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Charles Donald Vernon History

This life story of Don Vernon is lovingly written by his son Tom Vernon.

on Vernon learned the butcher's trade as a child from his father in Crawfordsville and Fremont, Iowa. During his teenage years, the family lived in Oskaloosa, Iowa. His father also taught him all of the duties and skills required in the buying of finished beef cattle and shipping them to market for sale, including many trips to Chicago by himself. He accompanied the cattle on the trip by riding in the caboose of the cattle train when he was a teenager. Don Vernon would contact the remittance man at the stockyards in Chicago, sell the cattle, and bring the money back to Oskaloosa, Iowa.

At age fifteen, he dropped out of Oskaloosa High School to run the family slaughter house, by himself. It was located just outside of Oskaloosa. His mother and two sisters ran the butcher shop in town, while his father bought and shipped cattle. When Don was not working in the slaughter house or accompanying cattle to market in Chicago, he cut meat in the butcher shop. As a young man, he ran the family butcher shop and then opened a butcher shop of his own in Oskaloosa. Over a short period of time, he held several jobs in sequence. He started an auto repair garage and the first retail gasoline station in Oskaloosa. In 1913 he managed the local Buick agency, then became a traveling salesman for the Cudahy Packing Co. with parts of Nebraska, Kansas & Iowa as his territory. He had known Helen Jean Burke when they were growing up in Oskaloosa. They were married in Beatrice, Nebraska on March 14, 1914. She had been working as a milliner in Wymore, Nebraska. She would always tell her family that, as a boy, he was the best horseman in Oskaloosa and could do a great variety of trick riding. He retained an interest in horses throughout his life. They set up housekeeping in Wymore, Nebraska. A year later they moved back to Oskaloosa. They remained married for sixty two years.

Don Vernon sold Model T Fords and Hudsons in Oskaloosa. One of his main duties as an automobile salesman in those days was to teach the purchaser how to drive, as many of them were switching over from horse & buggy. During this period, he also worked for a period of time for the Morton Salt Co., selling a cattle feed supplement that they had developed. This was a hard sell, because farmers were used to feeding only hay and grain, which they grew themselves. The idea of adding an expensive supplement was difficult for them to accept. During his last year in Oskaloosa, he ran his own antiques store. He had begun to buy and sell antiques sometime before that and retained an interest in the antiques trade the rest of his life. By that time, he had three sons, Bill, Craig, & Tom.

In 1931, Don Vernon moved to Fairfield, Iowa to take up a job as conservation officer (game warden} for the State of Iowa. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to the position of wildlife conservation manager for his district. He spent much of his time teaching farmers and outdoorsmen how to make winter shelters for quail, pheasants, and other wildlife. He organized boy scouts and 4H clubs to perform winter feeding programs for birds and other wildlife. When necessary, he also assisted the game wardens of the area in enforcing the conservation laws. Because it was the time of the Great Depression, Illegal shooting of game and taking of fish in large quantities to sell commercially was rampant.

One adventure that his wife often told occurred when the two of them were driving on the outskirts of Fairfield on their way west to Ottumwa. As he drove toward a gas station on Highway 34, Don Vernon spied an empty car at the gas pumps that he recognized as belonging to Ace Albertson, the head of the Albertson clan of notorious, il,legal fish seiners on the Mississippi and other rivers and streams of southeastern Iowa. Ace Albertson was wanted for many crimes. The seining of fish was strictly illegal, but it was a quick way to catch large quantities of fish, so it was a lucrative criminal activity in the Great Depression. Butcher shops sold fish as a cheaper alternative to meat, so fresh water fish of all kinds were in great demand. Don Vernon pulled over to the side of the road, got out, and headed for Ace Albertson's car. His wife, Helen, called to him to come back to the car and get his gun. More than one Game Warden had been killed in that area of Iowa by the large gangs of poachers that operated there. Don kept going to the open touring car parked at the gas pumps. He walked around the car and peered inside. He saw a heavy, metal fish spear inside the car. Fish spears were strictly illegal, so he took it out of the car for evidence. The car keys had been left in the ignition, so he took them out and put them in his pocket. He looked around for Ace Albertson, but there was no one in sight, so he entered the gas station door. There, he saw Ace Albertson and two of his sons. As he moved toward old Ace, the two sons broke and ran out the front door of the station. Ace ran out the back door with Don Vernon in pursuit, He chased Ace Albertson around the station. By the time that they arrived at the front, the two sons had started their car with an extra set of keys that they had. Don chased his quarry around through the gas pumps, and before he could climb into the car, Don Vernon hit Ace Albertson over the head with the metal fish spear and knocked him out cold. The two sons escaped in their car, as Helen Vernon watched her husband put handcuffs on Ace Albertson. They transported Ace to the Jefferson County Jail in Fairfield. He was subsequently tried and convicted on numerous charges, including some felonies, and was sent to the state penitentiary at Fort Madison.

