'A Woman's Journey'
Editor’s note: This story borrows from a book written about Betsy Wendle Smith called “A Woman’s Journey.” The areas in italics are excerpts from the book.
METAMORA — When Betsy Wendle Smith turned 80 on May 25 there was a very special present for her from her daughter Elisa Wiedeman.
Wiedeman wrote a book, really more a diary, chronicling little stories that made up Smith’s life. It is a glimpse into the adventures in Smith’s life — some ordinary, some extraordinary — the stuff of a life.
Wiedeman wrote in the introduction her mother was one for telling her stories at the kitchen table when they were alone.
A book was born chronicling the life of a simple woman who has called Metamora home for more than four decades.
The early years
Smith was born to Grover and Mildred Barr Wendle on May 25, 1930 in Westmoreland County, Penn. After losing three children from a previous marriage to influenza, Grover vowed never again to raise a family in a cold northern climate.
Daytona Beach, Fla. beckoned to him. In the summer of 1930, the family of three headed south. Smith’s brothers, Ray and John, were born three and seven years later.
“As a child living through the Great Depression, she acquired the knowledge and wisdom from parents working to find their way through difficult times. Betsy’s mother, Mildred, provided all of the family’s domestic needs. Besides fishing and clamming, Grover worked in the fast-growing sheet metal industry. At the onset of World War II, he worked in a number of shipyards. The era and economy required versatility and mobility. Betsy recalls attending twelve different schools from the age of six through fifteen.”
After her mother’s death Smith took over the domestic role in the household.
And, a very different way of life lay ahead. But, Smith said, looking back she would not change one thing.
Hard, but happy times
Before Smith’s mother died times were hard, but happy.
“Florida backwaters produced delicious oysters ... My brothers and I played in the sand and helped dad recover thousands of the elusive, tasty creatures. The vision remains clear to this day — dad walking the bay wearing old shoes, and pulling a row boat behind him. Feeling the hard, lumpy shells with the bottom of his foot, he knelt down, scooping his gloved hand through the sand and tossing the oysters, one-by-one into the boat. When the boat became too heavy to maneuver, we returned to the river bank to bake and eat a few oysters before returning home.
“Oysters provided extra income, as well as, delicious meals during the depression years. Dad shelled the oysters and placed them into pint jars with lids. Unlike the oysters harvested today, they were large and meaty. Three or four oysters completely filled one pint jar. My brothers and I sold them door-to-door.
Compassionate neighbors bartered and purchased each others produce and seafood. They especially loved dad’s oysters and the friendships they nurtured.”
Smith also recalled happily how grapes brought sustenance and happiness.
“Mother was kind and soft spoken. Her dark eyes sparkled when she smiled, and she was always quick with uplifting words. She had straight, dark hair and wore cotton flowered dresses and white sandals. She performed most of her daily tasks under the cool shade trees in our back yard ... It was her methodical movement and attention to detail when baking that made us yearn for her homemade jelly rolls. Mother spread the sugar and jelly evenly across the pastry surface and her fingers curled gracefully around the roll, as she sliced it into eight warm, delicious pieces. While savoring the pastry, I remember mother pouring us a cold glass of milk and kissing our jelly laden mouths.”
Life was difficult, but Smith said, she learned to adjust because of those hard times.
“I knew I was different from the other children,” Smith said, last week.
“We were constantly on the move when my father found work. Sometimes we went to school in the morning and by that afternoon we were headed to a another state where dad found work. We went with what circumstances dictated.”
“I was 13. My mother and father were separated and I was home alone the day the telegram came. I remember the knock at the door. It was a young Western Union courier who delivered telegrams by bicycle.”
Smith recalled three weeks earlier he delivered bad news to a couple next door — the news their son had died in the war. She feared bad news about her Uncle Jack who was fighting in the war.
“I opened the letter gingerly, as if his life depended on it. I read it and dropped to my knees. It wasn’t about Uncle Jack. It was my mother. She had died.
“I spent the following week vacillating between grief and disbelief. I remember pulling the shoe box that held all of her letters out from under my bed. I untied the string that secured the lid and read each letter, one-after-another.
“I hadn’t seen her in almost two years. I sobbed knowing that my brothers and I had planned a reunion with her in August – only two months away. We had corresponded regularly, and in her letters she explained how someday I would better understand why things were as they were. However, her letters also revealed that moving back to more familiar surroundings was little consolation for a mother separated from three young children.”
