Centenarians: The Story of the 20th Century by the Americans Who Lived Itby Edelman
An oral history of the twentieth century in America.
By 1990, over 37,000 Americans had lived to the age of one hundred. Their lives spanned world wars, the Depression, the rise and demise of the great Red Menace, and the emergence of the United States as a world power.
Through interviews with centenarians across the country, Bernard Edelman draws a… See more details below
An oral history of the twentieth century in America.
By 1990, over 37,000 Americans had lived to the age of one hundred. Their lives spanned world wars, the Depression, the rise and demise of the great Red Menace, and the emergence of the United States as a world power.
Through interviews with centenarians across the country, Bernard Edelman draws a dazzling portrait of Americans in the twentieth century, evoking the work ethic of rural farms, the nation's awe at inventions such as the automobile, and the collective despair at the onset of world war. These recollections are a treasure of the century's social history. The young immigrant survivor who can still smell the smoke of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The rookie pitcher who struck out the first batter he ever faced in the big leagues: Ty Cobb. The dashing artillery officer who won a Silver Star in the Great War. The officer in the Quartermaster Corps who witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The motorcycle racer who barnstormed the nation, setting records that will never be broken. The feisty woman who led a walkout at the premiere of Gone With the Wind. The man who invented Pampers.
Their memories serve as a timeless reminder of life in twentieth-century America.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 9.32(w) x 9.08(h) x 1.19(d)
Read an Excerpt
Listen, I remember very well what
I did ninety, ninety-five years ago.
What I did yesterday, I forget.
Born November 12, 1895
What is my earliest memory? It's impossible to say, because one doesn't know whether it's something one remembers or merely remembers having been told.
When I was four years old I ran away from home. I didn't get very far, only about two blocks, and then they caught up with me. My father was a conveyancer--he examined titles to real estate--and he went to his office in Boston every day. I'd never been to Boston. I was curious. I wanted to see what it was like.
--PHILIP L. CARRET
Mother was feeding Myrtle--she's eleven months older than I am--and Poppa was carrying me in his arms. We went into a store. Poppa opened the door for Mother, who had my sister by the hand.
There was a woman there that was blind, and Poppa went over to her and said something about that I was his baby. And she said, I'll have to see her face. She had to feel my face all the way around. Oh, Mr. Morford, she said, she's just as round--
That's where I got the idea that my face was round.
When I began to be aware of things, I must have been close to three years old. I'd be nursing, and I'd see the pain start coming in Mother's eyes. I didn't want tohurt her; I just wanted her to notice me. Mothers nursed their babies as long as they could then because they didn't think they'd get pregnant during that time. They had no protection.
When I was five years old, I went to a church service in my father's granary with George Clark, who was five, too. It was a time of the year when there was no grain. The neighbors that wanted to start this nucleus for a church, they brought the chairs. It was my mother who said to George and me, You two get outside now and go hunt eggs.
The granary was back by the pastures and the chicken coop--we didn't have a henhouse--with maybe a couple dozen hens. They were supposed to lay their eggs in that coop but they didn't. They'd get out and lay in the tall grass. Every day my two older brothers and I had to chase through that grass and hunt eggs. So from this church service I was sent out to look for eggs with George Clark.
--ELLA MAY STUMPE
We were living in Kenova, West Virginia, and my sister--the next one younger than me--was a tiny little baby. I had a little girlfriend that lived just a couple of doors from us. One day, my mother was busy with my sister, and she missed me. She started to look for me, when my little friend's mother happened to catch me just as I opened her door to walk in to see my friend. She brought me home. Oh, I was just heartbroken, because I thought my friend's mother didn't want me down there.
But the reason she didn't want me was my friend had diphtheria, and she didn't want me to catch it. And my little friend, she was so bad she died. 'Course, they didn't tell me too much about that at the time.
My grandparents' house in Frederick, Maryland, had a back porch, and I'd crawl under there and make mud pies and all kinds of neat things. And I'd sit out there, under the trees, drawing like mad. I could sketch and draw before I could write; I was always at it. Of course, paper was very rare. I had to use slate.
