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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

At 98 years old ... She's too young at heart to get old

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ruth enjoys her son Glen's motorcycle but says she likes bowling better.
Ruth Smithee is an Ozarks' hill girl who ended up spending much of her life working hard in the flatlands of Arkansas.

Ruth was born Dec. 8, 1909, in the Boswell mountain community of Optimus, Ark., to Joe and Edith Ward. She was the oldest of five children and today at age 98, is the only surviving sibling.

The White River runs through the valley at the foot of Boswell mountain in Stone County where Ruth and her family lived. Life was tough in this remote community and the family worked hard growing corn, soybeans, cotton and watermelons. They raised their own food and raised animals to butcher. "We raised everything that could be raised on a farm," Ruth said.

The White River itself was another source of income for the family. "In the winter my dad made ties for the railroad and in the summer my dad and I dug mussels out of the White River. They make buttons out of them, you know. Dad would take them (the mussels) down river a little ways in a boat (to sell them). Then he'd come back and we'd do it again. It was hard work. You'd stand in that water all day."

Ruth Smithee enjoys bowling with the Wii game especially when she "throws" a good ball. Photo by Erma Harris.
Ruth's dad also worked delivering the mail but one winter he went to work on the railroad and had Ruth take over the job for him -- a substitute rural mail carrier. "I carried a pouch and rode a mule to deliver the mail," she said. "I had to go across the river to get the mail. I had to take a little boat and paddle across and back. Sometimes the wind would be up, and the river would have those white caps. It was cold. There would be ice in the boat and my paddle would be froze up and I'd have to dig it out. I didn't have no gloves either. That was back in the '20s and you didn't have everything you wanted."

"We didn't really know we were poor, because we never had much and nobody else did either," she said. "My mother would save eggs all week and we'd take them across the river and trade them for sugar, flour and coffee. The store was there with the post office. Everything else came because we grew it, raised it or made it. We'd take our corn down to a grist mill to get it ground into corn mill. We'd all go out and pick cotton and the last bale we picked that year would go to buy us all a pair of shoes."

Once a year, the family went to Calico Rock to buy shoes and other needed supplies. Ruth said it was a rough trip in a wagon and took all day to get there.

"We got one pair of shoes a year. If they tore up my daddy would fix them. He had one of those iron lathe things and he'd put the shoes on there and put new tacks in or a new sole on. I had one dress to last all winter. I'd wear it everyday and wash it at night so I could wear it the next day to school," she said. "People today don't know what we went through, they just don't know. It was hard to get a bar of soap to get our laundry done. I had to miss a lot of school on account of working in the fields but I went through the ninth grade."

Everything wasn't work, Ruth said, they'd have fun too, with square dances and riding horses. "We'd ride horses most Sunday afternoons. We went up on the mountain and sometimes we'd run races in an old field. Mine jumped a ditch one time, that was exciting but I didn't fall off. My old mule threw me one time, in a bunch of rocks -- it broke my nose. I've still got a scar across my forehead and it busted my arm."

"We didn't have no refrigerator, but we fixed a place in the cold spring to put the milk, butter and eggs. That cold water was coming off that mountain."

Ruth married Ellis Smithee on Dec. 7, 1929, at the age of 19. Ruth and her husband had nine children, seven of which are still living. After Ellis and Ruth were married, they lived on a mountain where Ellis worked as a fire watcher. "He'd get up and watch for fires at night," Ruth said.

Jobs were hard to come by in the 1930s especially in the hill country where Ruth grew up. Ruth and Ellis had to move away and lived in several different places, eventually moving to Monette, Ark., near Jonesboro, where the family lived for 20 years.

"We grew cotton there," she said.

Ruth's son, Glen Smithee of Hardy, said the whole family worked in the fields together.

"They'd start picking real early," Glen said. "If the kids were too small to help pick cotton, they'd sit them on the sack and pull them along the rows with them as they picked. Mom would work the fields in the morning, then stop and go to the house to cook lunch for everyone. Then she'd clean things up and be ready to go back to the fields for another five hours or more."

It was back-breaking work and "I didn't like it," Ruth said, "but you had to take it. We had to pick cotton to make a living. We'd try to save enough to get us through the winter.

"I remember one time we picked a whole bale of cotton in one day -- me and Ellis and the kids," she said. "We chopped the cotton and then we'd pick it. That cold shower felt good (at the end of the day). But it wasn't no shower, it was an old tub -- you weren't clean when you got out."

Ruth said she's done every kind of work there is but the one job she hated the most was strawberry picking. "You had to get down on your knees to pick them," she said. "Talk about being sore."

Ruth's husband died in 1976 and she moved to Jonesboro where she traded a job in the fields for a job in other people's houses as a house cleaner. "After we left the farm I cleaned houses," she said. "That was worse. They'd leave all the dirty stuff for you to do. That's hard work."

After her son Glen retired, Ruth moved to Hardy. "I didn't like the flatlands," she said. "I like the hills."

Ruth lived with her son until a year ago when she moved into her new home at Eaglecrest Nursing and Rehabilitation.

"I'd like to go home with him," she says, "but this is the best place you can find to stay. You couldn't find a better place to stay than this one right here, but there ain't no place like home. Never will be."

Glen and his sister, Barbara Muller, stop by to see their mother everyday, which is one of the reasons Ruth continues to have such a joy for life.

Glen has a motorcycle which his mother also enjoys. A picture of her sitting on it is displayed proudly above a chair in her room. "Yeah, I love it," she said. "I like to bowl, too. I was champion around here once."

Ruth is a champion of virtual bowling with the Wii gaming system Eaglecrest has. "I like my bowling better (than the motorcycle)," Ruth laughed.

"I showed them (the residents) how to use it and it's been a big hit," Glen said. "It's got a lot of games but mom loves the bowling. They even had a tournament which she won. Another lady here is pretty good at the golf."

Ruth Smithee is a remarkable lady who has lived through some hard times and a lot of hard work during her 98 years, but she still has an easy smile, a ready laugh and an adventurous spirit.

Ruth said she's seen a lot of changes in the world during her lifetime. "Changes all the time," she said. When asked what she doesn't like about the way the world is today, she quickly answers, "Too fast. Too busy to visit. I'd hate to see things go back to the way they were in the '20s, kids just wouldn't survive."

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