Voices of the Ozarks – Willa Dean Combs

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My name is Willa Dean Combs. I was born in 1930 in Bollinger County. We lived in northern Bollinger county and I moved to Madison County later when I married.

Willa says that she and her husband had a farm on Castor River and that he passed in 2017.

She says she was born May 20, 1930 in the middle of the Great Depression. She says that some of her earliest memories relate to her younger brother getting into trouble and she, as the older sister, trying to get him out of it. But then she shares a story of her brother crying and her mother coming to find out that she had bitten him. Her younger brother was the only sibling she had. She says that she and her brother played a lot on the farm where they grew up. She says their main source of entertainment was playing in or near the pond.

She tells a story about her dad telling them that the mail carrier was a government man and that they should stay out of the pond or they would get in trouble. Her brother would hide behind the oak tree when the mail man walked by. She says that he had a nack for getting into trouble and she was the mother hen that tried to keep him out of trouble. She admits that often the trouble was her trying to get him to do things he didn’t want to do. She speculates that perhaps the mother hen tendency is what led her to become a school teacher.


She went to school in a rural school that was about a mile and a half away from their home. They walked to school for awhile. At some point her teacher that drove by the house on the way to school started picking them up. She says the teacher’s name was Grace Smith and she was her favorite teacher. She want to grade school at South Liberty. She went to high school in Patton and graduated when she was 16 in 1946. That summer she started college in Cape. They were not wealthy but her dad was determined that she’d have a good education. She was hired the next term to teach in a rural school after only one semester of college. She says that was fairly common back then. Teaching at 16 meant that some of her students were almost as big as her. She taught all 8 grades for about 4 years.

She met her husband during her fourth year of teaching. They were married November 25, 1948. She was 18. During that time she would go to school at Cape in the summer and then teach in the fall. She says her school was consolidated into the Patton district. She was married and they were living in Madison County when she got a job teaching at a school at the junction of J and 72 highways, the old Union school which has been gone for many years. She would also do correspondence and night courses working towards her degree. She would car pool with other students to Cape.


She worked on her degree for over 10 years and got it in 1962.  She says that was somewhat normal during that time, especially with teachers that were teaching while getting their degree. She taught full time for 39 years and 3 months.

She had 2 daughters. Her parents helped with watching the kids. She says her oldest daughter passed of cancer in 2004.

She says that she had both of her daughters as students.

We ask her about why she became a teacher and why education was important to her. She says it was a teacher that she had in grade school that was a model teacher and took her under her wing.


She talks about the poverty of depression and the scarcity of wartime rationing. She says they always had clothes and food thanks to the farm. She talks about the dresses her mother made her from chicken feed bags. The fabric was often floral print so it was great for dresses. She says that when they shopped they were very careful in their selection of goods based on the bags because they knew that they would be using them to make clothing. She also talks about various aspects of quilting.


She’s asked about her attendance at community celebrations or churches. She says they did go to church and remembers walking to church barefoot and they would wash their feet and  put their good shoes on just before getting there. And then would walk home barefoot. They did that also in bad weather. Sometimes they would take the wagon and horses but usually they walked. It was about a mile and a half.

She’s asked about having a radio and says that they did have one. Her dad was very careful not to use it too much to save the battery. They would turn it off during commercials and as soon as the show was over. They didn’t have electricity until around 1948 when the REA was finally in the area.

Her husband drove a truck for the propane gas company until they went out of business which was around the time that the mines opened up and he worked there in the refinery. When that ended he started farming full time. They bought an 80 acre farm to raise beef cattle. They later bought an adjoining 80 acre farm near Amidon which she still owns. They lived there most of their married life with the exception of the first few early years. When they bought the property they lived in the original old farm house until they discovered that it was damaged by termites. They built a new house and lived their ever since. Her husband did most of the work with help from neighbors, friends and family.


We ask her what else stands out in her memory about living in Madison County. Particularly we ask her if she remembers the circus coming through town and she does. We also ask about fairs, festivals and celebrations. She remembers that many such events were around Labor Day. She says that she remembers larger, Madison County fairs or celebrations that would bring in people from the whole county.

She’s asked about the businesses of Bollinger County and she says they had a few though she doesn’t go into great detail. She’s asked about the flooding of Greenville and she says that she does remember hearing about it. She didn’t see it or remember why.


She’s asked about where they lived before they got the farm. She says they lived in the Spring Valley community which is along the Castor River. The farm that they bought is about a mile and a half up the river from the community. The never lived in Fredericktown.

She mentions that her husband was born in Colorado and had grown up in cities but he always wanted to be a farmer. We ask where she met him and says that they met at a pie supper. She explains that pie suppers were fundraisers for schools where local community women would bake pies which would be auctioned off. Young men would bid on pies and would eat the pie with the person that baked it.

She corrects herself and says she actually met her husband at a church revival during which her grandfather had, in a moment of happiness, grabbed her and her husband-to-be, and had accidentally bumped their heads together.

They later met again at a pie supper. He was buying lots of pies hoping to get hers. One of the neighbors told him which was hers so he got it. He took her home that night and  they started dating.

She talks briefly about Castor Station which had been a gas station and the moving of Hwy 72. She talks about their first home which was on Castor Hill, above the station. It was an old, two story house. She mentions that there were old portraits hanging in the house and they scared her. She says she was a bit scared to be alone in the house.


We return to discussing her time teaching. There were 3 one room schools that she taught at. She mentions teaching at Rosebud for 3 years. After that she taught at a two room school at Union. Lloyd Pike (?) taught the upper grades and she taught the lower.  She took a break from teaching then for about three years when their first daughter was born. Later she was approached by the Underwood district near her home to teach which she did. She hadn’t planned on returning to teaching so soon but they were persistent. Her husband encouraged her because the mines had recently closed so he would be able to take care of their daughter while she worked. Her mother also helped when needed.

After Underwood she went to teach at Mine LaMotte. She finished her teaching career at Mine LaMotte.  We spend some time discussing the dynamics of teaching and learning in mixed grade schools.


We discuss various bits of history such as the moon landing and Pearl Harbor. She remembers both and says a lot about Pearl Harbor. She was only 11 and it had a big impression on her. The war affected their lives in many  ways.


She’s asked about her use of technology and she says that she does use it. Not as much since moving to the nursing home. But previously she used it more. She mentions that she wrote a book about the ancestry of her family which entailed lots of correspondence and a little travel for the research. She’s asked about her family came to Missouri. She says her great great grandfather emigrated to Missouri from Tennessee in the mid 1800s. Some also came from Lincoln County North Carolina. Her daughter mentions that many in our area came from Lincoln County.

She started the book project around 1983 and we discuss how things are different now with the internet. She did all the work of writing it with a typewriter.  She published it in the late 80s or early 90s and it was focused on her Regan family history and genealogy.

The interview is concluded.