"Oldies but Goodies" by Joni Stewart
I'll tell you this, they just don't make 'em like Pearl Powers anymore. She introduces
herself with a clear, strong voice and then informs me that she was born in 1896. She now has my full
attention. And for the rest of the visit I can't quite absorb the rarity of her company.
As she begins to recount what life was like a hundred years ago, I was transported to a place impossible to
imagine on my own. A time of tremendous self-sufficiency; when your world was literally, your own backyard.
Pearl was the eldest daughter in a family of 11 children. As such, her childhood memories of chores and games usually
include toting along a baby brother or sister on her hip. "We would hand-sow the corn, all of us kids. The older
boys would plow and we'd go along behind them dropping the kernels in. Then a group would follow to fill back in with dirt,"
she explains. "Then the whole family would 'wait on the good lord' to provide the rain and sun needed. We did a lot of waiting."
She also remembers well the time spent making soap. The recipe includes ashes from the stove and fat from the slaughtering. To the ash
hopper you would add water until liquid lye was produced. Then, over an outside fire, you boil the lye and lard in a kettle.
The compounds eventually congeal and you would pour the soap into boxes lines with waxed paper. Pearl doesn't know who concocted
the recipe saying, "it was before my time."
At age 12, she began a life of what must be called servitude, as she was shuffled between aunts, neighbors and other relatives. She assisted them in household
work during their childbirth years. "It was scary." says Pearl, "taking a girl and putting her into a woman's job. I was afraid I
wouldn't be able to get the job done." She made $2.50 a week as wages back the.
When, years later, her brother Joe and his wife Psyche moved to Oklahoma and told her that glas were making $5 she decided to leave Howell Co., Missouri.
She met her first husband John Casey at a rooming house in Sapulpa, Ok. "Those were good times then," says Pearl. "We'd walk up and down the
railroad tracks and talk." They married when she was 25. "I figured if I watied to get married I wouldn't have as many kids as mama - you know -
every two years," she explains.
Now I figure the lord knew what he was doing when he blessed Pearl with daughter Wanda, who at birth in 1921 weighed 1 1/2 pounds. I think he knew she could
'get the job done'.
Without an incubator or medical intervention Pearl managed to keep the baby alive until, well, let's put it this way: Wanda is herself a
candidate for this column.
During the baby's first winter Pearl and Psyche filled mason jars and water bottles with heated water to surround the crib with warmth. I ask about the emotional and physical aspects
of such an intense experience. "I always thought she would make it, says Pearl adding, "the doctor who delivered her didn't though. He said she wouldn't make
it through the night."
Pearl and John had a boy, Wayne, six years later and by 1936 the family had moved to Sandy, Oregon to work in the berry and hop fields.
Before long the family split up. Joh and Wayne went back to Oklahoma and Wanda and Pearl stayed in Oregon to work.
Wanda went to Beauty School and married Bill Wall, and Pearl married Jack Powers back in Oklahoma.
After Jack died in 1965, Pearl rejoined Wanda and Bill in John Day. "I've liked being this close to my kids, that's what living here is all about, says Pearl.
Approaching the century mark with so much going for her I think of how fortunate her descendants are. She has six grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, two great-great grandchildren and
two more on the way.
©1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved
..... Return to Grant County, Oregon Home Page
..... Return to "A Place Called Oregon"