Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Kind and Generous Woman

Elvira with her husband, Fred, and 12 of their children.

From left to right:

Della, Alfonzo/Alonzo, Alma or Leota, Alfonzo/Alonzo, Lana, Edward, Fred, Paul, Elvira, John, Mabel, Warren, Beulah, and Brendice.

Strength.  Courage.  Commitment. Fortitude.  Happy.  Kind.  Generous.  These are some of the words I associate with Elvira Bartley Gerner, the woman who is my great-grandmother.  Read on to learn a little about her life and times.

On May 17, 1873, five days after Elvira Bartley turned 19, she had her first baby, Ida Adelia.  She and Frederick K. Gerner had married 10 months earlier, on July 24, 1872, in Sugar Creek, Butler County, Pennsylvania.  Fred was 5 years Elvira’s senior.

In those times, young women married and began their families at a young age.  I know very little about Elvira’s early years except that she attended school and learned to read and write.  I can guess that she spent time with her mother, learning the mothering, cooking, and household management skills that would be essential when she became a wife and mother in her own home.

Sometime during the 14 months after Ida’s birth, Fred and Elvira moved from Butler County, Pennsylvania, to Putnam County, West Virginia.  Pioneers!  West Virginia had become a state just 11 years before.  What prompted the move of such a great distance?  Had Fred been there before?  Had they already bought land?  Elvira’s older brother, George Washington Bartley, and his wife, Ursula, were next-door neighbors during at least some of the years Fred and Elvira lived in West Virginia.  Perhaps they traveled together.  Did Elvira find comfort in having a neighbor who was also a family member?

What would that trip have been like?  I imagine a horse-drawn wagon packed with the essentials to begin a new life.  I imagine, not the level ground of today’s roads, but stony paths over all kinds of terrain.  The distance between Butler County and Putnam County these days is about 290 miles.  If a horse with a wagon travels about 5 miles per hour, the trip would take nearly 60 hours - just for travel alone.  There would have been extra time and stops needed for food preparation, for water, for possible wagon repairs.  If they traveled 8 hours per day at 5 miles per hour, the trip would have taken 7 days.  Where did they stay along the way?  Was there a house, a home, a cottage, a cabin ready for them when they arrived?  What was the settling in experience like?

Whatever difficulties they faced, settle in they did.  In her home Elvira filled the role of farmer’s wife and mother.  She quickly became the mother of more than little Ida.  Twins Alonzo and Alfonzo were born 14 months after Ida, in July 1874.  Then there was a succession of babies:  Lana was born in November 1875; Edward in July 1877; Della in February 1879; Mary Alma in January 1881; and John in November 1882.

Elvira and Fred and their growing family remained in Putnam County until sometime between 1882 and 1884, though they seem to have moved at least once.  U.S. census records for 1880 and birth records for seven children indicate living locations of both Scott District and Winfield, the county seat.

Sometime between John’s birth in 1882 and the birth of Bessie Leota in June 1884, Elvira and Fred decided to move back to Pennsylvania.  This move, which included eight children between the approximate ages of infant and 10 years, certainly would have been harder than the move south with just one infant.  What a trip that must have been!  Perhaps it was a wonderful adventure for the children, but it was one which would have required much planning and preparation by their parents.

Elvira’s youngest daughter, Brendice, wrote that her mother’s life must have been hard the first few years and added, “as soon as the children were able to stand, we were told that our feet were to stand on....  Everybody pitched in as soon as they were able and, no doubt, sometimes a little before.”

The move to Pennsylvania took them back to Butler County, specifically to the small town of Bruin.  Eight more children were born to Elvira while they lived in Bruin:  Bessie Leota in June 1884; Mabel in May 1886; Beulah in September 1888; Warren in July 1890; Ethel in May 1892; Netta (or Meta) in June 1894; Brendice in October 1895; and Paul in April 1898.

Elvira was 44 years old when her last child was born.  She’d been pregnant 16 times and nursed 16 babies.  About 22 of her 44 years had been lived either pregnant or nursing.  How many sleepless nights must she have lived through?  How many skinned knees were doctored; heads of tangled hair combed; baths given; clothes sewn, washed and dried by hand; beds made; and meals prepared?  All without the modern conveniences of electric stoves, washers, dryers, and sewing machines.  A mother doesn’t count, but a mother sometimes gets tired.  I am in awe when I think of her stamina and devotion.  Brendice commented, “My mother had all us kids, never was seriously ill, [and was] never in the hospital even when she had the babies....  She was a big (not fat), strong woman.”  She was physically strong, and she must also been a woman of stamina, fortitude, and strength of character.

