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My Mother's Love (Widow raising five children alone during the Great Depression)

Updated on January 7, 2016

John and May Tilford

In this narrative Willard Tilford draws together several examples of his widowed mother’s determination to care for her children and the hardships she, and they, endured. The generation leaving us now is the last to really understand the meaning of the Great Depression, just as they are the last to understand the term World War.


The Tilford's lived among strife in Kentucky. Being a borderline state during the Civil War, there were often ill feelings between neighbors. My grandfather was a fanatic Southern sympathizer. Dad was born in 1864 and grandfather named him John - Cabel - Breckinridge - Powell - Lee - Davis - Tilford in honor of Confederate military and political leaders. Slavery was not a Tilford issue. I never heard of a Tilford who owned a slave. The land was too poor and rough to support slavery. But grandfather had his enemies, and wartime hatreds live forever. He was a doctor and one night his horse came home without him. The next morning his body was found at the bottom of a ravine near an overlooking cliff. Presumably something frightened his horse, it had bolted and thrown him over the edge. But many neighbors believed he was a victim of foul play because of his Confederate sympathies.

Dad fell victim to the terrible influenza epidemic that swept across this nation immediately after World War I. I was three at the time. Dad had come to Mitchell, Indiana from Kentucky a few years earlier to work in the Lehi cement mill. He was taken back to Short Creek, Kentucky for burial. Fear of the flu was so great that his casket was not even opened. Even so, only a handful of close relatives dared attend.

Mom returned to Grayson County, Kentucky with her five children in order to be near relatives. She was left with her large family and no income. And there were no such things in those days as welfare or food stamps or social security or women's rights. I am glad God did not reveal to her then the hard times that lay ahead.

During those difficult years there were times when Mom did not believe she could possibly hold her family together. She was stricken with grief and despair. I remember seeing her kneel in front of a chair on which she had placed my father's picture and cry. But she didn't give up. We children were totally dependent on her and she had to carry on.

Mom remarried briefly in the twenties. Presumably she was hoping for a helpmate during those hard times. But her new husband, Thurman, deserted us before my half brother, David, was born. We never saw him thereafter. David never met his father. Thurman did leave memories – terrible memories. He wouldn't work and he was an alcoholic.

Mom owned a small, hillside farm, a milk cow, a few chickens, and a horse. Thurman owned nothing. He took her horse and cow and became a wandering horse trader. Day after day he scoured the countryside trading horses wherever he could strike up a favorable deal. Being an extrovert and a habitual liar he became a rather successful horse trader and soon owned a good team of horses.

I was eight years old at the time and was not aware of many of his trades. But I do remember him telling of one. An aged farmer owned a team of horses, one was a solid animal but the other was old and feeble. The old man traded Thurman the good horse with the proviso that he would take the feeble horse and provide it a home as long as it lived. Of course Thurman promised to do so. But the feeble horse never reached home. He laughingly told a neighbor that he was surprised at how easy it was to knock a horse down by striking it behind the ears with a club.

We kids had a cat we loved dearly. For some reason Thurman hated that cat with a passion. Hatefully, he set a leg-hold steel trap and turned a washing tub upside down over it. He put our cat under the tub. At the first opportunity, my brother Brandon tipped the tub sufficiently to free the cat. The next morning Thurman lifted the tub and saw the cat gone and the trap unsprung. He threw a fit embellished with profanity. But we still had the cat after Thurman was gone.

When he left us, Thurman took the team of horses and lived briefly with a farmer near Shady Grove. Since Mom owned the one horse and cow with which Thurman had started his trading, she figured the team belonged to her. So late one night Brandon, age seventeen, and a neighbor boy slipped into the barn, harnessed the horses and rode them home. Word reached us that Thurman fumed and cursed and threatened revenge when he missed the horses the next morning. But he never carried out his threats and he never got the horses back.

