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Rail, mail, fire & newspaper memories

Joe and Betty Farrell have been married for 73 years. Their memories of the way things were are vivid and telling. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY


A portrait exists at the downtown fire station, representing the firefighters who served the city of Hannibal circa 1940.

Joe Farrell, at 93, has outlived all of his contemporaries on the force – he’s the lone survivor in that portrait. “I’ve been awful lucky,” he said, noting that neither he nor his wife Betty had any serious injuries or illnesses through their long lifespan together.

They celebrated their 73rd anniversary this summer, and today comfortably share a room at Beth Haven Nursing Home.

“I am five months older than Joe,” Betty said. “He started school a half a year after me, so he graduated in 1940, and I graduated in 1939.”

Joe worked at the fire department even before he graduated from high school.

“They needed sleepers,” Betty said, referring to the fire department. They hired high school boys to spend the night at the downtown station, and if a call came in, the teens went on the fire run and lent a hand. The pay was good for the era - $15 or $20 a month.

“After high school, he fell in to a regular job,” Betty said.

Betty’s father died when she was young, and when she was in high school she lived on Lyon Street with her sister. “Mom stayed with my brother. That’s the way you did during the Depression.”

The “new” high school on McMaster’s Avenue had opened a few years before Joe and Betty attended classes there.

“We paid to ride the city buses to school,” Betty said. “It was six tokens for a quarter.”

She clearly remembers Joe asking to walk her home one evening after a sporting event. “After that, we just kinda drifted together,” she said.

After graduating from high school in 1939, Betty took on the responsibility of supporting her mother. Betty’s first job after graduating was secretary at Eugene Field School, beginning in the fall of 1939. Her business courses at Hannibal High School, including typing and shorthand, prepared her for this position.

But school employment was only a nine-month job, and she needed a year-around job in order to support her widowed mother.

Courier-Post calls

“In February 1940, Mr. Sparks called me because Delorise Vark was moving from the newsroom to the circulation department, and he offered me the job as proofreader. He was publisher and Bill Cable was the editor. T.T. McKinney worked at the police station and called the police court news in to the Courier-Post. I took the news down in short hand, typed it up and gave it to Mr. Cable.

“John Jeffries was the city editor, Ed O’Neill wrote all the sports and Paul Clarkson wrote all the feature articles.

Joe and Betty married June 12, 1942. “When we got married we lived over Sultzman’s Bakery on Third Street,” Betty said. Her mother moved in with the newlyweds. “My dad died when I was 7,” she said, and her older siblings had each in turn taken care of the younger family members. “When I got out of high school, it was my turn,” to take care of their mother.

“My husband was overseas for two years,” during World War II, Betty said. “The only time I missed getting a letter was during the invasion. I would get a letter every day. He worked in supply, and their mail was going out all the time, because they were bringing supplies to his base.”

Betty worked at the Courier-Post until the war ended and Joe came home.

Later, the newspaper called her back to work, and this time named her women’s editor. “They had a full page of women’s news every day,” Betty said. She cited an example of a wedding write up: “To the strains of Mendelssohn’s wedding march … then you’d describe the bride’s dress and jewelry in detail. You might have a whole column on one wedding.

“Then a Sunday school class would call in, and report where they met and the devotion. You had enough for the women’s page.”

There were other duties as well. “We had three funeral homes, and we called them every day to get the funerals. I’d take them in shorthand and type them up for the paper.”

Betty remembers that when she started at the Courier-Post, Carmen Goul was the women’s page editor. “She lived on the South Side. Helen Fisher read proof. Marion Sparks was the publisher’s daughter. She got mail from correspondents and wrote state news.”

Betty continued working at the Courier-Post into the 1950s. “By then I had a son and thought I ought to be at home.”

After the War

When Joe returned home after the war, he took a test for a job at the post office. “They offered me a job as a temporary, indefinite postal worker,” Joe said. Because he had returned to work for the Hannibal Fire Department, he let the first couple of “temporary” job offers slide. Finally, he decided to go to 18th and Market in downtown St. Louis to accept the job offer. “Before I started work,” he said, they told him all job offers were worded the same, so that they could weed out people who wouldn’t work hard. “If I had come down on the first letter, they would have kept me and I would have gotten six more years of service.”

The job he ultimately accepted is one that has historic ties to Hannibal. He worked as a mail sorter on various railroad routes out of St. Louis. The car shops at Hannibal built the first U.S. Mail Car in Hannibal in 1862.

“I worked in every direction out of St. Louis when I first went in,” Joe said, beginning in 1951. “I was a substitute clerk, and distribution was different on every mail train.” He finally settled in on a regular route between St. Louis and Burlington, Iowa.

He was required to carry a gun and six bullets while working on the trains. “Like Barney Fife, except Barney just had one bullet,” Betty said, laughing.

Joe would continue working on the trains until it became clear that the end of the mail car service was near, and then transferred to the Hannibal Post office. He retired in 1981.

Click here to see a video of Joe Farrell's fire department memories

Click here to see a photo of Hannibal firemen, including Joe Farrell, taken in June 1939

Click here to see the Hannibal Fire Department's home page.

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