In 1935 when the democrats took over the state house and the legislature in Iowa, Don Vernon lost his job with the state Conservation Commission, because he was a Republican. All state jobs were patronage positions in those days. Since that was the time of the Great Depression, Don Vernon's family went through four years of hardship. At first he started a small sausage factory, which didn't last long. At times unemployed, he found what work he could. He worked on the county bridge repair gang for awhile, then worked as a butcher for meat locker customers in the local ice plant. He also ran the soda pop bottling machine at the ice plant from time to time. During this period, he lived with his family in a small house on Hempstead Street in Fairfield. The house was heated by a pot-bellied coal stove located in what had once been the dining room. Although the house had a bath tub, it had no hot water heater, so water for a bath was heated in a tea kettle and a dishpan on top of the coal stove and carried to the bathroom. At times, the family was unable to pay the rent on time, but Mrs. Crail, the landlady was patient, and eventually she was paid.

When the republicans took back the governorship and the legislature in 1939, Don Vernon went back to work for the State as the sales tax inspector for several southeastern Iowa counties. His sons were growing up and attending public schools in Fairfield. During this period of time, in addition to working their regular jobs, Don Vernon, & his wife, Helen, were busy buying and selling antiques on the side. He would buy them from farmers, small town people, and auctions and sell them to dealers and collectors that they knew. Frank Coop, an old man that they had befriended, was the descendant of a man who was a member of the Territorial Legislature. When Iowa became a state, Frank Coop's ancestor was given the task of writing out the Constitution for the new state. He wrote the Iowa State Constitution on a cherry, drop leaf table with two drawers in it by candle light in his home. During the Fairfield Centennial Celebration, which was held in 1939, Don & Helen Vernon were in charge of the Antiques Museum, a temporary structure built out of sawmill slabs and located in the street at the corner of Briggs and Broadway Streets in downtown Fairfield. The most important exhibit in the museum was Frank Coop's Constitution Table. Years later, when he was nearing death, Frank Coop gave the Constitution Table to Don & Helen Vernon. For many years it was on display in their living room. Before he died Don Vernon gave instructions to his son, Tom, concerning the disposal of the table. Tom shipped the table to the Nelson Farm Museum in Oskaloosa, Iowa where it is prominently on display.

Don Vernon was well known for his ability to organize and supervise the feeding of large throngs of people quickly at political rallies and other large gatherings. In Fairfield, Iowa, he had built two large special grills, made of heavy wire grid called hardware cloth, that opened up like a book. Up to thirty steaks could be placed on the grill, and the upper half of the grill would be fastened closed over them. The grill had long, harness-like, wire handles at both ends. A man at each end would take hold of the handles, and they would swing the grill out over a shallow trench filled with hot coals and hold it there as the meat cooked. When the meat was done on one side, the two men would flip the entire grill over and cook the meat on the other side. This way, they grilled buffalo steaks for hundreds of people at a Republican Party rally at Chatauqua Park in Fairfield.