--HELEN L. SMITH
My dad's mother died, and he wanted to go back home. So we left the farm in Eden Valley, Minnesota, and took the train to Kentucky. When we were in Chicago, my folks were doing some shopping and we kids were riding the elevators. We thought that was great, getting to ride the elevators. That was wonderful excitement. I was six years old.
--FRIEDA GREENE HARDIN
When I was about three years old, the family rented a house in Seattle that had a picket fence around about two or three lots. We lived in the big house and the people who owned the property lived in the little house. They made a small boat--they called it the Ivy--and put it on top of their house.
About ten o'clock in the morning, I'd go out to play, and along came a man singing. And I knew. They never told me, but I knew. And I ran into the house and told Mama: Here comes the man that sings the naughty songs. He was drunk. They used to laugh about that: Here comes the man that drinks and sings the naughty songs.
When I was still wearing dresses, my father made sorghum molasses for the family and for the neighbors that grew cane. The mill was down behind the barn, about a hundred yards from the house, and I had to go through a wire fence to get there.
He was down there working one morning and as I crawled through the fence I cut my arm on a piece of the cane stalk. It was sharp as a knife. One of the men that was working there with my father come over, and when he saw the cut on my arm, he said, Oh, you're gonna have to go to the doctor. I got scared, and I crawled back through the fence and ran back to my doctor--my mother. She put some Petro-Carbo salve on my arm and bandaged it.
I was exploring a hole in the middle of the street in Milford, Nebraska, where I was born. They were grading the road. My mother looked out and saw a big steam roller bearing down on me. She rushed out and pulled me out of the hole. Then she took me into the house and changed my diaper.
When I was three, I had long curls. My mother would take the curling iron, heat it and curl my hair, and put a ribbon in it. Before I went to school, of course, my dad had to cut those curls off, 'cause I wouldn't dare to go to school that way.
We were living in Chicago, in this house next to the church--my father was a minister--and I saw him chasing a rat in the house. He caught two of them. He put them in a cage. He put the cage in the bathtub. He turned the water on and drowned them.
--JOHN D. CLARK
When I was about six or seven, we was livin' in Bishop, Georgia. One day, me and my little brother was outdoors playin', and my ma was in the field. Then it got so dark we couldn't see one another. And my ma was ahollerin', tellin' us to go in the house.
We couldn't see to get back in the house. We couldn't see. We couldn't find the doorstep. So we just got together and hugged up on the ground. Chickens was aflyin' and oooh! they was acrowin', dogs was arunnin', people in the field was ahollerin'--they didn't know which way to go or what to do. And we didn't move, 'cause we were scared.
When you talkin' about dark, it was dark! I couldn't see my brother, and he couldn't see me. One of the dogs got down next to us. We couldn't get to the house and get in the bed. We thought if we went in the house, we could cover up in the bed, and it would be nice.
And then it passed. The moon, they say, crossed the sun. My ma said if the moon crosses the sun, after you got old you'd come back to life.
--FANNIE LOU DAVIS
I couldn't have been more than four or five when the city of Tacoma was covered with smoke from a forest fire. And ashes were all over the streets. You had to have your lamps lit during the daytime in order to see, it was that dark from the smoke and the fire.
--OSCAR C. WEBER
We could look out of our front window and see what we called the River Jordan, a small creek. This was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. One Sunday, members of a religious sect came there and baptized some members in the water. They walked into the water and the minister sort of dunked them. Then they came out with their clothing all wet. It seemed so irrational to see people all dressed walking into a river.
I was on a farm in Italy, near Naples. We didn't have nothin' to eat. But there were a lot of snakes, snakes all over the place when I was goin' to school. I didn't want to go to school no more. I didn't like it.
When I was six years old, my father took me to a school. It was on a farm near where we lived in Kreuzburg, Latvia. It had only about twenty pupils. At lunchtime, they found out that I was Jewish, and they knew that a Jew is not supposed to eat ham. So they started to force ham in my mouth. When I came home, I told my father what happened. So he says, It looks like you cannot go back to that school. And that was the end of my schooling.
--SAMUEL D. SCHNEIER
I was five years old when my mother died. I was next-to-the-youngest one, who was still an infant. The three of us older children had to attend her funeral. That was a must with the old people in that day.
