Earlier this year when I worked for the local newspaper, I interviewed three 99-year-olds who were still living in their homes in Marion County. I spoke with them about their memories of growing up in this rural, Tennessee county back when people were superstitious of cars and when the train was the fastest way to get around. They remembered the horrors of World War II, of loosing their brothers, fathers, and friends. They remembered July 4th parades, segregated schools, and seeing store-bought bread for the first time. They remembered infections before penicillin, riding mules to the mill to grind corn, and spending a dime to watch a movie in the theater. Mrs. Bertha Gonce was the first person I interviewed in this series. She died last Friday, December 19, less than three months from her 100th birthday. Here is our interview:
March 5, 2014:
Bertha Gonce begins her 100th year of life today. I visited her in her home in South Pittsburg earlier this week to listen to her talk about her 99 years, 80 of which were in South Pittsburg. Here are some of the memories she shared:
On growing up: I was born in Anderson, Tennessee. My daddy came over here [South Pittsburg] to be a police officer when I was 16. I went to one year of high school in Sherwood. I had three brothers. When my daddy came over here, he had rooms over what then was Walton Furniture Company (the present day music store). I had a room there. I went to three years of high school here in South Pittsburg, and lived with my daddy. My mother came over every weekend. My daddy never drove a car. My mother did. I spent the summers at Anderson at my home place. [Interviewer's note: Anderson, Tennessee is approximately 26 miles from South Pittsburg..]
On attending South Pittsburg High School: I remember a little restaurant that was there. We didn't have meals furnished [by the school] then. This little restaurant made hamburgers, across the street. He and his wife furnished the food. I ate lunch there most every day. For a while, I wore dresses to school my mother made, but later, I decided I wanted some store bought clothes.
On the Princess Theater: My daddy went every evening after he'd get off from work and eat supper. He had a certain place in the theater that he sat and I'd go with him a lot. And I just paid a dime to go. That was what everyone a certain age paid. I've gone many, many times.
On marriage: I married Marion Gonce in 1934. We moved here to this house [in South Pittsburg] in November of 1934. So we've lived here a long while. My husband's been dead six years. He was two years older than me. We had a good, happy life together. When Marion died, I lost my driver...my best friend, my boyfriend. I had to get used to all of that.
On farming: Marion bought a farm out on Battle Creek with Mr. Lodge, and then later we bought Mr. Lodge's share. After Mr. Lodge got older, his wife was in charge [of the property] and we bought this farm from her. I kept books for Marion. We had hogs and cattle, a lot of cattle. And we had two or three horses, some mules. He farmed just about everything -- corn and soybeans and made hay. I loved to ride a horse. Marion never stopped farming.
On running cows through town: On Sundays there was less traffic, and three or four of the boys and my husband would ride the cattle through town [South Pittsburg] and out to Dixie Lee and take the left at Battle Creek to the farm up there and pasture them during the summer time. And then, in the fall they'd come back and bring the cattle back down here [through town]. Town was very quiet back then, so there was not much going on. The Dietzens ran their cattle from [near] 4th street down to the river. They had a place they would pasture their cattle down by the river. In the evening they'd take them up and milk them and deliver the milk. We bought quarts of milk and have it for breakfast. (They left it on her doorstep.)
On her father's (Alex Russell) death in 1936: He was on the corner directly across from Stevarino's. Papa was standing over there with some of the men and he heard this noise coming through town. He stepped out to see what it was and the car hit him and killed him instantly. They had been to the jail visiting someone. [It was] always thought that they were drinking. They came through and just kept going, they went across the Alabama line and the officers that were after them couldn't go on in to Alabama. That was 1936. Barbara was almost a year old when that happened.
On aging: To be 99, I've done just what I've wanted to do. I read a lot. In the summertime, I enjoy picking the vegetables. I'm proud of my memory because as long as I can have a good mind, know where I am every morning when I wake up, I am happy. I've always been happy.
This text and photo originally appeared in the South Pittsburg Hustler on March 5, 2014.