Happy memories: The life of Gladys Nicholas
It was 1915.
The first stop sign appeared in Detroit, MI. Babe Ruth hit his first career home run. News of World War I was arriving from Europe. And a baby girl, Gladys Verda, was born to Floyd and Francis (Frankie) Ruby in Lawrence County, South Dakota. Fast forward through the decades to 2021, and Gladys is celebrating her 106th birthday, having lived her entire life within a 15 mile radius of her birthplace.
Over one hundred years, more than ten decades, of family, country living, fun times, hardships and memories are held dear in the heart of Gladys Ruby Nicholas. Gladys smiles and with a twinkle in her eye she shares a little history, some personal hardships, family stories, fun times and an appreciation for the life she has lived.
Gladys was the eighth of twelve children born to Floyd and Frankie Ruby. Her oldest sister, Ada, was born in 1903 and the youngest sibling, Lyle, was born in 1926. Baby Susie died as an infant, Leo died of pneumonia in 1922.
Gladys recalls when she was five years old, their house burned down in the night. Gladys says, “I remember standing out in a cornfield that night in our nightgowns. The whole house burned.” At the time, Audrey was a baby and the family stayed with neighbors, the Kerwins, until they found another place to live. Gladys comments that the Kerwins had a full house, but the Ruby family was welcomed to stay there.
As a child, Gladys remembers her mother, Frankie, had a huge garden, raised chickens and had a milk cow. They sold cream to the creamery in St Onge, hauling it by horse and buggy.
Gladys did not talk until she was 7 years old. Her younger brother Bruce attended school with her and would speak for her. Then, Gladys says, “I guess I started talking and my brother always said I made up for those early years.” As a young girl she was called Dutch by her family.
When Gladys completed eighth grade, she took a year off from schooling. During that time she and her brother Bruce worked in the nearby beet fields to make enough money for Gladys to buy shoes for high school. Gladys rode into Spearfish on horseback to find a home to board with in order to attend high school. The Sullivans were the first family she stayed with, working for room and board. Mr. Sullivan was the coach at the hight school. They had a young daughter Marlys. Gladys smiles, “I carried her around and took care of her while I stayed with them. I did housework before and after school.”
Thinking back, Gladys sighs, “I had long hair and wore braids. One morning before school a friend met me, reached over and cut off my braids. I never knew why. Mrs. Sullivan took me to Mr. Tayler at his barbershop for a quick haircut that morning before school. Maybe it was a good thing, braiding my hair took a lot of time in the morning before school.”
Gladys also stayed with the Nelsons and the Krinings. The Krinings had a girl that was a freshman, Gertrude. “I was older at the time, so they bought me an activity pass for $5 so I could accompany Gertrude to school events. This was the first opportunity I had to go to school activities.” Gladys adds with a smile, “I guess it was good that I stayed with them because one day, Mrs Krinning met me when I came from school. She said, ‘I want you to meet someone.’ It was Cecil. That is how I met my husband, Cecil.”
Cecil attended the Normal School in Spearfish and lived with his parents, Grandpa and Grandma, William T and Cecilia, Nicholas. Gladys remembers that Cecil and his dad had 6-8 horses, making 3 teams. Having the three teams, they could get a good day’s work in by switching the horses as the day went on.
Gladys graduated in 1936. She had a scholarship to go to Billings, MT for business. “But, Gladys says, “Mother didn’t let me go.” Instead she married Cecil in 1937 and they lived in an apartment upstairs of a hardware store, Woolsmuth’s, which was located where Nonna’s Kitchen is now. Gladys worked in a dime store, Zinks, in the middle of Main Street for $12 a month. Their son, Charles was born in 1940.
Cecil and Gladys were excited to move from town, back to the country when they found a place with an empty house to move to. Gladys says, “We liked being out of town and in the country. But we had bed bugs – we burnt sulfur candles to get rid of them. There was a lot of work done to the house, we papered each room.”
Cecil raised Hereford cattle with Grandpa Nicholas and brother. They also had horses and shared work throughout the year.
