Living on the Allen family farm in Walton, N.Y., Helen, the youngest, was surrounded by family and friends. Nellie and Arthur Paul, her mother’s brother, were nearby. The Benton family – Hugh and Mary, her mother’s sister, lived just down the road. Her mom’s sister Ethel and George Emery moved back from Wisconsin when Helen was 11, to live on the family farm in Berry Brook. Her mom’s brother Ben completed that side of the family.
Add in the children and you had quite a brood. The Allens had five – Sarabel, Paul, Coralie, Vernon and Helen. Aunt Nellie and Uncle Art had three – Joyce, a year younger than Sarabel; Frances, a couple years older than Helen; and Bill, a couple years younger than Helen. Now add in three Emerys – the oldest, Fred, was younger than Paul. Pauline was Coralie’s age, and Mary was Helen’s age.
“The Bentons had a slew,” Helen recalled. Bob was the same age as Fred Emery. Ben was Coralie’s age. Bill was the same age as Helen. Then there was Winnie, a couple years younger. (She was named Sara Winifred, and though she grew up as Winnie, she later went by Sally and then Sara). Paul and John were the youngest.
“Paul was born at our house,” Helen added as a side note. “We were shut out in the dining room while all that was going on, then we heard the cries.”
“We were in a great neighborhood,” Helen said. “We’d meet at someone’s house and have a square dance. We’d learned the Virginia Reel in gym, and that started it.” Helen would ask her mom, “Can we have the party here tonight?” “You can if you clean up,” was the inevitable answer.
Calls would go out, and the party would come together. “My brother used to play harmonica and guitar,” Helen said. “Some of the boys knew the calls for square dancing. If adults were included, there was a fellow who fiddled.” The neighborhood was full of kids. “There were a lot between the ages of high school and just out, from Coralie’s age on down to my age,” Helen said. She listed off: “Three McCoys, three Van Burens, three Armstrongs, two to three Allens. It was our school district,” she said. “District 18.”
The school served as a community center of sorts, for “not just the kids, but the adults too.” And at no time was that more apparent than Christmas.
“The whole neighborhood was invited” to the school Christmas program, Helen said. “They’d all bring food; it’d be a big party. Santa would come. That was the highlight of Christmas.” All the students would perform, from the youngest on up. Helen recalled her first performance, at age 3: “The Christmas tree is tall, and I’m small, and that’s all.”
Two or three students would sing a song. “We’d put on a play,” Helen said. “Some of the older ones were more into putting on the play. Everyone who wanted to could be involved. There were the practices…”
Family would gather together on Christmas day, “just for the day. I don’t think we were more than 20 miles apart,” Helen said. “We’d take turns going to the different houses. Everybody brought something.”
When it was their turn to travel, Helen’s family would pile into the car – they got their first car, a Model T Ford, when she was a baby. “Sometimes when they were going over Walton Mountain, they’d have to back down and go up backwards,” she said.
Once everyone was together, the fun would start. “Quite often we kids had a table all ourselves and we had a great time,” Helen said. “Nobody paid much attention. “We filled up a table by ourselves,” she said, counting heads. “Growing up, we probably had four Bentons, three Pauls and five Allens.” The meals were something to remember – turkey, Waldorf salad “because everybody had apples,” mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, Hubbard squash. “And pies for dessert – mincemeat pie, apple and pumpkin.”
After the meal the kids would head outside and play all kinds of games as the men sat and talked, while the women would do the dishes and talk. “One of the best things was I didn’t have to do the dishes,” Helen said, smiling at the thought.
District 18 in Walton – defined by the local school, “was a fun neighborhood to grow up in,” Helen said. “Not all the neighborhoods were like that, but ours was very congenial. There was a real community spirit.”
It manifested itself in many ways, including neighborhood parties. “We’d have sugaring off parties” when the sap started to run, Helen said. “They’d make jackwax on snow. You’d get a dish of syrup and you’d stir and stir ’til it hardened up and you’d have maple candy.” There was a summer picnic at the end of school. “One family had a cottage on a nearby lake,” Helen said.
