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Interview with Mrs. Mary Fenson (née Mary Pyluck)

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Fenson, Mary ; Politylo, Nettie


Mrs. Fenson continues to talk about her life on a farm in Johnson City, NY and the day a fire destroyed her home and how the Beckwith Lumber Co. assisted in rebuilding. She also discusses the customs of her culture on Pentecost (Troitsa).


1978-04-25 ; 1978-06-20


This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.

Date Modified


Is Part Of

Broome County Oral History Project


44:56 Minutes ; 47:18 Minutes


Broome County Oral History

Interview with: Mrs. Mary Fenson (née Mary Pyluck)

Interviewed by: Nettie Politylo

Dates of Interviews: 25 April 1978 and 20 June 1978

[Interview #1: 25 April 1978]

Nettie: This is Nettie Politylo, interviewer, talking to Mrs. Simon Fenson, 2121 Farm to Market Road, RD#2, Johnson City, NY, on Apr. 25, 1978. Mrs. Fenson, will you start telling me about your life and working experiences in the community, starting with your date and place of birth? OK—start.

Mary: What shall I say?

Nettie: Start—where you came from.

Mary: I come from Austria. I was 16 years old. I come to this country 1906—September 28. My father was here. They take me to factory, then I got a job up there—then I work in a cotton mill.

Nettie: When you came from Austria—where did you go first? What city or town did you go first?

Mary: Oh, I come on the town called Crampton, but now they don't call that Crampton—they call it Warwick—but before, they call it Crampton, Rhode Island.

Nettie: What did you do there?

Mary: I go to factory, I make—I work in machine, made thread—they call it spinning.

Nettie: Do you remember how did the job—the procedure of the job?

Mary: My father go and ask the boss, and they don't wanna take me in because I was still very young. I had to wait two months before I was the age of 16, then they took me in the factory to work. I worked on the machine, where they made thread—thread—that's all.

Nettie: How did you make this thread?

Mary: The machine did the work—the machine did the work—

Nettie: Did you have to feed it?

Mary: You have to take one thread and another thread and feed it into the machine—and out of the two twined together makes the one strand of thread. This is called a spinning machine.

Nettie: After you left Rhode Island, did you come here?

Mary: No, jobs were scarce, pretty strict, my husband had a friend in Taunton, Mass. He went there for a visit and they suggested he come here. There is work here. So, we went there—true, he got a job—and I got a job—all was pretty good.

Nettie: Where was this? In Endicott?

Mary: No, no, no—Taunton, Massachusetts. Massachusetts.

Nettie: What did you do in Massachusetts? The same thing?

Mary: Same thing, same thing—just a different company—same thing, same job on the machine. Let's see—and then we stayed there a long time. My husband got a job—was not the greatest job—just holding on—later on he got a job in the silk factory, he was an inspector looking over silk cloth and I was still working. Later, I had an uncle living in Binghamton. My uncle had written me a letter and told me to come to Binghamton—as “Here, we have the EJ factories, lots of people are working here and getting overtime pay. Come here.” We quit our job and came to Binghamton. 

Nettie: What did you do? Did you work for EJ, too?

Mary: No, I couldn't work - just my husband worked. I was looking for a job but couldn't find one—because—don't need it. I work in Dunn McCarthy five weeks.

Nettie: Where?

Mary: Dunn McCarthy.

Nettie: What did you do there?

Mary: Oh—when they were wearing shoes with the buckle on the side—I sewed the tongues onto the back. I worked 5 weeks but could not work any longer as our daughter was—let's see, about 6 years old and was about to enter school. We did not find living quarters so my husband bought a house. I had to stay at home—I was at home. We lived in this house—I cannot how long—I guess, from ’17 up to 1920. Then later, we traded the house for a farm.

Nettie: Where's the farm located?

Mary: Right over here.

Nettie: What's this street?

Mary: Oh—just next door!

Nettie: What is your address?

Mary: R.D. #2, Johnson City!

Nettie: OK.

Mary: Yeah, from 1920 we came on this farm, we were poor—hard life—dilapidated farm—ah little by little—my husband was working in the factory—there there wasn't much work so he had to quit—decided we would farm—he didn't know anything about farming and I didn't understand farming, but we were young so we figured we would get along.

Nettie: You would learn.

Mary: Yeah. I was in town occasionally and saw every once in a while, a farmer would come into town with his horse and wagon and bring in the different things to sell. I was thinking, I, too, will try—take the horse and wagon downtown and sell something, also. We owned three cows—so, I made cheese, butter and took it with me. Many customers bought these from me. One time, ah—people bought from me but few paid for it. Times were bad—we were poor—no money coming in from anywhere. Once as I was out delivering butter, cheese—I do not know the name of the street at this time—I was about to deliver some butter to a customer—to one of the Polish ladies—when this man, an insurance man named Bay—I didn't know his first name but last name was Bay, a John Hancock Insurance man—stopped me and asked, “Housewife, how is business?" (Laughing.) “Business is good—people are buying but nobody is paying anything.”

