Saturday, September 27, 2008

Aunt Nell, daughter of Leonard and Nancy Baker, sister of Byron Baker (and thus, Aunt to Ethel and Lil Baker), By Aunt CB

Nell, or Nellie Baker Barrows, was as different from her younger sister, Florence Baker Young, as salt is from pepper. Small, quiet and loving, extremely capable, she was married to big, boisterous, good natured Delbert Barrows. He was eight years her junior and was 22 years old when they married.

Dell drove a steam roller and worked on road construction. For a while they lived in Elizabethtown, a community way up in the northeast corner of New York State. They also lived and worked all around in the Adirondack area. Here they often lived in a tent, heated with a pot bellied stove, until the other workers had time to throw up a shack for their use. A picture shows them sitting in front of the home, Nell with arms folded across her chest, as I remember her sitting so well.

She cooked for “the team” as the men were called and an excellent cook she was. Adept at frying and stewing squirrels and ground hogs as well as all wild game, she could make them taste like chicken with never a strong taste (so they said!). I can vouch for her baking. Her doughnuts were mouth watering. Her cookies, sugar and molasses, were big, fat, toothsome confections with a big seeded sultana (raisin) smack plum in the center of the top.

Dell also worked on road construction in Dansville, NY. We have another snapshot of his house there, taken in 1913--a very simple unpainted box-like square (maybe 12 feet by 12 feet?), one step up from the ground and perched on corner posts. Nell, here, sits on a keg as does Dell, with 14 year old Merle standing between them, arms folded, just as his mother always did! In the back of the house shows a tent, where perhaps the rest of “the team” slept.

Adin Baker’s letters (Nell’s nephew) speak of working as a brakeman on the dirt train there for awhile in 1913, working 280 hours a month, unless the rain held them up, and being paid $2.20 per day. He and a friend boarded with Aunt Nell, so I assume they slept in the tent also. Maybe they all did and just used the house for living and eating.

Their only child, Merle, was born twelve years after my mother. He was a very smart boy, mechanically and electronically inclined and was as opinionated as his father, but in a quieter way, like his mother. He married Viola Jackson, a large, loud and good-hearted woman, but one who was narrow minded and boastful. Now maybe that’s unfair. She was no better educated than Dell and because they both spoke out on any subject, it seemed as though they were narrow minded because they were usually misinformed. However, it may be that they were merely unaware of another viewpoint and it was impossible to get another one across to them. They were not dumb, nor were Merle and Aunt Nell. The latter were just quieter.

Nell and Dell, as well as Merle and Viola, at some point, settled down for what they thought was their lifetime in Manningville, a small cluster of homes down a road which led off Route #79, halfway between Center Lisle and Lisle. This area was known as “the flats” because it lay in a level spot alongside a small creek, Dudley Creek, which fed into the Otselic River near the town of Lisle.

Merle had a garage where he did all kinds of metal work, had a forge and according to Arnon could fix almost any mechanical problem. He also took up well drilling. Merle, during these years, wired his Aunt Kate’s house for electricity (the Baker home on Caldwell Hill road).

Sometime in the late 1920's Nell and Dell, for whatever reason, perhaps “too many cooks in the kitchen’”, bought a small house in Center Lisle behind Lil and Elmer’s store. This was also on the same creek, but on somewhat higher ground. In the summer of 1935, that little creek overflowed its banks in a disastrous flood. Lil’s store had water in it as did Nell’s home. In fact, big old Uncle Dell had to hoist little old Aunt Nell up on his back carrying her “piggy back” up the street to Lil’s house which was on the side of a hill and therefore dry.

Their house, although filled with mud and water which ruined most of their furniture, (there was an 18 inch mark on its walls) stayed put. Dell’s barn and wood shed in the rear of the property were moved completely off their cement base and split into two pieces. Merle and Viola, still in the lowland in Manningville were not so lucky. They got out but lost everything.

I can remember going down there with my parents and wondering where the house, whose wooden sides lay about in confusion, minus the roof, which was long gone down the river, had stood as I watched Merle in his hip waders, pointing a long metal crowbar into the black muck, trying to locate his forge! He did eventually and moved to Pitcher, NY (near Cincinnatus) where he built up a new and successful business. Merle eventually died of lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He and Viola never had any children.

The magnitude of this flood and the number of deaths attributable to it as well as homes lost, convinced the Federal government that something must be done. The Army Corps of Engineers came in and after much consultation, built a dam near Upper Lisle on the river and straightened the course of Dudley Creek. This solved the flooding problem.

Nell and Dell’s house was directly across the road from the back of Lil’s store, or across what had once been a road before they built a new bridge (because of the flood) and moved Rt. #79 to what became the front of the store. So now, the “main street” of Center Lisle (I use the term loosely) was dead ended right there at their house. It was a lovely little old home with a porch across its full front which was glassed in so it was useable at least six months of the year.

