Ellen Darr has always tried to live a simple life — for nine-plus decades. That simplicity is what makes her life story so extraordinary.
You could hear the wind blowing, the cows mooing, the horses whinnying. Toilets were outdoors. Clothes were ordered from catalogs. Women carried hundreds of pails of water to cook meals and wash clothes.
Running water? Electricity?
They weren’t part of Ellen Darr’s world. And now her great-great-grandchildren can read all about it.
Darr, a 93-year-old great-great-grandmother who lives in Andover, has self-published her memoir, titled simply “Memories of a Lifetime.” Her life really is one for the books.
Only 165 copies of the coffee-table-sized soft-cover books were printed. But even without digitally transferring the memoir so it can be read on a Kindle or Nook or online, there was never a question of finding a captive audience for Darr’s stories of escaping tornadoes, nearly succumbing to the fumes of a gas-powered washing machine and surviving a devastating hailstorm that destroyed the family crops and ravaged the farm. Ellen and Clelland Darr, who have been married 75 years, have 18 grandchildren, 47 great-grandchildren and 14 great-great-grandchildren. The book is her gift to them.
They may not appreciate Ellen’s writings for years, but that’s fine. It took her years — nine decades’ worth — to come up with this kind of material. Ellen and Clelland’s wedding rings may have cost $6 and $7, respectively, but their stories are priceless.
There is a section of the book called “Recollections” in which she talks about traveling in wagons and buggies, hearing a depot agent tap out a telegram, hollering and hooting when actors kissed during silent movies, double-dip ice cream cones for a nickel and holding hands with her sweetie while walking around town. She writes about razor straps, struggling with a button hook machine, black cotton stockings held up by elastic garters, dirt cellars, windmills and wells, big sugar bowls and bowl haircuts.
Through the generations
Ellen’s memories of growing up in rural Iowa come across like flying through generations in a time machine.
Her teenage courtship in northeastern Iowa took place during the Great Depression. She and Clelland, 94, managed without electricity until 1939 and didn’t have running water until 1950. Ellen became a painter later in life and says each of her children has her portraits of outhouses hanging in their bathrooms.
“I think about how we used to wash clothes,” she said last week. “We had a wooden tub and a stand and you had to make the tub go round yourself and attach the wringer.
“When we got married, we got a washing machine with a gas motor. We hooked it up so the exhaust would go out the door. One day, the wind changed and I was gassed, but I didn’t realize I was breathing the fumes. Clelland’s mother saved me, dragging me away.
“You never can realize how hard it was to bring underwear indoors that had frozen on the clothesline. One arm would go one way, a leg another way. You always hung them out to freeze and then you’d have to hang them inside for two or three days before they’d thaw and you could wear them.”
Life was never easy for a girl who had yet to turn 15 when her mother died. Her mom left her few recipes, so Ellen learned to cook by taking a pinch of this, a pinch of that. She’d put her hand in the oven to see if it felt like the right temperature for cooking pies. Ovens didn’t come with thermostats in those days.
A loaf for the ages
“I was kneading dough for bread and I had one batch that did not rise,” she said as Clelland, sitting next to her in their apartment, listened closely to a story he’s doubtless heard thousands of times.
“When my dad came in, he said, ‘Bake it. I’ll eat it anyway’ ” Ellen recalled.
Well, he didn’t.
“Give it to the chickens,” her father told her.
They wouldn’t touch it, either.
Her father suggested she feed the loaf to the hogs.
“I went and got a pitchfork and buried that bread because the hogs weren’t going to insult me, too,” Ellen recalled.
Their first car, in 1939, was a Ford, a used one that Clelland’s father later wrecked.
Her favorite car was a Durant. In one of the book’s many black and white photos, Clelland leans proudly against a fender of what is described as his “fun” car.
“The gearshift would go out,” Ellen told a small audience in her living room that included daughter Virginia Ritchey. “We’d all jump out of the car, remove the floorboard, fix the gearshift, put the floorboard back and drive away.”
Nicest piece of furniture
She’d kept her memories in handwritten notebooks for decades. Last Christmas, she decided she wanted to publish her stories of a lifetime. Staff and students at Bethel College helped transcribe and bind her memories.
“It’s hard for me to accept all the tweet and twittering,” she said. “You can’t sit down and really visit anymore because everyone is checking their cellphones while you’re talking to them.”
Her great-great-grandchildren should listen to her stories about burning cornstalks to keep warm when the family ran out of wood. Or the tiny black-and-white TV that, on good days, got three fuzzy channels. Or the first piece of new furniture she and Clelland ever bought, a refrigerator, in 1952.
“The hardware man kept saying to me that if he ever got them in, he’d sell me the first one,” she recalled. “One day, Homer called and said he’d deliver the refrigerator tomorrow. Well, we had this tiny little kitchen and Clelland asked, ‘Where we gonna put that?’
“We put it in the living room. It was the nicest piece of furniture we ever had.”
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419