Nettie: Free.

Mary: Yes, they buy my cheese and butter but make—tell me will pay next week as now I have the electrical bill, all kind of excuses not to pay me. He told me, "Stish, why do you go and knock on doors to sell your wares? Why don't you go to the Johnson City Public Market?" Bay, I have never heard of that market—never had. He said, "Listen, I'll make a map for you." So he proceeded to take out his little book and on a piece of paper he drew a map with directions to get to the market. He said at the market people come to you, buy your wares and pay cash. I thanked him so next week not to go to my house customers, as I'll not receive any money, anyway.

That night, I was telling my husband—the next week I will not go to my cheese and butter customers as Mr. Bay told me to go to the market—Johnson City Public Market. My husband replied, "Oh, you are foolish to listen to people—you got good customers—take care of them." I said, "What good are they? I never get paid for my labor—that's the business!” (Laughing.) Also, it just happened I was so fortunate to have a large crop of peas, such beautiful peas, that I picked two bushels, took along cheese, butter, etc., and was on my way to the market with my horse and wagon. I had no idea where I was going. I looked over the directions on Mr. Bay's map—up to Broad Street, Johnson City, straight through the tracks until I hit Main Street, Johnson City—there, directions continue—to ask someone for further directions to Johnson City Public Market. I rode, sure, as he instructed, not to Broad Street but Main Street—there I came upon a green light and stopped, not knowing which way to turn. A policeman across the road hollered for me to go on. I waved "No"—I really could not speak much of English. He came up to me and asked me, "What is the trouble? Why don't you go on?" I told him I didn't know where to go. He asked again, "Where are you going?" I said, "Johnson City Market." He then proceeded to tell me to go straight to the light—turn right—go a quarter block and then you will see the market.

I did as he told me—arrived there—knowing it was the market when I saw the horses and wagons, as at that time we had no trucks or cars. I arrived at the front—seeing all the people—was a bit flustered—not knowing where to park my horse and wagon—as it was, here came Mr. Patterson, manager of market—he said, "Welcome, welcome new producer!" I didn't know what to tell him. He said, "Turn the horse around this way." 

I said, "I can't, I don't know how."

He said, "All right, you sit and I'll turn the horse around." I got down and waited. After taking care of the horse, he glanced at my wares and said, "Good! Good! Good!" Again, he asked, "Do you know how to sell?" 

I said, "No." (Laughing.) He was very obliging—says, "Good.” He took some tags from his pocket—saw my peas and came around with a quart basket—says, "This basket is 18¢ a basket or 2/35¢.” All right, when I started selling—by Gosh! I couldn't believe the people at my stall—buying my wares—I couldn't keep up with all the customers—I didn't have to have bags as the people paid for my peas and told me to dump my peas into a basket they carried on their arm. I sold everything. The manager approached me and said, "Come again next week."

"Good," I said, "I'll be back." I came back every week—brought anything I had to sell, and everything went and I received cash! I looked around and saw what people were selling to give me ideas. I just couldn't get over it—anything I brought in, it was sold for cash—nothing trust! I raised vegetables—vegetables, very little profit—yeah—too much work and not much good of it. I had vegetables like carrots, onions, beets, etc., on a bench—but being outdoors, they wilted in the sun.

One summer day, a lady of 65 or more, who had a stall nearby came to chat with me. As we were talking, she pointed to my vegetables and said, "Lady, you had beautiful vegetables there but now they are wilted—people will not buy wilted vegetables.” 

I answered, "What should I do?"

"Forget the vegetables," she advised, "why don't you raise flowers?" 

I replied, "Flowers! Who needs flowers?" I didn't believe her—she continued telling me that anyone who owned a home and had a small plot of land in back, they always grew vegetables for their own use, but flowers, they have no room to plant. If you sell flowers you will have a good business. I don't know how to go about this new venture. The lady proceeded to tell me that as soon as the snow melts in the Spring and the ground is not too wet—plant some sweet peas and they will grow nicely. I did just that. I wanted to buy flower seeds, my husband laughed and said, "Foolish lady, who is going to eat your flowers?" 

