The most humble and hardworking people I’ve ever met are farmers.
Virginia Margaret (Bond) Breen, who turns 103 Wednesday, is no exception.
She doesn’t see herself as special although she’s a Chehalis native, witness to massive changes over a century and a rich link to Lewis County’s past as the daughter of Newaukum Valley farmers Ota Mary Hamilton and William Wellington Bond Jr.
Her mother, Ota, was the only daughter of William and Margaret Hamilton, parents of 10 children who traveled across the country from Virginia to settle at the dawn of the 20th century in the Newaukum Valley.
After his wife died in 1904, William urged his daughter to quit school to care for her nine brothers — Emmett, Harry, Albert, Nathan, Curtis, twins Frank and Fred, Art and Dennis. Ota was in the middle, with four older and five younger brothers.
“Her dad regretted it terribly,” Breen recalled when I interviewed her recently. “If he told me once, he told me a hundred times that he made a big mistake. She was an A student, was getting along so good, and then he upset her. He took her out to run the family.”
Ota quit school at 15 to care for the family, but she studied and read on her own, becoming self-educated. Breen, who described her mother as “very intelligent,” said she probably had the equivalent of a college education. She worked hard — cooking, cleaning, scrubbing clothes by hand on a washboard, canning 300 quarts of vegetables and fruits.
At every meal, her grandfather prayed.
“You know, older people read their Bibles a lot,” Breen said. “We never sat at a meal but what he gave thanks for that meal before we ate. We all needed to bow our heads and listen.”
On Dec. 3, 1908, Ota married a neighbor, W.W. Bond, the son of William Wellington Bond Sr. and his wife, Rebecca Leah Short. The Bonds had also traveled west from Wise County, Virginia and settled near the Newaukum River. Although both Ota and W.W. Jr. were born in Wise County — W.W. in1882 and Ota in 1889 — they never met until they lived in Lewis County. Breen said her father missed Virginia and might have returned, but her mother wanted to stay near her family.
Instead, he named his daughter after his homeland. Altogether, W.W. and Ota had five children — Edith, Glen, Virginia, Doris and Russell.
“They’re all gone except for me,” Breen said.
The Bonds were farmers, especially Ota. She oversaw the family’s Newaukum Valley farm while W.W. hauled milk to the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company, which manufactured Carnation sterilized milk at a Chehalis plant established in the early 1900s. The plant on National Avenue became Borden’s Milk by the 1920s.
Breen’s father hauled milk most of his life. He had to lift 10-gallon cans filled with milk — each weighing around 90 pounds — onto a wagon bed and, in later years, into a truck.
“The farmers were supposed to have milk stands but a lot of them didn’t, so he had to pick them up — go around and put them on the truck,” Breen said. “That was hard work.”
As a child, Breen’s name appeared in the Nov. 10, 1922, edition of the Chehalis Bee-Nugget after she attended the decorated Union School for a Halloween party with a program, children in costumes, games, and refreshments of donuts and pumpkin pie. Her sister Edith was head witch.
“Little Virginia Bond won the prize for bobbing for apples,” the newspaper reported.
The following year, she received a pin from Sunday school “for perfect attendance and learning the golden texts.”
And in the spring of 1929, she and her sister Doris sang a duet at the schoolhouse for the Valley Social Club, according to the Chehalis Bee-Nugget, while their sister Edith performed a guitar solo. The newspaper reported everything at the time, including her operation at St. Helens Hospital in 1935 for appendicitis.
The Bond children walked a mile and a half each way to the one-room Union School, where students in all eight grades learned together.
“You know that wasn’t too bad,” Breen said. “You listened to every class reciting.”
She described her teacher, Mrs. Ellen Twiss, as “very good.” Mrs. Twiss’s grown son provided excitement for her students in the 1920s.
“Her son was one of the first ones (locally) to own an airplane,” Breen recalled. “I don’t know what kind it was, but he circled the school at noon.”
All of her teachers, she said, were “strict but kind.”
Students had to take state tests to graduate from eighth grade. Those eighth-grade tests were tough.
“I’ve taken tests that are supposed to be a lot harder and they weren’t half as hard,” Breen said. “Only two of us passed in Lewis County, and I wasn’t proud of my grade. It was just passing.”
It turns out that Olympia school administrators gave the students the wrong test.
“It was a son-of-a-gun,” Breen said. “There was one question I’ll never forget: Draw the circulation of the blood from the heart where it goes down to the bottom of your feet and comes back.”
They administered the correct test later, but Breen was told she didn’t have to retake it.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m not proud of my grade,’ and they said, ‘Well, you passed.’”
Union School disappeared with the construction of Interstate 5, but the memories remain — at least for Breen. I’ll share more about this gracious woman and her rich memories in next week’s column.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.