My father mentioned his childhood on such rare occasions that it seemed his life was lived as an adult: no childhood, no youth, no parents, no previous life. But then I come from a family of non-story tellers so it didn't seem particularly unusual. As I grew older I wanted to know more but because my father seemed reluctant to talk, I asked few questions.
The quest for my father's childhood and youth began after he passed away in 1987. I first contacted Beulah’s sister, Brendice Gerner Davis, because she was the oldest living relative. I asked what she remembered and whether she and her family had much contact with Dad when he was a child. A little later I contacted my father's half-sister, Tressa Doyle Wilson, who shared some memories; and then I asked my mother if Dad ever talked about his childhood and, if so, what she remembered him saying.
Aunt Brendice wrote that she was in high school the year my dad and Leila were born. She and her family lived in Bruin, Butler County, Pennsylvania, a distance of about 50 miles from Mercer County’s town of Stoneboro, where my father was born. It was planned that Brendice would go and help take care of the babies. She said that Beulah’s death was such a shock. It was no doubt a shock to everyone she left behind.
No one seemed to know definite details about my father’s life during the first few years after his mother’s death but Aunt Brendice seemed to think that Gust’s mother, Tressa (Froman) Doyle, known as Maw to the grandchildren, took care of Dad during that time. Maw turned 46 that year and her other children, Emma and Hazel, were 27 and 23. Emma, the oldest, was already a widow with two daughters, 7-year-old Madelyn and 5-year-old Evelyn. They were living with Maw and her husband William (known as Pap to the grandchildren) in 1910, along with “adopted,” special needs son, 9-year-old Raymond. Emma remarried between 1910 and 1920 and in 1920 lived just 6 houses down the street. Perhaps Dad’s care beginning in 1913 was divided between Maw and Emma.
When Dad was 3, Gust, 27, remarried a young woman who was just 19. I suppose Gust had no way of knowing what the chemistry would be like between his new wife and his son, Lee; or perhaps she persuaded him what a good, loving mother she would be. However it happened, it didn’t work as I’m sure Gust hoped and expected.
Aunt Brendice and her family had lived near Stoneboro several years before Beulah and Gust were married. Brendice and Beulah had several sisters who were about the same ages as Gust’s sisters, Emma and Hazel. They had all become friends and saw each other once in a while. Brendice wrote, “One time (some of us girls) went to Doyles and I went in the house or to the door and asked for Lee. His step mother said he isn’t here, he is at [Emma’s] so we went to [Emma’s] and she said no, Lee is not here. She said he must be out with his Dad. And then she told us his stepmother didn’t like him and she was so mean with him that Gus took him out with him when he was a little fellow.”
I’m grateful that his father protected him but feel such sorrow that a young wife would mistreat her husband’s young son. I have heard from StepMother’s granddaughter that Gust’s wife either liked you or she didn’t. If she didn’t like you, there was nothing you could do to change her feelings. Those she didn’t like she either ignored or treated meanly.
Aunt Brendice said the only thing Dad ever said about his stepmother was that she would have things her way or else. I remember when I was a child I was talking about the Cinderella story and the wicked stepmother. Dad commented that he knew about that situation but he never elaborated.
Aunt Tressa shared some other family stories about my father’s childhood. She wrote that Gust liked homemade candy. “Mom [stepmother to Lee] didn’t always have time to make it. To keep your Dad [Lee] from being disappointed if she couldn’t make it – he [Gust] would spell candy – thinking Lee wouldn’t understand. One evening your Dad [Lee] asked Mom to make some CBS. From that time on home made candy, in our family, was CBS.”
Aunt Tressa said that Gust was an extremely good father who enjoyed his family. He and his father, Pap, very carefully taught the children how to help with the farm work as they became old enough. He was interested in his children’s education and wanted to know what they were doing in school.
Dad finished school through the 8th grade as was common with the farm boys at that time. Aunt Tressa said Dad didn’t have chores like the younger children did but worked alongside his father and Pap doing the work of the farm to keep it running and productive. That was probably common for youth during those times.