I told him, “I'll try it.” (Laughing.) I spent one dollar on flower seeds. After a short time, I told my friend, “My sweet peas are growing so beautifully, such beautiful flowers, can't get over that. What shall I do with them? I don't know.” I had, at no time see arrangements of flowers. She replied, "What? Get scissors—cut them and make bouquets." I thought to myself—how do you make bouquets? The next time I went to the market, I cut some flowers, brought them in to the lady friend and again, asked her to show me how to make bouquets. She was very obliging—showed me the how to, and later said, “Use your head, too,” because if you make a beautiful bouquet you will have many sales, but if you just bunch them they will not be appealing and you will not have a sale. I tried the best I could—so, I continued to plant sweet peas—first a quarter pound, later one pound of seeds—I had flowers—but it was a job—especially the cutting and making bouquets. Now, I started to plant other flowers, even planted the flowers my customers requested. I tried. I noticed a seed catalog—I ordered flower seeds and had such a beautiful assortment of flowers. My customers were pleased—I had asters, zinnias, gladiolas, they didn't like the scent of marigolds. The glads—I had so many—but I sure found success with my flower sales. Many people did not believe me that I could earn more money at the market than the lady who works in a factory. I found if you have the will, strength, you can do very well.

Nettie: Do you have to pay for your booth?

Mary: Oh yes, we had a nice place now, the market was under cover—beautiful, lot of space, clean—we paid $12 a week but it was worth every cent—before that, we had a open market, that was free, then, they paid us $2.00 to come and sell—always reminded us to come back. As I said, after a while, George F. Johnson built a new market—we liked that very much as summer and winter it was a pleasure to be there.

Nettie: Mrs. Fenson, how did they sell meat? Did they come in with chickens, pigs?

Mary: We sold many chickens—we never had less than 100-125 chickens sold on Saturday. We killed and defeathered chickens at home and at the market so dressed them as to customer's choice, whole—cut up—free service.

Nettie: How much were chickens at that time?

Mary: They were 35 cents—nice young fryers (4-5 pounds) at 48 cents a pound.

Nettie: How was the meat business?

Mary: I don't know—some brought in half a cow—cut into pieces—oh, yes, there was a Mr. Baxter, he had all kinds of meats—big place with about four people working there—all people lined up to buy—all sold by noon. Another man, Truman, sold lamb and calf.

Nettie: Did you know to make change? Did you understand how to do that?

Mary: Yes, Mr. Patterson showed me how—asked me where I would put the money and I told him in my pocketbook. He gave me a basket (quart), put a newspaper around—he said, "Don't put your money in pocketbook—put your money right here, because when people come up to you have chance to give change." He show me how, then I did like he showed me. He was a very nice man, nice person—he helped me—everything—he said, "When people buy from you, you have to be very nice to them. Always say, ‘Thank you.’” (Laughing.) He teach me—I don't nothing about anybody. (Laughing.) He said, "When anybody come to you—they buy from you—be very pleased—when you give change back—say, ‘Thank you—come again!’” That's what I did. But it was a nice place.

Nettie: Any more interesting stories about the market?

Mary: Lots of people come up—they find out market—little by little come up, lots of them. These days they was no cars—1921—they was no cars, everybody come up with team or one horse.

Nettie: How did you get down in the winter? By sleigh?

Mary: No, I just go with the market wagon—that's all—and wintertime, I go once a week.

Nettie: Did you go, yourself or with your husband?

Mary: No, he didn't want to go—I went myself.

Nettie: You're the businesswoman.

Mary: I did, sure! That's the first thing—you know. I say to my man, I say, the next week I go to the market because, I hear Mr. Bay, told me market people pay cash. He said, "Don't fool yourself, you got steady customers.” Yeah—those steady customers take everything but they got—nobody pay me a nickel. Well, I went like Mr. Bay told me, my man was so mad he no want to put—he no want to hook the horse to wagon. He put harness in—horse was a big one—I was short—I can't put harness—he put harness in—he don't want to hook horse to wagon because he said I should not leave my customers—but after that he don't say nothing—little by little—

Nettie: He saw you were a good businesswoman.

Mary: Yes, he find out I don't do nothing wrong. I know this Bay, he don't want me to go—I sell my peas—and for what I got them—I got the cash—I got $16—see, $16 I never see in years. I know my man, he was worrying—he got horses—they need—horses, when you go on field work—horses need oats—we had no money to buy oats. When I got this money I go home—farmer store and I stop and I ask the farmer store's man, I say, "Mister, I got one horse but want to buy a little grain for horses, anything I needed—can that not be too heavy for horse to go?"

He said, "No." (Laughing). “How much do you want?"

I say I want it, at least two bags—that's 200 horse feed. He said, "That's not heavy—at all—he can take a lots more." Then I take it—two bag horse feed, one bag cow feed, and I got myself pork loin, I like that, 12 cents a pound—he sliced for me, this storekeeper, then I pay everything cash and I come home. I got $4 cash—beautiful! Beautiful! When I got home, my man he said, "What you got in those wagon?" 

