An autobiography by Ella Vermillion Preston, Class of 1934 Part 2
The only car on Cowan at this time was a Model T Ford owned by Walter Fields. He talked my family into going to Cumberland for a joyful visit with relatives. So off we went by way of Jenkins, the lake, across Pine Mountain, down Cumberland Valley to Cumberland. The journey took us all day and we just barely made it by nightfall.
When we returned home we changed to another route. We still came up Cumberland River to Pine Mountain, but crossed to a dirt road that was only used by wagons. A car had probably never been on this road. Our Model T did fine for awhile, but then we began to meet wagons pulled by horses and trouble overtook us.
After a long discussion, the drivers decided the best way to pass was to lift the car out of the road, allow the wagons and horses to pass, then pick up the car and place it back on the road. We met many wagons and this had to be done each time we met. So we lifted, waited, walked a lot and our very first automobile ride wasn’t very successful in my eyes, but we did get back home about dark.
Dad was so carried away by this type of transportation that he went almost immediately and bought a 1933 Model A Roadster. It was the newest state of art on the market: key ignition, plugs on each side of the steering column, complete with celluloid curtains and rumble seat. Later I learned to drive this apparition!
We had no road but the creek bed, so when it rained and washed sand down, we got stuck. Then when winter arrived the brakes froze so we walked again.
About this time Cassell Caudill caught the car fever and added another to the two already on the road. Cassell drove the ‘upper way’ from his home on Little Cowan toward Whitesburg across Cowan Hill. Later his garage sat on top of that hill.
Our high school days were pretty much as they had been before. We were required to carry four subjects in some form of English, history, algebra, and a foreign language. Good grades were awarded by being exempt from semester tests. Our four nearly always were exempt.
We had no buses my first two years, and my best friend and I walked a path through the woods hardly ever missing a day. We walked about six miles a day and had some wonderful times. The last two years, buses came to the railroad track at the end of Big Cowan, where the recycling plant is now. My friend and I continued our walks as the distance was still too long to meet a bus there.
So we graduated in 1934. Lena Sturgill was salutatorian, three entered college that fall and the fourth married. Now we went our separate ways, never again to experience such friendships. One friend, Jody, went to Morehead; Lena and I enrolled in Pikeville Junior College at the age of 17. For the first time I was on my own, never having been away from my parents before. I learned new foods, new ways of living, new teachers, new rules, and new methods of study.
After a few weeks I adjusted to homesickness and met new friends. I met a girl who became my lifelong friend. She had gone to high school with my roommate, Harriet Allen, but after that year we became roommates. She was Lula Martin from Floyd County, and we visited and kept in touch as long as she lived.
The other outstanding event that happened that year, our dormitory caught on fire. Our belongings were tossed out the windows so we spent the rest of the year collecting our things. I never found mates for some odd shoes; one turned up months later as we were packing to go home, but other belongings were lost forever. My room had no smoke or water damage, but five rooms had to be repaired and the five students moved somewhere else.
That May, our college closed for the summer, and now I was ready to teach. I’d had a teaching course at the insistence of my father, and I spent $135 of his money. In the summer of 1935, at the age of 18 years, I began teaching at my first school. I was to teach at Ice on the hill above Hiram Blair’s home. My supplies consisted of three erasers, one box of chalk, and a piece of oilcloth nailed to the wall and painted black for our chalkboard. I taught in a one-room school, which would have two teachers, me and a man. He faced his students one way in the classroom, and I faced the other. My children had copies of one book, ‘Once Upon a Time There Were Three Bears.’ The students carried it to school every day and all, young or old, had it memorized.
At college we’d been taught what to do so I bought a roll of paper, crayons, coloring books and a duplicator. That was merely a wooden box filled with a type of gelatin to reproduce. The children were eager to tell of their experiences and I printed simple stories on big sheets of paper. They quickly learned to read. Finally the county board furnished us a few books to use in our classroom. This was something new for all of us!
At Christmas we had a tree and all the ornaments were handmade, except popcorn. We used construction paper to make paper chains, cat stairs, icicles, little toy snowmen and people. I carried paste to school that I’d made at home. That first year I walked about two miles and that school year was eight months long. When payday came we had to discount our money for two months and I made $61 a month. To celebrate I bought a Kodak camera and an accordion, which I still have.
After that year, our building was torn down and a new school called ‘Whitco’ was built near the river closer to Whitesburg, and we began to get a few supplies.
I decided to teach first grade, although I had considered teaching mathematics as I’d had at least two classes. Some of the comments I heard out of the mouths of babes, which were my first graders . . . maybe they were listening through the keyholes at home!
“ Teacher, can we go across the bridge to eat our bread?” This was a first grader who went on to become a businessman whose children had plenty of bread or anything else they wanted.
“Yesterday, I went to my daddy’s moonshine still. You go down this little road and cross a branch, and you can smell it cooking. Go until you find some pine trees, and his still is in the middle of them.”
At lunch, “I told Momma not to put that old cold gravy on my bread.”
Another comment : “Phew! Another old soup bean sandwich.”
A child from a large family: “Mother was on the back step vomiting as I came to school. Teacher, she was real sick. Do you think she’ll be all right when I get home?”
“Mama made us some gravy for breakfast this morning. She put some lard in a big pan, then added water and cooked it for a long time. It was so good we scraped the pan and ate every bite.”
“Mama made a pan full of bread. I was so hungry I ate all of it. Then she had to make another pan full for my two brothers.”
