May 24th was my mother-in-law’s 91st birthday—the first one that her sons and her Texas grandkids have spent without her. The last survivor of her parents, siblings, and husband Oliver, Betty Jane Jeanneret Pfeil passed away on September 25th, 2013.
I met Betty not long after my husband David and I began dating. The days of raising her three sons and helping husband Ollie build and run the family wholesale hobby business were behind her. Her time was devoted to her young grandkids, her greenhouse orchids and her garden club, except when Ollie’s insistent travel itch sent them rambling on trips across the US, Mexico, and Europe.
We had a cordial relationship, but I barely scratched the surface until 1995, when Betty published Part One of Dear Sisters, her “documented family history”. Till then, I had no clue that Betty was inclined to write anything beyond the handwritten postcard or note that began, always, with the salutation “Dear Ones”. In Dear Sisters, Betty wrote about her ancestry and extended family, growing up in rural Kansas, and her young adulthood during WWII. I can think of no better way to know someone, than to learn their backstory. It places their attitudes and values squarely in context of the times and environment that shaped them, thereby building understanding. For me, Betty’s story softened the edge of the “red state-blue state” divide, which could’ve otherwise driven a wedge between us.
To see and hear her speak, the words “adaptive” or “autodidact” didn’t spring immediately to my mind. Then Betty acquired her first Mac computer at around age 70; undaunted, she taught herself to use the Mac, flatbed and slide scanners, Photoshop and Quark Express, to pursue her passion project. David provided occasional support and troubleshooting, but mostly she negotiated the brave new world of hardware and software on her own. In this, she was in a field apart from my mother, who never ventured beyond MS Word and email, and my father, who never got within spitting distance of a personal computer.
It turns out that Betty’s tech-smarts were totally in character. During the War, she’d worked as an American Airlines radio operator, pre-radar and the FAA. This was a fact I’d heard but not really absorbed. Over the 30 years of our acquaintance, she exuded an enviable self-esteem and keen intelligence for anything she was passionate about.
Some might not be riveted by the mundane minutiae contained in Betty’s narrative… but have I mentioned that I’m a history geek? It’s this kind of detail that I can’t resist, time-traveling me back to life on a farm in Kansas in the 1920s and ’30s. On my first read it struck me that when Betty was born in 1923, life on the farm hadn’t changed dramatically following the dawn of the 20th Century. It was a world without electricity or indoor bathrooms, and automobiles were still a rarity.
Rural electrification was established by President Roosevelt in 1935. It did not get out to our area until 1939. Dad didn’t want to pay to bring the line in from the road but gave in and we had electric lights, just about the time that I left home… inside the house it was almost too good to be true, after years of cleaning smoked chimneys and kerosene lamps… Now we were able to have a refrigerator. This all meant so much to my mother. She had been a voting Republican all her life, but she was forever indebted to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for making her life easier.
Betty carried vivid memories of funerals from her childhood and youth, when tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and spinal meningitis claimed lives both young and old within her tight community. Once, when she was ill with bronchitis in the middle of sub-zero winter, her father’s pointed remark “There are too many short coffins being made in this country” was exhortation enough to get her to hop back into bed.
But it was also a fine time and place to grow up, where hard work was the norm, with expectations largely developed around the concept of self-sufficiency: grow/raise your own food, make your own clothes — likewise your own music and entertainment. Self-sufficiency equals competency with little room for boredom, which just might be one prescription for contentment.
In rural Kansas, education beyond elementary school was either non-compulsory, or geographically dependent. Betty felt truly fortunate to attend high school in the adjacent county, thanks to the officials in her district hiring a driver. Betty, having secured her driver’s license at age fourteen, took over the job her last two years of school, driving her schoolmates the ten miles each way, come rain, sleet, or snow. “I learned fast how to put chains on a car, and back uphill if the hill was too slick with ice to drive forward.” [Mind you, this was on unpaved roads driving a stick shift.]
Betty enjoyed school and was a good student. Music and playing the piano were cornerstones of life, as were 4-H Club and the Church. When Betty graduated high school in 1940, “I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon. School had been my whole life for eleven years. Now it was over and the possibilities for further education were nil. Every thing cost money and we didn’t have any. There were no scholarships or programs to help the ‘needy but smart’. I was willing to work my way through college but I didn’t know how to make the necessary contacts and my parents were not able to help.”
Last to fly the nest and sole driver in the house, Betty felt badly about leaving her parents. But she yearned to experience life beyond the farm, and was determined not to sit around waiting for some local boy to marry her.
