North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

October 14, 2013

More than a century, and counting: Gardendale's Ethel Pitts is a piece of living history

By Melanie Patterson
North Jefferson News

GARDENDALE — A Gardendale woman who is more than a century old is the delight of her family and her church.

Ethel Pitts was born Aug. 27, 1912, in the Oklahoma panhandle. She was born in Optima, Okla., in a rock house alongside a river. Not much later, her parents bought a farm 10 miles from Guymon, Okla., where she grew up.

Her brother, the oldest sibling, had already married and moved from home, leaving Pitts and her two sisters to work on the farm with their parents. Pitts’ father died when she was 13, the sisters and their mother were left behind to make a living off the land.

“I’m a farm girl,” Pitts said with a laugh. “I worked like a boy on the farm.” She worked a lister (type of plow) and cultivator, each pulled by four horses. She also milked cows and did all of the other necessary farm work.

The family’s main source of income was from selling cream, which they separated from milk and sold in five-gallon jugs.

Families who farmed in the midwest during that time did not have an easy life, but Pitts and her family always made the best of what they had.

She recalls making dolls out of corn by peeling the shucks off most of the way and leaving part of the silk for make-believe hair.

“We never thought anything about it,” she said.

The family got water from the ground by using a windmill-powered pump, then carried water to the house in buckets.

Pitts remembers one day when she went to check on the cows, and she saw a coyote. Her two dogs “ran him until he couldn’t run anymore.”

Pitts knew that she could get a bounty of $1 for killing a coyote, so she found an old fence post, and the coyote “didn’t last anymore.”

She had to cut off the animal’s ears and present them in order to get the bounty. So she threw the coyote across the saddle and took it to the house in order to remove its ears.

She got her dollar, and used it to buy a new dress.

Another time she found some young coyotes in a den, and they received the same treatment.

Pitts’ favorite horse was named Toady. Pitts and her sisters rode the horse four miles to school, sometimes all three girls on the horse’s back at the same time. When they got older, they hitched a buggy to the horse.

She recalls one time when she and one of her sisters was riding Toady to church. The horse stumbled and threw the girls off. They didn’t have time to go home and clean up, so they just went on to church as they were.

Pitts also clearly remembers the terrible Dust Bowl years. One dust storm in particular was “worse than any other,” she said. “It scared us to death. The dust was so heavy it made everything dark. We could see it coming and rolling.”

The family ran to the safety of the cellar during the dust storms.

“My mother and us three girls is all that was there,” she said. “There were no men folks.”

Pitts said the sky finally cleared up, but the storm left dust everywhere.

In 1932, Pitts married Eli Nathaniel “Nat” Pitts. He was born in Birmingham, and his family had moved to Oklahoma when he was 5 years old so his father could pastor a church in Oklahoma City, then later in Guymon.

Work was hard to come by at that time, Ethel Pitts said, so her husband found work helping others on their farms for 50 cents a day.

Pitts also earned some money by cooking for people in their homes during harvest times.

The couple lived in Oklahoma for five years after they were married, then moved to Lexington, Ky., and later to Beaver Creek, Ohio. After Nat Pitts died in 1988, Ethel moved to Alabama to be near her son David Pitts.

It was then that she started attending Gardendale Church of the Nazarene, where David was associate pastor for 34 years.

Her faith has always been a central part of her life. She said that when she was a young girl and would take a rest in the fields, she would “either sit on the seat or get down on my knees and pray.”

She was baptized at a young age in a horse trough.

Even at 101 years old, Pitts goes to church and Sunday school almost every week.

She is known for her crocheting and for giving her handiwork away at church every week.

“She’s a wonderful person,” said John Yeager of Mt. Olive, who attends church with Pitts. Yeager calls Pitts “grandmother,” because his own grandmother has passed away.

Ethel and Nat Pitts had four children: Ernest; Ruth Elizabeth, who died in 1970; David and Paul. She also has numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren — too many to count.