Smith’s mother worked at Walworth Valve Company on an assembly line producing artillery shells. Medical reports revealed she died of a brain hemorrhage caused from inhaling airborne metal shavings.
Smith recalled that time with misty eyes, last week.
“There were sad times, but all in all it wasn’t bad. We did what we had to do,”
Smith said. “We never expected the best life had to offer. We made it just the same.”
As time passed, life went on and in the ‘40s as Smith became a young woman. Fashion was on her mind.
“Economic conditions in the 1940s required women to reinvent existing wardrobes. This meant mending, patching, and altering clothing to make a fashion statement. Slender, yet curvy female silhouettes were in vogue. Two-piece suits, skirts, and blouses were common.
“One day in 1944 a boardwalk photographer noticed Betsy. He asked her to pose for portraits. The photographer also owned and maintained a boardwalk photo booth. High school friends and sailors often had their photographs taken there, and it was not uncommon for them to request my presence. I find it humorous when I think about how many wallet photos with my image circulated around the country.”
Smith had also garnered the attention of a young man by the name of Ed Smith — the man who would take her as his wife and introduce her to Central Illinois.
The couple married in 1946 and lived in Florida for a time, but Ed longed to go home to Illinois.
“I packed everything I needed in two suitcases which fit snuggly into the train’s luggage rack, next to Ed’s duffel bag. The trip took three days and we disembarked at Champaign/Urbana. It was freezing cold — too cold to wait another four hours for a bus. I was dressed for Florida weather and wore no stockings, so we decided to hitch a ride to Peoria.
“Cars passed us one after another. I finally had Ed stand back behind the bushes while I thumbed for a ride. In no time at all, a pickup with a deer strapped across the hood stopped. The two hunters were friendly. We climbed in and headed west on Route 150. We passed miles and miles of agricultural farmland, through numerous small towns, and down a brick road called Caterpillar Trail in East Peoria.”
They turned west crossing the Cedar Street Bridge into Peoria.
“I remember the corner of Washington and Cedar Street, where a tall tower housed a man who manually controlled the electric traffic lights. I’d like to say that my first impression of Peoria was good. But we entered Peoria on the southeast side. It was industrial and dirty. The air was hazy and filled with distillery and stockyard odors. Railroad tracks lined both sides of the river, and a two-tone horn blast rifled through the air signaling plant shift changes. I missed Florida.”
The couple moved in with Ed’s sister, Jenny.
Ed was a student at Bradley University. Smith said she worked at the Pere Marquette. Those early years were very lean. They moved into a trailer 7 feet wide and 22 feet long. It had no running water. It had no toilet.
“I can remember collecting bottles for the 2 cent deposit to buy bread,” Smith said. “But, we were happy.”
In 1949 the couple moved out of the big city for a more rural lifestyle in Germantown Hills. In 1963, the couple bought 97 acres in rural Metamora and still call that land home. They enjoyed the peace and quiet of the country. But, a comical event threatened that quiet.
“Site cleanup took the better part of one summer. Usually, Ed stood in the pickup bed, while I tossed him items to be either saved or discarded ... I came across a large stack of unusual looking boxes. Worn red and black lettering ran across each side of the metal containers. They were small enough to pitch two at a time, without breaking our productivity. With one robust underhand motion I hurled two through the air, one after another.
“Ed caught each and quickly surveyed them. His face turned pale and his eyes widened. ‘Betsy, stop! You’re tossing me dynamite blasting caps.’ Upon closer examination, we discovered that each box contained 100 Atlas blasting caps. The partially disintegrated caps were highly combustible – and extremely volatile. We quickly and safely disposed of the materials. Since then, we’ve laughed about the potentially explosive situation over many a cup of coffee.”
Smith, last week, sat in the living room of her very rustic home surrounded by thick woods reminiscing about her life and what she has learned in 80 years.
“One thing I’ve learned is everyone should do what my daughter did. This book is a living memory. This is my way of saying, ‘I was here.’ You only go through this life once,” Smith said. “This is a good way for everyone to participate with their family.”
Smith said another valuable lesson she learned was the value of a self-sufficient lifestyle.
“We’re still leading a self-sufficient lifestyle as much as we can. For many years we had a garden. We put in many 200-foot-long rows of vegetables,” Smith said.
“I canned. We raised chickens. Anytime you have to work for something you appreciate it more.”
Smith said the most important lesson she learned came from her financially lean childhood.
“I used to tell Ed that we’d get by when he got concerned. I had seen bottom,” Smith said. “I would tell him we can only go so low. Life has been good to us.”