Voices of the Ozarks – AJ Fencl

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My name is Albert Joseph Fencl, I go by AJ though. I was born on May 2, 1937. I was born on the head of Cedar Creek, Wayne County.  AJ describes his birth place and his dad’s farm. He lived there till he was 18, almost 19.

He started school at Burlington Grade School which was a little country school, no longer there. His first teacher was Wanda Stevens Leach. AJ was the only student there until the Bridges kids moved into he area. Later he went to Cold water for grades 6-8.


AJ points out that the roads were not rock but dirt and so they would often get muddy. When he was in the 6th grade he saved his money for a used bicycle. When the roads were dry he would ride the bike. If the roads were wet he would ride one of his dads mules or he would run.  Either way it was 5 miles to the school.

His favorite school subject was vocational ag. When electricity was offered in the area in 1948 they could not find an available electrician, they were all busy. His neighbor encouraged him to install the wiring so he did. He installed a 60amp box and wiring to each room for one plug and one light. It worked out fine. He was 11. As much as he learned in school he was learning hands on skills too. Helped his dad on the farm, his brother and the neighbors as well.


He talks a bit about the neighbor kids and various things about the farm such as drawing water from the well. It was a hand drawn well that they lowered buckets into. He would spend about an hour to an hour and a half to draw water for the pigs and cattle which he did every morning. This was also the water source for the household. 

He would also carry water to the cellar which was built into a hill. He would put water into a trench in the center of the cellar which would help keep it cool. This was also a daily chore.

They would keep the cream in there with all the fruit and vegetables. Eventually the cream would sour and they would have sour cream.


He describes the location of the farm which was at the Wayne county line and Cedar Creek near Cross Road Hill. One road went to Marquand, one went to Upper Bear Creek one came back down. He thinks that one is a forestry road now.

When he was a little kid his dad would hack timber into railroad ties which he would use to pay the poll taxes. In that process there were leftover checks of wood called “juggles” which he would collect and put in the wagon. They would burn that in their wood stove. He describes the process of cutting railroad ties. His dad also taught him how to make shingles. He describes the various tools they used: Froe , spoke shave, drawing knife. 


AJ describes wood shingle roofs and that you could actually see the sky through them because they had to have gaps. Those roofs were also very steep. He tells a story about his dad carrying hams up a roof. He was going to smoke them and he fell off the roof.  


He offers further descriptions of using the the various blade tools. 


He tells some of the background story of the family and how they came to the area by way of immigration from Austria to New York to Chicago. He offers his thoughts on the history of the family’s origins in Europe, particularly that the countries had become socialist or communist which he does not like. 

In Chicago his dad started work on the kill floor at the stock yards.  He didn’t know the language but went to night school to learn. He’d have a donut and coffee for breakfast and rented a room from his brother and sister-in-law. 

He eventually came to work as a chef at the Drake Hotel. At some point his dad got sick and had to take a break from his job. He took a train down to see some family friends, the Shondas. On his last day visiting them he ended up seeing a 40 acre property that happened to be for sale. He bought it on a whim because it was so pretty. He telegrammed to Chicago and quit his job.  


He was there 4 years on the place trying to farm before he went broke. He went back to Chicago and drove a cab for 4 years. During that time his younger brother Frank came down to take care of the place. He met Daisy who lived on the next farm down. They got married and stayed there 4 years. They ended up going back to the city and his dad came back down here.

Frank and Daisy stayed in the city for awhile and had a son, Jimmy. AJ tells the story of Jimmy going to WWII where he died. At that point Frank and Daisy came back down this way first settling in Valley Station then later to Cold Water. 

When his dad came back after his 4 year stay in Chicago he had saved some money and tried his hand at farming again. AJ describes his dads more successful efforts the second time around. He spent a lot of time and effort improving the rocky ground by pulling a lot of rotting logs out of the woods into his garden areas where he would plow them into the ground. He grew green manure crops and put barnyard manure onto the soil. He hauled limestone from the creek and piled it on a bunch of wood then burned the rock which gave him white lime. He then spread that on top of the growing areas. This improved the soil a lot and the farm was much more productive. By the time he died the farm was producing 100 bushels of corn to the acre. He used crop rotation and let the land rest every seventh year. 


AJ refers back to when he was a kid and the poll tax. There were no county road taxes so his dad would go out and work on the roads fixing ruts and holes.

He mentions seeing a helicopter flying overhead when he was a kid and it scared him. He says they lived far up in a holler and cars could not pass their place because the road was too rough. His dad had a car but used it sparingly because during the wartime everything was rationed. They’d use the car to go to church once a month because the closest was 8 to 10 miles away. His mother was from Club Missouri and that was twice as far so they would use the car for that too.