Outside of school, there were the friendships. Helen recalled playing with Virginia McCoy, one of her best friends. “We’d ride horses around, walk up to the woods and pick flowers.” The McCoy kids “would come down and we’d play. Red Light Green Light, Simon Says, Hide and Seek, Pompon Pullaway.” They’d all play word games, like homonyms – “finding words that could be used two ways, like stationary, and principle.” Hanging out with Virginia, “We’d sit on the porch and talk,” Helen said. “We’d look at the moon and wonder if that was green cheese up there.”
Sickness and Strength
Sickness and disease didn’t skip the farm in Walton. Helen’s brother Vernon was 4 when their mother knew something was wrong. “He started coming in and lying down because he was tired,” Helen said. “And he was always thirsty.”
There was a distant cousin whose daughter had diabetes and died, so Edith Allen knew about diabetes, and she didn’t ignore the signs. “She took him to the doctor and insisted he do a blood test,” Helen said. “She knew something was wrong. Then they took him to Albany Hospital. That’s where they treated him. Insulin had just been discovered that year.”
It changed the way the family ate – Edith served lots of healthy vegetables. Vernon’s milk intake was limited, because doctors feared the sugar in it would make things worse for him. “They were just starting to figure things out” about how diet affected diabetes, Helen said, and later, when Vernon was allowed to drink more milk, he put on a growth spurt.
Still, he didn’t grow to be much taller than Helen. Vernon lived to be 25 years old, and at the end his vision was failing. Doctors found that “his organs were like that of an 80-year-old man,” Helen said.
Visits to Aunt Mary’s house were always fun for Helen. “She wasn’t fussy about things,” she said. “We did what we wanted to do and nobody complained.” When Helen was 17, she went out to visit for Christmas, and ended up in the hospital.
“Bob Benton always wanted to be a doctor, and he told his mother to call the doctor because I kept putting my hand on my side,” Helen said. “He probably saved my life.”
Her appendix ruptured as doctors were removing it. “Sulfa had just been discovered, and that helped prevent infection,” she said. She remembers being under the care of Dr. Wiesenthal. “He was a refugee from Germany who worked here for another doctor,” she said. His professional papers hadn’t made it to America with him, “but he was very good,” she said. “He called me Miss Helen.”
Doctors told her they saw signs she’d had previous problems with her appendix. That didn’t surprise her. “I’d always had a sensitive stomach,” she said, adding that if her appendicitis had flared up at home, she probably wouldn’t have survived. “Nobody every thought about it if I had a sick stomach.”
Measles took its toll on the Allen family when Helen was young. “My Dad had a beautiful tenor voice,” she said. “Then he had measles when I was 5.”
Since Vernon had diabetes, “He’d taken him down and they only had one shot, so he had Vernon get it.” Helen’s dad Merton caught the measles, “He had to be in a mental institution,” Helen said. Paul, the oldest Allen boy, was a senior in high school at the time and had won a scholarship, but “he stayed home that year because Mom needed help at the farm.”
Paul took a teacher training course and taught in the local school so he could milk the cows and help with the farm work. Life on the small dairy farm was demanding. There were 30 cows to milk, plus calves and horses, and Merton was handling it on his own. “He was the only one,” Helen said.
Merton was sick at home for several months. “My mom had to watch him for fear he would hurt himself,” Helen said. “I remember going in the bedroom where he was, and he took hold of my hands and wouldn’t let go. His eyes were glassy.” When his condition worsened, “they put him in the hospital,” Helen said.
“He came out of it alright,” she said. “My mother took long walks with him. … He still had a good singing voice afterward,” she added, “but he couldn’t reach all the high notes.”
“My mother was a very strong person,” Helen reflected. “She dealt with my father’s illness, dealt with all the work on the farm, dealt with all us kids, and managed to survive.”