The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Good Results From Hard Times

By Paula A. Kerns © 1987

Issue: May, 1987

In November of 1929, about a month before her 13th birthday, Dora Lois Swank was placed in Meigs County Children's Home. Entering the Home with her were her three brothers and one sister, all younger, ranging down to age four. Their mother kept the year old baby sister with her. Their father was in the County Tuberculosis Sanitarium. Three months later, he died of tuberculosis.

In 1930, there were few career mothers. Dora's mother knew housekeeping, not a career which would help her provide for six children. The five had to remain in the Children's Home.

Dora Lois Swank, now Mrs. Ellsworth P. Crispin, of Westerville, Ohio, is my mother. Growing up, I heard tales of her times in the Home. Recently, I asked her for more in depth information. Was it really as bad as I remembered hearing? Was there any good thing about it? How did it really feel to be there?

The boys had the first floor of the Home; the second floor was a schoolroom for youngsters up to third or fourth grade; and the girls had the third floor. Wake up time was 5:00 a.m. Breakfast was at 6:00, consisting of pancakes or an egg or cornflakes, never a large, healthy breakfast. One time Mom found a roach in her pancakes. When I asked her what she did about it, I expected her to say she complained and got a fresh one. But no, this was depression time. The answer was: either eat around the offending creature, or go hungry. She ate around it.

Before school, dishes had to be done and lunches packed for school. No hot lunches in the '30s. Lunch was a peanut butter sandwich or egg sandwich; sometimes with a piece of cake; seldom any fresh fruit. The children from the Home carried ugly lunch buckets. They were not proud of them, so they often ate their lunches on the way to school and hid the ugly buckets along the road, retrieving them on the way home.

Mom walked about a mile to the Sugar Run School. In high school, she walked about a mile and a half to Pomeroy High. She was of course expected back at the Home immediately after school. My mom, as honest as the day is long, once fibbed to a Governess; told her she had to stay after school to take a test, but actually stayed to participate in a volleyball game. What a small, but delightful taste of temporary freedom that must have been!

After school, the big girls had to do chores, help with the dinner and cleanup afterwards; and also help look after the smaller children.

Winters were not mild. Mom remembers one morning having to shake snow off her bed covers. The girls had left the windows open.

One winter, the children were quarantined three times due to scarlet fever. This was the winter of 1934 or 1935. There were only about three children in the Home that did not contract scarlet fever. Mom and her brother, Elmer, were two who did not. One winter a girl had Diphtheria, but no one else contracted that.

Summers involved a lot of hard work, too. The chores, kitchen work, housework, washing walls and high ceilings, continued. In addition, there were beans and tomatoes and berries to pick and can. One could pick a water bucket full of berries by noon, starting early in the morning. A lot of berries never made it to the bucket, of course! Excess berries were sold in Pomeroy to earn money for the Meigs County Fair.

Ah, Fair Time! That was one of the highlights of the year, if not the highlight. Mom had one dress up dress and two others for school and everyday, but Fair Day was dress up day. Each child received twenty five or fifty cents to spend at the Fair, and excitement ran high. The children were hauled to the Fair in a horse drawn wagon. No big fancy vehicle would have made the day any more exciting.

Yes, there were other good things about the Home, few, perhaps, but good. There was the fellowship with the other children, card games in winter, sleigh riding on a bobsled a time or two. There were softball games in good weather.

And there was the radio. The radio arrived shortly after Mom was placed in the Home. There was a speaker above the door in the dorm. Getting to listen to the radio was usually a Saturday night treat. There was the Grand Ole Opry, Amos 'n' Andy, Fibber Magee and Molly, Oliver Hardy, and Jack Benny.

In the fall, there was apple sauce making and apple butter making. It took two to stir the apple butter using a big wooden paddle.

Christmas was not lavish, but the children did receive fruit and gifts from various organizations.

Church services were held in the school room on Sunday afternoons when they could get a preacher. Mom also attended the Methodist Church in Pomeroy. There, Mom was in a good sized class headed by a Miss Lucy Gibbs. Everyone liked Miss Gibbs, a spinster who had her own home and lived alone. She was a good teacher.

Another plus at the Children's Home, according to Mom, is that she was taught the art of sewing. She made her own clothes and clothes for the smaller girls; even underwear. And she learned to patch and mend. No doubt she did more patching than sewing of new items. To this day, my Mom makes the neatest, strongest patch I've ever seen!

Although Mom had a lot of relatives in Meigs County, she and her siblings had few visitors at the Home. They were never taken for family outings. Their mother visited, perhaps an hour or so each week. Belva Willard must have been helpful. Mom said she was the Governess when Mom entered the Home; that Mrs. Willard was a kind and caring lady.

But how did it really "feel?" I asked Mom. Well, she didn't "blame" anyone. And Mom wouldn't. She may or may not have understood at age 13. As she remembers it, she did understand. And she accepted her lot without complaint. She always has.

No matter how difficult her days at the Meigs County Children's Home may have been, somewhere along the line, Mom learned to love, thrift, the value of honest work, how to enjoy life's simple pleasures. She's been a good example, a fine person to emulate. Perhaps some of her fine qualities are the positive result of hard times at the old Children's Home. Perhaps...