Vivid childhood memories provide peek at colorful past

To Mother and Dad

  • Monday, January 19, 2009 11:07pm
  • News

To Mother and Dad

With love and appreciation for all the many sacrifices made for me.

If some of my memories seem harsh, let us remember that times were harsh.

The thoughts recalled here reflect my life as I lived it. My memory may have faded over the years.

Writing this excuses everything.

The home was reached by taking the shale road out of Coatsville until you came to the graveyard. The shale road ended at the graveyard but a little dirt road meandered in a half circle downhill and uphill and passed a pond to our home.

On the south side of the house were three huge pine trees and on the west side was a big crabapple tree where a flicker family built a nest every year. A box elder tree shaded the kitchen and every spring Mother planted a blue morning glory vine in front of the pantry window. We had a big vegetable garden behind the house.

Other buildings making up the homestead were the smokehouse, coal house, hen house, several corn cribs and the barn.

Our water supply came from the cistern which was located just outside the kitchen. The water of the cistern was rain water caught from the roof of our home and filtered into the well. It was good soft water. We didn’t have a pump so we drew the water with a rope and bucket. Many times our company refused to drink our water because they thought we were too close to the graveyard. The graveyard was at least a mile from our home. The cistern also served as our refrigerator. At times the cistern had several buckets filled with jars of milk, butter and salad greens hanging from a rope.

I was not born there but came there when I was very young with my parents and older brother from the “Ballew Place.” My brother, Dick, was born at “The Shack.” The Shack was a two-roomed house on another farm my parents owned for many years.

I don’t know why it was called “The Shack” because it really was quite well-built, only small. All the windows and doors were intact and it had a loft. My brother, sisters and I used to hike through the neighbors’ woods and pastures, carrying our lunches, and go to “The Shack” to play. It was about three miles from our home. It was such fun. It was our very own play house. I remember sitting for hours looking at the old Sears catalogs that my parents had left at The Shack. We thought the styles outrageously funny and the prices unbelievably high.

Our home was quite small now, with Mother, Dad, a brother, four sisters and myself in a little four-room house, but it was a crowded beehive of activity.

The kitchen was a large room. In one corner was a wash stand as we called it. It held a porcelain wash basin and a water pail with a long handled dipper which was used by all as a drinking cup. A small mirror hung on the wall above the stand. The family comb lay on the stand near the wash basin. This corner of the kitchen was always in use, since cleanliness was stressed as being next to godliness.

The day started with mother rising early and building a fire in the coal and wood range. Breakfast usually consisted of fried eggs, hot biscuits with butter and sorghum, and oatmeal mush. Coffee was boiled in a coffee pot and served only to Mother and Dad because it would stunt the children’s growth. However, as a Sunday morning treat we could have a little coffee with cream and sugar.

We all came to the table for breakfast, and all other meals for that matter, fully dressed, faces washed and hair combed as though we were having company. Dad sat at one end of the table and Mother at the other. Usually, a high chair for one of my younger sisters was placed next to mother. A picture on the wall behind the table read, “Lord, give us this day our Daily Bread.” On the other wall was the telephone. It was a hand ringer.

I remember our ring was two shorts and a long and if there was an important message for the whole community there would be a series of several shorts which was a signal for everyone to run to the telephone to hear the news.

There was a small pantry off the kitchen and it was here my mother kneaded the bread and pastries. Mother did all our baking and we children thought it was a real treat to have “boughtin” bread. Sometimes mother would be out of bread and we children would have to take biscuit sandwiches to school. This was embarrassing to us since almost everyone had bread sandwiches. But mother was a good cook and most other children in school were envious of our lunches. Almost every day we had fried chicken and we always had homemade cookies – mostly molasses.

In the summer we had a problem with the flies. Every so often we would pull down all the shades at the windows and every one would get a dish towel and herd the flies to the screen door and then someone would open the screen door and we would shoo the flies out and then we would start all over again. We would do this several times and we did get out lots of flies by this method. Sometimes we had fly paper which was a long, sticky streamer. If a fly touched this he was doomed. We had fly swatters, too, which we used but it was a losing battle. There were always a few flies.

School and Chores

While mother made breakfast I made the beds and helped my smaller sisters dress. My dad, brother and the two sisters next to me did the outside chores such as milking the cows and feeding the livestock. My brother hated milking and he would let his fingernails grow long and refuse to cut them so my sisters usually did the milking. I milked, too, but it wasn’t a regular chore of mine. I really never minded milking except in the winter time when it was cold and the cows teats would crack and bleed as we milked. I would rather go without the milk but it was a job that had to be done.

