Happy birthday, 100 times over

Friends and family trickled in and out of Gertrude Blackwelder's room at Transitional Health Services of Kannapolis earlier this month, bringing cards and wishing her a happy birthday.

She didn't want a big fuss.

"Well, I didn't want to pay it any attention," she said, waving her hand. "I'm not a party person."

Blackwelder of Harrisburg turned 100 years old July 8.

From world wars to the Great Depression and beyond, she has lived through a century's worth of history.

But when asked about life during the Depression, her response was simple and brief.

"We made do with what we had," she said. "We knew what we had, and we didn't expect more."

She isn't much of a talker, said her daughter Nancy Worsley of Wilmington.

But she is a writer. She wrote down her memories, devotionals and thoughts for most of her life.

Blackwelder suffered a stroke in 1996 as she was getting ready for a covered-dish supper at Harrisburg Presbyterian Church. She recovered but has been living in the Kannapolis nursing home since she broke her hip eight years ago.

When her family was preparing to sell Blackwelder's home in Harrisburg, they discovered boxes of her writings.

"She liked to put her thoughts down on paper," said her daughter Doris Poston of Concord. "We knew she liked to write, but not that much."

Worsley saved the notes and assembled them into a book about five years ago. Between recipes for Aunt Lessie's pound cake and ham bone dumplings, are photocopies of Blackwelder's notes written in elegant cursive, as well as photos of the family standing by the ocean at Myrtle Beach and Blackwelder's husband sitting in a lawn chair.

The book contains memories of joy and heartache, from hard times to good times.

"It was life-changing to see all this," said Worsley. "I just wondered when she found the time to write all that."

In the first few pages of the book, Blackwelder begins the story of her childhood, explaining that a relative had asked her to write down memories of her family.

"But where to begin?" she wrote. "If my memory doesn't fail me, I will try to recall family history and events that happened early in my life and try to recapture my thoughts and inner feelings as the scenes unfold. 'Some Things I Remember About Growing Up' should be my title."

Born in 1910, Blackwelder - then Gertrude Johnston - grew up on a farm in the Mallard Creek area of Charlotte. She was the second youngest of 11 siblings and half-siblings.

"Momma says growing up on a farm contributes to her longevity," said Worsley.

"They say farmers have the best core muscles," added Poston. "Like Uncle Fred."

Blackwelder's brother Fred Johnston died one month shy of his 103rd birthday in 2002.

In the book, Blackwelder describes her family's simple - and thrifty - life on the farm. The children had no store-bought toys. Instead, they played with tops made by whittling down empty thread spools and balls made from yarn from worn-out stockings.

She recalled how her mother - a great seamstress, she said - made their clothes by looking at pictures in catalogs and sketching out her own patterns on old newspapers.

Her mother always made Blackwelder two new gingham dresses at the beginning of each school year. Blackwelder said she'd wear the blue checkered one for a week and then the pink checkered dress the next. A new dress was needed when parents were invited to school to hear students recite lessons they had learned.

"A white dress was required for this important occasion, so mother boiled the letters out of flour sacks and then made a white dress," wrote Blackwelder.

The church

Church was also an important part of her life, she said as she sat in her nursing home room.

She was active at Harrisburg Presbyterian Church, where she gave the Sunday school devotional for at least 15 years. In 1984, she received a lifetime achievement award from a church women's group.

"I always liked the church," she said.

She recalled how her father encouraged her to study the Bible and the catechism as a child.

"He'd tell me to quit playing and go in the house and study the catechism," she said.

When she was 10 years old, she recited the catechism, she said proudly, asking Worsley to dig through an armoire in her room to find a copy of the New Testament, her reward for the successful recitation.

Worsley dug in a drawer and produced a small, tattered book. Inside, Blackwelder's name was signed with the date: 1921.

The Great Depression

She graduated from high school in 1927 and married Everett Blackwelder in 1931 - only two years after the Great Depression began. They soon moved to Harrisburg and began a family.

"We felt rich, as we were young, healthy and had each other," wrote Blackwelder in 1977 in handwritten pages included in the book.

Luckily, she wrote, they owned a $640 Chevrolet that had been paid for before hard times hit.

"We did struggle through some rough financial periods later on when people lost their jobs and regular work was hard to find," she wrote, recalling how some people did hard work for 75 cents a day.

She wrote that the family stretched their groceries as far as they could during the Depression. Fresh meat at grocery stores was rare aside from the live chickens placed in a coop outside the store. Her family ate dried beans and peas as a substitute for meat.

"We felt like we had something extra when eggs were scrambled with a 5-cent can of potted meat," she wrote. "Salmon and cheese were rated extra 'high on the hog' and usually were reserved for company."

A new home

After the Depression ended, the Blackwelders saved money to buy a house. Blackwelder helped earn money for the family by inspecting washcloths at Cannon Mills for almost 20 years. They were eventually able to buy a brick home on the corner of N.C. 49 and Roberta Road, where a drugstore now sits.

The book includes a photocopy of a 1951 newspaper article that details the new house.

"Everett Richard and Gertrude Johnston Blackwelder will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary next Friday, June 15, in their attractive new brick home opposite Harrisburg School," the article reads.

The article points out every detail of the house from the living room's "soft sage green" color to the "ruffled white organdy curtains" and even an electric waffle iron in the kitchen.

The book contains fond memories from the lives of the Blackwelders, who had three children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. But it also contains memories of grief and pain.

There's a copy of her mother's 1939 obituary, and another page has photographs of two of her grandchildren, Greg Poston and Julie Blackwelder, who both died in the 1980s. She described the loss of her grandchildren as her family's greatest tragedy.

In a handwritten note on her stationary below the photos she wrote: "Suffering has no meaning unless we can believe that God understands our pain and can heal it. In the suffering of Jesus we have that assurance."

There's also a letter to her husband that she wrote when he was ill in 1997.

"We were married during the Depression and times were hard, but through faith and hard work, we did survive," she wrote. "Everett, you know I love and miss you. Get better soon."

They had been married 67 years when he died in 1998.

Blackwelder has a few aches and pains and is recovering from a recent illness. She doesn't write much now, but she has some advice that she hasn't written down just yet.

"Trust in the lord," she said. "And whatever you do, wonder if Jesus would approve."