I said, "Why don't you look over." He see, boy, he grabbed the bag—he said have to go on field—the horses don't have nothing to eat. Then afterwards, he don't say nothing to me. You wanna go—go—you wanna—go—

Another thing, at old market there was a man from Owego, who sold all dressed chickens. I decided, I wanted to sell chickens, too. The next week I took with me a crate of live chickens—sixteen chickens in a crate. At the market, people went by, looked, said, "Nice chickens. Nice chickens," but were not buying my chickens—so, one of the following days, it was rainy weather and my husband could not work in the fields, told me he was going with me to the market, as company. He helped me bring out my wares plus the crate of live chickens. I am thinking all the time, I have such beautiful chickens, how can I make that chicken dead? (Laughing.) Nobody is buying my chickens. I am still thinking, thinking, and all of sudden, I got an idea. I looked around and saw my man talking, smoking, smoking—with a couple men. I took a market basket—they don't have that kind these days—and it, I put two roosters and a hen. I tied, covered the chickens so my husband would not see them. As I was leaving, I told my husband to take care of my business, and I'll be back soon. He told me to go—but asked "Where are you going?" 

I told him I'm going to go on Main Street, but I didn't go on Main Street—I went to Mrs. Philipso. I arrived at Mrs. Philipso's and called, "Hey kuma, put a pot of water on stove." She then replied, "Do you want to take a bath?" (Laughing.)

“No, just get a pot of water ready—I have some chickens here I want defeathered.” 

She asked, "Who will kill the chickens?" 

I replied, "I don't know," but we finally agreed that since both of us cannot do it, we asked the neighbor. She was obliging—"Get me the knife—I'll kill them." Finally the chickens were defeathered and I returned—to the market. I saw my husband as I left him talking with the men—I asked, "Did you sell anything?" 

He replied, “No, no one stopped by." Now, I put my dressed chickens on the bench—still out in the open market. Before long, a Slovak couple come by and stopped to look at the chickens and asked if they were fresh—I said, "They are shaking—are warm." The lady answered, "My God, they are warm.” Man answered, "Oh, the sun warmed them." (Laughing.)

I convinced them my chickens were fresh, so they bought the largest rooster for baking. I was beginning to worry if we’ll sell all the chickens, but as it was, another couple came along, another person came along, so within thirty minutes my dressed chickens were sold. I figured if they could sell dressed chickens inside the market I could sell outside, on the bench. Before long, the man from Owego—who had the dressed chickens—reported her to the manager—saying, “That lady is taking my business away—get rid of her.”

In all fairness, Mr. Patterson replied, "Harry, you take care of yourself and she will take care of herself.” As time went by, my chicken business grew from twenty to thirty chickens every Saturday, also, kept growing to 120-125 chickens—at holiday time I included ducks, geese—at times we had to buy chickens to keep up. Finally, I had such a business, my husband wanted a picking machine but it cost $360—he figured if someone has one I'll have one—so with pieces of wood, metal, he made one of his own which worked beautifully. The chicken business was a lot of work and a lot of fun—so that was our life going to end—35 years at the market—from beginning to the last.

Nettie: What was the year of the closing of the market?

Mary: 1953. We sold our farm that year, as raising vegetables, chickens, glads were not necessary if I did not have a market to sell them at. When I sold glads—that alone was good money, but instead of selling each flower I made bouquets for $1.00—medium size 50 cents—people bought for cemeteries. I had beautiful flowers that I kept fresh in pails of water—people were standing in line to buy them. My flowers were sold every time but if had a few left, I gave it to people for their church. They were a good profit for me—I remember—year 1939—it was a fantastic year—sold so many chickens—assorted flowers—glads—gladiola sales alone, I made $135—was pretty good. I always kept track of my sales—always sold everything.

Nettie: I must say—you were a good businesswoman.

Mary: Oh yes.

Nettie: How did you learn to be such a terrific businesswoman?

Mary: I don't know! I had neighbors, Bobby, June, they grew many things in their garden. I like planting new things. I planted some new things that my neighbor planted. I don't see why I can't have new plantings even though my neighbor has. They asked me, "Where do you get all those things?" 

I replied, "Where? In my garden—growing!" I saw different people asking at June's for rhubarb—I didn't want to invest in seeds, at first, so waited, thinking someone will give me some. One day my husband sent me to Union Center to buy seed because he was going to plant oats. I took my horse and wagon—along the way passed a farm that had a beautiful growth of rhubarb. A lady of the house was passing by—I called to her, "Hey, Mrs., I see you got very nice rhubarb."

She answered in Slovak, "Oh, that thing—throw it out to the devil."

I then asked, "Maybe, you could sell me some because I do not have any."

The lady called her husband to dig out a clump. He did, put it in my wagon and told me to separate the roots, as they will grow thick. I had six plantings from that. Later on, I stopped at another farm—they, too, gave me rhubarb. I, sure, had a lot of rhubarb in my garden—by gosh—I had a lot of rhubarb. Boy! Oh boy! They call it strawberry rhubarb—the pink variety. When I saw the different interesting plants or vegetables—I always wanted to have them, too—I feel if I wanted to take the trouble to plant, take care of it—why not? I had everything! I loved to work—in Europe I remember when I was very young—I worked for a few pennies for this landlord—by gosh!