In those days great numbers or surrounding farmers visited the Falls of Rough general store on Saturday afternoons. It was a time to purchase supplies, fellowship with neighbors and share gossip. Thurman was nearly always there. So was “Uncle Bill” Eskridge (who later became my foster parent). Uncle Bill frequently carried his childish humor to extremes, apparently to attract attention. Each week Uncle Bill would offer Thurman a pig if he would only kiss him. And lo-and-behold, one time Thurman did. Now without fail, Uncle Bill attended church at The Lone Star Church of Christ on Sundays. So Thurman borrowed a wagon and went to Uncle Bill's farm the following Sunday morning. Thurman claimed his pig while no one was there, except that it was not a pig – it was a 250 pound fattened hog. To many in the community Thurman’s act was not a playful joke – it was theft. He alienated the few friends he had.

Although the Grayson County Court ordered him to contribute $10.00 per month to support his then unborn child, he never paid anything. So much for Thurman. The community was the better for his departure.

To provide for us, Mom took in washings and did housework for neighbors, many of whom were almost as poor as we. Somehow she kept us together, fed us, made our clothing and sent us to school – such as rural schools were in Kentucky in those days. And, yes, she took us to church each Sunday. Looking back on it, I can't help but believe that God gave her just a little help along the way.

We kids attended the Lone Hill one-room school. The school district was sparsely populated, and if school attendance fell below fifteen, the school simply closed down for the remainder or the year. It was rare indeed for the Lone Hill School to remain open an entire year. On one opening day there were less than fifteen students present. That day we played games until noon. The teacher sent us home and instructed us to tell our parents that there would be no school at Lone Hill that year. Mom then sent us to the Shady Grove School in another school district until the weather got bad. We walked about six miles along dirt roads and followed footpaths through the fields and woods to reach the distant school.

Our lifestyle was simple and hard. I won’t bother you with lengthy details, but a few events stand out which might reveal the severity of the struggle we endured.

I was with my great uncle, Buell Wilkerson, when his dogs killed a very large groundhog. He cast it aside. I was very small and we were two or three miles from home, but I claimed that discarded groundhog for my very own. I had to stop and rest many times, but I was excited and proud when I finally arrived home with my huge, fat groundhog. Mom cooked it and we had a groundhog feast that evening. She saved the fat and rendered it down in a skillet on the wood-burning cook stove for seasoning. I was an important provider that day.

On another occasion, our neighbor, Wiley Willoughby, told us we could have the wool from a sheep which had died. We gathered the wool from that decaying carcass. It had been pastured among cockleburs and the wool was matted with burs. We laboriously finger carded the prickly cockleburs from the wool and sold it at the Falls of Rough general store.

By necessity in those days, gardeners applied a few drops of turpentine on seed beans for protection against weevils. On one occasion when food was in short supply Mom was forced to cook our seed beans. She washed and rewashed those beans repeatedly. When she served them my older brother proclaimed: "Whew, these beans taste like turpentine."

We cut sassafras bean poles and manually carried them all the way to the Falls, two miles away, and sold them for a penny apiece. We dug and sold red sassafras roots for tea. We gathered and sold wild plums and blackberries. We sold ginseng, mayapple, and yellow roots. We trapped fur-bearing animals and sold the furs. We hunted and trapped rabbits. We fished, not for fun, but for food.

I have sad memories about our large shepherd dog, Sport. One day he failed to meet us on the footpath near home when we came home from School. We never saw him afterwards. For days and days I vainly searched the fields and woods calling his name. Many years later Mom told us she had asked a neighbor to destroy Sport. She simply could not afford to feed a large dog. I'm sure she agonized over making that terrible decision. I well remembered the hard times we had experienced during those years and I understood. But I am not sure I could have understood the problem at the time.

Life was so difficult in Grayson County that in October 1925 Mom took us back to Mitchell, Indiana. She especially wanted her children enrolled in a better school system. She took Grandfather with us. My maternal grandfather was a widower and had lived alone on his small farm. He had become old and helpless, eventually requiring full time care. Somebody had to take care of him. His four other children advanced many reasons, perhaps valid, for not helping. Mom took him in. She was by far the least able, both physically and financially. She had her family of young children to raise. But she offered no excuses and did what had to be done.

