Remembering life in “The Good Ol’ Days”

Published 9:00 pm Monday, July 27, 2015

Miss Jennings

Miss Jennings

I’ve often driven past a beautiful garden, not far from where I live, and wondered who had the green thumb. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was Miss Jennings, Jessie Jennings, who is now 98 ½ years old.  I’m on my way to meet her and I know this is going to be an interesting story.

Miss Jennings was born in 1917 and grew up on a farm near Gowensville, one of 11 children. She learned to be a gardener as a young child helping on the farm. They grew cotton, apples, pears, peaches and grapes, and other vegetables.

“We had mules to plow the fields and chickens. But no horses,” she tells me. “We had a cow for milk. When I was little, I had to wake up early. It was my job to feed the chickens, milk the cow, and take the milk down to the spring to keep it cold in the water for dinner. There wasn’t any refrigeration back then and ice was too expensive. We had to wash dishes, make beds and do housework, all before walking a mile to school and arriving there by 8:00.”

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I’m picturing life today and comparing the dramatic differences with life back in the early 1900’s.

“We walked everywhere,” Jessie continues. “The undertaker had horses for the hearse, but we only had mules. Also, the undertaker had electricity and a phone, so we had to go there to use a phone. Our grammar school had a potbelly stove and outhouses, one for boys and one for girls.”

My mind wanders to cold winter weather and I wonder what children today would think about that. “We went to high school in Campobello and they had indoor toilets,” she smiles.

She describes their food. “We canned everything. We raised our own wheat and corn, which was ground into corn meal. We dried fruit and had 75 gallons of molasses to last through winter. Water came from a 60 foot well and had to be toted to the house. We heated it to wash clothes and a scrub board was used to get them clean. We made our clothes and wore hand me downs. No one had more than one pair of shoes.”

They picked cotton and sold it for five cents a pound. Miss Jennings laughs as she relates a song they used to sing. “Five cents for cotton, ten cents for meat. How in the world can a poor man eat.”

We both chuckle, but I’m afraid it was all too true.  Life was a struggle in the “good ol’ days.”

When the depression hit, the banks went bust and people lost all their money.

“They never trusted the banks after that. They’d hide their money. They quit the banks.  It was a hard time. Sometimes chickens would be stolen at night. Or melons. People were hungry. There weren’t any jobs,” she remembers. “Rent for a house might be $2 a month but most paid $3. You could see the chickens under the house thru the spaces in the floor.  A fireplace gave heat and you cooked on a woodstove.”

But there were good times. I ask about parties and Christmas. “Well, Christmas we did have a tree but didn’t always have any decorations for it. We would have five or ten cent gifts, maybe an orange or apple and a piece of peppermint candy. We drew names at school and exchanged little gifts. And we had parties and dances. We would go to different houses. There was guitar playing and square dancing. We would have lemonade or tea to drink, popcorn and cake.” Then her eyes twinkle, “Your boyfriend would walk you home and that was fun.”

She was married in the midst of the Depression in 1935.

“I graduated the last of May and was married the first of June. I was 18. That’s what you did back then. And you got a cow. First you got a cow and then a baby,” she giggles. She has a son and two daughters, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

We talk about her garden. She hoes it all herself, and drops all the seed by hand.

She grows watermelon, corn, beans, okra, peppers, cucumbers, butternut squash, “maters” and some sunflowers.

“I’ve had to cut my garden back this year,” she says. “It was just getting to be too much for me. I’m 98 and a half, born March 26, 1917.”

As I leave we chat about her cat, who runs under the porch, the barking dog, and her chickens. We say goodbye and she has a bag for me with “cukes” and “maters.” Thanks Miss Jennings for sharing your life stories. With computers, cell phones, and even robots taking over, it’s easy to forget the basics of life and survival.