Once a week they would get the team ready and go to Coldwater to check mail and go to the store there. That was the local gathering spot and the men would get together and share news and politics. 

He talks about graduating grade school and choosing to go to Greenville for Highschool instead of Fredericktown because he knew some of the kids there. He would use his dad’s 4 wheel drive Jeep to get out to catch the bus. His dad also had an old 33 model ton 1/2 truck that he used on the farm. Sometimes AJ would use the truck to catch the bus.

AJ’s older brother taught him mechanics from an early age and he would help his dad keeping things in order.  AJ describes working on the old truck and driving it to the bus and the racket it would make on the hill.

In 1948 they got electricity and a  Ford tractor. His dad preferred the mules but AJ preferred the tractor. AJ did the plowing, cultivating with the tractor. They grew corn, wheat, oats, and alfalfa. In the summer time the hogs and cattle free ranged in the woods. He talks about how the farms all worked together cooperatively to thrash grain. They swapped labor together. They ran a separator with a W40 International Tractor. The tractor was very slow and loud and you could hear it come from a long way away. 

The crops were for their own use on the farm. The only thing they sold for a little money were eggs and cream. They had 100 to 150 chickens and milked several cows. They had a McCormick Deering separator that they used to separate the cream off which would get shipped once a week. It would get picked up my the mail carrier in Coldwater and take it to Piedmont where it went by train to Sunset Valley Creamery. 


They didn’t make much but they didn’t have to buy much either because they were pretty self sufficient. They bought sugar and coffee. They kept bees so always had honey. They always had a big garden and canned a lot which they shared with relatives who would come from the city once a month to get food. 

They would kill 4 hogs in the spring, 4 in the fall. If they ever ran low on meat his dad would have AJ go out and hunt squirrels. AJ didn’t care for  squirrel meat. He was expected to get a squirrel for every bullet. They didn’t really eat rabbits because of the worms in their necks.

Mostly though they were able to get by with the hogs and cattle.

His dad didn’t have him work until he was 10. 


He talks about his brother learning mechanics from his mom’s brother. And AJ learned from his brother. Later in life AJ made money overhauling cars and selling them. 

His dad had fruit trees, grape vines, and the things they needed to take care of themselves. He tells the story of the brakes failing on his dads truck and AJ running over the pear tree. 

They also gathered wild grapes, elderberries, greens, huckleberries, and blackberries.


AJ talks about the nearby farms that formed their little community cluster. They were all about a mile or two from each other: Huffmans, Whites, Bridges six farms in about five miles. He met his wife because her family moved into the Huffman farm later on after it went up for sale. They met one day in July because the his dad’s mules jumped the fence and got out. Phyllis, his wife to be, came up later in the day with her mother and grandmother, they were herding the escaped mules back home. AJ got them water and thought Phyllis was pretty. Not long after he asked her out for a soda after a church revival and that was the beginning of their courtship and later their marriage.


After getting married Phyllis got pregnant and he worked what jobs he could find but work was scarce. They went to the city for awhile and he worked there and their first daughter was born. They came back home here and he started hauling logs. It was less pay but they didn’t like living in the city. He went to work at the Brown Shoe factory for nine years. Then to the Pilot Knob Pellet where iron was mined and processed. He worked there 14 years starting as an underground laborer but bid up to other jobs such a powder monkey, driller, heavy equipment operator and finally into operations and the lab where he spent the last 7 years.  Their iron pellets were sent to Granite City steel and were made into all kinds of products. 

He had tried to enlist into the Air Force in 1955 but positions were scarce and he was never accepted. 


He describes his work at the Brown Shoe factory which was located over around North Mine LaMotte on property now owned by Madison County Farm Supply. They made different kinds of shoes: Kangaroo skin shoes for the nuns, penny loafers, lace-up men’s shoes, Life Stride and Buster Brown.

He estimates that they employed 200 to 300 people when he worked there. He left in 1969.

Fredericktown missed out on getting a couple production factories from other companies because Brown said that they would shut-down of other companies moved in. Then they ended up shutting down anyway. 

AJ says that all the time he worked he also farmed and ran cattle. He broke his leg in 1976 and had to take time off. During that time he ended up fixing used cars and selling them from the front yard. He ended up getting a dealership license. That lead to fixing and selling farm machinery on the side. Then he got a brokers and insurances licenses and started selling real estate and insurance. He finally turned in his brokers license two years ago.  When he was 62 he sold off the cattle and rented the farm out. 

He visited the old home place a few years back with the grand children and it has all grown up with trees.

One of his last jobs was to try truck driving. He bought his own truck and was hauling logs. That ended when he had an accident with a load of logs going into the woods taking him with it. He describes the injury to his face from that accident. That was the end of that!

*The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Ozark Regional Library or its staff.