Memories of Helen Campbell Johnson’s Childhood

Selected & transcribed by cousin
Larry Pearce

Helen Campbell Johnson (1923-2007) was the first cousin of my mother Ruth Gray Pearce (1917-2005). Ruth’s mother Bertha (1893-1980) and Helen’s father Clifford (1896-1988) were the off-spring of my great-grandparents William James (1859-1954) and Rachel Hoffman Campbell (1866-1946). Helen was a school teacher who wasn’t afraid of technology and used the internet and e-mail right up until her death at age 84. While she never had her autobiography edited or published, she made bits and pieces available to me online and in writing via her sister Joan Campbell Ganley (b.1927). Beginning with her German-born grandparents, Helen reveals some of the tragedies in her family: an uncle August who died and was buried at sea during the emigration; how her Grandfather George left his family to return to Germany because of the “strangeness” of the new country; Aunt Amelia [Millie] who died six months after her marriage during the great flu pandemic of 1918; the problematic marriage of her mother and Uncle Clifford; the death by stomach cancer of her mother; and the tragic plane crash that killed her brother Stanley, leaving his wife and infant son. But Helen relates some wonderful, inspiring stories as well: how Emma Marie Burgowitz Campbell (1898-1954), her abandoned mother of three attended night school from age 15, took a job, and with her sister, saved enough to buy a house; how they learned to remodel and rent out part of it; and all the rich artistic talents, music, painting, needlework, and dressmaking, that were nurtured in that house. What follows are the happier snippets of Helen’s early life as it relates to our common family, the Campbells:

My father, Clifford Anderson Campbell, was born the third child of William J. and Rachel H. Campbell, on their Indiana Township, Allegheny County [PA] farm on March 13, 1896. He attended the Martin one-room school through the eighth grade. He worked on the farm until he was drafted into World War I at age 20. They raised grain crops, mostly wheat and corn, and cut hay for their cattle, two milk cows that provided their dairy products. Two draft horses were used to pull the farm machinery. They never did own a tractor because the farm was located on steep hills.

I remember, as a small child, spending weekends on the farm and seeing the primitive methods used to cultivate and harvest the crops. In fact, I could write a lot more about the way Grandmother Campbell kept house without electricity. The only running water she had came through a pipe by gravity from a spring on the hillside. The only indoor plumbing they had was the faucet in the kitchen sink that brought cold water from the spring. It really makes me appreciate the modern conveniences we take for granted today.

My father was a good mechanic and loved to work on the old Model T Ford Grandfather owned, but to my knowledge never drove. Dad served in Germany during the war as an electrician, connecting the phone communications that had been severed during the fighting. It was a very dangerous job, and he seldom talked about his was experiences. He never really liked farm work, and after the war he was determined to make his living in the city. After he was discharged, he drove new cars from Detroit to Pittsburgh for the Ford dealers. He and several others took the night train to Detroit and drove back the next day. Then he trained as an insurance broker, retiring from that career at age 72.

Sometime during 1920 or 1921, a married friend invited my mother to dinner and introduced her to Clifford Campbell. It was September 27, 1922, that they were married in Grandma’s parlor at 5523 Howe Street [East Liberty, Pittsburgh]. Since my Aunt Mille had died and was buried in her wedding dress, my grandma was superstitious enough that she would not allow Mother to wear a wedding dress – hers was a plain brown crepe dress. The couple traveled by train to Niagra Falls for their honeymoon. Afterwards, they returned to share the home of my grandmother. Clifford had been attending training classes at the Travelers Insurance Company in Hartford, CT, to become a salesman and representative. While he returned to class, they wrote each other during the six weeks they were apart. I have treasured the letters, tied up in a blue ribbon.

Returning home, Daddy would board the Penn Avenue street car each morning and go to his downtown Pittsburgh office. During the daytime hours, I was with my mother and grandmother. I assure you that I was very well cared for and spoiled as they provided for my every whim. Grandmother spoke German, and mother conversed with her in German, but Mother could also speak English, which she and Daddy used. Daddy was very unhappy with his mother-in-law and wife when he could not understand their conversations. He felt left out. I know this is one of the reasons they moved to another part of East Liberty before I was two-years old.

Grandmother visited often, and took me for rides in my big wicker carriage. She or mother pushed my carriage to the grocery store almost daily. It was necessary so that fresh food could be bought for dinner, since we had only an icebox, which was not capable of storing food for more than a day. I can remember that as we strolled, Grandmother would pick a violet or dandelion for me from the lawns we passed. At about three years of age, I protested because Mother had taught me that I should not pick flowers from other yards. It was stealing.

Our family moved to South Land Avenue on the first of May, 1927, city-wide moving day for Pittsburgh. No sooner had we moved in than I broke out with Scarlet Fever, and our family was quarantined. A red sign was tacked to our front porch post so that no one could enter except the doctor, or my daddy, who was allowed to go to work everyday. Scarlet Fever is contagious.

On the morning of August 15, 1927, Grandma arrived, and Mother and Daddy left me with her. About noon, Daddy returned without Mother and announced that I had a new baby sister, Joan Vivian Campbell. It was ten days before I got to see my sister. In those days mothers were kept in the hospital at least ten days before they could return home to their families.