Six months after graduation, Betty found steady employment as a nurses’s aide in a hospital in Kansas City. Eleven months later, her life changed course as it did for so many others on December 7th, 1941. She was holding down two jobs when the opportunity arose to study at Midland Radio School. The goal: a guaranteed job as a radio operator with the airlines, better pay and opportunity to travel. Women were filling in the ranks of jobs vacated by men serving in the Armed Forces. She graduated and was promptly hired by American Airlines. Her first posting was to El Paso, TX. Tulsa, OK, and Burbank, CA would follow. It was dynamic and challenging work. These were horizon-widening, exciting days for Betty, a nineteen year-old from rural Kansas. But, the job came with its share of drama and tragedy, too. One AA flight, piloted by a friend from El Paso, crashed soon after take-off from Burbank airport “on her watch”. All perished on the side of the mountain. The same tragedy struck again with an AA flight enroute to Burbank via San Diego.
While working for American, Betty met a tall, handsome Texas-bred AA pilot named Oliver Pfeil. Over the next eighteen months they would see one another a handful of times in transit, courting mostly via letters, before getting to spend enough time together to seal the deal. They married on December 24, 1945, and Ollie was transferred to Ft. Worth, TX.
Once the war ended, it was only a matter of months before Betty’s job was “outsourced” to make room for a returning male veteran. In Texas, Betty settled into her new life as a wife, shortly a mother.
You won’t find this book on Amazon.com. It may have been a source of pride to Betty that her book was accepted into the permanent collection of the Library of Congress, but her primary motivation was to preserve her family history for her children and their children. It is her legacy and a singular gift.
Following is my excerpt from Betty’s Chapter One of Dear Sisters, Part One.
Pearl and Charley Jeanneret awakened earlier than usual the morning of May 24, 1923. It was the due date of their fourth child. Pearl had been having backache and some mild labor pains during the night, but nothing serious. However, she had had short labors with her other children, and expected to have the same this time.
Charley went to milk the cows, Pearl punched down the bread dough and prepared the fragrant loaves for the oven. There was no refrigeration because there was no electricity in the rural areas. All their food was either fresh, home canned, or cured.
The three children heard their parents moving about and hurriedly jumped out of bed, dressing as they walked to the kitchen. Ulysses was 9, Mary Ellen 7, and little Emma Lou was 5.
They went to the chicken houses, opened the doors to let the chickens and ducks out, then they went to the well west of the house and pumped water into buckets and carried it to the thirsty livestock. They scooped up milo maize and shelled corn from the grain bin south of the garage and carried it to the feeding pans. After all that exertion, they were hungry and sat down to breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh bread and butter, milk and homemade jelly.
After they had eaten, they helped Charley by turning the crank of the cream separator. A large metal vat stood on top of this device made by the De Laval Company. At the lower side of the vat was a faucet that adjusted the flow of milk through a series of metal disks. Centrifugal force created by turning the handle forced the skim milk to pour through a long spouted metal pan and the cream to flow through another such pan. After the milk was processed the children washed the metal disks, which were strung on a metal wire to keep them in order. The disks were an essential part of the process of separating the skim milk from the cream. When it was all finished, the pans and disks had to be washed and scalded. Emma Lou stood on a chair and washed some of the pans in hot soapy water. Mary and Lyss finished the job. They had put a large teakettle of water on the wood stove earlier so that it would be boiling. This was a dangerous part of the washing and it took both of the older ones to do it. They carefully lifted the teakettle and took it to the sink where they scalded all the disks and pans.
Now it was time for an early morning snack of milk and cookies before they undertook the last of the morning chores, driving the cows to pasture. The pasture was a quarter of a mile east of the house. It was eighty acres, half of the farmland. The farm was a quarter section, which was 160 acres. Actually, the cows went to pasture willingly, but they needed an escort to keep them from getting onto the road. The cows ran in the ditch and Mary, Lyss, and Emma Lou walked on the road. The pasture gate was large and heavy. It took all three of them to lift it. The cows ran into the pasture, eager to eat the lush green grass. There was a saltbox near the gate where the cows licked a block of salt when they were so inclined.
On the way back home, Emma Lou begged her siblings to let her crawl through the metal culvert that was under the road. She liked to look for frogs. They said that they had to get home to help their parents, but she insisted and they all crawled into the culvert. It was a dry season and there were no frogs. Luckily for them, there were no rattlesnakes lying in there, getting away from the hot sun.
Back at the house, they took turns operating the glass butter churn. When it was done and the soft, pale yellow globs of butter separated from the buttermilk, they took a wooden paddle and carefully lifted the butter into a granite pan and lowered it into the cistern to keep it cool. Then they sat under the maple trees west of the house and rested. Sometimes they played “mumbley-peg” with a pocketknife.