Nettie: Did you sell jam at the market?

Mary: No, no, no. At the beginning, I sold cookies—sugar cookies.

Nettie: Did you bake them?

Mary: Yes, you never believe it—25 pounds on Friday—I use everything for sugar cookies—they was 20¢ a dozen. (Laughing.) Honest to God—people stand in line—want a cookie—almost all lady in market, they ask me, "How soon you gonna have the sugar cookie?" That was lots of fun!

Nettie: Did you make cakes?

Mary: No, just cookies. They was not enough time—because every time our chicks were small—we had the small chicks, that needed attention, you have a little time so you have to work fast—we had the calves, chickens—so we had a lot of work—God knows.

Nettie: Did you sell butter and cheese at the market?

Mary: Oh—that just from in the beginning—because we had only three cows—we didn't have that much milk. Later, little by little we bought more cows—we had milk—the milkman picked it up—the milk—at beginning we didn't have that much—just enough to make cheese and butter. Oh yes, when I had her [daughter Nadine] 20th of May—Friday—I made 12 pounds butter and honest to God—20 pounds cheese—we had enough milk. My husband took it to the market—he sold it all.

Nettie: You made a businessman out of him.

Mary: Oh yeah, funny thing!

Nettie: Do you have any more experiences? You did have many interesting experiences.

Mary: Yeah. (Laughing).

Nettie: Mrs. Fenson, Where did you go to school? Europe? Where did you get married? When you got married you probably went to work.

Mary: When I was in Europe—we didn't have much schooling—my dad always said, "You'll never get bread to eat by going to school—you have to go out in the fields to work to have bread." I went to school—very little—they didn't give us a chance to go to school—Polish officials were against us—in attending school.

Nettie: What did you learn?

Mary: I learned Russian and Polish languages—we had to learn both languages. We attended school 8 to 11 in the morning. Later, work in the fields—that's all.

[Interview #2: 20 June 1978]

Nettie: Mrs. Fenson, will you continue telling me more about your life on the farm? Mrs. Fenson, let's go back to the flowers you used to raise on the farm—will you tell me more about it?

Mary: Well, I raised just what I could sell at the market—see—various vegetables and anything that the customers requested, she accommodated them, and earned a good income.

Nettie: You can go on. Did you ever have trouble with the disease that the gladiola had?

Mary: No, never, because before you plant gladiolas you should soak them in the water at least 36 hours and then plant it.

Nettie: Oh! first soak them—

Mary: Oh, yeah—now people don't do that, but before, yes—uh—forgot what you put in the water—can't remember—-if gladiolas get the trips it is very hard to get rid of—just like if a person gets very ill and it is, is hard to get healed—from the trips—

Nettie: Well, Mrs. Fenson, when you were on the farm, you told us the last time about how you used to drive the team of horses—did you ever learn to drive a car?

Mary: No.

Nettie: Did you ever try to learn? Did your husband teach you?

Mary: Well, from the beginning we owned a truck. My husband said, "Why, the truck—let's buy a car.” He bought a car—Pontiac—nice car—brand new one. He told me, "Right away I will teach you and then you can drive a car.” All right, good—we bought a car—drove home to the farm and in the driveway—side of house—had to drive on the upgrade. He said, “Sit on this side, I'll tell you how to back out of the driveway.” I drove several feet—stalled the car—he said, “Oh! Oh! That’s all! You'll never learn to drive because if you gonna drive the car you gonna kill yourself—you gonna kill lots of people, you no good.” (Laughing.) 

I was mad but they don't do no good—that's about how much I learned to drive the car. I asked, "All these years I used to go with the horses, now I can't go with the car.” He said, "You do not have any nerve to drive the car.” After that I just didn't want to learn anymore—there! As for being retired—we were not really retired that we wanted to—no—it was because my husband was very ill. What to do? Could not work in the fields or garden, noplace, because he was in the hospital most of the time. I got us thinking—to sell the cows and just live like that on the farm. So, we were going to live on the farm with nothing to raise, so we decided to sell the farm. We sold the farm, which is located across the road, and this land on which this house is built was empty—we decided to build a home on this land about the year 1953. Now we thought we could live fairly well, as they say, our business was in order, we saved a little money, no debts and just live—but then my husband started ailing—really ailing—and then just left me—passed away. Yes—it’s terrible—suffering—working—and then— [pause]

He—if only he didn't smoke that much. He was a wonderful man—he wasn't a gambler, no drunk, no woman chaser, like they say, he was a wonderful man—he worked—did everything—did not have to have someone doing his work—just smoked endlessly since he was a young man. That's why he got emphysema and heart trouble, left everything. [Pause]. We also had a beautiful home in Florida—I thought that weather would agree with him—oh—but that did not help him.

Nettie: Is the cigarettes that really got him?

