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A centenarian looks back

Sunday, January 6, 2013

(Photo)
Purchase this photo at dailystatesman.com NOREEN HYSLOP -nhyslop@dailystatesman.com Ruth Sifford looks into the eyes of her 102-year-old mother, Ola Sifford. Ruth Sifford is her mother's caregiver in their Bernie home.
By NOREEN HYSLOP

Managing Editor

William Taft was president of the U.S. on Sept. 8, 1910 -- the day Ola Gidcumb Sifford was born to James and Lydia (Mason) Gidcumb in rural Stoddard County. George V became King of the United Kingdom that year upon the death of his father, Edward VII, and on April 15 , 1910, Taft threw out the first baseball by a U.S. president to start a major league game.

One-hundred-two years later, Ola still resides in Stoddard County, where she has spent her entire life. The spunky centenarian shares a home in Bernie with her only daughter, Ruth. It's a home she seldom leaves these days, primarily because her eyesight has diminished dramatically over the past few years.

"I'm still able to help fold the laundry and I can help set the table," she says, "but I can't read or do any handiwork."

Ola has graphic memories of the early 1900s in Stoddard County. Among them is a vivid recollection of the day World War I came to an end.

It was Nov. 11, 1918. Ola was eight years old and attending school in a one-room schoolhouse at Clines Island on the Castor River. The Gidcumbs lived only a short distance from the school.

"We were all in school when we heard a rap on the door," she recalls, looking far into the distance. "It was just before noon. The teacher went out onto the porch of the school and talked for a minute, and when she came back, she said, 'Children, put your books away. There won't be any school this afternoon. The war has ended. That's what she said."

Timber was the significant industry along the river, and there was a mill close by. There was celebration all along the river's edge that night, Ola recalls.

"They tied that old whistle down at the mill and it blew way into the night. I remember my older sister and I looked out the window and saw men and boys on the river banks between the bridge and our house. They were raking up leaves and getting limbs off the trees and burning them in piles, all the while singing and dancing around the fires. They were so happy. That went on the biggest part of the night."

A year after the war ended, Ola and her family moved to a farm on the edge of Bernie. There the family was self sufficient, raising corn and cotton and an ample vegetable garden. Ola was one of four girls in the family -- she was the second born, and remembers working on that land.

"Oh my, we picked a lot of cotton. I believe we could earn about a dollar for picking 100 pounds, and sometimes I could pick that in a day."

Her earnings were spent on school clothes for the coming winter months, as was customary for any farm family of the time.

There were no luxuries in the Gidcumb home -- no electricity until the late 1950s, no indoor plumbing and no running water. With no sons, the Gidcumb girls helped with all the farm chores.

When Ola completed her elementary schooling in another one-room schoolhouse near Bernie, her career as a student was over.

"Back then," she explains, "you were expected to stay home and help on the farm. There was cotton to chop and there were berries to pick. There was never a thought to going on to a high school. We were too poor."

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Ola and her family were never aware of its impact.

"In 1930, we had a crop fail. That was a bad year, but it didn't have anything to do with the Depression," she says. "We had a really wet spring and then it turned off dry and scorched the cotton. There wasn't much good food to eat that year."

Ola married John Sifford when she was 24. Along with their daughter, Ruth, they had a son, James. Their marriage was a happy one, and she worked alongside her husband, farming again, tending to a garden, quilting and sewing.

Tragedy struck, though, in 1950. Ruth was just 14 and her brother 11 when their father died suddenly. Ola was left to take care of the home and land and to raise her children. Over the next several years she did more than what was expected of any single woman in the 1950s to maintain her household and provide for her family.

"Back then there was a lingerie factory at Malden," she recalls, "and I used to go buy scraps of materials and I'd sew lingerie and sell it."

The resourceful woman, then in her 40s, sold her goods from Bloomfield to the Arkansas border for a profit. Some of her items even went to children overseas, she says.

Reflecting on that era, Ola Sifford sees nothing extraordinary about her efforts to protect and support her family on her own.

"You just do what you have to do," she says sadly, remembering her loss. "It didn't seem like much to me."

In her 102 years, Ola has seen a few changes. She knew only dirt roads and hard work, a closeknit community and Sunday rides to church in a mule-pulled wagon. She couldn't have imagined that a pound of coffee would ever have cost more than 20 cents or that the family car would ever travel along four and six-lane superhighways.

She was raised among sentiments that have, for most, gone by the wayside. Family meals always involved everyone at the table where stories of the day's activities were exchanged. School days often involved a two-mile walk. Sundays were for church and family dinners and it was a day of rest. There was no "trading" in town on the Sabbath. And a woman widowed with a family to raise simply took care of her own and did whatever she could to bring a smile to their faces.

"That's just how it was," she says. "That's just how it was."


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Very Nice story!

-- Posted by nannyof5 on Sun, Jan 6, 2013, at 10:24 AM

A woman to be respected and admired. How many people today could or would do what she did? Too easy for people to expect a hand out, and someone else to make a living for them Hats off to you Mrs. Sifford

Respectfully

Doris Biggs

-- Posted by doris on Sun, Jan 6, 2013, at 2:49 PM

What a wonderful story, with lessons for us all.

-- Posted by JABankenPhD on Sun, Jan 6, 2013, at 8:19 PM

Thank you for reminding us that we must do what we HAVE to do in order to provide for our loved ones. Why do I have the feeling that Mrs. Sifford would not have spent her valuable time begging the government for a check? I agree with Doris--Hats off to Mrs. Sifford. (And to her daughter--I admire what you are doing with your mother! Too many of us would have placed her in a nursing home. Thanks)

-- Posted by TNMom2 on Sun, Jan 6, 2013, at 10:41 PM


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