The Time Capsule | Roy Marshall


July 4 was the day, weather permitting, when Opal Smalley began preparing a place for the following year’s tomatoes. Hers were more productive than most and, although her method can be copied, the need to begin so far in advance is a deterrent. 

Opal and Otto lived across the street. He was small and quiet; she large and vocal. I knew her tomatoes pretty well, as she hired me to do a job she would not. Opal Smalley was terrified of black and yellow corn spiders. Caution was understandable, as the beasts have threatening eyes, bodies the size of a jelly bean and ominous, bright yellow markings. She was irrational, though, and an unexpected encounter sent her into shrieking hysteria. Opal wanted them dead. Otto was of no help. 

Although chemical pesticides have made them comparatively scarce today, there was a time when it seemed a corn spider or two adorned every late-summer tomato vine. They hung their webs from corn stalks and flowers and window frames and pretty much anyplace they could to scare the wits out of Mrs. Smalley. 

She offered 5¢ for each one killed on her property. 

This was serious money. At the time I made a penny a paper delivering the Omaha World Herald – an undesirable route because of the weight. A few moments’ work as an assassin paid more than hours of drudgery with the World Herald. I became a deadly efficient predator. My killing method, borrowed from a dear aunt, was to snatch them like a fly from the air and, all in the same motion, crush their plump bodies within my fist. They have a painful bite, so speed was essential. I became quick as a viper and just as deadly. While a bit messy, the goo was a minor inconvenience considering the profit. I’d line their squashed carcasses on a back porch table where she’d count them from a distance and, without hesitation, hand over the coins. 

Probably 11 or 12 at the time, I was a heartless, greedy little capitalist who also raised and butchered rabbits. There were several people in town who liked them, providing a ready market for all the young ones I could dress and deliver. Opal’s interest was the bunny poo. 

Otto, on Independence Day, used a spade and a bottle or two of Falstaff to dig a row of holes, usually parallel to the current crop of vines. The holes were each about the size of a five-gallon bucket. Knowing the day was coming, I saved rabbit manure and bedding which was used to fill the holes to within a few inches of the top. Each cavity was then piled high with grass clippings or straw and left undisturbed until the following spring. After months of rain and heat and freezing and thawing, the contents had composted and settled. Opal and I added topsoil to fill the holes, drove steel posts for reinforcing wire cages, and put a plant in each. When the tomatoes were growing and weather turned hot, she’d mulch. Her vines grew to six feet and more, and after I cleared them of spiders, she’d pick tomatoes by the bushel. Otto worked in a service station and sold them there, although most went to a corner grocery. 

Opal seemed to get more from one plant than others did a garden. Even with the latest hybrids and commercial fertilizer, mine don’t measure up. 

This year may be different. Last summer I located the rabbits, secured enough of Opal’s magic ingredient for one planting, and dug the hole. The plant is loaded and looking good. All it lacks is a spider. 


Roy Marshall is a local historian and columnist for the Red Oak Express. He can be contacted at

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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