In my life

Woman, 97, recounts youngers days in Berkeley Springs

Woman, 97, recounts youngers days in Berkeley Springs

August 21, 2007|By GLORIA DAHLHAMER

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of profiles of area residents who share the stories of their lives and experiences.

Higher up the cherry tree
Sweeter grow the cherries;
Sooner young men court the girls,
Sooner they will marry.
Choose the one you love best,
Choose the one with money.
Choose the one you love best;
Kiss him and call him honey.

"Kiss 'em and call 'em honey," says Vallie Dennis with a wicked grin. "That's how I got my husband."

By the way, that's V-a-l-l-i-e. "I ain't no valley between two hills."

The feisty 97-year-old sings that little ditty about cherry trees and courting as she reminisces about growing up on a small farm near Berkeley Springs, W.Va., before coming to Hagerstown as the bride of the late Roy L. Dennis.

One of 11 children born to Will and Maggie Kesecker, she says she grew up learning how to work.

"Mother put us to work as soon as we were big enough," she says, "and as the older ones left home there was more work for us younger ones. In a house with no modern conveniences, there was always plenty to do."


One of her jobs, she says, was fetching water from a spring to the house. "It was a right far piece to carry," she says, "and every night it was my job to fill up the water barrels."

On Mondays it was a bigger job, she adds, because water had to be carried to the house, set to boiling and emptied into washtubs for the weekly laundry. "The washing had to be done by dinnertime, so we started early in the morning. And we did it with lye soap on a washboard."

Another of her jobs was fetching groceries from the town market. She did it on horseback.

"Mother always gave me a list of what she needed," Dennis says, "and I'd hitch up the horse and go to the store. I'd put the groceries in saddlebags on the back of the horse and fetch 'em home."

She says she preferred horses to cows on the family farm, "although I sometimes rode a cow. I'd give her an apple and then she'd go."

When she was very young, she much preferred animals to automobiles.

"I had my first car ride when I was 5. I was scared to death when I saw those wheels going 'round," she says. "And I was terrified the car couldn't cross a stream without the aid of horses."

"I hated to pull weeds and get my hands dirty," she recalls of garden duty. "Thankfully, mother didn't like me to do farm work. Said it made me a tomboy."

Instead of farm chores, she learned to sew and cook, to can produce from the farm and make jelly, to quilt, crochet and embroider.

"Mother made all our clothes," she remembers fondly. "Other kids envied our dresses, but back then we wanted store-bought."

"She was strict," Dennis says of her mother. "We had to say our prayers before we went to bed, and we went to Sunday school and church as soon as we were big enough to walk. In the summertime, we went barefoot."

She walked to a two-room school "through all kinds of weather," and when she was upset with her mother, she'd "sneak off" to her father's blacksmith shop. "He'd say, 'Does your mother know you're here,' and I'd lie and say 'yes'," she chuckles.

Sitting in an easy chair in the lounge at Broadmore Assisted Living in Hagerstown, where she now resides, she pulls a harmonica from her pocket and plays "Amazing Grace," followed by a lively mountain jig.

She taught herself to play the mouth organ. "Oh," she shrugs, "I'd just sit outside and play and listen to my ears." She also plays piano by ear, and, according to Broadmore's activity director, "knows every hymn ever written."

She recalls picking huckleberries for her favorite pie, making pets out of her father's prized hunting dogs, rolling her hair up in rag curlers.

One time, she says with a mischievous grin, her mother ran out of sugar right in the middle of making jelly and sent teenaged Vallie and her beau off to the store. "That old car of his had five flats and we were late getting home. Mother didn't believe us. She thought we were out foolin' around."

Work continued after Dennis married. She says times were tough, and although her husband had a railroading job, she went to work in an orchard grading apples to make ends meet. Later, she was busy raising nine children of her own.

Her daughter Dee says, "Mom was queen when it came to apple pie. Almost every Saturday there were two or three pies on the counter for weekend company. In the summer she tended her garden and her flowers. In the winter the quilt racks came out. We all have one of her quilts."

Dennis smiles. "Work didn't hurt me, did it?"

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