Charley went to the barn and untied Kit, an elderly bay mare. He backed her between the shafts of the buggy and hitched her to it. He jumped into the seat and Kit trotted out to the road. Charley indicated a left turn by putting gentle but steady pressure on the left side of the bit in her mouth. She turned left onto the Martin Road. It was so named because Clarence Martin and his wife Mimia and their three sons, Clayton, Dale, and Warren lived about a half-mile west, on the north side of the road. Mimia was also expecting their fourth child, later in the year. Charley tugged on the rein and shouted Haw to Kit, which she knew meant to turn left. (Gee or Gee up meant to turn right — to a horse, that is).
Charley and Kit made their way south on the Stafford Road, named for John and Martha Stafford and their family, who lived in a big two story house on the hill on the west side of the road. Past their house was a steep, rocky hill. Charley had to use the brake, which was a lever on the side of the buggy that activated a metal shoe that clamped over the wheel and slowed it from turning so fast. If he had not have used the brake, the buggy would have run into Kit’s behind. At the foot of the hill was the Adolph Zimmerman farm, on the southeast corner.
Rosa Zimmerman was waiting in the yard. She was a midwife. She had borne several children that were living. Her last child was stillborn. She was holding a worn brown leather satchel, which contained washed and boiled rags and boiled white string to tie the umbilical cord. She had brought the satchel from the Canton of Bern, Switzerland, when she emigrated to the United States in 1891. She was twenty-two years old when she arrived in the U.S. and worked her way across the country from New York to Burlington, Kansas. Rosa had learned the art of baking and decorating cakes for special occasions in the “Old Country” and she worked for various bakeries, making her way to Kansas. She met and married Adolph Zimmerman in 1892 at Burlington. He also came from the Canton of Bern. They both spoke English, but with a pronounced German accent.
Rosa and Charley had a lively conversation on the way back home. Charley came from the Canton of Neuchatel, Switzerland as a young boy. His family spoke French. He learned to speak English at the Summit School and never spoke French except when his sister Bertha or his brothers came to visit from Kansas City.
Kit had a hard time pulling the steep hill and she was puffing by the time they reached the Stafford house. It was downhill the rest of the way and Kit trotted all the way home. Lyss, Mary, and Emma Lou were waiting in the driveway. They liked Mrs. Zimmerman. She always had a cookie or two in her apron pocket. She visited with the children then went into the house, where Pearl was resting in the east bedroom, in the big brass bed.
The labor pains were closer together. Rosa examined the expectant mother then went to tell Charley that it was time to call the doctor. He went to the telephone that hung on the wall in the southwest corner of the kitchen. It was an oblong wooden instrument with two large metal bells at the top that looked like eyes. The speaker was mounted in the middle and was adjustable for short or tall people. On the right side was the ringer and on the left side was the receiver, a black bell shape that hung on its cradle. Charley first took down the receiver and held it to his ear, to determine if someone else was using the party line. It was clear, so he rang two shorts and two longs. This was the signal to Dr. Fred D. Lose’s office in Madison. The doctor said that he would be right out. It was nine miles over dirt and gravel roads and he would come in his Model T Ford Touring car. He was a local man, having grown up on a farm southeast of Madison. He attended Madison Public Schools then attended Kansas University Medical School in Kansas City. He graduated in 1906. He took care of the Madison people, the surrounding communities and the farm people. Often his fee was paid with fresh eggs, milk and cream, chickens and other edible produce.
Charley took the three children down to the cow lot and told them to stay there until he came for them. There was a big maple tree where they played in the shade, or climbed the wooden ladder into the haymow to play with newborn kittens.
Dr. Lose arrived and I was delivered with the help of Rosa Zimmerman. State of Kansas, County of Lyon Birth Certificate number 564774 states that I cried spontaneously and the time of birth was 10:15 A.M. The doctor performed the separation of child from mother, tied with the white boiled string that Mrs. Zimmerman had brought, and from that moment forward, I was on my own.
I was born in the east bedroom of the frame farmhouse located on the northwest corner of a 160 acre tract in the northwest quarter of Section 25, Township 21 South, Range 12, located in Lyon County, Kansas on May 24, 1923. Charley went to the barn and brought the siblings to the house. Emma Lou thought that some baby kittens were in the house. The mewing sound to which she referred was, of course, just me.
Dr. Lose drove Rosa Zimmerman home on his way back to Madison, and life went on much the same at the Jeanneret farm, except now there were six mouths to feed instead of five.
Dear Sisters is dedicated to Betty’s two sisters, Mary Curry and Jen Schwab, to whom she remained close all of their lives. Betty begins her Introduction with these words: “Research for Dear Sisters has taken several years. Although I’ve been the one who pulled it all together, there was a network of devoted historians who provided the input. Without all these helpers, the book would not have been written.”