Elvira lost two children when they were young:  Netta (or Meta) when she was 3 months old, in September 1894; and Ethel, who died of poisoning, in April 1897.

In June, 1900, Elvira and Fred had 11 children, ages 2 to 25 years old, living at home.  Ida, Alonzo, and Lana had already married and were gone.  Sometime soon after June 1900, Elvira and her family moved to a farm in Fairview Township, Mercer County, where they lived for about 9 or 10 years.

Of those years Brendice wrote, “My parents were just honest, hard-working farmers on a 144 acre farm [with] an eleven room house, and everybody worked.”  I don’t know much about the farm and its crops and animals, though I know there was a vegetable garden and there were chickens.  Brendice remembered, “Mother thought of the holidays in the fall.  She put up some especially nice things to have, like special peaches.  Always had a hubbard squash.  Since we had chickens she had several nice fat hens instead of turkey and we had all the trimmings.  My mother was an excellent cook and loved to put on a big meal....  Since we had all this stuff on the farm I think we lived ‘high on the hog” as the saying goes.”  She added, “When I was growing up we never sat down to the table with less than seven or eight people.”  Did Elvira ever get out of the kitchen?!  How did she manage to prepare meals to feed her large family?!  A girl or young woman learns skills in the home of her mother but she comes into her own through practice in her own home.  Elvira had lots of practice!

Elvira had her own rubber-tired buggy and her own driving horse which she used to go to the grocery or to visit friends.  I imagine Elvira also used her buggy when she served her neighbors.  Brendice wrote that her mother “liked everybody to a point.  If you needed help, call Mrs. Gerner.  She was a midwife to the neighborhood [and] also dressed most of the people who died in the vicinity.  They called it ‘laid them out.’  All for free.  Her good neighbor policy.”  What a great example!

Elvira’s oldest daughter, Ida, died of consumption in 1904, leaving an infant daughter, Lucille.  Elvira took over the care of Lucille.  Having birthed and cared for 16 children, I wonder if, when she was 50, Elvira felt like she still had the energy to care for an infant.  Of course there were 6 daughters still at home to help with little Lucille.

Elvira and her family moved again in about 1908.  They returned to Bruin, this time to a smaller farm.  By 1910, there were only five children and granddaughter Lucille living with Elvira and her husband.  Brendice commented that as the older siblings married and moved away it was lonely without everyone around.  Did Elvira feel the same way?

Elvira lost her granddaughter, Lucille, to typhoid fever in 1912; in 1913, her daughter Beulah passed away not long after giving birth to twins; and in 1917, her son Edward died.

By 1920, Elvira and Fred were living alone in a house in Bruin.  I wonder if Elvira, 65 at the time, missed having the farm.  Surely she wouldn’t have missed all the work, but without the farm work, I wonder what occupied her time.  Did she read, embroider, quilt, knit, sew?  Did she relax, or was she a woman who stayed active and involved?

Brendice shared other of the attributes of her mother.  She said that Elvira was “Scotch Irish (Orange Irish, she would say) and had that Irish wit....  She enjoyed life and people.”  She also said that she was “a very happy and kind woman but she ruled the roost.”  Wouldn’t the mother of 16 children need to rule the roost?

After Elvira’s husband Fred passed away in March 1926, she remained in Bruin for a time.  In April, 1930, she was living on Washington Street, paying $19.00/month rent.  During the last years of her life she lived with various children for several months at a time.  Two of her living grandchildren remember her staying with their families.  Both commented that she was a very pleasant person, that she had a beautiful singing voice, and that she often sat reading the Bible.

I have a photograph of Elvira in old age, sitting in a wheel chair surrounded by adult children and their spouses.  She is no longer big and strong, but tiny and almost unrecognizable.  During the last several years of her life Elvira suffered from senility.  It seems to be the round of life that we begin small, grow large and healthy, become strong adults, and then often begin to lose strength, health, and vitality.  I feel particularly sad to know that my great-grandmother, Elvira Bartley Gerner, once so vibrant and independent, lost her mental facilities.  I’m grateful that she lived 88 years and that so many of them were lived with health and vigor.