We children had to hurry to get all our work done before we went to school. It took time to get ready because we were fussy about how we looked. We girls did our hair up in rags every night and took it down the next morning and that way we had curly hair and if it wasn’t just right we had a curling iron which we heated by hanging in the chimney of a lighted Kerosene lamp and used it to curl our hair. We had to be careful not to get the iron too hot or we would burn our hair.

Our school was about two miles from home but we would cut through our Uncle Charley’s pasture. In the winter mother made us wear long underwear, the legs of which we wrapped around our legs as neat as we could and tucked them into our lisle stockings. How I hated long underwear. Mother never knew, but as soon as we were out of her sight, my sisters and I would roll the legs of the underwear above our knees and go to the school. There were several fences we had to crawl over and go under whichever was easiest. My uncle got tired of us breaking down his fence so he built stiles for us.

Our school consisted of two rooms. The first four grades were in one room and the last four in the other. It was a typical country school. A jacketed stove sat in one corner of each room and in the winter the teacher would have to heave in a bucket of coal every so often to keep the fire going so the room would be warm.

There was an earthen water fountain with a spigot from which a student could get a drink of water with his tin cup, providing the teacher had not forgotten to fill the fountain in the morning. There was a well near the school with a pump for the teacher’s convenience. A privy for boys was in one corner of the schoolyard and one for the girls was in the other corner.

The basic subjects were reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar and spelling. Much emphasis was put on writing, or penmanship as we called it, and we were taught the Palmer Method.

In the Palmer Method of penmanship the wrist is kept flat on the paper. The fingers are only used to hold the pencil and all the movement is from the arm. We used to make a continuous coil or circles across a page that looked as if one could push a pencil through the coil. We also did straight strokes up and down in a line across the page. Most of the time we had a work book for our penmanship class and a sample of what was to be done was a the top of each page.

Our text books were furnished by the school but very few other books were available and these were reference books and one set of World Book Encyclopedia.

One time the teacher gave an assignment that called for a reference book. There was only one reference book that would do and I happened to it first. I started out for home with it so I could study that night. Another girl wanted it but I wouldn’t let her have it so she followed me and caught me from behind and literally tramped me in the mud. My two sisters took my books and ran, so she didn’t get the book, but I surely took a beating and was a mess. I knew if mother found out I had been fighting I would get another one so I sort of sneaked in the house and changed clothes when she wasn’t looking. The next day was Saturday and I looked out the window and here came Bernice.

I was so scared that mother would find out so I went to meet Bernice. All she wanted was to say her mom and dad had sent her to say she was sorry. Anyway, she didn’t start back home as soon as she should have so her mother called on the telephone and asked mother if we got everything settled. So mother found out but she didn’t even wait to hear the whole story; she didn’t even hang up the telephone. She just came dashing at me and “boxed” me across the ears. It was supposed to be understood that we children didn’t fight.

We had very few books in our home. One year, Mother gave me “The Covered Wagon” for Christmas. One time my paternal grandmother gave me “The Voyage of Chistropher Columbus” and Grandma Grey gave me “Aunt Charlotte’s Stories of the Bible.” “Aunt Charlotte’s Stories of the Bible” had a story for every Sunday of the year with questions at the end of every story. I read this book over and over and still treasure it. We also had “The Chatter Box,” a book given to my brother by my Grandma Grey.

We took the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Kansas City Star, The Farm Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. We never got a Sunday paper but I wished so much we would. I liked the colored “funnies.” My favorite funny was “Tillie the Toiler” and mother’s favorite was “Out Our Way,” “Our Boarding House” and “Moon Mullins.” I don’t recall what dad read or what the rest of the family read.

My brother, sisters and I liked school very much and mother encouraged us to get an education and “get off the farm.”

She said, “It’s nothing but a lot of hard work from dawn to dark and you’ll never have a pot to pee in.”

None of us argued with her because we all agreed. We went to school every day even with the chicken pox, pink eye and some type of measles. When I had the chicken pox I would find an excuse to write on the black board so I could scratch my back on the eraser tray.

The county school nurse would come once a year to our school but I don’t know why she came. She would give us free toothpaste but since we didn’t own a toothbrush but I liked the taste of the toothpaste we just ate it.

We always changed clothes as soon as we came from school. We didn’t have many clothes but what we had mother sewed and they were nice. She sewed on a treadle machine, a Minnesota machine, a cabinet model which had lost its drawers long before my time. Mother was a good seamstress. She also sewed a little for one of my cousins.

After changing our clothes we were allowed to have a little snack before we started our chores. Our snack might be a molasses cookie or a sweet pickle but never very much. Anyway, we were anxious to get our work done. Whoever got their work done first got in the house and was allowed to sit closest to the kitchen lamp to study. We only had two kerosene lamps, one for the kitchen and one for the living room.

