Once Upon A Time – The Life Of Betty (Potter) Willson #2


The following is a transcription of over a hundred handwritten pages of my mother’s remembrances journaled in a notebook over a span of years after reaching the age of  88.  The words and sentence structure for the most part remain as originally written vividly projecting her personality, the flavor of the landscape and her view of the times.


I was 9 years and 2 months old when the Stock Market crashed in 1929.  There were runs on banks so they called in all their notes, loans, mortgages and by 1932 the people were losing their homes, farms business and cars,  people loss millions.  Farm income dropped to nothing and because far foreclosures and eviction they had to call out the national guard in Iowa.  Since I went to the Saturday Matinees they would show us the Fox News of people in soup lines, the dust storms in the mid-west and just how bad it was in the cities. In 1932 Roosevelt became President with his New Deal.  For the first time my father voted democrat and voted against Herbert Hoover his third cousin. We had a big Majestic Radio and I stayed up very late with my Dad taking down the election returns. ..


The spring before the crash mother’s cousin Clarence Hudson came to visit with his bride and a brand new Cord convertible.  They were on a six months tour of the USA and the Mediterranean and Paris.   He was very wealthy, played the stock market, his mother my great Aunt Annie was married to a Pinny, Iron, Steel and Copper heir.  They had a huge home across Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford home in Hollywood.  When the stock market crashed they loss everything, the Pinny Company folded and Aunt Annie’s husband committed suicide.  Clarence’s wife divorced him and he moved to a small house in Pasadena and went to work for Republic Pictures. When my Aunt Annie died at the age of 99 she left over 30 saving accounts all in different banks.  She didn’t trust the banks.


Yreka being a small county seat town didn’t feel the real bad effect of the depression.  Few business closed, some people lost home and a lot of people lost their saving when the banks failed. I think the depression brought the community together, neighbors helped each other out.  They shared with those in need.  We had free dances almost every Saturday night, Lodges paying for the music.  The Townsend Plan held dances every Friday night.  Bet you never heard of it before, prior to social security, it was a plan to give every adult over 60 years of age $200 a month and it had to be spent on food, clothing, furniture or a car before the next check could be issued.  Almost everyone had a garden, a few fruit trees and canned enough to see them through the winter.  Most people just accepted less pay for their work.


From the time I was 10 to 17 our home was sort of a rescue mission, us having a five bedroom house.  One of the upstairs bedrooms was very large and had three double beds in it.  After my sister Alice married in 1932 there were just five people living the house,  my father, mother, cousin Harry and Ann Zornes going to high school.  Almost every night every extra bed was filled.  Sometime with my sister’s family but most often with strangers and even those with children.  Any homeless that ended up in Yreka with no money or place to sleep, the cops would sometime call my dad.  My father always welcomed them into our home.  My mother had one rule (which meant we had to keep the kitchen stove going no matter how hot it was for the water pipes were heated in its fire box)  everyone had to have a bath before they could sleep in one of her beds.  I never set down to dinner or breakfast that there wasn’t at least 10 to 12 people at the table.  My father always made sure our passing through guest had enough gas to get them to Oregon.  With all those strangers in our home I can truly say we never heard a swear word or ever lost or anything stolen.


My Dad being a contractor was doing okay busy building the town of Chiloquin Oregon and in the early thirties moving buildings, building  bridges for new highways in Siskiyou County.   In 1931 when they widen and changed the route of highway 99 from Redding to the Oregon line he had the contracts for all the bridges and culverts until 1934.  while building the bridges down the Shasta Canyon a chip of cement put out his right eye and it to be removed, his left eye became infected and he lost most of his sight and after that his eye sight prevented him from undertaking government contracts.  He still built house’s and several building in or around Yreka. We had money, only maybe we were what you called property poor.  He built a garage for the Dodge dealer, moved six houses to be across from the hospital and added another house to the three in back of our big house and moved the Old Catholic parsonage to a lot on Butte St.  turning it into an apartment house.  I never lacked for food, clothing or spending money but still the depression era was brought home to me every day.  My brother Sam and sister Alice’s husband Charlie began building the (CCC) Civilian Conservation Camps.  Brother Pete was still at home working for Dad.  Dad staking Barney and Sister Della to three ranches at different times but the income from the milk was small and they couldn’t make it pay.