Here we spent hours, sitting with Aunt Nell in one of her rocking chairs, basking in her unconditional love. She never made us feel awkward.. We knew she was fervently interested in our every word, or at least we thought so. Behind that porch and across the front of the house was a small living room and a smaller bedroom, both of which opened into a tiny dining room and a larger kitchen. The sink was served with a pump and hot water was heated on the cast iron stove in a big kettle. Nevertheless we had wonderful meals there, chicken and biscuit (the chicken having been roaming the backyard shortly before) and more of her marvelous cookies. She also made a grand parsnip stew. She would take a few slices of salt pork, dice them and fry them up crisp, add onion, sliced parsnips and diced potatoes, a little water to cover and cook until soft. Then drain partially, add a little milk, butter, salt and pepper and voila! It was a dish fit for royalty.

There is a story about Uncle Dell, who was a prodigious eater, and pancakes. It seems that Nell stood at the stove, baking pancake after pancake for some time until Dell, as he pushed back his chair, said, “that’s enough, Nellie, turn off the griddle!” completely oblivious to the fact that she’d not eaten a morsel yet! This was not a deliberate slight, he was a good man and good to Aunt Nell, just thoughtless and had very little patience.

Leona tells of the time that she, sixteen years old, went deer hunting with Uncle Dell and some of his cronies from around town. One of them had an old house on a farm near Speculator (in the Adirondacks up above Northville). His wife came along and did the cooking. Leona soon found out why she was included, as she did most of the deer driving (walking behind the deer to make them go in the direction towards the shooters) but she says it was worth it to hear the tales they told around the stove each night.

Going out of the back door of the kitchen you turned left in a covered walkway to reach the two steps to the ground and the garden. Turning to the right in the same walkway brought you to a woodshed and then the privy, or outhouse. It was a two-holer as I remember and boasted the usual catalog, newspaper or corn cobs. I never liked corn cobs!

In later years they used to drive to Geneva to visit us, usually in the muskmelon season. Dell used to love to eat them. The last time I saw them was in August of 1955. Grandma Baker (Kate Youngs Baker) had died and I went to her funeral. The service was held in the Congregational Church next to Lil’s store and across from where Nell lived. She was too ill herself to attend but Dell did and I remember well his sotto voice (like a huge bell tolling) “whispering” some bit of gossip to the one next to him during the service, too deaf to realize that the minister was praying. Grandma would have been provoked and said, “the old fool” but Nellie would have just smiled; she knew her Dell.

Afterwards I went over to see Aunt Nell, lost as she was in the big bed which took up most of the bed room. She was as quietly glad to see me as she had always been. Tim was due to be born that November, and she was pleased to note that I was again “carrying” as she termed it. Within two months she too had died at 92 and joined her sister-in-law, Kate, (who died at 91) her brother, Byron, and their parents Leonard and Nancy in the cementary on the hill behind Florence Young Leet’s house. Two years later Dell followed her. I like to go and sit in that quiet little spot midst the family buried there.

An added commentary—I found Nell listed as Olive C. Baker in the census notes. Interestingly, I never heard her called such.

Gail Wood Kinney, daughter of Gladys, grand-daughter of Lillian, great-grandneice of Nell, adds this picture taken in 1955 on the joint birthdays of Nell, aged 92, and Gail, aged two. She writes, “I love this picture, I just know something sweet is in the bag.” Gail also keeps many of the hankies that were Aunt Nell’s, and she has been using them for years and “the tradition is going on to another generation, because my granddaughter is a hanky person so we share.”

Picture One: Dansville, NY 1913
Nellie, Dell and Merle Barrows
Picture Two: Northern NY 1915?,
Nell and Dell
Picture Three: Nell 22 in 1885
Picture Four: Nell 27 in 1890
Picture Five: 1955, Nell age 92 and Gail Wood Kinney


Pat Kinsella said...

Happy Birthday to Aunt Nell, Gail, and Daniel!

Great story, Ma! Thank you.

Kathryn said...

Great story! I did not realize that Merle had ALS. He had it and 2 generations later, Gladys had it. I have seem some stuff that say it might be hereditary, this indicates it.

Do you remember Ma singing the Teddy Bear's picnic song to you?
I love you!!

Sue Kinsella said...

Love the picture of Gail and Nell! What wonderful stories. Boy, so many in our family lived tough, tough lives!

Aunt CB said...

Yes, Kathy, I know they say not hereditary but it is certainly familial!!! And now here is Dawn [ Philly's daughter, Lil's grandaughter] with a neurological oddity that thus far has defied easy diagnosis, msut be in the Baker line but so much else is also in that line that makes us proud and what we are!!! CB

Julie (Lochner) Riber said...

What a great story! Wes and I just returned from an RV trip back to NY and Taylor Reunion. On the way we stopped to see Dorothy, then drove on, eventually through Center Lisle. We pulled in to a produce stand there, and when I mentioned to the older lady behind the counter that I had relatives in the area, she asked who they may be. I replied "Howlands," and that started a grand conversation about all the Howlands she knew. I remember going to Merle and Viola's as a kid, and loving them both. Their house was surrounded by trees and we loved to romp and play throughout the woods and fields. Viola was an awesome cook. Dad always deer hunted with Merle in the Fall, but rarely seemed to catch anything. So many memories come flooding back...