My work was to feed the sheep, hogs and chickens and get in all the fuel. We had Shropshire sheep, about two hundred at a time. These are the sheep that have black faces. I found that all I had to do to get the sheep to follow was just rattle a bucket and one would start out after me and all the rest would fall in step behind the leader. We generally had a few pets lambs that had to be fed by the bottle but we trained them to drink out of a pan as soon as we could.

Getting in the fuel was a pretty big job. I had to pick up corncobs which were used to start the fire and get in several buckets of coal. We also used wood and my sisters and I sawed wood every night with a crosscut saw. If the log wouldn’t stay still we would sit one of the younger sisters on the log to make it more stationary. We got to be real good with a crosscut saw. When the saw got dull we had a big round grinder that Dad would sharpen the saw on. One of us children would turn the grinder and Dad and one of my other sisters would hold the saw just right. For some reason I always liked to sharpen the saw or ax. There was a peculiar odor which came from the grinder and I liked to watch the sparks fly.

In the summertime when we got our evening work done we would play ante-over the hen house or the coal house. This was played by throwing a ball over the building. If a kid on the other side caught the ball then he could tear around to our side of the building and try to hit someone with the ball. If a person was hit with the ball he had to play on the side of the person who hit him. When one side ended up with all the players the game was over.

In the winter as soon as our chores were done we children would gather on one end of the kitchen table to do our school work while Mother finished supper. Supper was late, usually 7:30 or 8 o’clock, and rather simple. It was usually one of these three: potato soup, tomato soup or cornbread and milk. I liked the cornbread and milk best of all. Then we always had dessert which was generally some kind of cream pie or gingerbread. In those days we called these desserts soft pie or molasses cake.

If there was time after supper and if we got our school work done, Dad would call out different problems to us from an arithmetic book which had the answers in the back. We practiced addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, square roots and such almost every night. Addition was my favorite. Dad would call the problem to be added as fast as he could. He would choose problems with several columns and quite long. As soon as he would say “add” I had the answers for the two outside columns. I knew my combinations at sight so I was the winner as a rule. This was entertainment to us. We would do this in the evening while eating hickory nuts or black walnuts we gathered from the trees that grew on our farm. Sometimes we had popcorn and occasionally we made molasses taffy.

Mother washed the dishes and my sisters and I took turns drying them. The back of the range had a reservoir we kept filled with water so most of the time we had hot water on hand.

We only had heat in the kitchen and living room in the winter time. The doors to the bedrooms were kept shut at all times to conserve the heat and sometimes it was very cold. Before we went to bed mother would heat the flat irons in the oven and wrap them in a towel and give each of us one to put at our feet. Most of our mattresses were the regular cotton stuffed mattresses but I remember one mother had sewed of blue and white striped ticking and stuffed with straw. Sometimes mother carded wool sheared from our sheep and used it to fill comforters. We slept warm even though a bottle of ink would freeze solid in the same room. It didn’t take long for us to dress in the morning and make a dash for the “Estate Oak” heating stove in the living room.

Threshing Time

We grew oats but no wheat and when the oat fields were ripe dad would cut the oats with a binder pulled by horses. My brother and sisters and I would follow behind and shock the oats. After a time, a threshing crew would come to thresh the oats. There was only one threshing machine in the whole county, I believe, and it had to have a big crew of men to operate it, about 20 to 25 men. Mr. Frady owned the threshing machine and he would move from farm to farm threshing oats and wheat for everyone.

Neighbor women helped each other cook for the threshers. There were about 30 men and women and we cooked both dinner and supper. We borrowed dishes from one another because no one had that many dishes.

The men were served first then all the children and the women at last. I loved all the excitement that went with threshing time even though it was lots of work.

After the crew left the wheat farms my sisters and I would go after the threshing crew left and glean the threshed wheat which had spilled from the wagons and take it home. Mother would clean it by several washings and then roast it, grind it and then she would cook this for our breakfast. It was delicious with cream and sugar. I always thought of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz as we gleaned spilled wheat.

Community Meetings

Our school held a community meeting every other Friday night. This community meeting was strictly an evening of entertainment. The entertainment might be a ciphering match, a debate, a three-act play or a combination of several different things. It also might have community singing or a few monologues. People would come for miles around to our meetings and I thought we had pretty good entertainment.

I used to be involved in everything. I was on the debate team. I gave monologues and I was in plays; always playing an old woman because I never had much to offer as far as looks or gracefulness. I had plowed too much corn to be very graceful, I suppose.

In a ciphering match everyone was divided either on side one or side two. This was determined by two first grader’s choices. First one would choose someone and then the other one would choose someone until everyone in the room was chosen for one side or the other.