Mary: The cigarettes did that to him—the worst thing during the end, he had in the bedroom by the bed an oxygen tank—he had to inhale the oxygen in order to breathe—it was very difficult for me because he had to lie in bed and I had to apply this mask on him and see that he inhaled the oxygen, otherwise he would choke. That was really awful—God be with him—he just could not get well.

Nettie: That's bad—cigarette smoking. I don't smoke—but many do and I don't think it is good for them.

Mary: I have a daughter, Olga, I don't know if you knew her, she smokes constantly. I've talked, pleaded with her—nothing helps—just keeps on smoking—that's all.

Nettie: Some people are like that.

Mary: Yes, some men turn to smoking, some to drinking—you could live without this—live like God intended them to—but people don't look at it in that way.

Nettie: I think if people want to indulge they can do so moderately.

Mary: Oh—more I know—third of July will be 57 years that we came on this land—57 years.

Nettie: Here on the farm?

Mary: Yes—57 years. Here—the road—it was such a narrow road which was difficult to have two cars drive on it at one time—dirt road—no electricity—no, no, it was difficult living here. (Laughing.) We had kerosene lamps—

Nettie: Where did you have the kerosene lamps?

Mary: In the house. You put a kerosene lamp on a table and just sat around—there was no television, no radio, no nothing when we bought the farm, but we lived and everything was all right.

Nettie: What did you do for water?

Mary: Oh, we had a well near our house. We had to go out and pump our water when we needed water—see, in the house we did not have running water, only a well which you had outdoors to pump and get water. If I was in need of hot water, I had the stove with which I burned wood—that's how we got along.

Nettie: That is a big change for people nowadays—

Mary: Oh yes—nowadays—it is just like a day and night. People have all the conveniences—like washing machines, etc.—machines for everything—for people this is the life. I used a washboard. Nowadays, many people with conveniences tend to get lazy.

Nettie: They don't want to work! No!

Mary: I have an example. Look at my daughter, next door—she has a washing machine and dryer. Why does she have to pay for electricity for a dryer? Why, we have the beautiful outdoors where in no time her clothes can be dry and smell ever so sweetly—but no, she puts her clothes in one machine then another, that— (Laughing.)

Nettie: This is an age of progress.

Mary: Oh yeah, I didn't even have a decent electric iron to iron clothes—I only had a iron that you put on the stove, heated it and then did your, your ironing—heating constantly.

Nettie: I had forgotten—how did you iron in those days?

Mary: You took this iron—heated it—and with clamps you picked up the iron—then you iron.

Nettie: This was a continuous heating?

Mary: Yes, constantly. I had three of them heating—when one was cooled, you returned to the stove and took next one—you picked them up with a clamp that fitted on these irons. That's the way I ironed, but, you got used to it—that's all.

Nettie: That's right.

Mary: People have to get used to everything—if a necessity arises—people get used to it.

Nettie: Mrs. Fenson, did you ever do needlework?

Mary: I did cross-stitch—oh, how I loved to do that. That is how I spoiled my eyesight—I always loved to do the cross-stitch.

Nettie: What did you do?

Mary: Oh, everything! Shirts—I worked cross-stitch on shirts which they used on theater plays on Baxter Street (St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church). I really loved that type of needlework!

Nettie: Yeah.

Mary: Oh, needlepoint I didn't do that—crochet—I didn't do that. I didn't have enough nerve—you work, work, and nothing is appealing—but embroider-work, you have flowers, birds, etc.

Nettie: Did you ever knit?

Mary: No, cross-stitch is all I did—that was my life!

Nettie: Mrs. Fenson, you must’ve been a pretty good baker. Did you make breads, cakes?

Mary: Nothing much—I only made sugar cookies—cookies.

Nettie: Oh yes.

Mary: Other times—Friday was my day to bake cookies—I sold them on the market at 20¢ a dozen.

Nettie: What kind?

Mary: White sugar cookie—some people asked for molasses cookies, but it would not pay. I would make sugar cookies with lemon flavor—people sure loved them. I remember for a long time many elderly people would stop and ask, "When are you going to make cookies?" I told them, no more cookies—I had too much work in the fields. Later, we raised chickens, we had our own incubator for the chickens. When we came on the farm there was only one house and barn, no other buildings. Now we had a big new hen house, brooding house, raised own chickens, 3,000 of them, 14 cows. We had enough work—we had to milk cows—

Nettie: Didn't you have any machinery?

Mary: We had machinery at the time but did not have money to buy the machinery! All right—after a time we saved some money, were doing better. My husband said, "Now, let's buy a new machine." The machine cost $350—that is for a milking machine. It was wonderful—didn't need to milk by hand. All right, then came the harvest time—who is going to help you with the hay? My husband is older—cannot work—I could not do it—children scattered to many cities. So, again, who is going to work? At that point my husband decided, "Let us sell the farm." So, that is our retirement. There was no other way—before that, we were younger, able to work the fields or garden, milk cows, tend to the chickens, but after a person gets older, loses strength—

Nettie: You should have had some help, right?