Grandpa Nicholas had a thrashing machine and he went to all the neighbors for harvest in the fall. Gladys along with Aunt Lucille would help shock grain, building the shocks for the bundle wagon. The mothers brought their children, including Charles, to the field with them while they shocked. Gladys remembers it being the year of 1941.
Thrashing was a big event for the neighbors in the area. Gladys says, “Everyone went and brought their families. It was a busy time with lots of food and good times.” Laughing she adds, “It was always busy and we always managed to feed the kids first so they would out from under our way.”
Grandpa Nicholas, Cecil, Uncle Bill and later her son, Charles were members of the Spearfish Livestock Association which was made up of ranchers with permits to graze cattle on the Black Hills Forest Service land. They would turn the cattle out to graze in June and bring them back mid-September. Gladys says, “We lived right next to the timber. The neighbors, the Larsons, Sleeps, Shanks and Rebbes, with permits would ride past our house on horseback to take their cattle to the Forest land.” Gladys is remembered for having cookies, usually pineapple or sugar, ready for the riders as they passed by.
Their first tractor was a Fordson, but after that it was always John Deere. Gladys remembers they took oats to Belle Fourche to be rolled at the mill in Belle Fourche. The mill added molasses to the feed.
When Charles about a year old, Gladys had part of her fingers taken off, when she was helping Cecil with a water pump. It wouldn’t turn over, and her fingers were caught in the fly wheel. There was no hospital in Spearfish, so they had to go to Deadwood.
Gladys interjects into her story, “At that time we had crank phone with a party line with 24 people. Our ring was 2 longs, 2 short and 6 long.and everyone listened to other’s conversations on the telephone. When Cecil went to call the hospital, the person on the line said – wait a minute, I have to take my bread out of the oven and I want to hear what happened.”
Commenting she says, “When Sylvia was born the next year, I never felt the diaper pins prick me, as I had no feelings in my fingers. After awhile, Cecil asked, ‘Do you think you can start to milk cows again? We had 7 cows, so I went down over the hill to milk, and carried the full milk pails back up over the hill. We separated the milk and sold the cream to the Spearfish Creamery which was located just off what is Jackson.” They traded in both Belle Fourche at the Implement Shop, John Deere of course, and Spearfish Elevator.
Just as Glady’s mother had done a generation ago, Gladys raised chickens. She liked California Leghorns for layers and Cochins for roosters. They would order the chicks from a hatchery in Yankton. It was an exciting day in the spring when the baby chicks arrived with the mail. Gladys remembers they kept the chicks in the brooder house under a light. She laughs, “Sometimes we didn’t have a very good chicken house. One time a coon got in, and we lost 50 chickens. We also had trouble with snakes.”
A flock of geese was raised on the Nicholas farm. Gladys says, “When I butchered them, I would pick them dry, so I could get the down to make pillows. ” Throughout the years, Gladys provided family members with many down pillows.
The Nicholas farm became a drop off point for cousins for summer, especially for those living in town. Daughter Sylvia recalls, “We always had extra kids and people around.” Gladys says, “We never had trouble. Everyone worked, outside, inside, in the garden or with the chickens. Those are happy memories. Our house was always busy.”
Charles and Sylvia rode horseback 2 miles to meet the bus to go school. Cecil was on the school board and the next year, the bus came to their place. The bus took them to Centennial Valley where they, along with other country kids, attended the Lab School. The Lab School was taught by students of the College, practicing during their studies. The teachers would change every quarter for each subject, as they were preparing for their graduation and future teaching jobs. The country kids joined the town kids to attend Spearfish High School.
Gladys baked bread twice a week. Buns, the family’s favorite, were also baked. She rendered lard when they butchered. When lard would become rancid, she made soap. Gladys comments, “I made soap when the kids were in school because it was too dangerous.” She made it in a washtub, adding lye and stirring until it would start getting thick. Her daughter remembers coming home from school and seeing the wash tubs with the newly made soap cooling outside. Gladys remembers spending much time grating the blocks of soap to use when washing clothes, first on a washboard, then with a gas motored Maytag.
