Golden Years for Three Great Aunts
As a youngster, I sometimes helped my father deliver firewood or farm produce to the modest-sized Victorian house with little cranberry-colored glass panes around the front door frame, located on Hollister Street in Dundee.
Here lived three of father's aunts, Lois Locey, Harriet and Cora Price; all sisters of the grandmother I never knew, Caroline (Price) Harris. Caroline had died in 1891, at age thirty-nine, following the birth of her ninth child, my Uncle Newton Henry Harris. And all of the sisters were daughters of John Drew Price (1823 - 1903) and his wife, Esther Littel Price, who also had nine children. Lois, Harriet, and Cora had lived in the Hollister Street house long before I came on the scene.
Aunt Lo, during her periodic, two week visits to our farm home, taught me the manual arts of proper cleanliness. Early in the morning she would drag me kicking and screaming to the cold water just drawn by means of a rope windlass and an oaken bucket from the well under the south side porch outside the kitchen door. She gave me rough scrubbings with a stiff bristled brush as she held my head by the hair over, and into, the blue and white porcelanized tin wash basin placed on the little black cast iron sink that stood in the southwest corner of the kitchen. In the evening she would repeat the process. When I protested to my father, he would only grin, and say: "That's the way she taught me—she's a tough old bird, but she has a heart of gold."
I have wondered since if she had been influenced by the "water cure," or hydropathy, that I read about as being popular in her earlier days as a form of health care. Cold water treatments were advocated by Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The article went on to say that over two hundred water-cure centers sprang up from 1843 to 1900, to treat mostly people of means. I know there was one at near-by Crystal Springs, only a few miles from Dundee. Just a theory, but I always looked for something to explain Aunt Lo's hygienic tyranny.
Aunt Lois was born in 1849, the eldest of the three sisters. In 1881 she married Henry Losey, who in 1893 (the year my mother was born) was shot and killed at his Pre-emption Road farm by a demented neighbor, Amos Forrester. Forrester was obsessed with the thought that Losey owed him money. After the shooting there were several versions of the actions that followed.
My father's: Forrester holed up in his nearby home. Arriving neighbors and a constable surrounded the place trying to get him out. Armed, Forrester held fast until finally the posse decided to smoke him out by setting fire to the house. When things got too hot, Forrester ran north to a ravine, where he hid in a grove of willows. There he was captured shaking and sobbing, and was eventually committed to the Hospital for Insane Criminals at Mattewan. As a small boy I played around the foundations of Forrester's house.
Sometime after this event Lois and her sister, Cora, a spinster who was born in 1862, acquired and moved into the house on Hollister Street. They were soon joined by another spinster sister, Harriet, or "Hattie," born in 1850. Here the three lived out their lives working out of their house as seamstresses. Lois was the good-hearted boss of the operation, Hattie the best natured, and Cora the caustic critic of the other two. When they walked from their house to shop or attend the Presbyterian Church, they wore long black dresses and coats, winter or summer. In summer the coats were made of lighter material, of course, but in either season their attire was always topped with black round-brimmed hats.
They bought their sewing supplies at "Howdy" Robert's dusty, dark, and cobwebbed variety store at the southeast end of Main Street's market area. Some called Howdy, "Leaky Tin," as he was the only source of the metal bolt and lead washer patches for fixing leaks in tin pails. Howdy at times lured young boys into the dingy back room of the store. I guess Howdy was married but I don't recall ever seeing his wife. My mother repeatedly said, "I never go in there unless I just have to."
For heavy chores, such as splitting firewood or moving coal, my great aunts hired Oliver, regarded by the townspeople as a halfwit. Ezra DeMott periodically cleaned out the sanitary facilities attached to the rear of the house, through a trap door designed for the purpose.
Lois died in 1929 at age eighty. Hattie in 1940 at age ninety, leaving Cora alone until her death in 1947 at age eighty-five. I wasn't around much after 1937, and can only speculate about the bleak retirement for the three. I am sure they received some help from neighbors and relatives, especially from a niece, Loretta Seybolt, daughter of William Henry Price. A copy of the proceedings show her as administratrix of Cora's estate.
With the possible exception of Cora, there was no help from Social Security, Medicare, or company pensions that we know today. Their longevity suggests no evidence of malnutrition, such as sometimes occurred when proud persons rejected any form of public assistance. "Going on the town" as it was called, was often viewed with high disdain.
You could be "Put out to pasture" which to more fortunate older people meant being moved into one of the privately subsidized "old folks' homes" such as Letts's Memorial Home where in good weather people rocked away their autumn days on the long veranda. In 1906 Mary Letts had left her home, furnishings, and money for a "home for ladies." Representatives from five churches and one lodge formed an organization to care for the property. Later Nettie Trask left money for an added apartment.
The old folks of my youth sometimes said, "If things get any worse I guess we all can go to Esperanza." Grim humor? They were talking about the county poorhouse, Esperanza, a huge Greek Revival mansion overlooking Keuka Lake. Built in 1838, it has been a private residence, county home, sheep barn, and a movie theater. I know little of the conditions when it was a county home, but it was clear then that no one seemed anxious to go there.
In present times the retired have many more options but not all of them appeal to me. One destination I decline. I am not about to move into one of those "playpens for wrinkled babies," which I call those senior communities in the south where leisure time is programmed, and children are forbidden!
© 1991, Edwin N. Harris