Mary: My son-in-law worked in EJ until 4pm—later during daylight he would help my husband put the hay in bales, put it in the barn, and even on Saturdays and Sundays, he helped us. That's true, you can't find people to work on the farm, as industry is not too far off. They'd rather work in industry and not work such long hours on the farm. As I said, we finally sold the farm. My husband just did not want to along with the farm as, although we did get a nice sum for the farm, he started ailing. It was a constant procedure, to the hospital, home, operations, back and forth—back and forth. Must be that was our fate! It was bad, too—one of our daughters, Olga, had an operation—then the other daughter, Nadya, had an operation—they had appendicitis. Olga did not cost us too much but Nadya's operation cost quite a bit more as she had a rupture. She was in the hospital much longer.

Nettie: Nadya—is that Nadine? I am Nadya, also.

Mary: Yeah, that is Nadine. That is a beautiful name. When Nadya got ill they took her to the hospital. The doctor did not operate, at first, but told my husband it will cost you $500. We didn't have $500, so my husband went up to see his brother, Steve, for a loan. We paid the bill, doctor’s bill, at Lourdes Hospital. It was very hard for us to pay the hospital bill but the Sister of Lourdes Hospital were very sympathetic and made a deal. They told us, “You live on the farm, so try and pay us with produce, poultry and eggs—anything you can spare—in this way you can take care of the bill.”

Nettie: This was a good deal because the hospital needs produce, chicken and eggs.

Mary: Oh yeah, they always took 30 dozen eggs, 1 dozen cut up dressed chickens. They appreciated all this, as this is what they had to go out to buy, anyway.

Nettie: This is a good example for this kind of barter now, since prices and taxes are so high.

Mary: Oh no, not now—everything is different now—as day and night. People have changed—most are mixed up. (Sigh). Life has passed with all tribulations—as I said—times were tough, first one daughter had an operation, then the second daughter had an operation, and in 1940—all of sudden our house burned. Yeah, I was working with my daughter Olga in the garden and my husband was in the henhouse. I had not been in the garden very long when my husband yelled, "Ma, the house is on fire." Our garden was quite a ways from the house, therefore we did not see anything. Immediately, Olga ran up to the house and yelled, "Come on, come on!" I finally hurried to the house—by gosh, after we looked around the house was burning blaze. This was about 2pm.

Nettie: What happened?

Mary: Short circuit—what we had, everything perished. As for insurance, all we got was $500—because they had no fire stations, therefore we could not get more money.

Nettie: What could a person do with so little as $500?

Mary: That is right. We wanted to build a new home—but, what to do for money? Mr. Beckwith of Beckwith Lumber Company was also a person who was sympathetic to our needs. When he heard of our bad luck he came to see us. He asked, "Simon, do you have enough insurance?" My husband replied, "I hate to tell you we have only $500." 

He said, “You can't too much with $500, but don't worry—find yourself a carpenter, have him measure how much lumber, etc., is needed and notify me. Everything will be taken care of.” That is exactly what we did, and the next day a truck from the lumber company arrived with the lumber. (Laughing.) We bought our lumber from Beckwith's during the years, whether to build a barn, henhouse, and paid our bills well. We eventually built our new home and paid our bills—somehow God sent us strength and business was good at the market—whatever we brought, we sold everything! It was just good luck—although everything was perished in the fire, but God gave us strength to work so that we came out—all right.

Nettie: I think Mr. Beckwith was a good man to do that for you. You could see that he had a lot of respect for you—knowing you will pay your bills.

Mary: Yeah, Yeah.

Nettie: Nowadays situations are different. You would not find anyone who would trust a person like that.

Mary: That is right, if you live a honest, clean life, people don't forget.

Nettie: That is true, that is true.

Mary: It will be 57 years that we lived on the farm—on July 3 or 4 was Sunday and people celebrated Monday. It was so cold—

Nettie: 57 years ago?

Mary: By gosh, when we moved up on the farm from Binghamton we had no lights, we could not see anything. I couldn't see my husband and he couldn't see me. (Laughing.) Here we wanted to connect our stove, but since we couldn't see what to do we decided to do just—wait until morning. The next morning we connected the stove, put the coal on the wood, and were warmed up—it was so cold that whole week that we thought we would have a frost—July 1920. Even with all of life's tribulations—if I had to relive my life, honest to God, I would relive it the same.

Nettie: You would relive your life the same?

Mary: I would relive it. If God told me to relive what I had been through, I would! Only give me back my strength—I just love to work in the fields, in the garden—that was my love, the outside, to work. I'm not like the ladies who get together for a coffee klatch or the ones who get together for bridge—theirs is a different life—I loved the outdoors. Sometimes, during the winter weather the snow was so high, you could not see very far, my husband would start off for the woods and say, "Do you think you could leave the children alone and go to the woods and help me?" (Laughing.) We had about 35 acres of woods—you could get a lot of lumber out of them—but some of the trees needed a cross-cut saw, so I would go with my husband and help to hold the saw as he cut the lumber.