I sat there on that front seat with the rest of the family, right in front of the casket. I couldn't shed a tear. I will never be able to understand how I felt inside. But in later years I learned that that was the grief. Some people could let it out in tears, some of it, anyway. I didn't shed a tear. But I had that terrible feeling.
Oh, Lord! I was five years old. I had the typhoid fever and I like to die! Dr. Lewis, he was the doctor in Jackson, North Carolina, he give me up. They dressed me to die. My father had the typhoid fever, and my brother had the typhoid fever, we all of us in the same house. My mother was livin' and my mother's youngest son was born in that typhoid fever all of us had. But she didn't get it and neither did the baby. The baby was a boy. They named him Sam Ransom.
Like all boys, smart alecks that we were, the nastiest thing we could do was start to smoke. We didn't have money and couldn't buy a pack of cigarettes. What we did, we'd take a piece of newspaper and roll our own. We would always find newspaper, because people threw their garbage out in the back yard. Everybody did in those days. So we'd scavenge.
Or we'd use leaves from a grape arbor in our back yard in Trenton. We'd get a big leaf off the grape arbor when it turned brown and we made our cigarettes out of it. That beat the newspaper.
--ARTHUR W. HAMER, SR.
I lived in Baltimore on a street that those streetcars ran on. They ran on tracks about the same gauge trolleys used to run on, only they were pulled by horses. The horsecars gave way to cable cars and then to electric cars. In the early days of electric, there were all kinds of wires falling down and killing people. Why didn't they kill birds on the wire, people wanted to know. It was really amusing.
--ALBERT M. COLEMAN
My father took me to a big political gathering at the train depot, where the President's train was coming through. He was able to get a place right at the rear of the train. The President came out to speak. My father lifted me up. And I shook hands with President McKinley.
I have asked myself several times:
How can I still remember that?
So many things have happened when
I was young that I remember yet today.
ARTHUR W. HAMER, SR.
Born May 10, 1896
Trenton, New Jersey
My father, Micajah Warren Leonard--"Cage" to all who knew him--filed on a homestead eight miles as the crow flies from Dunseith, North Dakota, in 1885. He built a one-room shanty, dug a well, and began his cultivation of the soil with a one-furrow plow pulled by his oxen. He had no farm machinery, so he planted his small plot by sowing the wheat by hand. This is known as "broadcast": to scatter the seeds wildly. The grain he cut with a scythe and threshed with a flail. During this early period, he did trucking, by wagon train, between Dunseith and Devils Lake, a distance of one hundred miles. He would take a load of furs there for shipping to the eastern market, and he would bring back basic supplies for a developing community. This was his source of income while he was converting virgin soil into farmland.
Cage added two rooms to the sod shanty in 1890 when he married Mary Ann Bigham, my mother. She was seventeen when her mother died in childbirth, leaving a baby boy and seven other children. As the oldest girl, she assumed the responsibility of homemaker and mother to her family. Two years later she married and had a daughter. But this marriage had its problems, and ended in divorce. The problems had to be very grave for a Presbyterian lady to choose that action, when divorce was a sin. Jeanette was five when Cage and Mary Ann married.
Guided and nurtured by the gentle manner of a Quaker father and the strict discipline of a Presbyterian mother, I entered this picture, preceded by two brothers and, of course, Jennie. I'm sure I was delivered by the local doctor. And he should have made out the paperwork to record my birth. But I think they were very careless about it in those days. He could have made it out and given it to my folks to send in and it could have been lost there on the homestead. If anybody asked me to prove my age today, I couldn't: there is no official record of my birth.
--ELLA MAY STUMPE
My folks were married in 1891, the first year of four years' drought. They were a young couple just starting out. They put everything they had into stocking a farm. By the time the drought was over, they had nothing.
Poppa went to work down in Lincoln, in a meat factory, but he couldn't take working as a butcher. Then he went down to Texas; that's where my oldest brother was born. But he couldn't stand it, picking cotton with the Negroes. So he went back out to Malvern, Iowa, and then out to Gordon, Nebraska. The census taker one time said to my parents, You folks must have traveled an awful lot because you have four children and each one of them was born in a different state.
I was born five years after the Battle of Wounded Knee in Newman Grove, Nebraska, population I have no idea. It was up north of Lincoln. I don't even know whether or not it's on the map anymore.
