Sometimes our most precious treasures aren’t always in pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, but rather right under our noses. I personally know three nonagenarians (people who are in their 90’s). The wisdom and memories they have gathered from living nearly a century is priceless although they are still young at heart. Their stories fascinated me as I hope they will you as I share them over the next couple of weeks.
The first one I had the pleasure of talking with was Esther Hacker, who is a mere 92 years of age. The youngest of eight children, she is the only one of the family to go to high school. “It certainly wasn’t an easy task to get to high school back then,” Esther recalls. “Kids today think it’s bad if they can’t drive to school. We were lucky to have one bus for the whole district!”
She paid $1 per week to ride the school bus 20 miles a day to Athens High School. On top of that, the bus was driven by a student. On her summer vacation from school she cooked and cleaned for the folks who owned King’s Mill, a working flour mill in Leonidas, Michigan. She was paid the hefty wage of $4 per week. Esther recalls that back in the day people would bring a trunk load of wheat to the flour mill and trade it for enough flour to last through the winter.
She has seen some hard times, growing up as a young girl during the Depression of the 1930s and later when many items were rationed going through World War II. “We always had a place to live and enough to eat, so we didn’t realize how bad things were,” says Esther.
The one thing they did have were free silent movies where people would throw a blanket on the ground on warm summer evenings and watch the show projected on a sheet hung up on a side of a building. Then people started talking about a thing called television where a person could sit in her living room and watch a movie and it would even have sound. She recalls that no one ever thought that would happen. Good thing it didn’t for a while because she met her husband Bill at the old silent movies. She smiles, “A friend and I walked up and down the rows of people and checked out the boys!” Some things never change!
The next tidbit she told me is still hard for me to fathom. “Bill had a $100 bill when we got married. We bought all our living room furniture, the linoleum and rug with that money.” Today $100 is only a drop in the bucket when it comes to furniture, food or any other necessity.
The rest of the stuff they needed didn’t always come that easy. They started out farming with 80 acres on the road named after them, Hacker Road. Back when the electric lines were finally installed to the rural areas, roads were named after who lived on the various roads at that time. “It was such a blessing to have electric power,” Esther remembers. “Everything was rationed during the war, so people would put their name on a list and when electric stoves became available, people on the top of the list would get one and they would work their way down.” Funny she should mention that since the stove she still uses is 50 years old. Wow, they just don’t make them like that anymore.
She was known for making some of the best bread in the neighborhood but don’t bother asking for a recipe. Like many other cooks of that era, she never measured ingredients. She always used the same bowl and knew just how full to fill it with flour and other staples to make perfect loaves every time. On top of that she would mix up a batch and let it rise while she went to the fields to help with the farm work. She just about knew when to go back in to make it into loaves.
“Most of the time back then if you married a farmer, you were a farmer. It took two to just make ends meet.” She learned to plow with a trailer plow where she had to reach behind and trip it for each furrow. She also helped to prepare the ground so Bill could plant. Their first tractor had steel wheels, and they were told when they bought it that they would never be able to buy fuel for it.
“You do what you have to do,” Esther says. “I know we didn’t waste anything. If we had extra eggs, we sold those at the store and then bought other things we needed with the egg money. We ran the milk through the separator, sold the cream and then took the skim milk that was left and mixed slop for the hogs. We also ate a lot of beans. Beans are pretty good once you get used to them!”
Of course when we mention groceries, it’s not like they needed to buy much at the store. Besides baking their own bread and other baked goods, they had a large garden and canned much of the bounty for use in winter. Every fall they would butcher and either can the meat or put it in large crocks, sealed on top with a layer of lard to preserve it.
One of the biggest chores was laundry. “That was a problem,” she admits. They carried water to a wash boiler on a cook stove to heat it. Then clothes went from a tub on one side through a wringer to the other side. By the way, whites were first and they worked their way through each batch to the end, using the same water for all the clothes. She explained, “We weren’t going to carry water for each batch!”
Golly, it sounded like so much hard work back then, I wondered if they had time to have any fun. Esther assured me, “You can make anything fun, it’s just how you approach it.” Then she started to laugh, thinking about her one brother.
Apparently, he was quite the entrepreneur. He invented a gizzard skinner for the local chicken processing plant. She used to go with him when he would haul marl, a lime-rich mud that they shoveled on wagons from the lake and then hauled to famers’ fields. On the way to Kendalville, Indiana, they had to drive the load up Walls Hill near Sturgis, Michigan. “He would always tell me,” laughs Esther, “’If I start sliding backwards, you jump out!’”
So, what does she think of modern conveniences? She is a woman of adaptation. In her later years she worked in the kitchen, concession stand and box office at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, meeting entertainers like Vince Gill. “I did it for fun, I didn’t care if they paid me,” she admitted. They told her they wished she would have told them that sooner!
She and Bill also used to enjoy snowmobiling but she had to have her own because he didn’t like riding double. She spent a lot of recent years sewing prized quilts and lately her outings are usual to the local McDonald’s for her prized treat, a triple cheeseburger. She’s usually known for saying to eat your dessert first because you never know, except when you can have a triple cheeseburger. In her book that trumps everything.
Some people are old in their 20s and 30s simply because of how they approach life. Some people will never be old, hard as life tries, for age is not a chronological factor but rather a mental one. Esther proves this everyday with her zest for living. She left me appreciating some of our modern conveniences, but also longing for the best of yesteryear’s treasures.