Nettie: Did you go out in the bitter weather?

Mary: Sure, I'd put on boots and go in the deep snows. When you are out in the snow you don't realize you are cold—because you are working. When times are tough you get used to do everything.

Nettie: I think when you are in the woods or working in the garden it gives you such a peace of mind—such a peaceful atmosphere!

Mary: Yeah, while my husband is cutting the wood I'm piling the wood—helping him in any way I could. We worked all the time—we had enough of wood for our home use. We had a country schoolhouse down the way to which we sold several cords of wood, too.

Nettie: Do you still have it?

Mary: No, no, we sold it with the farm—that's all. We sold everything with the farm but two acres—there it lies dormant—I can't work it anymore—the land is idle—when I was able to work I had everything, raspberries, vegetables, etc.—even flowers. Here we get a lot of traffic passing our home, we were able to sell all of our produce and flowers. Now, I look at the idle land—I can't walk—

Nettie: It must make you feel bad, doesn't it?

Mary: It hurts. It pains me to know you have the land but I can't walk, I can't even bend—it's right there—you can't get to it—I see it—that's all. I've been to many doctors—upper body is fine but my feet and knees, arthritis. I have X-ray after X-ray, but it does no good because all they tell me is I have bad arthritis. I know all of this and it is frustrating. You could have all the money in the world, but, if you don't have good health—it is not good.

My husband tried to see that all of our debts were paid, we saved a little money, and since our children have grown up, married and moved to distant places, we would just enjoy life together—but look what happened. He became ill—very ill—left this world—that's all—only I am here—left alone on this earth—that's all. (Laughing.) We came to live on this road 57 years ago—this road leading to the airport. No one is left—they have all passed away—only I am still living. Oh no, there is one man, a Slovak man who lives in a small white house near the school. His name is Valenta.

Nettie: We were talking about the holy day called Troitsa. Do you recall how they celebrated that day?

Mary: Our church parishioners go to the cemetery on that day to have services, memorial services for the deceased of the parish. Many of the people put branches on the graves to commemorate the day.

Nettie: Do you remember how they used to decorate the homes on that day?

Mary: Yes, Yes everybody had branches of trees on the doors, windows on that holy day, Troitsa. They also strewed large blades of greens—someone told us it is called cattails—on the floors. In Europe they used to bring large trees and dig them in the ground around the doors—greens everywhere—every niche in the house, roof, etc.

Nettie: What was the reason for that?

Mary: It was a such a holy day that they all did that and believed in it, I don't understand. (Day of the Holy Spirit). Also, on that day we used to go to the marshes to pick the cattails which grow there. This Troitsa (Pentecost) is a big holy day and I also, remember when I was a young girl in Europe we used to make bouquets of cattails, greens and May flowers. All girls of my age, we took the bouquets to church—filing in twos we would walk down the aisle and have our bouquets blessed by the priest. Also, another custom was celebrated 3-4 weeks later on another holy day was, we made wreaths and also took took them to church to be blessed and then, about a week later, about of August 19 we took fruits of all sorts to be blessed—thanking God for a good harvest of fruits.

Nettie: What place did you come from, Mrs. Fenson?

Mary: Austria.

Nettie: Austria—that must have been on the border of Poland or Russia.

Mary: Yes, on the border of—uh—Wolynskia Gubernia [Volhynian Governorate].

Nettie: Was the name of the town?

Mary: Selo Wisosko was what it was called—we call it Brody.

Nettie: My father was from that city.

Mary: You mean it?! (Laughing.) The Wolynski boys used to come to our town, just to our neighboring selo [town]. They said they liked when the Wolynski boys came because they were nice gentlemen who brought candy, cigarettes, tobacco, and even brought liquor. (Laughing.) The Austrian girls made pirohys, so there was always a party.

Nettie: Mrs. Fenson, thank you very much for telling me more of your life and experiences—I really appreciate it.

Mary: You are welcome.

Date of Interview

1978-04-25 ; 1978-06-20


Politylo, Nettie


Fenson, Mary


44:56 Minutes ; 47:18 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Fenson, Mary -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Farms--Interviews; Johnson City (N.Y.); Pentecost; Beckwith Lumber Co.

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This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.



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The Broome County Oral History Project was conceived and administered by the Senior Services Unit of the Office for the Aging. Funding for this project was provided by the Broome County Office of Employment and Training (C.E.T.A.), with additional funding from the Senior Service Unit of the National Council on Aging and Broome… More

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“Interview with Mrs. Mary Fenson (née Mary Pyluck),” Digital Collections, accessed February 27, 2024,