Grandfather Wilkerson had been married twice. His first wife died shortly after the birth of their only child. Through the years, this daughter was by far and away his favorite child, even though she never contributed anything to his care. He had a vision problem and could neither read nor write so he could not convey private messages to this daughter through the mail. When she married she lived in Louisville, about one hundred miles from the Falls. But she came back for visits a couple of times each year. Each time, just before she left he would take her into a separate room for a brief conference. Other family members never knew the reasons for these secret visits, but none were surprised to discover that he had no money when be died in 1929. His small farm was sold for $600.00. All of his children except one claimed and received their full stare of that money. My Uncle Willis Wilkerson recognized what my mother had done in caring for their father and refused to accept “his share”, stating that May deserved it all. The majority decision was to accept the first part of Uncle Willis’ recommendation but not the second. His share was split among the other heirs, including my mother.

For a time things went quite well in Mitchell. Mom got a job at the local shirt factory. We kids were enrolled in the North Side Elementary School. We also attended the Christian Church where Sunday school classes were provided for children. I had never before attended Sunday school. The Lone Hill schoolhouse had served as the community church house on Sundays. A few local families met there each week for worship services. But there had been no Sunday school for children. We were simply tolerated and ignored. I remember being awarded a Bible verse booklet for dedicated attendance at the Christian Church. It was one of my prized childhood possessions. It was mine. I earned it. It was an award from a caring church.

We kids came down with measles in the early spring of 1926. We were very sick. Our sickness was compounded when we also contracted the flu. Even Mom was ill for an extended period and was unable to work. Neighbors, as well as church friends, came to our rescue by bringing in groceries. I suppose we could have survived without this help, but it would have been extremely difficult.

Dr. Ding, a local physician, came to see as. It was the first time I had ever seen a doctor. When he saw how sick we were and how hard up we were, he charged only half price for that first call, and thereafter be made several calls without charge.

Eventually we recovered. Mom went back to work. We kids, except my sister, Jessie, went back to school. But Jessie was sick for a long, long time. And when she finally returned to school she was pale and skinny, and she carried a nagging cough which she never did throw off.

In the fall of 1926, we left Mitchell and moved to Owensburg, Indiana. Just one year earlier we had come to Mitchell filled with hopes and dreams. Now we were leaving. We were like nomads of old, ever searching for greener pastures which we never found. George O'Bannon, a Civil War veteran who knew my grandfather when both lived in Kentucky, convinced us that the Owensburg community was an ideal place to live.

Mom bought the old Bowyer place, a deserted, land-locked twenty-acre farm located about five miles northwest of Owensburg, for $150.00. There was a deserted two-room log house atop the highest hill on this little farm. A rotted and collapsing porch fronted one of the two doors. Blackberry briars, bushes and weeds had taken over the yard. We cleared away the brush and briars and weeds. We tore down the dilapidated porch and built an extra room onto the ancient house. We pruned the few remaining fruit trees. We cut sassafras poles and built a pole fence around a pasture near the house, and Mom bought a Holstein milk cow which we kids promptly named Flossie.

There was a dug well on the old place, walled with fieldstones, but it wouldn't hold water. So we cleaned out a spring on a neighbor's farm at the bottom of the bill about half a mile from home from which we carried our water. In late summer, when wet weather springs and branches went dry, frogs found refuge in our spring. They aggravated us by muddying the water when they jumped in, forcing us to wait until it settled.

We reached an agreement to work as stare croppers for a local farmer. We were happy with our new surroundings and our new neighbors. Compared to past experiences, the future looked very promising indeed . . . but not for long.

In those days, tuberculosis in cattle was a statewide problem. The state of Indiana launched an eradication program in 1927. Flossie tested positive. So we lost our milk cow.

Three of us, Jessie, Byron and I, walked the three miles to the one-room Crabbe School. There were about twenty children in this school, including Amanda Jackson who later became my wife. On April 19, 1927, when we returned home from school, we stared with disbelief upon the ashes and smoldering embers of the home we left that morning.

