My Mother Ruth: Part II – Her Parents & Grandparents

By
Larry Pearce
12/7/02 rev. 4/8/11

In Part I we introduced my mother, Ruth Elizabeth [Gray] Pearce, considered the derivations of her names, and heard a little about her life in early 20th century rural Pennsylvania. With this part, we shall relate her impressions of her parents, Paul Barton Gray (1892-1977) and Bertha Ione [Campbell] Gray (1893-1980), and grandparents, Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928) and Annie Sims [Norris] Gray (1850-1922) and William James Campbell (1859-1954) and Rachel Elizabeth [Hoffman] Campbell (1866-1946). As most amateur genealogists, I regret that I didn’t ask more questions or record more comments earlier in our lives that surely would have captured the human and historical context into which my mother was born. After all, in her lifetime she had seen Americans in every stage from the horse and buggy to the international space station, from slate tablets in one-room schoolhouses to computers that implement every aspect of our modern lives. Her Grandfather Gray fought in the American Civil War. Somehow, we writers seem to take our sources for granted when we’re young, thinking, “They will always be there.” Now, as we reach our golden years, we know better. Now, we count it a privilege and honor to be able to inscribe their narratives for future generations. But as other rich treasures, Mother’s generation must be treated with the utmost respect, with comments carefully and accurately preserved. Science provides us with the term “triangulation,” meaning to view a concept from various perspectives. My greatest desire is to record her memories as quickly and carefully as possible while also seeking the recollections of others: her living brothers and sisters, her contemporaries, and all the published works I can get my hands on. So, this part will be an ongoing piece. I’ll add to it well into the future as information becomes available. Let’s begin by picking up Mother’s conversation from the last article about her brief stay at the farm of her elderly grandparents. William and Rachel Campbell, near Bairdford, PA, as she cares for them.

Ruth’s Grandpap Campbell would have been in his mid-70s and Grandma about 70 when she left a reasonably good job as general laborer at St. John’s Lutheran Home in Mars, PA, in her late teens, probably around 1936. Their oldest son, Ruth’s Uncle Ray, would come out from Pittsburgh to pick the corn and get the butter ready to take to town to market. Her brother Merle [see the account of his life in “The Unusual Life of Uncle Merle Gray”] tells of the elderly Grandpap Campbell driving the horse and wagon at least once a week across the high-level bridge spanning the Allegheny River to get to the Lawrenceville market in what is still known today as the Strip District. His impression, as a young man, was the bloody knees of the horses as they’d slip on the steel plates on the floor of the bridge.

According to Ruth, her grandfather was born prematurely at a neighbor’s house “up on the hill,” the Star place, and weighed “about a pound.” He lived to be 96, and she says, “He was carried on to that farm where he lived and he was carried off [after he died].” Apparently he was all of five feet tall. Ruth and Merle both remember him jumping onto the bare back of a horse when he was in his 90’s and riding up to Bairdford to get the mail each day. I asked my mother what she thought of him, and she replied, “He was a slave driver.” I followed with, “Did you like him?” She said, “I had to. He just had a strong work ethic.”

The Campbells were staunch Presbyterians after their Scottish heritage. In those days their second son, Cliff, with his wife and kids would come out from Bellevue and take everyone to church, East Union, the same one where Ruth and Ralph were married. Ruth said, “Then, we’d come back and have our lunch. They stayed all day long.”

I was just six years old when my Great-grandfather William Campbell died in 1954, but I remember him as very old and rather small, compared to those around him. I am blessed to have been given his wedding band to wear as my own. Inscribed inside with the initials “WJC to REH,” and formed of 18 karat gold, it was handed down to me through his oldest granddaughter, my mother Ruth, after his death. She said that he had it made from a pure chunk of gold after he proposed to Rachel.

Now most of that Campbell family is buried at the East Union Cemetery. Many of the original American Grays and related families like the Leslies and Norrises are buried just up the road in the Bull Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery, West Deer Township, Allegheny County. [See “Our Gray-associated families” for more articles.]

Ruth vaguely remembered her grandparents on her father’s side, Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928) and Annie Sims Norris (1850-1922). She would have been just a child when they were elderly. They both had rheumatism. Grandma Annie was in a wheelchair and died in her early 70’s, but Grandpap Gray lived until he was 84. He spent his last years in bed and his daughter Bertha would carry his meals to him. According to his Bull Creek Cemetery inscription, he served in the Heavy Artillery Company A, 6th Battalion, during the Civil War. The original Gray farm near Bairdford was only recently sold out of the family.

I asked my mother if she remembered her mother relating any stories pertaining to her dad and mother dating, and I believe that her words reveal something of the shyness that both my mother and I suffered from when we were younger. She said that her father Paul would take his horse and buggy to the bottom of the Campbell driveway and wait for Bertha, never going up to the house. She’d walk down to meet him and away they’d go. Apparently he was too shy to face her parents, but they thought enough of him to allow her to go. Ruth claimed that her father was so shy that he seldom attended any gatherings with large amounts of people: church, family reunions, etc. She insisted, “But he read his Bible every Sunday. You’d catch him with his Bible.” He even asked her once, “How do you overcome [shyness]?” She encouraged him saying, “You just have to face people and talk to them.” He was a carpenter, she reminded me, and could usually work by himself.