On the farm the cows were milked morning and evening. Aunt Tressa wrote that “the milk was strained into 10 gallon cans which were set in the cold water trough to cool. Every morning the cans were put on the truck (wagon in the wintertime) to be taken to the Meadow Gold Milk Plant at Sandy Lake. We took turns with 2 other farmers at taking the milk to the Plant. Each turn was for a month. Dad [Gust] or your Dad [Lee], when he was old enough to drive, would take the milk to the Plant.” She didn’t say at what age Dad began to drive. No doubt he learned to drive the horses and tractor sooner than the car and truck.
Aunt Tressa also related this about a coal mine on the farm property. “The coal mine your Dad worked in was in our pasture field. In the late 1920's Dad, Pap and your Dad dug the shaft for the mine. The shaft was 35 feet deep but I don’t know the other dimensions.... They had to keep shoring the sides to keep it from caving in. Also had to build a ladder for ascending and descending. There wasn’t any heavy equipment at that time – they had to do all the digging by hand. They struck coal at 35 feet. They built a tipple and a building for the hoist that would bring the loaded coal cars up the shaft to be emptied in the bins and returned to the bottom of the shaft. Your Dad helped with all of this....”
Dad’s father, Gust, died of colon cancer in October, 1933, the year my father turned 20. After his surgery and hospital care, the family was in debt to the hospital. Aunt Tressa said that because the hospital used coal to heat the buildings they were able to pay Gust's hospital bill in coal. My father hauled coal to the hospital - at night - to pay the debt. Aunt Tressa didn't say but Dad probably also dug the coal, perhaps with Pap's help.
Aunt Tressa remembers that Dad left the farm when he was 21, probably in the fall of 1934. StepMother was at a funeral and the rest of the children were in school. She wrote, “I knew he left because Mom wasn’t good to him. I’m sure he felt he wasn’t wanted. Evan as a little girl this was a great heartache to me. I always loved your Dad.” And, indeed, there did seem to be a special bond between Dad and Aunt Tressa. I thought she and her younger brother, Bill, were the only siblings my dad had. It wasn’t till years later that I learned there were other half-brothers and -sisters. It seems that the others leaned with their mom in their feelings toward my father while Tressa’s and Bill’s feelings toward Dad followed Gust’s.
I wonder when my father made the decision to leave the farm. It couldn’t have been an easy one for a young farm boy who knew no other means of earning a living. Did he counsel with Maw and Pap and/or with his Aunt Emma? What were his resources? My mother said he arrived in Ohio with a car and a beat-up suitcase. It seems that he relied on Aunt Brendice and several of her sisters for help. Her husband, Uncle Ray, helped Dad get a job at the Niles Rolling Mill and Dad stayed with them till he got his feet under him and could rent a room in a house.
When tape recorders first became available my father was amazed by them. He bought one and later recorded the events around his leaving the farm and moving to Ohio. I heard only some of it, recorded in a dry monotone, probably evidence of a hard shell he’d put around that part of his life, a protection from remembering the pain of being a motherless child and losing a much-loved father. I though it was hard to listen to and perhaps my mother felt the same way. She recorded over part of the tape, mistakenly, she said, not realizing there was already something on it. The recording has since been lost. Mom probably tossed it during a cleaning-out some time after my father died. I wish I had it but I know it would still be hard to hear it.
Mom remembered that Dad and his cousins Evie (Evelyn) and Ine (Madelyn) used to reminisce about the fun Gust and his sisters and their families had during holidays. Oh, to have had a video or audio recording of those reminiscences.
Except for that recording and the occasions when he and his cousins reminisced, perhaps my father never looked back. Aunt Tressa wrote that Dad “never came back to visit at the farm. When he came to visit Pap & Maw Doyle or Aunt Emma & Uncle Ed Leathers – he usually rode out past our house. I could tell the sound of his car and would wait in the front yard for him. He would stop to talk with me. Sometimes your Mom was with him.”
Dad’s early years must have been unspeakably difficult and the memories, both good and bad, painful. I’m grateful that his father, Gust, was aware of how his wife treated Dad and removed him from her presence as much as possible. I’m also grateful for the support Maw and Pap gave him. Despite the difficulties he faced when a child and youth, Dad was taught and learned the important lessons of honesty, integrity, hard work, and perseverance. Each of those attributes shone through in the life he lived.
My father would have been 98 today. Happy Birthday, Dad! I hope you’re surrounded by those who love you!
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