Mom had been preparing dinner for three year old David, her aged father and herself. She heard a roaring in the attic, and lifted the scuttle hole cover to discover the old clap-board shingles were a mass of flames. Apparently sparks from the kitchen flue had set the dry wood shingles afire. Her immediate concern, of course, was to save David and her father. But one was very young and the other was very old, and they panicked. When she would lead one out of the house, the other would enter through the other door. Precious minutes were lost before she got them both to safety. When she rushed back inside the house, the roof and ceiling were collapsing. She grabbed a picture of her mother, a picture of my father, and a clock that wouldn't run. That's all she saved from the fire. The picture of my father was the same picture she had knelt before and cried earlier in Kentucky.

We lived so far from any neighbors that nobody saw the smoke from the fire. So my mother, her father and David waited alone by the smoking ruins until we arrived home from school. Being kids, we were always hungry, and normally Mom had supper ready for us when we got home.

In those days, people who didn't have a cellar or basement buried their potatoes in what was known as a “potato hole”. Mom dug some potatoes from our potato hole and baked them in the hot embers left by the fire. So we had unseasoned baked potatoes for supper that evening with nothing to drink. The old house was not insured, or even insurable, so all that was left by the fire was the clothes on our backs, the two pictures[1], and the clock that wouldn't run. It was almost dark before we turned our backs on the smoldering ashes and started down the long trail through the woods away.

The old pioneer log house really wasn't much of a residence, being land-locked as it was, and with no readily accessible water. There wasn't even an outhouse. The little plots of tillable ground on the property had been corned repeatedly and left bare to leach and erode. But it was home. It was ours. We were together. We never owned another home. Other members of grandfather's family should have stepped forward at this time and offered to take care of him until mom could get on her feet again after the tragedy of our burnout, but none of them did.

There was only one week of school left at the Crabbe school when our home burned. Our teacher, Edith Henderson, hurriedly arranged a pie supper in our behalf. She raised a few dollars and collected some used furniture which got us started housekeeping again in a deserted frame house in Dresden [Indiana].

The old house in Dresden was in desperate need of repairs. Winter winds blew through the cracks. We kids would crowd around the wood heating stove, and still try to catch sufficient light from the coal oil lamp to read or study. We couldn't avoid getting in each other's light or blocking off the heat occasionally so there was periodic bickering. Grandfather was bedfast most of the time with little control over his kidneys or bowels. Mom was simply killing herself caring for him and struggling to keep the family together.

In the fall of 1927 we attended the Old Clifty School. It was Jessie's last year of grade school. Mom was worried about her. She was quick to catch colds and very slow to recover. She missed a lot of school. Once she fainted while reciting at the blackboard and fell unconscious to the floor. I was horrified. I thought she had died.

There was so much disparity between teachers, schools, curriculums and grading systems that Greene County, like most Indiana counties, required eighth graders to pass a high school entrance examination before they could attend high school. Jessie took this examination in the spring of 1928. Despite the poor schooling she had received in Kentucky and the time she had lost from school because of sickness in Indiana she still made the highest grade of any eighth grader in Greene County. We were overjoyed by her achievement.

A couple of years after our home burned we moved to Louisville. Shortly thereafter the nation was devastated by a terrible depression. Many families were broken up, including ours. I remember walking over a road in Grayson County, Kentucky I bad never traveled before, going to a house I had never seen, to live with a man and woman I did not know. I was thirteen at the time and had experienced my share of rough times. I should have been tough, but I wasn't. Let me tell you from experience that to a child there is no sickness quite so painful as homesickness.

These people did not mistreat me, but neither did they take me into their home because they loved me. They had never seen me. My job was to help with the farm work. Such arrangements were commonplace during that terrible depression. For four years I lived with the Bill Eskridge and Crit Porter families under those conditions, and then we kids and Mom were together again, but not for long.