During those years, Gladys was active in Extension Club. She taught First Aid Classes and made survival buckets during the Cold War years. She remembers the kids had raid drills in the Lab School. She was active in Eastern Star and was a 4-H leader for many years. Gladys says, “I taught many 4-Hers how to sew. We would make a dish towel first to learn how sew a straight line. At that time, if you wanted a wool suit, you made it yourself. The County Fair was always a big event of the year. We always went. And also the Western Calf Show.”
“Rural Life Sunday was a 4-H activity when Charles and Sylvia were growing up. The 4-H members would attend church together at the different congregations they belonged to.”
Gladys remembers Cecil, fondly, wearing bib overalls, having bad arthritis, was a lucky Strike smoker, and an amazing husband. Cecil was kicked in the stomach when he was young and dealt with health issues during his life. Gladys spent a lot of time sitting with Cecil when he was sick. Smiling she says, “ I made many quilts during that time, I sewed when I was sitting with Cecil – sunbonnet, log cabin patterns to name a few, patchwork, and more. I made baby quilts, quilts of all sizes.”
After Cecil’s death, she continued living on the farm until she moved in Spearfish. With her daughter, Sylvia , they worked on a family recipe book sharing old and new favorites. When the book was completed, the two of them spent three years delivering the cookbooks in person to family members. They traveled across the country from Washington State to Louisiana to complete the task.
She now lives in an apartment with her daughter, Sylvia. They attend the monthly birthday parties at the Senior Citizen’s Center, and Gladys looks forward to the weekly bridge game on Tuesdays. Gladys says 70 years ago she and Cecil played Auction Bridge with neighbors. Now at the Center they play Party Bridge. She comments, “I guess I am competitive. I like to keep my concentration when I am playing.” Sylvia laughs adding, “Yes, we play cribbage in the evening and Mom won’t go to bed until she wins.” Also during her extended “retirement” years, she taught herself to paint, providing artwork for the family, often painting on a saw blade or other items.
The director of the Senior Citizens, Stephanie Crago, comments, “Gladys is a favorite. She is always smiling. It is an honor to have her come in, visiting and playing cards. She is a joy, never complains. Gladys remembers everyone’s names and takes the time to ask about others.
Gladys, is a spunky 106 year old. She appreciates her country style living, raising kids, tending chickens, teaching 4-Hers, spending time out doors through the four seasons. She comments “I’ve never seen any place any better than here. It’s wonderful. The sunsets are beautiful. I enjoy every season, I really don’t know which I like better. Spring means baby chickens, planting, calves; the summer brings days of hard work; winter is the time to slow down little; I guess I probably enjoy fall the most if I had to choose. It’s the time of gathering in, harvesting, and provides a time to be thankful.
Thinking back over her life, Gladys says, “I have no regrets, then chuckles, “at least that I know of! There have been hard times and sad times, but as my mother used to say, “Into each life rain must fall.’ You just have to get up and keep going.
Celebrating 106 years with as many spring, summers, falls, and winters, provides a bountiful of memories for Gladys to reflect on. She loves the country and the land, appreciates her family, enjoys people (along with a good bridge game), and continues to move forward through good times and hard times, because that is what you do.
Gladys lives her life to the fullest, finding time to play cards with neighbors in her apartment building, visits at the Senior Center, having at least 3 birthday parties – one a the Methodist Church the Sunday before her birthday, lunch at Perkin’s on her special day, July 15, and a family picnic at Jorgenson’s Park when extended family arrived.
And when the county fair arrived -she went. At 106 years, it’s no surprise to anyone that knows her, that Gladys attended the Butte/Lawrence County Fair in Nisland, And it was hard to find a bigger smile on anyone’s face, than Gladys as she watched her great granddaughters, Ashlyn and Morgan, showing their chickens. What a way to celebrate 106 years of living!
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