To us farm kids, Columbia’s "District" was the "dime store," or Woolworth’s, Hays Hardware, The New York Store and "Kress’s." Any Saturday afternoon, you could find farm friends congregated on the sidewalk around Woolworth’s and Hays Hardware, shopping, swapping and just visiting.
Long time residents recall the floor-to-ceiling shelves and the floor-to-ceiling movable ladder, which gave the store’s clerks access to those hard-to-reach shelves and drawers. Leather saddles and harness gave the store a special fragrance that greeted customers as they entered.
A wooden, homemade elevator served the store and the unfinished cellar, which was called "the basement." After three generations, Hays Hardware store became just a memory, and Jacque Slater rented the entire thing for her antiques and art shop called Made in Missouri.
I had retired from 33 years at Christian and was making "little people" with clay I dug along the highway right of way.
The Missouri Department of Transportation took a big chunk of our land without even a "thank you." That exposed beautiful white Cheltenham clay of high quality. It can withstand extreme heat, make fire bricks and is sometimes shipped to other countries.
After digging, drying and crushing the clay and slowly putting it into big buckets of water to slake dissolve for a few days, I could stir and strain the liquid through sieves with fine wire mesh; No. 80 mesh would do, but I used No. 125 mesh because I was carving some fine details in my figurines.
By the next day, the clay was again on the bottom of the bucket. I siphoned off as much water as possible - it looked like soft divinity candy. However, there were two more things to be done. I dried the clay in the sun, using cafeteria trays and occasionally stirring. When it no longer stuck to my hands, I kneaded it on a breadboard, the way a baker kneads dough, and stored it in balls the size of my fist.
I’ve explained this in detail because when I first wanted this information, I couldn’t find it. I learned by doing!
Slater suggested I come to her shop to make little people where her customers could watch.
Her idea was a great one, but we didn’t know how to make space for me to work and still have room to display and sell the finished products. She solved the problem by raising the big old wooden Hays elevator so that it was level with the salesroom floor.
I sat there and worked in Hays’ old elevator - working, teaching and selling the unique finished pieces already in her stock. Soon, people were ordering pieces of their own design.
The first order was from a well-known man, a professor at the University of Missouri.
"Could you make a boy playing a large tuba?" he asked and later brought me a photo to study.
A student’s wife ordered a figurine of a veterinarian delivering Pekinese puppies. These orders opened a new dimension for my work.
I liked visiting with the customers and friends as I sat there twice a week on Jacque’s old elevator and enjoyed working on special orders.
There was also interest in a clay class. We scheduled a class to be held in the basement of Hays’ old store.
On the first day, nine students and I were getting acquainted when a 10th woman, immaculately groomed for a horseback ride, came down the steps. We all stared.
The stranger removed her Western hat to keep it from brushing against the cobwebs.
"Come join us," I said.
"What’s terra cotta?" she bellowed. "I’ve driven 40 miles to find out what’s terra cotta, and I don’t care about anything else."
I searched for words and finally stammered, "I don’t know, but I’ll find out."
To be continued next Monday.