Mom lived in Louisville with the remnants of her family when I was at Crit Porter's at Falls of Rough. In addition to me, Mom had friends and relatives in the Falls area. On very rare occasions she was able to briefly visit these friends. I had not seen her for approximately a year when she came to visit me at Porter's in 1933. I was a junior at the Yeaman High School at the time. I took a day off from school to visit with my mother. Grit and Lillie were very old and their son, Spurrier, who lived nearby ran the farm. When he saw me home from school visiting Mom, he sent me to the field to drill the fall wheat. The only time I had with Mom was briefly at noon when I brought my team in for food and water. I was not surprised by Spurrier's action. I was familiar with his motives and behavior. If I had been in school, he would have had to drill the wheat. But Mom was surprised and hurt. She never quite got over Spurrier's insensitivity.

Before the depression was over, the family circle that had stood looking at the smoldering ruins of our borne near Owensburg had been shattered forever. My grandfather was dead. My sister, Jessie, was dead at the age of twenty-four. And my mother was dead. Mom died of cancer December 26, 1938. Grandfather was buried in Edwards Cemetery. Mom and Jessie were buried beside my father at Short Creek, not far away. It was a lonely Christmas season. Cancer took three of the family, maybe four. It was, and is, a horrible way to die.

It seemed that it was God's will that Mom's mission in life was to raise her family, and she did just that -- well, almost. David was only fifteen when she died and was small for his age. Mom told me that the only real worry she had about dying was concern for David. I told her to dismiss such thoughts from her mind, that I would provide for David. So it was that as a private in the U. S. Army earning $21.00 per month, I sent $15.00 home each month to pay for David’s keep and schooling. I believe that God tests the character of each of us and this responsibility was the test reserved for me.

A couple of days before she died, Mom called David to her and told him what clothes she wanted him to wear at her funeral. She told him that she wanted him to look nice when he walked down the church aisle. In those days, funerals were held in churches. But Mom was not accorded a church funeral. Instead, she was moved directly from Lehman's mortuary in Owensburg to a cemetery near Short Creek, Kentucky where brief graveside services were conducted in December's cold and wind. But the good news is that God did not forsake her and the Great Satan did not break her spirit. Her trust and faith survived every assault. Her steadfast faith and care for her family put her in company with the greatest of God's children.

This nation went directly from a terrible depression into an even more terrible war. Throughout the history of this country's wars, the poor and down-trodden have carried the greatest burdens. Young men don't get draft deferments because of being poor. So it was that when World War II was over all of Mom's sons were war veterans. Perhaps it is better that Mom died before the war. She was spared the worry and agony of seeing her five sons scattered far and wide in wartime service.

Such courtesy is almost forgotten today, but long ago schoolteachers were addressed by students as “Mr. so-and-so” or “Miss (or Mrs.) so-and-so”. My Dad was a schoolteacher and Mom had been one of his students. She lived nineteen years after he died and to the end of her life she referred to him as Mr. Tilford.

Mom had this epitaph engraved on his gravestone: “He was a kind and affectionate husband, a fond father, and a friend to all.”

A year after Dad died, Mom wrote the following memoriam to be published in the Leitchfield [Kentucky] Gazette:

"In loving memory of John C. Tilford who departed this life March 15, 1919.

“Just one year ago the death angel visited our happy home and took from us our dear husband and father... For nineteen years he and I had shared each other’s joys and sorrows and God had given us five little ones to bless our home. He was a true and devoted husband and father. Oh, it is so hard to give him up and to know that the little ones can never again run to meet him when he comes home from work. It is heart rending to have them ask over and over, ‘Why doesn't Papa ever come home to stay with us anymore?’

“He told me he knew his time to go had come, and he knew I would miss him, but for the children's sake I must bear my burdens and do the best I could for them.

“Though I feel sad and lonely and the future is so dark, I intend, with God's help, to rear my children so that when we are done with this life, we will be reunited in the other world where there will be no separations.

His sorrowing widow, May Tilford”

I can barely remember my father, but I do remember us kids rushing to meet him each day when he came home from work. We were interested in his dinner bucket. Each day Mom would include some kind of desert -- cookies, a piece of pie, a jelly sandwich, or something special. And each day Dad would bring his desert home for us kids. I suppose it was a way for both parents to show their love for their children.

[1] Incidentally, I still have those two pictures.


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