It was on a farm--this wasn't the place I was born--where life really started for me. It was just at the end of the Rosebud Reservation, where they drove the Sioux Indians.
One day Poppa came in and said, I'm ready to leave, and I want you to take this money. You may need it while I'm gone.
I said, I won't be going anywhere. You keep the money. You might need it before you get there.
No, Poppa said, you take this money.
Mother was baking bread after he left that day. She turned out a fresh baked loaf on the table by the door. And if there's anything more inviting than fresh bread, I don't know what it is.
Well, the Indians evidently thought so, too, because here came a big Indian up on the porch. He opened the screen door and reached in and picked up the loaf. He put a bill down beside it. Mother said, I don't have any money and I can't make any change.
And I said, Oh, Mother, you remember all that money Daddy left you?
Audrey, Mother said after the Indian left, I wish you would learn to keep your mouth shut. Now the Indians know that your daddy's gone, we're alone, and there's money in the house.
We spent all the rest of that day moving our quarters into one bedroom where she could keep track of us. Every time I'd wake up in the night, there was Mother sitting in one corner of the bed with a shotgun across her knees. And there was her brother sitting at the other corner of the bed with a rifle across his knees. They were keeping track of the Indians out there on the other side of the field. They were dancing around a big fire, cooking something to eat.
That made such an impression on me, seeing those Indians. They didn't have hardly anything to eat. And here we were telling such terrible things about everybody being afraid of them while we were trying to run them off their land.
People's ideas about the Indians had been more cultured and colored by fiction than by reality. Because I lived among the Indians. We didn't have trouble with them. My father died when I was seven years old; it was an Indian woman that came with Mother and took care of us.
The seventeenth of September I was born, in 1892. On Verona Plantation, 'tween Seaboard and Jackson, right here in Northampton County, North Carolina. That's where my daddy was born and raised, born by the rich man, General Matt Ransom. In slavery time, he belonged to General Ransom: my daddy was his slave. And my mother was George Mason's nigger child. She stayed in the house with his children; she never had to get out in the field and work. In slavery time, Nannie Mason belonged to him, and he kept her in his house till she was grown and married to my daddy.
When George Mason found my daddy askin' could he marry, he sent my mother away to a place in Wilson, North Carolina, and wouldn't let my daddy see her over twelve months. She was eighteen years old then. But my daddy didn't give up, and my momma wanted to come home and marry him.
The white man my momma belonged to lived a little bit more decent than General Ransom did. General Ransom had the most money but he was stingy. But he was a man you couldn't outdo. And George Mason told General Ransom that my momma couldn't cook on the fireplace 'cause she had never seen nobody cook on a fireplace. My momma had never made an ash cake before--that was a bread made with water and wrapped up and baked in the ashes in the fireplace--she had never even had that. The home my mother was raised in had a great big old stove.
So General Ransom bought them a cookstove.
The Masons didn't like corn bread: that was slave food. The Ransoms did. So the General had to promise to give my momma a barrel of flour every four weeks of her life so she could have flour bread.
And she and my daddy weren't married until the General had built them this little frame house and furnished it all for them to live in.
So the Mason girl married the Ransom boy and they had four sons and four daughters. And that's who I am.
I grew up in the farmhouse I was born in, six miles from Saluda, South Carolina. Father, who was in the Confederate War--he had walked all the way home after the battle at Gettysburg--grew corn, oats, wheat. Cotton, of course, was the money crop. Mostly Father did well, but there were hard times, when cotton went down to five cents a pound. That doesn't seem like much, but people worked then for fifty cents a day. And they didn't work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. They worked from sunup to sundown. But we didn't one time dream that we were poor. We had chickens, so we had eggs. Father kept a cow, so we had all the milk we could drink, and butter.
Of course, things cost a lot less then, too. You didn't make much, but you didn't have to pay much, either. A letter cost two cents to mail. You weren't supposed to pay but a penny for a postal card. When one of my brothers got a job in Columbia, I used to write to him real often. And I wrote real small. Now, I don't know if he was teasing, 'cause he was a great tease, but he said he went to the post office one time to get his mail and my postal card was so full of writing the postmaster made him pay another cent.