I was born October 8, 1923. My sister, Joan Vivian, was born August 15, 1927, and my brother, Stanley Curtis, joined our family on August 8, 1931. Dad was successful in selling insurance. Being very frugal, Scotch, and thrifty, in spite of the Depression, he managed to purchase a house in 193 at 68 Keswick Ave. in Bellevue. Mother called it “The Queen Mary” because it had twelve rooms, three stories, and four chimneys. She never liked the house because it was a lot of work caring for it. Bellevue is one of the north boroughs of Pittsburgh where Dad’s aunts Mary, Martha, Florence, and Sara had their homes.

Every other Sunday, as I got older, my daddy took us all to the farm where my grandparents [William and Rachel Campbell] lived, and we always went to church with them, East Union United Presbyterian. The William Campbells had always been devout Presbyterians. They traveled the two miles to the church by horse and buggy while their family was young. Daddy went there every Sunday in his 1927 Willie’s Knight, while Mother, my sister, and I attended the downtown Presbyterian church every other week. At the time of their marriage, Daddy and Mother decided that the best thing to do was to compromise and both leave the churches they had grown up in and join the big city Presbyterian church in downtown Pittsburgh. This was the church where I was baptized as an infant. I never missed a Sunday of worship or Sunday school during all those years, until Grandmother Burgowitz died. We got visitors cards from Sunday school at East Union and kept our attendance record perfect for six years. We had a collection of pins and bars to prove it. Every other Sunday, while my Grandmother Burgowitz lived, Mother would take my sister Joan and me on the street car to Grandma’s house after we had attended the Presbyterian church and Sunday school. After Grandmother died we regularly attended East Union with Grandmother and Grandfather Campbell.

I remember that in kindergarten I talked so much about the farm that Miss Jean [the children couldn’t pronounce her last name, Kirchenbower] asked my mother if the class could visit. My grandfather’s farm was too far from town, so my mother arranged for the class to go to William O. Campbell’s farm in Fox Chapel (cousin to my Grandfather William J. Campbell). I was used to being ona farm, but my city classmates were intrigued by the milk coming from a cow. We all took turns squeezing milk into a bucket. They were also delighted by the little chickens, pigs, sheeps, and horse, which were used instead of tractors to pull farm tools and wagons. (Remember, this was 74 years ago.)

In the summer we enjoyed an occasional Saturday afternoon “ride” through the country in the family car or a picnic in North Park. There was very little social life for Mother and Dad. I do not remember him ever taking her out for dinner and a movie, but he did go bowling by himself. Once every two weeks, mother would go by streetcar down to the YWCA to attend the Amacita Club, a gathering of twelve to fifteen young homemakers from various parts of the city. Before we three children entered school, we went along with her. Sometimes we would shop at Gimbles, Kaufmans, or Joseph Hornes while we were in town. Mother and Dad were also members of Mrs. Irwin’s Sunday school class at First Presbyterian Church.

Clifford was determined that his three children would graduate from college. In the fall of 1941, I entered Indiana State Teachers College (ISTC, now Indiana University of PA, IUP) to become a home economics teacher. I graduated in the spring of 1945. In the fall, Joan enrolled at STC, also in Home Economics. She graduated in 1949. Stanley entered Grove City College and graduated a business major in 1953. We accused Mom and Dad of a planned family. They denied it, claiming it was God’s planning that we were four years apart. We agreed that Dad and Mother should have received a diploma because they had accomplished a lot with their eighth grade educations, hard work, and thrifty life style. They succeeded in their goal to send their three children through college.

On May 31, 1954, Mother died after a long bout of duodenal cancer. May 13, 1955, Clifford married Catherine Schaff. March 12, 1956, Stanley died in a plane crash. Despite losing his only son, Clifford enjoyed a very happy marriage of 24 years before Catherine also passed away. In July 1980, at the age of 84, Dad married Eva Moudry Boyd, who was his wife until he died on Columbus Day, October 12, 1988, at the age of 92 ½. I was there when he died. While on the phone prior to my visit, Dad asked me when I was coming to get his car. At 92, he had decided to give up driving. Before knowing that his death was at hand, I had suggested to Eva that Dad’s Sunday suit needed to be dry cleaned

Daddy’s religion was a daily commitment, not just a Sunday ritual. I love to recall when I was the only child, not yet four-years old, watching him put the finishing touches on his business attire. Once ready to leave the bedroom, he knelt by the bed for prayer before he left for the office. As an elderly man, when I visited his home, we knelt at bedtime and prayed quite lengthy prayers. As head of the home, Dad always said grace before we had our meals. I still try to keep these prayer practices and hope that my children will too.

These are a few of the memories of my late cousin Helen Campbell Johnson. Her unpublished autobiography contains many more recollections than can be shared here and is a treasure to her surviving family. After the death of her first husband and remarrying in her retirement years, she and husband Herschel alternated between Texas and St. Mary’s, Ohio. I regret that I never got to meet her before her death. With her teaching, writing, and keeping in touch with even the most distant relatives, she was a good example for us all. The least I can do is make some of her memories available to future generations through this forum.

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