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Living Poor But Happy

Oh, no. Unexpected company and the only thing to cook is squirrel meat! Merle and I moved to Days Creek, Oregon in 1951. He and his brother, Wilbur, owned a little Gippo mill there. It was going down hill due to Wilbur’s spending too much money and owing debts. Merle was the hardest workingman I ever knew, but he wasn’t getting his brother to pay him any money to speak of, so we were very poor.

The little house on a hill that he rented for us was comfortable though and we were in love. Georgene was just fourteen months old when we moved out there. I soon became pregnant with our daughter, Karen Lee. We had no Television then, no phone and we had wood stoves. Our first Christmas was very poor. Merle hiked up the hill behind us and cut a small Christmas tree.

I decorated it by stringing popcorn and cranberries. We couldn’t afford to buy gifts that year. My Aunt Bedah sent Georgene a doll. I never forgot that. Our love for each other was the presents we really cared about back then.

Finding food was scarce so Merle and I went up into the hills hunting nearly every night. He would kill whatever he could, sometimes a squirrel, a quail, rabbit or a deer and once he brought home a coon. I was asleep when he came home with this coon who had lost one foot in a trap. A Rancher friend had a coon dog and had taken Merle with him. Anyway, we both agreed that it was a lovely animal. Then Merle skinned it and he hollered for me to go look at it, which I did. That skinned coon looked like a Hugh skinned rat. We both looked at each other with great trepidation and a feeling of nausea. Nevertheless, he put it in the freezer part of the refrigerator where it remained for sometime. We finally came to a mutual agreement that we weren’t hungry enough to eat it, so we threw it out.

I was a country cook. I knew how to fry up squirrel, make good milk gravy, homemade noodles, bake bread and mashed potatoes. I made good pies also. One late afternoon we heard a car drive up to our house. It was my Aunt Bye and her wealthy boyfriend. They lived in the State of Washington, so this was a really big surprise. I was happy as a lark to see my Aunt, but I was nervous about having to cook fried squirrel to feed them. We’d had it a lot so I thought it was terrible to serve them such food. It turned out to be a good dinner though. I mashed potatoes, made good gravy, a salad of sorts and bread. I was apologizing for the squirrel though. Aunt Bye’s friend said, “Do you realize what it would cost me if I went to a nice Restaurant and ordered squirrel meat?” I never forgot that. Ha

Merle planted a garden that spring of 1952 and it was the neatest one I’d ever seen. About the time we began to make use of the garden the owners told us we had to move. They had sold the place. We were so sad about that but had no choice in the matter.

We moved into a shack on the hill above old highway 99 in Canyonville. It had two rooms and several old windows. I found some red plastic in a store, which I made into curtains to cover the windows for privacy. One night we drove down to the store and left a light on in our shack. When we drove down the hill and looked up we saw all our windows glaring back at us in bright red. In the old days red in windows meant that it was a place of prostitution. Merle and I laughed like crazy about that.

Merle’s brother, Wilbur, left the State. The little mill they owned closed down. Merle moved us to Roseburg where he looked for work. We moved into a cabin camp that had originally been a motel. Most of these cabins consisted of just two rooms. Money was tight. One time we found some bacon pieces to season the beans I cooked. We rejoiced over that. Merle then took us to Salem where we moved into his parents’ house. He left me with his mentally retarded sister while he looked for work. I was extremely unhappy there and so was Merle. We went back to Roseburg and rented one of those cabins again. Merle found a job in a local Mill. He hated leaving the woods for a Mill job but he knew he had to take care of his family.

Every time a better cabin opened up we would move there. Merle came home everyday for lunch. Karen Lee was born there. It was hot weather and we had no fans much less air conditioning. We moved into two more cabins after Karen was born. We then found a rental house on Cecil Street near the Airport. My mother and Doty moved to California. The shack they left was free for us to live in for $10.00 a month. The people who owned it lived in Portland, Oregon. They didn’t even take the $10.00. They were happy to have someone living there taking care of the place.

This shack of a house had three rooms and a tiny bathroom off the kitchen. Blackberry bushes surrounded this place and later on nearly covered the house. The floors had old linoleum and I kept them polished and clean. We had two wood stoves, one for cooking and canning and the other for heat. I knew how to find wood full of pitch for kindling and I knew how to chop wood, but Merle did it all for me. We had two old couches in the living room. My cousin, LaVonne, and Merle’s brother, lived with us for a while. They each had a couch to sleep on.

I was pregnant with son Steve then. Washing clothes was a Hugh chore for me. The kitchen sink had two faucets, one for cold water and one for hot. I had a wringer washing machine but no tubs for rinsing. By using a hose I would fill the washer, wash baby clothes first, followed by sheets, etc. I used a bucket to empty the machine by dumping the water in the back yard of the shack. I would fill the machine again to rinse all the clothes. This was a good nine- hour job. My being pregnant made it even more difficult. We had no clotheslines. The neighbor, who lived a ways behind us, let me use her lines to hang all the clothes I’d washed. There were many cloth diapers. Paper ones were not yet invented. It was the year 1954. Gina was four and Karen was two years old. Steve was born in November.

My dad came to town with some money in his pocket. He read or heard about some tract homes being built in the Newton Creek area of Roseburg. He offered to give us the money for a down payment on one of these houses being built. Merle was against Dad loaning us the money at first. He was a proud man but he put aside his pride because he cared more for his family and our well being. Dad and I chose the house plan. For a little extra money down we could have a fireplace, plus a washer and dryer. Merle and dad opted for the fireplace and I got the washer and dryer. The day finally arrived when we moved into our new home. We had watched it being built from the stick to the end. We had very little old furniture, but we didn’t care. This was like heaven! The washing machine had a window in front. I would stand in front of it and watch it toss the clothes. It was a miracle to me. I could hardly wait for the clothes to dry so I could fold them. Merle eventually paid my dad the money he had loaned us. My dad also came to live with us about four months out of each year.

By: Peggy Ann