Father made us work for the money we spent for things we didn't need. Every Saturday, he paid us for the chores we had done. Mother didn't believe in hiring help if the children were able to work. The only colored help she ever hired was a washerwoman. But Mother made us iron, and oh, I hated ironing! We had to sprinkle all the clothes with water, and roll them up overnight. Next day we'd have to make a fire in the fireplace, even on the hottest day of the summer, put five or six irons in front of it to heat and then switch irons to keep them hot. My younger sister could iron just beautifully, but when I'd iron a garment, wrinkles would come in it by the time I'd pick it up to iron the other side.
We girls would also do some babysitting. My brother-in-law had a law partner who would come sometimes to Saluda from over where he lived in Edgefield. He'd bring his young son with him--the boy was only two or three years old--and he'd spend the day with my sister. She had no children, so she would call Ruth and Edith and me to come down there to entertain the boy. He loved horseback riding, and they had a very gentle horse. So all we had to do was take that boy out on that horse. Well, he was a darling little boy. I never did know him when he was a teenager; he was twenty-five miles from us and those were horse-and-buggy days. But later on, he was always a good friend for the family. Still is. And do you know? I have a clipping from a magazine that was printed in Cairo, Egypt, that one of my cousins found while she was traveling. It was a clipping about how I was a babysitter for Senator Strom Thurmond.
--LOIS CROUCH ADDY
I come from Edgecombe County in eastern North Carolina. The county ' was, and still is, fifty percent black, fifty percent white. But it wasn't just "black" and "white." We had upper blacks, middle blacks, and lower blacks; all the lower blacks did was cut ditches. The whites had the same thing: upper whites, middle whites, and lower whites, the poor whites.
We had no trouble with most of the white families, and the white families had no trouble with us. The only people we ever had any trouble with were the lower whites. But there weren't any of the strongest, most influential, and most moneyed people in Edgecombe County who didn't recognize and acknowledge what was accomplished by the blacks in Edgecombe County. And my father--he also was York David Garrett--was well thought about by all the best colored people and all the best white people in the county.
My father was conceived before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. His parents were slaves on a 700-acre plantation. His mother cooked for the family, and lived with the family, and she had excellent status. His father, the first York Garrett, was a leather man, one of the best harness makers in eastern North Carolina. His father never considered himself a slave even though he belonged to these white people.
Their name was Powell, but he never took that name. My father never knew him, never even met him. And here's why: Mr. Powell had sent my grandfather out on a job, and he was a week later coming back than his owner thought he should be. So Mr. Powell said, York, why you so long gettin' back here?
What you mean? Did you get any complaints on the job I did?
Did the people like what I did?
So what's your complaint?
I had another job that I was gonna put you on last week, he said. And because you was late gettin' back here, I couldn't put you on it. So I'm gonna give you a whippin', so next time you gonna be back here on time.
My grandfather told him: I'm not gonna take any whippin', 'cause I haven't done a thing for you to whip me for. You're not gonna use the lash on me.
And he never did. Because my grandfather left and he never came back.
Now, my father was telling me what his mother had told him his father had said.
My father was in business for himself long before I was born. He owned a grocery store on the main street in Tarboro, 'across the river from Princeville, where I was born. There were ten of us children--I was the eighth child--but all ten didn't live. My father moved us to Tarboro in 1901. He bought a lot and built a house. He used the best artisans, the best carpenters and bricklayers. They were all colored, and they were the best.
If he hadn't been a good merchant and a good salesman, his store wouldn't have survived for thirty years. He called it the Plain & Fancy Grocery. He sold meat, flour, sugar, butter, lard, canned goods, and liquor. At least half of his customers were white: he had more white people spending money with him than he did colored.
My father was one of those Negroes that white folks felt was "all right people." These were colored people they knew, and they treated them like decent people because they were decent people. The only difference between my father and other businessmen was that he was colored and they were white, and his children had to go to colored schools. My father knew a good education could give you the chance. So he sent his children to good schools--good colored schools.
My oldest brother, the one that I was so crazy about, went to Shaw University in Raleigh straight from Princeville grade school. He didn't have any high school first, so he finished it there. And then he wanted his college degree. In four years he got his B.S. degree. And then he wanted medicine. But he had bad luck, just like my sister did before him. He had tuberculosis. He got sick in his junior year. He finished Shaw in June and died in August.
