Growing up in Louisa – The Rice Family!
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Considered a prominent family in Louisa, the Rice’s had two homes on the block facing Madison, between Lady Washington and Pocahontas Streets. The one next to Pocahontas, was occupied by what I remember as the elderly Mrs. Rice, the mother of Merrill. It is possible that my memory is wrong. I frankly seldom saw her except when she was leaving or arriving from a trip out shopping or something and I just happened to be about. What I really remember is her neat older Cadillac that she kept in her garage. I suspect, given all these years, that it was an early forties model, but it could have been a little earlier. Back then a Cadillac was expensive and a status symbol suggesting wealth and an eye for quality.
Just next door, Mr. Merrill Rice had a Cadillac, too, but his was a current model (mid to late fifties) and was not nearly as interesting to me as was the older one his mom drove. Merrill and his wife, Currlean, (I’ve seen it spelled several ways) lived in the house fronting on Madison immediately adjacent to Lady Washington. I was fortunate to have been in that home a few times when visiting and playing with their son, Joe. A younger brother, whose name I think was Tommy, was several years younger and rarely joined us in play. Along with a lot of other neighbor kids, I played on the lot directly behind Rice’s home on Franklin and Lady Washington. Several of us kids would set up a baseball diamond and play late into the evening.
Doctor Jim Smith built a house on part of the block that faced Franklin. He had several children (I’ll likely write some about this family later), but one son was close enough in age to be a playmate. His name was Gary. He, Joe Rice, Karen Rose, Creep Chandler, Tommy Bussy, Ardyth Ann Keeton, and I would sometimes hit baseballs out into Lady Washington, near the home of Russell Dobbins, who had a dry cleaners and lived just across the street. I remember Mr. Dobbins ran for the office of state representative, or senator, and was elected. I was so proud. Please excuse this rabbit trail and let me get back to the Rice’s.
I’d like to say that I knew Merrill Rice well, but after all, I was just a little kid that played with his sons. My personal knowledge of him was more about his reputation and what other people seemed to think, than personal first-hand knowledge. The cumulative result of what I heard all around was that Merrill was well to do, but ready to be one of the guys. He enjoyed opportunities to have fun, sometimes joking with the men he’d meet on the street. He was in some gun clubs and shot at skeet targets around the area.
I have read that he was a volunteer during World War II and had been a NCO in an artillery division. I don’t know where he served, or if he served in a theater of war, but I found in elementary research that he had attended military school and several colleges. Everyone in town knew that his love was primarily weaponry and the American Civil War. Someone told me he had volumes of books on the great battles of that war. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel and had held elective town offices, including mayor.
He was known to have an expansive gun collection. I was upstairs in his house only one time that I remember, and I saw many rifles lined up in racks. Since he was also a Civil War buff, many guns he had were likely of historical significance, I should think. I wished I’d asked him to show me around and teach me more about the guns and wars. With luck he might have enjoyed telling me.
I’ve seen pictures of the canon that sat in his front yard, but honestly don’t remember seeing it back in the day. Either it arrived after I left, or I just plain missed it. That would be a little unlikely for a boy that loved war movies and comic books. I remember playing with cars and blocks on his front porch once or twice but I doubt I was ever in his front yard. It’s amazing what you can miss if you don’t pay attention.
I remember a story he told some men in front of me, about shooting out of his car window with a new pistol. It was a forty-four magnum shaped about the same as the famous single action ‘Peacemaker’ that Colt had made for years. It looked about the same as the ones Roy Rogers used without the fancy handles, but it was many times more powerful than a standard six-shooter. Anyway, the story went that he had spotted a rabbit along a dirt road, fired twice, but missed both times. The violent recoil of the pistol had put two dents in the roof above his car door. He showed us the dents in his Cadillac, laughed and said he’d have to have those fixed. I would later fire such a gun on town hill. It blew out a bucket of tar someone had left up there that I had used for a target. The cement wall behind it was covered with tar and a sizeable hole. I only fired twice since it was so loud and had a ferocious kickback. It helped me understand the two dents in the Cadillac.
His wife Currlean was very active in the community, too, but she was also a busy homemaker. I think she may have taught at the grade school, but my memory isn’t good on that. I do remember that her house was kept very straight and clean. I was allowed in a couple of times to watch TV (Lone Ranger), but was run out quickly once the show was over. I almost felt as if I was contaminating the environment and the room would require immediate cleaning once I was safety put outside. In fairness, that was probably true. When we were out playing with their son Joe, I remember a number of times he’d be called in for lunch, or to rest. We kids were not allowed to stay around until the ‘rest period’ was over. That meant we had to vacate the yard, too. Usually this meant we’d get into other things and would not be back.
I know Currlean visited our house once and we were so embarrassed because frankly our house wasn’t well kept, or well furnished. We had ‘throw covers’ on the couch and side chairs to hide the holes in the fabric, or the fading and frayed cushions. I remember more than once a spring would protrude and had to be pushed down and tied behind another. It was painful if the spring poked you. It could tear a hole in your britches. No one wanted to sit there. We were afraid Currlean would sit in the wrong place so we tried to guide her away from the danger zones without giving away the chair’s true condition. Looking back, I think she was both respected and feared a little. I doubt she would like that thought, but I think I’m on target. She was certainly nice enough and not standoffish, or a snob. I remember thinking that maybe we were the snobs by reason of our treating her differently than we might others. I think we had visitors and we had friends. From a kid’s viewpoint, she was a visitor.
Merrill had an office upstairs in a building at the corner of Main and Main Cross. I don’t remember being there, but maybe I was once. I have an image in my mind of what it looked like, so that came from somewhere. I think Judge Adams had an office near there, too. I asked somebody once what Merrill did and I was told he was involved with the Louisa-Fort Gay Bridge. I didn’t know, but knew he had more expendable income than most folks I knew back in the day. Researching for this article I discovered that he was secretary-treasurer of the Louisa-Fort Gay Bridge Company. He also had business interests in a number of other businesses and served as president of the Louisa-Fort Gay Civic Baseball League that I played in during my high school days.
His obituary published in the Big Sandy News, reports that he was a member of the Rotary, was on the Kentucky Civil War Round Table, chairman of the Lawrence County Library Board, a partner in the City Loan Company, and the Louisa Granite Company. He was a life member of the American Ordinance Association, and a member of the Boyd County Skeet Club. Better than I remember, it is clear he was a mover and shaker in town, and likely a philanthropist, given his involvement of so many things that likely would have suffered without his involvement.
So as a councilman, mayor, member of a number of boards, owner of several businesses, a local historian, and an Endowment member of the NRA, and numerous other shooting clubs, he was very much an important and significant member of the community. I am certain many readers knew, or knew of him. I remember his love for the jokes. Many others surely have stories they could tell about this important figure. Mostly, I remember that I liked him and was honored to know a little about him.