Ironically, at some time in his younger days, Grandpap Paul owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He told me so, and my mother remembers seeing a picture of him with it. That would have been when the highly successful American Harley-Davidson Company was just getting started. Perhaps this was his way of compensating for his shyness. He told me that he would ride over to his brother-in-law Bill Campbell’s house in Johnstown, Cambria County, probably a good half-day’s journey in those days.

Mother concluded her remarks about family transportation saying, “Our [her father Paul’s] first car was a Ford, a brown, four-door, square thing. We went from that into a truck. The family got so big that when we went anyplace we’d put the kids all in the back.” Grandpap Paul’s brother Stanley owned one of the first Ford dealerships in Western Pennsylvania, therefore many in the large extended Gray family drove Fords. His building still stands today along Saxonburg Boulevard north of Pittsburgh. Several other Western PA Ford dealerships are still operating under the name “Gray,” but we haven’t learned if there is any relationship. In mentioning Ford cars, I should recall for you that the last automobile my grandparents owned was a black Falcon. This was considered one of the original compacts, next to the Corvair and VW Beetle, of course. For many years, they would drain the waterlines in their cottage, pack up the Falcon, and drive to a little rental house in Florida for the winter, near several of their children. Well into his retirement years, Grandpap would do odd carpentry jobs down there. I understand that they were as happy as they could be with this arrangement.

I remember many happy visits to my grandparents’ house. It was a place where all my aunts and uncles gathered on Sunday afternoons and where I got to know my cousins. I think the last time I was there was the afternoon of Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception.” That was the beginning of the Steelers’ dynasty. I had a family by then, and probably the kids were napping or playing. I had the radio on in the car and was back and forth between the living room and the driveway. As with President Kennedy’s assassination, I remember where I was on that important occasion.
Grandma Gray was perhaps the kindest, most gentle woman I knew, on the heavy side the way grandmas are supposed to be. Often she wore an apron and always spoke softly in a low, resonant voice. She was very, if you’ll excuse the expression, “instrumental” in my learning to play the piano and eventually becoming a music major. She always wanted me to play the old hymns for her and gave me all her music when she could no longer see to play from the printed page. I have a tape of her playing my piano when she was well into her 80s. Grandma was also an expert in quilting and embroidery. My wife and I were blessed to receive several quilts and a tablecloth that she finished. They will be in the family for generations to come.

My memories of Grandpap Gray are of a tall, slender man with a rich melodious voice. He had so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he couldn’t possibly have known them by name, so he referred to them as “girly” or “son.” For the record, his obituary attributed 29 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren to him. I remember that he usually had a sweater vest on and kept busy pruning grapes or roses and tending a small flock of chickens. I was fortunate enough to receive his logbook after he died where he kept notes and comments on taking care of all his plants and animals. One entry records that his 12 hens laid 772 eggs in a span of 16 weeks. Another describes him starting 4 or 6 strong 20-inch vines [clippings] indoors January 18, 1968. Later that spring he removed the excess buds to only 30 or 50. He gave me cuttings of several of his grape vines, which still produce nicely for me. His daybook gives his recipe for successfully keeping geraniums over the winter:
• 4 parts soil
• 2 parts sand
• 1 ½ parts shep [sic] manure
• 2 parts leaf mold [probably composted leaves] and
• 1 teaspoon fertilizer

I also treasure the hand tools that were handed down to me after his death: a handsaw, a leaf rake, and a “monkey” wrench, possibly used on those old Ford engines.
After Grandma Bertha Gray could no longer run her household or take care of Grandpap in the mid-1970s, the painful decision was made by her surviving children to move her and Grandpap to a nursing home in Harmony, PA. He died shortly after in 1977 just a week before his 85th birthday. Each year we are reminded of him because his birthday. November 28, is also our wedding anniversary. After Grandpap’s death, my parents, Ruth and Ralph decided to take Grandma into their home in Moon Township. She was very happy with that decision. Mom and Dad received lots of company, but Grandma helped in the kitchen as much as possible. I still remember the smell and taste of that fresh-baked bread and rolls she made. She lived there three years before being moved to St. John’s Lutheran Home in Mars, the same place that her daughter Ruth worked over 40 years earlier. If you recall from the last article, Mother moved from there to care for her Grandmother and Grandfather Campbell, a tradition that apparently runs in the family. Grandma Bertha passed away in her 87th year. Her obituary confirmed the couple’s 29 grandchildren, but increased the great-grandchildren to 23 and added 1 great-great grandchild. Both her and Grandpap’s funerals were very well-attended with most of their survivors present. I recall those occasions as happy times with the assurance that both Paul and Bertha had lived long, productive lives and were now with their Maker. I believe that both my parents and grandparents had many virtues in common and were exceptional role models.

Return to “PART I: RUTH’S EARLY DAYS”

Go to “PART III: RUTH’S MARRIED LIFE”

Go to “PART IV: RUTH’S LATER LIFE” 

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