Eight years later, when it was time for me to go to college, my mama said, You're going to college but you're not going to Shaw.
But Mama, I said, that's the only school I want to go to, that's the only school I love. My brother went there, my sister went there. And all of my closest friends went there.
She said, Yeah, but you're not going there. It killed two of my children. It's not going to kill you.
We were taught by our mothers to be very respectful of the Confederate flag and the Confederate holidays. We were also taught that we were Americans, and to be respectful of the United States flag, and to celebrate the Fourth of July. You see, after the Civil War, there was a good deal of squabbling about whether the Fourth of July was a Southern holiday or not.
But my mother always said, We are all Americans now, and we must recognize that and be respectful of the past, but not let it dominate us.
My mother, Nellie Nugent Somerville, was a very wise woman. She had a very fine brain. She went to college, which in that day and age was unusual. And the president of this college by good luck was a bishop in the Southern Methodist Church. He spotted my mother as having a superior intellect. He encouraged her. By the help of this bishop, and other people who spotted her intellectual abilities, she had a better education than most of the girls of her generation.
My mother was quite ambitious when it was quite ambitious for women to go into public life. She ran for the legislature when it was an unheard-of thing for a woman to do. And women up and down the Delta rallied around and elected her. She was the first woman to serve in the Mississippi legislature. She served just one term, though; she didn't think she had enough support to run for reelection.
My mother was always campaigning for something and traveling around, and she didn't want to leave me at home with the servants to look after me. So she took little me with her--she was going to women's meetings--and the ladies, either out of kindness or sympathy, would pick me up, give me little candies, take me to some little party. They would all make a to-do about this cute little girl. Maybe that spoiled me; anyhow, it got me accustomed to having attention. And I got the gift of meeting strangers, and keeping my poise; it made me willing and able to take front stage every once in a while.
My mother was a suffragist--she didn't like the word suffragette; that was a British word--and she was president at one time of the National American Women's Suffrage Association. She helped organize first in Mississippi, and then all through the South. She was a great friend of Anna Howard Shaw, a Unitarian minister who became a leader of the Women's Suffrage Movement, partially because some of the ministers in the church snubbed her. They thought men should be the only preachers. Well, of course, that didn't suit somebody like Anna Howard Shaw, who had been converted as a child and was convinced that she could preach. She would go out to the woods and stand on a stump and deliver a sermon. Because that was supposed to be--and I think it still is--the best training for a public speaker. You stand there on a stump with no people applauding you, and you talk to the bushes and the trees. You've got to be good if you can keep going.
My mother thought Anna Howard Shaw was a great person. But the suffrage movement got to a stage when some of the people thought they needed fresh, stronger leadership. So they asked Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a wealthy woman, to take over the National American Women's Suffrage Association. She--I could now understand later in life, it sounded selfish then--she said she would do it if Anna Howard Shaw retired. My mother admired Anna Howard Shaw. And, of course, little me trotted along after my mother, so we kind of resented Ms. Catt. But after I was grown, and learned more about leadership, I could understand that if she was going to take over, she had to have a clear deck.
A child, you know, doesn't have a sense of history. At least this one didn't. It was just exciting being with my mother, taking part in suffrage and meeting some of the ladies who came to see my mother, and going to conventions with her. I learned a lot about how to get along with people, just watching her.
We were on a train once. And a group of young college boys began to make some derisive remarks about votes for women. Well, that's bad manners, but that doesn't stop them sometimes. So my mother called the fruit-and-candy vendor and asked him how much his basket would cost. She handed him that money and said, Now take this and distribute it among those boys. Well, those boys changed their tune right away; from making fun of votes for women, they began cheering votes for women. I learned a lesson then that the way you win somebody is not to oppose them, not to downgrade them, but to give them a little lift. It's been very valuable.
And when the Nineteenth Amendment kicked in, oh, I'll never forget the morning we first voted. My father was in for breakfast, and my mother and I came down. He said, What are you all dressed up for? This is just breakfast.
No, she said, it's breakfast, but I'm going to vote with you after breakfast.
Oh, he said, you never voted.
Well, I said, that's all changed. Now we all can vote.
So he changed his tune.
--LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH (Continues...)
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