There were things I never questioned growing up. Maybe I was naive, simply accepting most things in my life were normal and part of everyday living in a small town. Looking back I still have a hard time accepting these everyday practices happened anywhere but northwest Iowa in the 1950’s-1960’s. This is how I remember it.
Mom and dad used cash for most everything. Besides their house payment which was on a land contract, I don’t remember them having loans, even for cars. They just saved until they had enough to buy a new car, but to mom’s precise specifications. Her idea of necessities for a car consisted of an engine, manual transmission, manual roll-up windows, 4 tires, wipers, heater and defroster, no air conditioning or radio but was paid for when they drove off the lot.
In our tiny kitchen was a cupboard above the fridge which was useless. It was too high to keep any needed utensils or dishes for everyday use because you had to be 6 feet tall and have the wingspan of Kareem Abdul Jabar to reach above and over the fridge. Well guess what? Mom was 6 feet tall and so was dad. That useless cupboard was home to mom’s electric knife (to keep it out of the hands of her wayward child) but it also held a tattered box with slips of paper used as dividers which each held different amounts of cash. (Maybe their cash stash was also kept up there out of my sticky finger’s reach-hmmmm). Separate compartments for IPS (utilities), De Boer’s Station, where mom filled up, Doc Ver Berg’s, where dad filled up. (Why they regularly bought gas at different gas stations 2 blocks apart remains a mystery). Before mom and dad had our home heating system switched to natural gas the furnace used fuel oil, which was delivered from De Boer’s, so that bill would have been much higher during Iowa’s winters. Mom paid each bill every month in cash-and in person.
There was a section for tithing to the church (they never skimped) groceries, telephone (Ma Bell) and maybe something miscellaneous like a medical bill from Dr. Hegg or our dentist, Dr. Schroeder. (Me and my sore throat’s & fragile teeth). Mom always carried cash in her billfold (hahaha-she didn’t carry a purse until she was in her 60’s) and dad did too (I mean had cash on him, not carrying a purse).
This was small town living at its finest. Many of our local stores offered some kind of charging, allowing families to ‘go cashless’ for several weeks or a month as long as they paid their bill on time and in full, but besides gas and fuel oil bills, neither of my folks charged much. Years later mom got a charge card for Sears & Roebuck and JC Penney but paid them in full each month when she used them.
During my aforementioned childhood years, our little burg (1,500 farmers and townies) had one financial institution, Valley State Bank. A beautiful, old stately (stone/cement) corner building. The tellers knew everyone, voicing greetings to all who entered, even me when I tagged along. Mom would cash her check or sign HER name to DAD’S CHECK, deposit some in checking, plus bringing the red leatherette book along to record her savings deposit, then take the rest in cash to be divvied up in the skyward cupboard in the kitchen.
But here’s an odd thing about my quaint little town of Rock Valley. Occasionally mom would spend more than she anticipated or didn’t have quite enough cash in her wallet at Koster’s market, Council Oaks or Western Auto. Since she never carried a purse or checkbook, she’d either have to ‘charge it’ or write a check. Most of Rock Valley’s main businesses, grocery stores, hardware, clothing, gas stations, even the bars carried universal Valley State check blanks WITH NO ACCOUNT NUMBERS ON THEM. Hard to believe right? Mom would ask for a check blank, write out the amount, sign it Mrs. Richard Gerritson, (before she became a hip women’s libber), later signing them, Mrs. Florence Elaine Wanningen Gerritson (which took up 2 lines). I’m not sure she wrote Koster’s on the top either, think maybe the store filled that in and I never saw her add their personal account number to one of those free-for-all-checks.
I don’t remember her recording those spur of the moment checks when she got home. I’m not sure she ever used a checking account ledger. I can’t swear she never bounced a check but I’d be surprised if she ever had. Never witnessed her reconciling a bank statement either, although she perused it carefully. Sometimes I’d hear her chastising dad after the monthly bank statement came because of the checks he wrote while he was out (doing the Lord’s work). Not because it was a large amount and they’d be in trouble with their balance, but because he had written out 3 checks totaling less than 10 bucks (which drove her nuts, “use cash for those small purchases.”) His little spending sprees usually involved something biblical like gospel tracks.
Did this unusual banking practice cause hours of added work and stress on the Valley State bank employees? Were they all experts in knowing how every Rock Valley adult signed their name on the account-less checks? Fraud or forging a signature (unlike mom’s signing dad’s checks) never entered the equation? Was my little town really that wholesome back in the day? (Yes, I believe it was) No shysters lurking about, ready to swipe, write and try to deceive local retailers, using a dozen checks? Almost too ‘Mayberry RFD.’ Perhaps I’m all mixed up about this strange phenomenon but relatively sure this is the way my small town did business sixty years ago. You can take that to the bank…