A new year is always a good time to look back on the past. When I was young, my father told me to listen to the older people and I might learn something. That advice coupled with a suggestion by a teacher resulted in me interviewing my first person. She was Martha Davidson and she was a hundred years old in 1951 when I met with her.
I had just entered my teens so the session was more like a visit than an interview, but it was the beginning of a hobby that would last a life time.
By 1951, Martha was fondly referred to as “Grandma Davidson” by residents of the community. Her mind was still as sharp as the proverbial tack as she reminisced about coming to Vermilion County when she was a young girl. She was born in Ohio and the trip to Illinois was made in a covered wagon. The frontier had moved west but Vermilion County was still thinly settled when she arrived.
She recalled there was still land waiting to be broke when she was a girl and there were many swampy areas that defied the plow. She also remembered that early roads were often impassible because of mud and water. She observed people were dedicated to pulling together to improve them. I was interested in the wildlife that existed when she was young and she remembered prairie chickens were very numerous. She noted the native birds were easy to obtain and were a staple for many families. She married a Civil War veteran and lived out her life in Vermilion County.
Martha Davidson’s daughter, Nellie, was born in 1886 and she married Mont Fox in 1908. He was a young banker-farmer who raised sheep and successfully steered the bank he ran through the challenges of the Great Depression. He kept it solvent during the 1930s when many neighboring financial institutions failed. He told me he spent two trying days in Chicago obtaining credit for his bank when things were falling apart during the Depression. When he returned home on the train he recalled he hadn’t shaved in days and was exhausted, but he had secured adequate credit for the bank to survive.
During his long career as a banker he delivered valuable financial guidance to generations of young people as they began their journey through adult life.
Mont recalled he never forgot a story his mother-in-law told him when he was a young. She said there was once a banker who had a glass eye. He tried several different ones but no matter how many he tried, people were always able to tell which one was glass. It was always the one with a little warmth in it. She warned Mont not to be like the banker with the glass eye. Evidently, Grandma Davidson also had a sense of humor.
There were less than 24 million people in the United States when Martha Davidson was born in 1851 and more than 150 million when she died in 1953. She witnessed the nation mature to become a world power during her life. She saw the first automobiles travel the improving highways and the first airplanes pierce the heavens. Electricity, the telephone, and other modern marvels made their debut during her long life. Her daughter Nellie would also live more than a century. The two women were living repositories of the history they had witnessed for well over a century.
That first interview in 1951 has been followed with countless others in the past seventy years. It has been an enjoyable journey and I deeply appreciate all the individuals who have shared their life experiences and memories.