One dress, five sisters

August 05, 1998

five sistersBy TERI JOHNSON / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer [enlarge]

When the five former Helman sisters see rack after rack of new back-to-school clothes, they remember the days when having just one ready-made dress was a big deal.

The garment, given to them by a friend, was the only store-bought dress the family ever owned.

In a ritual that spanned 15 years, each daughter put on the dress for her first-grade photograph.

The dress, featuring a brown and black checked top and a blue and black plaid bottom, is the common thread that has bound the sisters together.

Elsie Duncan wore the long-sleeved dress for her picture in 1951, and Judy Bennett donned it last in 1966.

In between, Anna Swailes wore it in 1953, followed by Rhetta Martin in 1958 and Ardella Brechbill in 1964. The girls also wore the dress to Sunday school.


"To us, it was pretty fancy," says Swailes, 50, of Willow Hill, Pa.

The sisters gathered at Martin's home in Greencastle, Pa., to reminisce about the dress recently when Duncan, of Knoxville, Tenn., was home for a visit.

The dress was very special, says Duncan, 52.

The sisters' clothing was made from cotton feed bags. It took two bags for a dress, Duncan says.

"When our mom made something, it was very plain," Duncan says.

Five sisters poemThe girls lived on a dairy farm between Chambersburg, Pa., and New Franklin, Pa., with their parents, Floyd and Ruth Helman, and their brothers Charles, John and Robert.

Swailes says she and her sisters were excited to have their school pictures taken.

"We had gone all summer without shoes, and it was a real big thing," Swailes says.

Bennett, 38, of Chambersburg remembers going to the shoe box in their home to find a pair that fit.

All the girls had long hair for their pictures, says Martin, 45.

"We were only allowed to wear it in braids," Martin says.

The dress fell into disrepair, and the sisters aren't sure what happened to it.

But the memories remain, and they prompted Swailes to write a poem called "The Tale of Five Sisters" in February 1997. She collected their first-grade pictures to accompany it.

"I thought it would be nice to get those pictures together before something happened to them," Swailes says.

The sisters all are married and have 15 children among them. Swailes has four grandchildren, and Brechbill has two.

They say the story of the dress amazes their children.

"They don't believe it's really true," Bennett says.

The dress signifies a way of life for the Helmans, who made the most of what they had.

All the girls learned to sew, and everyone had chores to do, including gathering wood for the cookstove, milking cows and working in the garden. The house had no indoor plumbing.

Duncan jokes that they had running water.

"We ran out to get it, and we ran back with it," she says.

All five sisters were athletic, says Duncan, who picked cherries to earn money for her high school ring.

Bennett says they weren't allowed to be lazy.

"We weren't afraid of hard work; that's something our parents taught us," Bennett says.

They made the most of their free time.

"We had to entertain ourselves, and we used our imagination," says Brechbill, 40, of Pleasant Hall, Pa.

There also were some tough lessons, such as coping with the taunts of other students who made fun of their hand-me-downs.

"We were picked on because we didn't have much," Brechbill says.

Swailes says she remembers crying on the playground because no one would play with her.

The sisters say those incidents only brought them closer.

"We stuck together," Duncan says.

They learned that many things in life, like a sense of satisfaction in a job well done, are more important than money.

"I feel like as long as I'm doing something worthwhile, I'm happy," Swailes says.

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