His most famous feat of feeding a big crowd was for the Republican presidential campaign of Wendell Wilkie against Franklin Roosevelt. In those days national campaigns were carried on by train. Wendell Wilkie was scheduled to stop at a town in northern Iowa and make a major speech. The event had been widely advertised, and several thousand people were expected to attend. The advertisements had stated that the crowd would be fed free sandwiches and coffee. In the middle of the night, a phone call came to Don Vernon at his home 150 miles away with the message that the arrangements for the feeding of thousands of people had fallen through, and he was asked to come and take charge. He packed his suitcase and left in the middle of the night with his son, Craig. They drove to the town, and he took charge of the operation. When he arrived, Don Vernon found that at the site of the speech a tent had been provided for the cooking operation and the wieners, buns and coffee were available, but there was no means of cooking or serving. The campaign speech would be a major event in the history of the town, & everyone was eager to help make it a success. Don Vernon went to the High School and met with the home economics teacher. He arranged to have the girls of the home economics class do the serving. Next, he located a steam traction engine and had it brought to the site. He went to a farm implement dealer in town and borrowed two brand new, huge, open, galvanized tanks for watering livestock and had them set up inside the cook tent on saw horses. Then he hired a plumber to connect pipes to the steam boiler of the traction engine along with a pump. The pipes were run inside the tent to carry hot water to the big stock tanks. A group of women in a local sewing club were recruited to sew the thousands of wieners into large, muslin bags. They did the same for the coffee. Paper napkins, paper cups, and jars of mustard were obtained, and they were ready for the big day.

At the appropriate time, the firebox of the traction engine was fired up and hundreds of gallons of water were heated in its boiler. The stock tanks were then filled with hot water. In one tank some of the muslin bags of coffee grounds were set into the hot water to steep. Each bag had a piece of clothesline rope tied around its neck. The bags were arranged in the water along the walls of he tank, and their ropes were draped over to the outside. By means of the attached rope, each bag would be moved a few inches at a time toward one end of the tank and allowed to sit for awhile, then they would all be moved again. As time passed new bags were put into the tank at one end and the old, spent bags taken out at the other end and discarded. In this manner a giant stock tank was continuously brewing coffee. The plumber had also installed spigots at one end of the coffee tank so that large pitchers of coffee were being constantly filled and taken to the serving tables. As necessary, more hot water would be pumped into the tank from the traction engine.

The wieners were cooked in the same way. New bags of wieners were introduced into their stock tank of hot water at one end, gradually moved toward the other, and were taken out. The bags were quickly cut open, dumped into pans, and carried to the serving tables. At the serving tables the home economics girls put the wieners into buns, applied the mustard, poured the coffee, and gave each person in the lines passing through a cup of coffee, a napkin, and a hot dog sandwich. In this way thousands of people were served continuously and rapidly. The feeding was a big success. Wendell Wilkie made his important speech and everyone was happy. Wilkie went down to a resounding defeat in the election.

Don Vernon pulled off the same type of feeding operation at the National Corn Picking Contest, held a few years later just east of Fairfield in Jefferson County, Iowa in the 1940's. The operation was done with the same method, including a steam traction engine, two big stock tanks, the home ec. girls, etc. He also directed the cooking for large fund raising dinners at the Methodist Church in Fairfield, where he had teams of women frying several large skillets full of chicken simultaneously on the big ranges in the basement.

In 1946, Don Vernon became the business manager of the State Hospital at Woodward, Iowa. In 1948, Don & Helen, later, moved to Des Moines, Iowa where he resumed working for the Iowa State Tax Commission as a sales tax inspector and continued working there until he retired nine years later. Shortly thereafter his wife, Helen, retired from her position of Executive Secretary of the State Cosmetology Board and they moved to Palo Alto, California in 1956. They lived there for the rest of their lives. There, they continued buying, selling, and collecting antiques. Don Vernon was an avid gardener in his retirement. He was a published authority in Sunset Magazine on home curing and smoking of meat, poultry, and fish. He had a band of devoted followers that he coached in this gourmet hobby.

Owner/SourceTom Vernon
Linked toTom Vernon Shares Family Secret Formula for Sausages

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