Bessie Watkins of Lake Village celebrated her 94th birthday on Mother’s Day. Here she holds Ruby Watkins, one of her 18 great-grandchildren. Bessie also has five great-great-grandchildren. Ruby, 11 weeks, is the daughter of Dude and Crystal Watkins of Williamsport. | Photo provided
Updated: June 27, 2013 6:21AM
“You are beautiful and faded,
Like an old opera tune
Played upon a harpsichord... .”
— Amy Lowell
Bessie Watkins lives east of Lake Village and was born the year the Chicago White Stockings threw the World Series — 1919. She turned 94 on Mother’s Day.
She is a widow who was married to Harold Watkins. As is often the case with nonagenarians, Mrs. Watkins has buried two of the four children she and Harold raised.
Mrs. Watkins was sporting quite a shiner because she walked into a door the other day. Her eyesight might not be what it once was, but she’s sharp as a tack upstairs.
Mrs. Watkins is one of many sweet ladies I remember as a kid growing up in “The Village.” That list of gems would include my grandmothers, but I’m biased, of course. Most of those women have passed. I wanted to interview Bessie while still possible.
Have you lived in Lake Village all your life?
“No, Harold and I moved here in 1952,” she said. “We farmed across the road. They tore down our original house.”
Where did you come from?
“Chalmers; it’s near Brooskton on ‘Old 43.’ I graduated from Monon High School at the age of 16. I believe children from that area go to North White High School now. Harold was from Wolcott.”
Did you go to college?
“No, I didn’t have the opportunity. My grandmother had 16 children. Aunt Millie used to say: ‘I’m the 14th child of a large family.’”
Tell me more about your school days.
“All eight grades were in the same building. When I started, I was the only one in the first grade. When I got to the second grade, I was still the only one. So, the teacher bumped me up to the third grade with the boys. That’s why I graduated at 16; I only went for 11 years.”
Did you have a favorite subject?
“Spelling. The teacher would give me kernels of corn to practice my numbers. Now, they have computers. Although I went to Monon High School, my elementary school was in Nauvoo, which is north of Monon. There was a cemetery right behind the schoolhouse. We lived about two houses south of the schoolhouse in Nauvoo.”
How many kids were in your graduating class?
“There were 28 of us; as freshmen, there were 50 of us.”
I was just a kid, but I remember when your youngest drowned near Conrad.
“Roger. He could swim like a fish; I don’t know what happened. Cramps, maybe. I think your Uncle Richie was in the same class as Roger in school. All my children graduated from Morocco High School.
“I remember when I was working as a waitress at (Ind.) 10 and (U.S.) 41 for Mrs. Shields.”
I remember that restaurant! What was the name of it?
“The Village Inn. Anyway, your dad, Jimmy, came into the restaurant and said, ‘Well, Ma’s gonna sign Richie’s death certificate today.’ I said: ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘She’s going to let him get a driver’s license.’”
Uncle Rich did drive some fast cars; that blue ‘69 ‘vette was the bomb.
“I also worked as a waitress at the Echo in Schneider. From there, I worked at Baker & Taylor in Momence, Ill. for 18 years.”
They produced and sold books wholesale there.
“Still do. I remember when a bunch of the women from Baker & Taylor were killed in plane wreck back in the ‘70s. They were on their way to a book convention of some kind in California.”
Did you work on an assembly line at Baker & Taylor?
“No, I was customer relations. Their first orders were in August of ‘62; I started there in March of ‘63. Baker & Taylor is still going strong.”
Tell me about Lake Village in the early ‘50s.
“When we moved here, ‘Old 10’ was a dirt road, then they graveled it, then they paved it. There were three grocery stores. Mabel DeVelde had a restaurant. The Greyhound (bus) used to stop near Mabel’s place.”
Your husband raised coon hounds.
“Yes, they were treeing Walker coon hounds. Our operation was called Doggone Kennels. One summer, we sold 100 puppies. They were mostly black with a little brown.”
Black and tans?
“No, that’s a different breed. It seemed like Doggone Kennels was just an open-house on weekends. Our customers included a dentist from Ohio, a veterinarian from New York and three ministers from southern Indiana. We had a lot of colored people from up north who bought puppies.”
Those folks probably had southern roots.
“The Walkers were all UKC-registered. I’d go coon hunting with Harold some nights. But mostly he’d hunt with Sandy Oxley, Bob Rainford and Rich Herron.”
Mrs. Watkins, I had my wedding reception at the Coon Hunters Club.
“Yes, west of Lake Village near your Grandpa Vito’s place. We won several large trophies; one was for Best Female of the Breed. They used to have a big coon dog thing in New Castle every September.”
How much did the dogs go for?
“We used to get as much as $250 per puppy more than 30 years ago. The adult dogs went for much more.”
Memories of the Great Depression?
“I remember when the hucksters would drive through the country in old trucks selling groceries and such. You’d get a loaf of bread that was divided; it would have a crease down the two sides. They’d lay a pencil in the crease. You’d get a loaf of bread and a pencil for 10 cents. I used to buy a quarter’s worth of sugar.
“The hucksters would buy eggs and cream from me.”
Your father must’ve farmed with horses.
“Yes, he did. I see these big corn planters nowadays and I think to myself, ‘Dad used to have two horses hooked up to a two-row planter.’ Harold farmed with horses, too.”
Let’s switch gears. Great-grandchildren?
“I have 18 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.”
Life since becoming a widow?
“I like the slots.”
“Slot machines. I’ve been to Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City... I was in that rich guy’s casino... What’s his name?”
“Yes. We went into his place and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know if I want to give him any of my money.’”
“And I won $200! Jeff, I’ve been all over this country in Don and Edmere Falk’s motor-home: Niagara Falls, Silver Dollar City, Old Faithful, White Sands, N.M... Don spent some of his time in the service in White Sands. I just got a birthday card from Edmere; Don’s in a wheelchair now.
“By the way, I really liked the article you wrote about your grandmother; it was just wonderful.”
Thanks, Mrs. Watkins. Thanks for talking to me. I found it very interesting and I learned a lot.
“Was it really interesting? I said to Marsha (her daughter-in-law), ‘I don’t know what I’m going to tell Jeff.’”
Salt of the earth, Bessie Watkins.