Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A Widow's Way

Bessie (Riffle) Skinner McPherson
by David Parmer

A Can a’ E Taters an’ a’ Can a’ Couch
The barefoot boy, head barely sticking over the counter of Charley Knight’s Store, trying desperately to repeat what his mother Bessie had told him to get from the store, stammered: “A can a’ ‘E Taters’ an’ a can a’ ‘Couch.’” Kindly Charley Knight looked down at young Lester Skinner and said, “I think we have sweet potatoes and kraut.” Charley put the order in a paper bag, handed it to Lester, and the young boy scampered out the door on his way home, proud that he remembered his mother’s instructions. The professional ‘hangers-on’ who loafed at Charley Knight’s store had another little story to tell when they got home that evening from a hard day observing the sights and sounds of the little railroad town of Orlando. Little anecdotal remembrances such as these bring the olden days of Orlando alive.

Right, above, Lester's mom, Bessie (Riffle) Skinner McPhersonItalic

The Aftermath of a Tragedy
The late Mildred Skinner Kotrys, the daughter of Bessie Riffle Skinner McPherson, told her daughter Vicky in their Buffalo, New York home, “We didn’t have it easy,” speaking of the years following the death of Bessie’s husband, Homer Skinner, who was tragically killed in the Delta railroad tunnel at Copen in February 1923. In the days before Social Security and other social welfare programs provided a safety net for young widows such as Bessie, times were indeed tough when the breadwinner of a family met an untimely and early death, leaving a widow and young children to make do on little or nothing. Before Homer Skinner, 39 year old son of Perry and (Emma J. Posey) Skinner, was lowered into his Orlando grave, his young widow Bessie was wondering where the food would come from to feed her young children. Even though Orlando seemed to be on the surface a thriving railroad town, poverty was commonplace and lay heavily beneath the veneer. This was life in Orlando during the 1920’s and 1930’s and the reality facing the widow Bessie (Riffle) Skinner, the daughter of Stewart L. and Abigail (Blake) Riffle, as she left the Orlando Cemetery on a cold and dreary Friday, February 23, 1923.
Left, above: Homer Skinner as a young man
Left below: 2 pictures of Mildred (Skinner) Kotrys with her mom Bessie (Riffle) Skinner McPherson

Right: Bessie's parents Stewart and Abigail (Blake) Riffle

Living on the Hill
Vicky Kotrys, granddaughter of Bessie Riffle Skinner, recalls her mother Mildred telling her that the family lived on the hill above the Orlando School in a small house. She remembers her mother telling her that the house was poorly insulated and that Bessie would stuff old newspapers into the cracks of the walls to ward off the winter drafts. Dale Barnett remembers that the house was owned by Mike Moran and was located at the lower edge of the meadow at the top of the hill, near the home of John Blake, and faced Oil Creek and the Orlando Cemetery. Dale also remembers that he went to school at Orlando with Bessie’s children in the early 1930’s.

Bessie’s granddaughter Vicky also recalls that her mother Mildred told her that Bessie did odd jobs in the community to earn money to support the family. She did laundry in the community and frequently received produce such as butter, eggs and chickens in payment rather than in cash. Dale Barnett recalled that Bessie did domestic work for the widower Oley Ocheltree when he lived with his family in the former Rush home beside St. Michael’s Church. Mildred also told her daughter that the family subsisted on garden produce and an occasional squirrel, rabbit, or raccoon. Bessie also was fond of preparing what was called “leatherbritches,” which was made of rolled up cabbage leaves, fried in bacon grease. And of course, what woman of Orlando couldn’t make great home-made bread, and Bessie was no exception. Mildred also told her daughter Vicky that when the family had a beef or hog, every bit of the butchered animal was used for the family table, without exception. Regardless of Bessie’s ingenuity of finding and putting food on the table, life for a widow with a house full of children was a difficult proposition during the Depression when nearly every family was hustling for ways to put food on the table.

And a Man Takes a Wife
In 1943 at age 52, Bessie married Bill McPherson who was one year older. Bill became a widower in 1942 when his wife, the former Floda Heater died. Life-long acquaintances, Bill renewed his friendship with Bessie which resulted in a trip to the altar. Bill was the son of John McPherson and Maggie Blake, and a half brother of Frank, Tom and Dee McPherson, all well known residents of the Oil Creek area. He was the father of five children of his own. The youngest was Larry, still a toddler, and in need of a mother’s touch. Aside from the emotional aspects of the marriage, this union gave Bessie more security than she had ever had in her life and she no longer had to be worried about what tomorrow would bring. And, importantly for Bill, his youngest child now had a caring and loving mother at a critical stage of life.
Left: Bessie and Bill McPherson with Bill's son Larry

Life in New York
Bill McPherson’s employment in 1943 was in Buffalo, New York and it was to this western New York city, the couple moved. Bill worked as a welder in a cooperage which made barrels, both wooden and steel, and later worked in a plant which made trailers. Bill owned two homes near his employment, one of which is now the home to Bessie’s granddaughter Vicky. Bessie and Bill lived in Buffalo until around 1955 when he retired and the mountains of West Virginia again drew them home.

Return to Orlando
Larry McPherson was in the 5th grade when his father Bill and his step-mother Bessie returned to Orlando. The family moved to Road Run to a farm owned by Clate Wiant. Larry, now a South Carolina resident, recalls his step-mother as an excellent cook, “a pioneer lady who could take anything and make a meal of it.” Larry recalls his step-mother as a “superb gardener and homemaker” who loved for “company to come visit.” Larry remembers that after living on the Clate Wiant farm on Road Run for a few years, the family moved to the Ruby Brown farm on Three Lick and lived there until he was a sophomore in high school. The family then moved to Burnsville and lived near the iron bridge.

A Marriage of Convenience was a Happy One

When a 52 year old widow marries a 53 year widower with young children, it could be termed a marriage of convenience, but in the case of Bessie and Bill McPherson it was a union with true affection. They had a happy marriage of nearly twenty five years when Bill died in 1967. After Bill’s death, Bessie returned to Buffalo to live near her children where she died in 1970. Bessie and Bill are buried at the Orlando Cemetery.

Left: Bessie (Riffle) Skinner McPherson's obituary. (Click on it to enlarge it.)

. . . . .

Lester Skinner, the little boy who went to Charley Knight’s Store for his mother for a can of sweet potatoes and a can of kraut, grew up in Orlando and as most Orlando boys have done for the past seventy-years, went away to find employment. Lester lived and worked in Paterson, New Jersey for most of his adult life. He died in Paterson in 1990 at age 72, survived by his wife Lucille, and four children.

Note: Here are three photos of Bessie's Sons.

Left below: Bessie's sons Warren Lambert, Earl, Kennth and Lester Skinner

Right: Bessie's sons Earl and Kenneth

Right below: Bessie's son Warrren Lambert with his sonThomas Lambert Skinner


  1. Bernadette Skinner-HartsoughMonday, April 19, 2010

    Thanks for the story David. It is good to know our family is not forgotten.


  3. My name is Annette Skinner (Granddaughter of Kenna and Anita Skinner) and I was wondering if anyone reading this could give me any more information on him than what I already have. If so please contact me at ams49@buffalo.edu.

    Thank you!