The match started by the youngest from each side going to the blackboard. The teacher or chairman of the meeting would call out three problems and the person getting two right answers first was the winner. The winner stayed at the blackboard and another person from the losing side would come to the blackboard. This person had his choice of the kind of problem he wanted. If he knew his opponent was not good in subtraction or division or such he might choose that. This ciphering, as it was called, lasted until there was only one person left at the blackboard with no competition and naturally he was the winner. It was great fun.

Our debates could be a lot of fun too. I recall two other persons who came to our meetings to debate. One was an attorney, Parker York, from a small town, about ten miles from Coatsville and the other person I remember was Sam Hurliman.

One time we were debating the subject “Why it is best to live in the country or the city.” Sam was a great one for joking and he could manage a few in his debating.

At this particular meeting, Sam asked, “Do you know why mother’s milk is best for babies?”

There was a silence and then he said, “because it is easiest to take on picnics.”

Then there was the West Family from “Coal Hollar” and they were really entertaining. They were the only people who attended our meetings that knew anything about music and they never missed a meeting. There were three boys and three girls besides the mother and father and they all strummed guitar or banjo and sang and harmonized. I can still see and hear Edwin strummin’ his guitar and singing, “The Old Spinning Wheel.” Later the West girls sang over the radio station of Shenadoah, Iowa, and Edwin became a music teacher in high school.


Sunday was a day of rest, proclaimed by mother, and everyone and everything rested.

I went to Sunday School and many times my younger sisters went, too. We would carry our shoes and stockings if it had been raining and wipe off our feet just before we got there and put on our shoes and stockings.

There were two churches in Coatsville, the Baptist and the Holiness. I attended the Baptist. The Holiness people came to our church for Sunday School and then went to the Holiness Church to hear Sister Mary preach.

Sister Mary was from a large family. Her father owned a general store in Coatsville at one time and I remember his store had a hitching post in front of it. Her father deserted the family and Mary stayed home. She worked on the farm and helped her mother raise the seven or eight brothers and sisters. Everyone thought Sister Mary was a wonderful person and she could preach a good sermon.

On Sunday, Dad loafed a lot. He would go to town, town being Coatsville, and sit on benches in front of the general store with other men and just gossip all day. Mother would be disgusted. She would fix Sunday dinner, usually chicken and noodles, and it seemed dad would never come home. He spent the whole day “loafin’.”

I remember one time my cousin, Nelma, came to visit my sisters and me and we decided to go horseback riding and pick wildflowers. It was springtime and we had a special place we would go where all kinds of wild flowers bloomed. It was near the edge of a woods. There were bachelor buttons, bluebells, buttercups and many others. We would pick armfuls.

This Sunday we didn’t ask mother and just got our horses Nige, Babe, Hi Ki and Cheyenne, put on their bridles (we rode bareback) and took off for the woods.

We came home loaded with flowers but mother was angry and my sisters and I all got lickings but not my cousin. The reason for the licking was that it was Sunday and the horses were supposed to rest.

Choosing Names

My name is Sibyl Emogene and the name was not easily chosen. As my mother tells it, I was a month old with no name. On this particular Sunday there were 12 people visiting Mother and Dad so they decided to name me. Everyone put a name in a hat and mother drew out “Emogene.” Sibyl is mother’s only sister’s name so that was tacked in front of Emogene. I always went by Emogene or Jeanne. Can you imagine what Sibyl Trimble sounds like if you say it a little fast?

Mother had put the name Evelyn Lucille in the hat and Sam Beard had put in Armeta. Emogene was dropped in the hat by my Uncle Howard, Emogene being the name of a girl he once loved and lost. Mother has never been able to remember any of the other names and I have questioned her about this many times.

My brother’s name is Richard, or Dick as everyone calls him, and the two sisters next to me are Kathlene and Irene. I don’t think mother had such a difficult time naming Kathlene and Irene but she got delayed in naming my two youngest sisters Roberta Mae and Daphna Lenore. It was probably my fault. I wanted to call Roberta “Wilda Mae” or “Georgianna” and Daphna “Lola Nell.” Thank goodness, mother ended up choosing their names even though they were a month old, also.

I really don’t know how old I am but I think I have the right age. I recorded my own birth at an age I assumed to be 21 and as best mother could remember, assisted by Dr. Cox, who delivered me and signed my birth certificate at my request.

Jean Gillespie grew up in northeast Missouri and graduated from Lancaster High School. Now nearing 90, she wrote these memoirs 40 years ago. She is an active volunteer and member at the Enumclaw Senior Activity Center and various other groups around the community.

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