By Susan M. Thigpen © 1983
Issue: May, 1983
Mrs. Ella Hughes Boyd was born in 1897 in a sod house in Naper, Nebraska. Her parents had moved there in 1880 from Iowa in a covered wagon. She remembers that sod house of her childhood and can tell you today how to construct one. “The plains in Nebraska were covered with Buffalo grass. It has a thick root system and they would plow long strips side by side, the width for building blocks and then just cut between those strips for squares and lift them out. These were stacked to make the house, roof and all. Lots of times the grass would still grow on the outside of the house and it would be green. Inside the house we would white wash the walls. It was a warm house.”
On those prairies, the worst thing to fear was fires. With the big open prairies, there was nothing to stop them. “My earliest memory is of seeing a fire in the distance. My father started plowing around our house to make a fire break. We were lucky, the wind carried it the other way and it didn’t get us.”
Mrs. Ella is a modest woman but the accomplishments of her life are remarkable and an inspiration. She finished high school and packed up bag and baggage and went to Nevada, Iowa in 1918 to go to work in a hospital and study nursing. She later moved to South Dakota where she met her future husband, James Henry Boyd. He was from Patrick County, Virginia but came to be there by the urging of relatives living in South Dakota, to come seek his fortune, as they were.
They were married and the babies started coming. Soon they had one child and another one on the way. “Folks just didn’t go to the doctor like they do now. I had a doctor with my first child but when it came time for the second one, I sent my husband for a neighbor lady to help. It was a terrible rainstorm and they didn’t get back in time, so I delivered the baby all by myself. I’ve had ten children and I had a doctor with the first one and the last one. I had some of them with the help of neighbor women or midwifes but I delivered some myself. I just did what had to be done.”
When the Great Depression hit, they moved back to Patrick County where James Boyd’s family still lived and where they could make a living off the land for their family (which now included five children.)
Mrs. Alice Boyd was Mrs. Ella’s mother-in-law and she was a midwife. Miss Ella became a licensed midwife too. “A Grannie Woman, we were called,” she said. She kept a record of every baby she delivered in a 1934 Dental Snuff notebook which she has to this day. There are over fifty people in this area today born between the 1930’s and the 1950’s who were brought into the world by Mrs. Ella. Remember, she was doing all this while raising her own children. Sometimes, she would have to carry her own baby along while helping a mother deliver. Once when she did this, she carried her baby John and the woman delivered a baby girl. Years later when these two babies grew up, they married and John can boast that he was there when his wife was born.
Mrs. Ella came from a large family herself and took having so many children in stride. “Someone once asked me if I had a baby for every year. I answered, no, every other year!” (Her ten children were born over a twenty year span.)
I ask her what was the hardest thing about raising children and she said, “Making them mind.” I asked her what was the easiest thing and she said, “Loving them.” When I asked what the best advice on raising children would be, she replied, “Parents should help their kids as much as they can but they should teach them how to help themselves.” While I was asking for advice, I asked for some on behalf of expectant mothers as well. I asked what, in her opinion, could an expectant mother do to make childbearing easier. She said, “Don’t be afraid. Relax all you can. Fear just makes you tense and slows you down.”
In discussing being a midwife, I asked about her fees. “The most I ever got paid was $5.00 and the least was a thank you, but it didn’t matter.” A grin broke across her face as she remembered one time in winter when a neighbor, Sam Handy came to get her because it was his wife’s “time.” “We had to walk back to his house and there was a creek to cross and he didn’t want me to get wet for fear I’d get sick and carried me across that creek on his back. I told him he couldn’t do it, but he did. He weighed about a hundred and twenty-five pounds and I weighed a hundred and eighty!”
We discussed everything under the sun and had a most enjoyable afternoon. Her childhood memories include such things as seeing herds of wild buffaloes on the plains of Nebraska. The apples we take for granted in this area because they are so plentiful were a special treat to her. In the mid-west of her childhood, apples were 50 cents a bushel and that was just too expensive to buy. Her parents grew a lot of pumpkins and she told of her mother’s pumpkin pies. “I have tried and tried to make them but I never have been able to get them to taste like she did. She would bake six of them at a time.” She also told of other uses for the pumpkins, such as pumpkin butter (made like apple butter) and chopping up the extra pumpkins to feed the hogs and cows. “There were a lot of wild plum trees and sometimes, when they were ripe the whole family would spend an entire day picking them and we would make plum butter out of them.”
“We dried all kinds of fruit and corn and whatever we had. When a meal was put before us, we didn’t complain. We were expected to eat what we had. My father said, ‘Your Ma don’t cook nothing that ain’t good.’ Sometimes we would make molasses candy and pull it. Boy that was good.”
We talked of neighbors and she made the comment that neighbors used to be closer before television. “They used to get out and visit but now they just stay at home and watch TV.” The best example of a good neighbor, without a moments hesitation from her, is Mrs. Edgar Belcher because, “Mrs. Belcher is the most caring persons I know. Her devotion to the care of her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Spence, was the most considerate and unselfish thing a person could do. There couldn’t be a better neighbor.”
We sat in her living room and went through hundreds of old photographs that spanned a century of time. There were pictures of her brothers in World War I uniforms along side of photos of five of her own sons in uniforms of World War II. All five survived and she considers herself lucky they did. There were pictures of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors and friends. As each picture was picked up and described, it became evident that Mrs. Ella is a woman who derives much pride and joy from her family. They are spread all over this country and a few foreign ones. She flies across the country to be with them today with the same ease she must have once rode in a horse drawn wagon.
I have a feeling that there haven’t been many challenges life has thrown at Mrs. Ella that she hasn’t met head on and few that have gotten the better of her. If you could ever describe anyone as having “gumption,” it would be Mrs. Ella.
She has ten children, 42 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren. Happy Mother’s Day Mrs. Ella Boyd. This day was set aside for women like you.