat
Animated Equestrian Spectacles!
Exciting Stagecoach Chase!
Congress of Rough Riders!
An Educational Exhibition That No One Can Afford to Pass Up!
Only At Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
Special Trains Available! Get your excursion tickets now!
(Editor’s note: Buffalo Boys will be continued in the summer, 2020, issue of The Irish American Post).
Buffalo Boys: a Tale of Adventure, Chapters 1-6
By: Martin Hintz, with Stephen Hintz and Dan Borengasser
(Based on the Film Script, Buffalo Boys)