Dad was raised one of 13(?) kids in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
Poplar Bluff was a small town in the “boot heel” (south east corner) of Missouri. His dad, John, brought his young wife to America from Austria, just before World War I took the lives of most of the young men of that area. If it weren’t for that decision, and Bobo’s bravery, I may not be here today.
Dad’s mom passed away within a few months of having her last child. The older sisters took active roles in taking care of the younger ones. Bobo was an enterprising man, and ran a welding shop in addition to running the farm. Dad and his twin brother Rudy were among the younger ones, they had nine older siblings (I believe). Bobo’s work ethic and many talents allowed their family to be relatively well to do. There was a car that the kids could pile into to go to school. They usually had a little cash due to Bobo’s welding. But they all worked hard. There were chores before and after school, and summers were sometimes sun up to sun down. They farmed, gardened, and butchered for their meals. Trips to town were for Sunday church.
I’m not sure what Dad did right out of high school, but before long, he and Rudy (they didn’t separate twins) were sent to World War II. Dad and Rudy served in the European theater, and dad was injured toward the end of the war. Both dad and Rudy headed to California shortly after the war to find their fortunes. Dad worked at an aircraft plant.
Shortly after, Dad’s older brother Dan moved to Whitewater, Kansas to open a car dealership. Dad moved to Kansas also, to Potwin, eight miles away, and opened a gas station.
The kids had grown, and Bobo no longer needed to work long days farming, so he moved to Potwin to live with Al. According to Dad’s stories, which I believe, they hand dug the foundation to the filling station in Potwin, and people helped them lay the bricks. With Dad repairing cars and Bobo in his Austrian accent asking the locals “How’s your has…”, and not much overhead, they did well. Before long, Dad was selling appliances out of the filling station. Not long after that, they needed to build on.
Potwin, Kansas after the war was a growing place, and everyone needed appliances. You may not have thought you needed a refrigerator until your neighbor got one. Radios were a staple, and televisions were arriving – first black and white, then color. And always bigger. Fortunately for Dad, they broke down a lot, and Lew Whiteside knew how to fix them. Lew would show up at your house with a specially-designed box of vacuum tubes and other parts, and before he left, you could watch your programs again.
As the Vickers refinery grew, Potwin needed more housing. The city built a road for “the new addition”, and Dad started building houses. He sold most of them but kept a few to rent.
He fell in love with Beth Elkins. Beth’s husband, Raymond, had died of a stroke. leaving her with two young boys. Dad adopted Bob and Bill, had a daugter Kathie, and a few years later, me.
Dad didn’t sit still much. The government needed Post Offices to better handle the mail. Dad built Post Offices in Potwin, Whitewater, and Towanda and rented them to the government. He built or bought 10-15 rental houses and maintained them. He ran a growing business and was active in the community. He made a lot of friends. He and mom traveled the world with General Electric because of all the ranges and room air conditioners he was selling.
Dad wasn’t your typical small town business man. Potwin was 15 miles away from El Dorado, a town of around 15,000, and 40 miles away from Wichita, a city of 250,000, the largest in Kansas. Dad did his best to get folks from these bigger towns to travel to Potwin to get there appliances. As I understand from him, my siblings, and Dad’s fellow GE dealer friends, Dad would buy train car loads of appliances if he could get a good enough deal. He would advertise, “Small Town – Low Overhead – Low Prices”. He was self depreciating in his ads: “Al Potwin from Resnik, Kansas” and “The Little Bitty Man with the Big Deals”. He would have the sketch artists in the local papers do charactures of him. He was a character when you would go see him in the store. It was an adventure. He would go through your wife’s purse. He would ask the well being of your “hoodly doodly”. He always made you feel special, and that you got a great deal. There really wasn’t any reason to buy appliances from anyone else. You would spend time with a great guy, with a sharp sense of humor, who would get you a good deal, and Lew would come to your house and fix it if it quit working. If you got interested in the next new refrigerator, Dad would buy your old one, clean it up, and sell it to someone who couldn’t afford a new one. All you had to do was let them in the door and they would do the rest. Dad would set you up on payments, Mom would mail you a bill each month. There were “counter checks” out front in case you forgot your checkbook. And oh yeah, you need a toaster.
These weren’t “throw away” items at the time, so if they broke, you had someone come out and fix it. And if you wanted to trade in your old refrigerator for a new one, you could. (I spent quite a bit of time cleaning out other people’s refrigerators…).
So dad had an active business selling, delivering, trading, and repairing appliances. He was a Catholic man in a Mennonite community, but his personality pretty much won every body over.
Potwin, Kansas was a wonderful place to grow up. I feel that way, and I think my siblings who proceeded me would agree.Potwin was a town of about 500 people.