  In 1934 my Dad’s cousin Harry Hayes came to live with us.  His wife Molly after a long stay in the hospital died of cancer.  Harry stayed and did the driving as Dad no longer drove, that year was bad for us.  Besides a chip of cement putting out and the removal of his right eye and he losing most of his sight in the left, my mother had to have a kidney removed.  I graduated from the eighth grade and started high school.  Believe it or not I was very shy my first two years of high school.  I got very good grades, then I started dating.  Our ancient history teacher Miss Gould was moving, she invited me to visit her in Pasadena.  Mother and I went to Aunt Annie’s in southern California and while I was there Miss Gould took me to the famous Brown Derby where all the movie stars went.  I had a big time, the waiter stood right beside us with a napkin over one arm, I felt special but didn’t even know what fork to use.  I saw Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery and later Cousin Clarence took me on a tour of a movie studio, but don’t remember which one.


When Anne Zorn’s came to live with us to go to high school, mother having displaced a kneecap needing help with all the house work so Dad gave Ann Twenty dollars to help out.  She ended up giving most of it and her school $12. 50 travel allowance money that the schools paid for boarding  because the bus didn’t go to the house’s down the Klamath River,  to her parents so they and her younger sibling wouldn’t go hungry.  Her brother Alvie would also sometimes stay with us.  If my dad found someone or a family who had no place to stay he would bring them home.  When my sister Della had second son Johnny she only went to the hospital for delivery then came home to us.  More responsibility,  mother was in bed with her knee injury so Ann and I had to care for a new born baby plus Della and mother.  The summer I was 14 I went to visit Emily and John Dunham, Emily was on stage with my aunts, she was a concert pianist.  Their son Everett was a year older than I.  We picked wild gooseberries, but never again. Everett was killed the year he graduated from high school, broke his neck driving in the Klamath river.


I was allowed to date at fifteen and I dated James Avery and Jack Linville and Ann went with a guy named Kenneth from Weed who later was the first causality in World War II from Siskiyou County.  We worked real hard until mother could get around and when school started we still stripped the guest beds, also doing the dishes before going to school and at noon we did them before returning to school, but at least there wasn’t so many at noon as Dad didn’t bring the Homers home for lunch.  After school we brought in and folded sheets, helped with supper and did the dishes.  After supper we cleaned the house top to bottom and on Saturday we were able to date or whatever.  I didn’t like the local boys for all they wanted to do was make out.


My brother Pete Got married in 1936 to a nurse, Virginia Ann Lamach, Dad giving him the six houses across from the hospital.  I was sixteen, Ann and I stated dating the CCC boys.  We were jail bait to them so outside of heavy necking we were safe, they being two or three years older than us.   I started going with a CCC boy named James Lebeff, he was Russian and French, his father was the Russian Orthodox Minister in San Francisco.  He had such perfect manners, mother finally had to tell him to stay seated when she came into the room.  He gave me a mahjong set made of ivory, always brought flowers or candy for mother.  Mother made me give back the mahjong set, she said it was too expensive.


Dad would let me use the old 1929 Model A Ford.  I drove it to the CCC Granges dances every Saturday night.  The tires were bald and Harry often bailed us out when we had too many flats but we never missed a Saturday night dance. Bye the way I had dancing lessons given by an ex burlesque queen. I learned to tap, hula and black bottom plus grinds and bumps.  Never less I loved to dance and from the time I was twelve I went with mother and dad to Townsend Dances where they did square dance, schottisches and polka’s.  We would go to the Hippodrome in Weed when the big bands stopped there.  Friday night we’d go roller skating or to watch the boxing matches between the different CCC camps.