Elvira passed away in Struthers, Ohio, at the home of her daughter, Leota, on February 3, 1943.  She is buried in Bear Creek Cemetery near Petrolia, Butler County, Pennsylvania.

I look forward to visiting with Gramma Elvira.  I hope to ask her these questions:
– What is your favorite scripture?
– What machine invented during your lifetime affected you the most?
– What were your favorite foods to make?
– Did you sew, knit socks and sweaters, quilt, and/or do other handiwork?
– What was the most challenging experience in your lifetime and what did you learn from it?

Thank you, Gramma, for being such a great example!  I love you.

This post was created as a tribute to my great-grandmother, Elvira Bartley Gerner, in conjunction with a timeline, Elvira Bartley Gerner: Her Years from Birth to Burial and was submitted to the 91st Carnival of Genealogy, "A Tribute to Women!"

Thanks to Jasia at Creative Gene for organizing the Carnival of Genealogy and to footnoteMaven for the beautiful poster.


Copyright © 2010 by Nancy Messier.


  1. What a great tribute to Elvira! I was crying by the end. She definitely sounds like a wonderful woman. What year was the first picture taken? Ida is not in the picture...was she already married?
    Also, did Grandpa Doyle ever talk about Elvira? I'm just wondering since she was his grandmother on the other side...

  2. Thank you, Natasha.

    Brendice, on the right in to photo at the top, looks about 12 years old and she was born in 1895, so my best guess for a date for the photo is about 1907. It could be a little later, but definitely not earlier.

    I don't think I ever heard Dad talk about Gramma Elvira. I think he had very little contact with the Gerner side of the family when he was a child. Gust would probably have been too busy with farm work to have taken him for visits and, from some things Aunt Brendice wrote, I sense that the Gerner family wasn't really welcomed on the farm by Gust's 2nd wife. Possibly some jealousy there.

    I'll be doing a post sometime in the future about Dad's childhood based on comments from Aunt Tressa and Aunt Brendice.

  3. This was a great post! I especially like the questions you'll ask her. . .

  4. Great post. I enjoyed reading it and I loved how you thought about how the pioneer trip would've been. It brings to life something you have virtually no sources about.

  5. Nancy, I read your piece about Elvira yesterday, but had problems with the comment --- and the story was so delightful, I wanted to come back and let you know. I really enjoyed how your took Elvira thru every age and made her so real. However, I have two special favorites -- the first picture of the family --- really a great family shot. The second, is the image of that fiesty Elvira with her own rubber wheeled buggy on her way to where she wanted to go.

  6. Joan, thanks for coming to read about Elvira the first time and thanks for coming back again to leave a comment. I appreciate it.

    Isn't that a fun family photograph! I especially enjoy how Alfonzo and Alonzo seem to be teasing their father: their stance is exactly like his. I understand that their father was "a stern German."

    And yes, I too, love the image of Elvira and her rubber-tired buggy. In my mind I compare her first wagon ride to WV - if in a wagon then definitely with either wood or metal-rimmed wheels - to the ride in her rubber-wheeled buggy. She probably marveled at the progress in transportation.

    Thanks again for coming to visit. I appreciate it.

  7. Nancy, there are so many favorite pieces of Elvira's story it's hard to say which I liked best. She was indeed a strong woman. I liked the way you posed the questions that you will ask her someday when you meet. You did a great job with your tribute to her.

  8. Thanks, Judy, for visiting and reading about Elvira and for making a comment. I appreciate it. Do you imagine future conversations with your ancestors, too?

  9. Beautifully written. I love that you narrated the story without forcing conversation or actions on the people. The questions presented were real & helped expand her character without making stuff up. I wrote a narrative biography for a class & struggled with exactly that. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Jenna. This is the first time I've read it since just after I wrote and I now see things I would edit or change (if I were writing it for the first time now). I guess that's the nature of continued practice: we see how we can improve as we go forward.


I appreciate your comments and look forward to reading what you have to say. Thanks for stopping by.

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