Saturday, April 19, 2014

Helen, Part II: Growing Up

Bethany School, Jackson Township, Elkhart County, Indiana
Above: 1936; Below: 2013

The birth of a baby girl is a big event in any family, but welcoming Helen Marie Timmons into the world in late winter 1917 did not stop fields from being tilled and crops from being planted that spring. Her father, William Timmons, had turned forty years old the month before his daughter's birth, and as a tenant farmer he had to keep working to provide for his family and this new mouth to feed.

But just as the family grew with Helen's birth, it immediately started to shrink as the elder sons started leaving the nest. Eldest son, Ross, married shortly after his baby sister celebrated her first birthday. The twenty-year-old groom and his seventeen-year-old bride, Edith Stout, took up residence in the small community of Milford just southeast of his parental home, where he worked as an automobile mechanic. The next son, Merle, left home and married when Helen was seven years old. He and his young wife moved into the city of Elkhart, Indiana, where he began factory work at the Curtain Supply Company making railway supplies. The boys had enough of farming. They had no desire to follow in the Timmons family tradition.

Helen was only a toddler when her father moved the family barely two miles northwest. He rented part of the Jim Peters farm on the northeast corner of present-day County Road 17 and U.S. Highway 6, still in Jackson Township, Elkhart County, Indiana. Although they began their tenancy here in "the brick house" they would move a quarter-mile east to "the white house" on the Peters farm in 1925.

It is hard to say if mother Addie (Nowels) Timmons fancied her only daughter in bows and ribbons and frilly dresses, or as a practical farm wife, abandoned such notions and let Helen grow up barefoot in the dirt and wrestling with her older brother. But regardless of Addie's expectations, it was plainly obvious from an early age that little Helen was not a demure, quiet, delicate flower. Ever inquisitive, and seldom one to ask questions before jumping into something new and different, she was given the name "Fire Eater" by Dr. John E. Potter of Milford, Indiana, after eating her father's heart pills and drinking a bottle of iodine by the age of five years old. She delighted in showing off the scar on her head caused by attempting to sled under a barbed-wire fence.

It was the white house on the Peters farm that provided Helen with cherished childhood memories. Her father grew sorghum for syrup production and cucumbers for a pickle factory in Milford. She played amongst the team of Clydesdale horses of which her father was so proud, and groomed the Palomino horse whose stud service brought in occasional income. She helped tend to the Jersey cattle that supplied the family with milk. Even though brother Harold was almost seven years her senior, he was her playmate and companion in a way her two other elder brothers could never be. They could skate together on the creek in the pasture when it froze during the winter and cool off in the swimming hole during the summer. Whenever they could persuade their parents that they should have a hearty fish dinner, they could take off for the small pond down the road and spend the day fishing, all the while joking and laughing and enjoying the hot summer sun.

But the most memorable part of the home farm was the trapeze in the barn. Harold and Helen could hone their acrobatic skills while there was plenty of hay around them to protect them from their falls, but as the season progressed, and the hay was utilized, nothing was left behind to keep them from the possibility of plummeting to a bone-cracking show stopper. As Helen stated later, "we used to scare Mom and Dad terribly!"

Despite the fun and games on the farm and the rough-and-tumble tomboy childhood, the one thing that Helen delighted in with rapt attention was school. Although she missed her entire first year of school owing to one of childhood's many medical rites of passage - whooping cough - she was able to start school in 1923 at Bethany School barely three miles east of her house. The brick building was brand new, having been completed in 1920, as a result of the numerous tiny country one-room school houses having been abandoned for a more consolidated school system begun in 1913. This squat, formidable, two-level brick structure would serve Helen's educational needs until her eighth-grade graduation in 1931. The school itself would continue as a grade school serving rural Jackson Township until it closed in 1968. The building, mostly unchanged from its original state, currently serves as an apartment building.

New Paris High School, New Paris, Indiana, 1936

In the fall of 1931, Helen Timmons began her high school classes at the New Paris High School. Unlike her eldest brothers, Ross and Merle, who had quit school to marry, work, and start a family, Harold Timmons had graduated from New Paris High School in 1930, the year before his sister would walk through the halls. They both benefitted from the brand new structure, the school having opened its doors to students at Christmastime, 1927. 

The New Paris, Indiana, educational system had come a long way in a very short time. A three-year high school program was established in 1890 with only a single instructor who also served as the school principal. The first graduating class of three students did not occur until 1900. By 1905, the three-year program had grown to accommodate 109 pupils and four teachers. The four-year curriculum was put into place in 1912, and by the time Helen Timmons left high school, the school bustled with nearly 400 students daily taught by a staff of fifteen teachers. Subjects taught included Latin, Chemistry, Social Science, Physical Education, Mathematics, Commercial, Home Economics, Vocational Agriculture, Biology, Music, Art, and Band. The "hot lunch program" begun in 1929 was a novel one for the state, with the home economics department offering soup, sandwiches, milk, or cocoa for five cents apiece.

The year after Helen started high school, her father moved the family to a new farm just over three miles north on present-day County Road 19 between County Roads 46 and 50, still in Jackson Township. This land was also owned by Jim Peters and continued the renter-tenant relationship established a decade before between the two men, but now on a different tract of land. At fifteen, Helen may have reached an age where reckless barnyard trapeze acts were behind her, but she was still young and inquisitive enough to poke around the old log cabin that stood in the back yard. But even better for her is that this new move put her closer to the town of New Paris and her beloved new school.

Helen had her share of setbacks in her teens. In 1933, while her father was working and her mother was at the neighbors, Helen began experiencing tremendous abdominal pains while home alone. Unlike the homes along the major highways, the farm houses on County Road 19 were set back nearly 800 feet from the road well into their surrounding farm fields. By the time Helen realized she needed to find her mother for help she was brought to her knees by the pains in her belly. She ventured down the long dirt drive in search for her mother or anyone who might help her, much of it crawling on her hands and knees and stopping to catch her breath and regain the strength to go further. She eventually made it up the neighbor's equally long drive before being spotted and taken to Goshen Hospital where she underwent surgery for a ruptured appendix. In an age before antibiotics, this was a certain death sentence, but the perseverance that drove Helen to seek help served her to leave the hospital after over a month's stay. This wouldn't be the last painful hurdle for her to overcome.

She returned to New Paris High School where she was a cheerleader for two years, in the Glee Club for four years, and excelled in four years of home economics courses. She worked in the office of the principal, Professor Ezra M. Hoover, for three years, and she supplied all the drawing and art work for the school newspaper. She delighted in her four years at New Paris High School, and in her words, "I loved every day of [it]." She graduated in 1935 in a class of thirty-one students.

Like many rural farm girls in the middle of the Depression, Helen had no grand plans for college or aspirations for a career other than that of a wife and mother. She loved her school and the opportunities it afforded her to explore the world through knowledge and to dabble in the arts. But she fancied a boy in her graduating class, and she thought they would be perfect together.

But Addie Timmons had different plans for her daughter, and a schoolgirl crush was not going to distract her from her path.

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