  Back when I was 14 my Dad let me have piano lessons in exchange for the teachers rent.  The small house in back of the big house was always rented, first to a friend of my brother Sam’s,  the Knapp’s.  They couldn’t pay the rent for three months and when they got a job at Chico they left the piano for back rent,  I got it.  I was 14 and my Dad let me have piano lessons in exchange for the teachers rent.  Next to move in was Lee and Kay Blizzer.  Kay was an Edwards of San Francisco and married a young mining engineer.  She had servants to do all for her.  So when she came to Yreka she couldn’t cook, build a fire, wash, iron or make a bed, so I taught her and she taught me how to walk like a lady, set a table correctly, table manners, to appreciate classical music and opera.  Her husband salted a mine and sold it.  They left in a hurry for the Philippines, where they bought a sugar plantation.  We carried on our correspondence for several years until she died in 1939.  During WWII  the rest of the family were interned in a Jap prison camp.  The daughters kept their father alive by bringing him food.  They were allowed outside.  The Youngest of their two girls lost her arm during the return of the Americans.  After the Blizzers left, Kitty and Jack Gore moved in the little house. They had two daughters.  Jack worked out of town quite a bit, Kitty was an alcoholic,  I did a lot of babysitting for them, their youngest, Barbara, was almost totally blind from birth.  Year’s later in 41 Jack was killed working on a dredger on the Klamath.  Kitty died of Alcoholism, her sister took the girls.


In the fall of 1936 I meant Rebec, (Anton Rybicki) he was so handsome every young girls dream man and I was the lucky one.  We went to the 49er’s day celebration held in Yreka.  The carnival was held on Dad’s lot next to the Apartment house and they provided all the free ride tickets we wanted, we had a ball.  A boy by the name of Tony from San Francisco and I entered the waltz contest.  We took second place and won a 5 lb box of candy which we shared it with everyone.  I remember one of the first times Rebec and I went to the movies, it snowed about five inches while were in the theatre. I had open toe shoes so Rebec carried me the 6 blocks home.  I think we kissed under every street light.  Mother was waiting when we got home.  She had received a phone call from Mrs. Harmon, Mrs. Young and Mrs. Atkinson all seeing me carried and  all wanting to know if I was hurt.  Small town,  everyone wanting to know everything.



In November, Rebec and I became engaged with the understanding that I would finish high school.  We were a couple until September of 1937 when I meant his parents and his mother informed me all Sundays would be spent with his family.  They only spoke polish at home, so Goodbye Rebec, I sent his ring back.  (When I was 80 years old he started calling me about every three months and sent me pictures of him and his wife.  He said you never forget your first love, I agree.) I started dating Shorty and Shaf, Bernard Frock and Al Linville.  I graduated from high school June 1938, 23rd out of a class of 76.  I continued to date Al in May, June and July,  we mostly just drove around but sometimes would go to Della’s and Barney where Barney played the violin and Al his guitar.  Barney was great with the violin.


I didn’t smoke but I did drink when with Shorty and Shaf, they called me ‘gin baby’, I could drink them both under the table.  On Friday nights we, along with Azealia Burns would go to the Pastime in Weed to dance.  This was a road house just north of Weed on highway 99.  You had to buy a drink to dance.  I often drove them home in shorty’s 1925 Dodge.  Once I drove to Della’s in Quartz Valley, we stayed overnight sleeping on the floor.  One time we went to McCloud to a dance and when we started back the car couldn’t pull the grade, so we put it in reverse and backed over.  The only time I got drunk was on my 18th birthday when Pete bought me a bottle of wine.  We drank it and then went to the Pastime where I drank gin.  I was sick and heaved all the way home.



I wanted to go to college but dad wouldn’t go for it.  I think he needed me at home.  He was going blind, he even stopped bringing strangers home.  I would read the Sacramento Bee to him every night.  Alvie Zornes was living with us working at the Palace, Ann was at our home for the summer rather than stay with the Cloys being engaged to Muggy. In July Bernard Frock and I went to the Oregon Caves and Gold Beach where we stayed with Dad’s cousins.  The next day we went to Roseburg and stayed with some of his friends, then to my Great Aunt Alice‘s in Medford.  Great Aunt Alice told our fortunes, telling me I would marry someone from a big city and never go back to Yreka to live excerpt for short visits.  She took aside and told me Bernard would die in just a few years, ( he died in 1941).  Bye the way, there was no hokey pokey with Bernard.  He was a perfect gentleman the whole trip.  My mother and Mildred Frock really hoped that he and I would marry.


Every time I wanted to get a real job my dad would say that I would be taking a job someone else needed to feed a family.  I started working by taking care of a little boy and house cleaning.  His mother was the county librarian, I don’t think she ever did any house work.  Her husband didn’t work just hunted and fished.  Life was becoming routine then fate intervened…….Bob




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