'Toots' Beeler did not mind doing without

August 30, 2007|By DENNIS SHAW

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

Life couldn't have been easy for Edith Mills Beeler, growing up as one of 18 children in a poor family in Williamsport. But don't tell her that.

"When I was poor, I thought everyone was poor," she says. "Sure, we wore hand-me-downs. Our neighbor would hand us old clothes over the fence. And at Christmas we'd get candy and oranges. I didn't know you were supposed to get toys. You didn't go into other people's houses.

"But no kids shunned us, calling us 'those Mills kids'," she says. "I liked those days; I really did."

Edith, or "Toots" as she's known, was one-eighteenth of a family of six girls and 12 boys. Their father was Victor Mills, of Pectonville, Md., whose first wife bore him four children before dying in childbirth. His second wife was Della Wolfe of Wolfsville, who bore him 18 children, including Toots, the first girl, born in 1925.


Mills worked on a section gang on the railroad, but with that many mouths to feed, "every penny went for food," Toots says. "Many a time, if it hadn't been for the good people of Williamsport, we would have starved."

She says the family never lived where they had to pay rent. For many years, their home was a house on Fenton Avenue, or "Tannery Row," a street one-block long across from the Williamsport Tannery.

"We also called it Wildcat Row," she says. "We had some dandy names. Everybody in Williamsport had a nickname."

At another time the family lived in what had been both an ice house and a jail at various times.

"We never had electricity in any of the homes we lived in," she says. "Mother never had a washing machine, and just a cook stove and a kerosene stove in the summer. And my Dad never had a car; I didn't know what a car was like."

When Toots was 6, she went to live nearby with her mother's sister Renza and her husband, Ed Rockwell, but she visited her family every day. On one visit her mother gave her a "doll baby."

"It used to belong to a ragman; he came through the neighborhood and bought rags and old clothes," she says.

"My mother coaxed and coaxed and he finally gave it to her. He didn't want to, but he did. I had it up in a spare room on the bed."

I didn't touch it; I never played with it. Later, when I was old enough to be married, my mother told me it was mine. I didn't have any more toys other than that, but it didn't bother me."

What did bother Toots was the break-up of her family in 1949, when her mother, at 48, was killed by a tree that her father was cutting down in their yard off Nursery Road.

"I was just married," she says. "The welfare folks wanted to take away the kids. They said it wasn't safe for girls to be living there around all those boys. Daddy called and asked each of us married ones to take a kid."

Toots and her husband took in her 13-year-old brother, Jim. "But he wanted to go back to Dad," she remembers. "So he did, and they took him and put him in a foster home."

Six years later, her father was killed while walking on the Williamsport Pike at age 66.

Toots eventually moved to Hagerstown, where she lived with her husband, Glenn "Hez" Beeler, until his death 22 years ago. Her one child, Lloyd, drowned at age 26 at Four Locks in 1982, but she is left with one granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.

She spends a lot of time these days playing Santa Claus, dressing up at Christmastime to entertain children and "old folks."

Seven of Toots' siblings are still living. The youngest, Joe, is 62. "They were all good kids," Toots says.

Toots' memories of her childhood are good ones. "Everyone says I had a rough life, but I don't think it was rough. We weren't mistreated. Back then they loved you ... you were it ... but they never held you.

"This today is just too fast for me. I would like to go back. I had nothing, but I liked it. I thought everybody had nothing."

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