A shivering child on an icy morning: “Mommy and Daddy had gone to work when I got up. I had to wash my clothes to go to school. I thought they were dry when I took them out of the dryer, but they weren’t dry (they were only warm).”
A boy who’d broken through some thin ice: “Teacher, teacher, I got to go home, I fell down.” He’d walked more than a mile from home and icicles were forming on his clothes. He couldn’t. Another child solved the problem, “I got two pairs of overalls on, and he can have one pair.” The change was made, unknown to the boy’s mother!
Pikeville College added special classes for teachers who wanted to further their college education. I was allowed to take three hours extension and a three-hour correspondence course as I taught.
After three years teaching, two at Cowan and one at Whitco, I returned to college. Since I carried 19 hours I was classed as a sophomore and in the highest 10 percent, and had a graduation ceremony with cap and gown. The most memorable thing that happened was I met the man, John Preston, who 10 years later would become my husband. Since Pikeville was a junior college, the next summer I had to go to Eastern Kentucky University.
Soon World War II began and I started teaching school at Whitco in a three-room building. Our principal was an old man who’d never gone above the eighth grade, Mr. Hiram Taylor. He taught one of the classes. We never knew whether there’d be two or three teachers until we arrived at school on Monday morning. One of our teachers was a young man, who was soon drafted for service. Then Mr. Taylor and I would have to divide our classes. I sometimes had grades 1-4 and he would have 5-8. We had to write rationing cards for the community, collect scrap metal, and clothing when possible for the war effort. We also had to take census and the parents responded wonderfully. I was driving by now so it was much easier to get to work.
Back in those days, it was very common for a pupil to bring me an address and say, “Mama says would you care to write their son who is a soldier overseas.” I wrote to service men I didn’t know in all parts of the globe. Once when community news was scarce, I wrote to a boy that we had gone to such and such a church today. I knew he had gone there for ‘once a month’ services when he was home.
When the weather was cool, we had to build a fire at school. Once when we did, and the room warmed, we were overcome with wasps. I counted 126 in the windows! The news got back to the community and was told and retold as a joke! It wasn’t however, a joke to us who were in the room with them!
Meantime, I taught and saved every penny, in hopes that my future husband and I could build a house someday. We’d known each other about 10 years by now!
The day came when my longtime male friend from Pikeville College returned with a degree from Morehead State College and a new Ford car. He could teach industrial arts, substitute in biology, history, and electricity. With $1,000, which the superintendent supplied, he organized the Industrial Arts Department at Whitesburg High School and taught it full time. We were married December 6, 1947, and had a son John Bruce, the next year. We spent 55 happy years together. I continued teaching as before, and when Pikeville College became a four-year college, I got my degree in 1959.
We sent our son, Bruce, to Pikeville College, where he obtained a computer and business degree. During his sophomore year, he met a girl, Diana Hester, who would later become his wife a few weeks after graduation. They married in 1970 and had a son, Michael Bruce, in 1975. They have been living in the Cincinnati area for the last 30 years.
We continued to teach school, but now we had no debts. Our blueprint turned into a home and we were so happy when it was completed. The house is on Little Cowan, where we spent many happy years. We continued to teach and really enjoyed gardening as a past time. Meantime, John moved to the new Whitesburg Vocational School, where he had better working conditions, fewer students, and a better salary. He taught there for seven years. I returned to Eastern Kentucky University and qualified for a librarian position at Little Cowan School, where I’d been teaching. I organized its first library.
We taught until both completed 30 years, after which we were eligible for retirement. We retired in 1974 when we were in our 60s. We had it all planned to travel and have a carefree existence. We planned our trips; we wanted to go to Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire to see the fall foliage. Colorado, Alaska and California were on the agenda as well as other places out West. Suddenly I looked at John and he looked at me . . . No! No! No! Home we were, and home was where we wanted to be — no trips for us! We had no debts and fairly good health. We’d drive to places and events in our neighborhood, and we’d be home at night. We could garden as we wanted and if and when we wanted!
About 28 years after retirement, John’s health began to decline. Following a hospital stay and returning home late one night he clasped my hand and said, “I’ll meet you over yonder.” Soon afterward he took his long journey home and passed away peacefully in his sleep in 2003, after 55 years of marriage.
As for me, I stayed alone until I had a severe fall. I was flown to Lexington Clinic by helicopter. They replaced my hip joint, treated other broken bones, and nursed me over a couple of heart attacks. I am currently in Florence Park Care Center in Florence, near my son and daughter-in-law. I spend my time taking part in Florence Park’s activities; I especially like the games of Bingo, reading, and writing letters. I have made many friends at my ‘new home.’ Bruce and Diana have tried to get me to live with them, however, I’m happy where I am, and I still have a bit of independence living at Florence Park.
When I am gone, what will our survivors say? Will they remember John’s and my minor deeds, the ones we cherished the most? Will they remember tales from our happy childhood, John’s in Martin County and mine in Little Cowan? Happy college years? Each teaching 30 years? Our marriage of 55 years? Someday, too, I’ll take that trip “over yonder” looking for him. I’ll find him in that Heavenly Choir, for singing was his hobby. I’ll look forward to that day, because, he’s waiting for me to join him “over yonder.”
The past year has been a new experience for me since I moved away from my home in Whitesburg. I’ve learned to live with a lot of new friends, been on almost 30 field trips, had my first manicure at age 94, been to a local parade, saw a covered bridge in Ohio, and a real shocker, had an appendectomy at age 95! It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to the next new adventure!