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Interview with Mary Keeney

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Keeney, Mary ; Dobandi, Susan


Mary Keeney talks about her early life in York County and Mechanicsburg of Southern PA with her family. She speaks of the influence in the town of the Pennsylvania Dutch people, who were from Germany and brought many German ways and traditions to the town. She also describes her childhood experiences, such as delivery of goods, the dry goods store and how they preserved their food. She received a scholarship to attend the Florence Crittenton Assoc. and began training as a nurse. Later she moved to Binghamton, NY, married and retired from nursing.




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


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Broome County Oral History Project


30:22 Minutes


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Mary Keeney

Interviewed by: Susan Dobandi

Date of Interview: 16 December 1977

Susan: This is Susan Dobandi, interviewer, and I'm talking with Mary Keeney, who lives at 150 Chapin St., Binghamton, NY. The date is December 16, 1977. Mary, I'd like you to tell me something about your life in your early beginnings. Could you start with where you were born?
Mary: Yes, I was born in southern Pennsylvania, in York county in the country, and we lived there for about three years, then we moved to a little old town, Mechanicsburg—this was across the river from Harrisburg, about nine miles west in the Cumberland Valley which is a beautiful valley about 20 miles across where I lived. The land was—ah—limestone country, very ah productive, and the fields were acres and acres of wheat and corn and not—not large dairy ah herds but more farming. We lived in, usually, lived in about a six room house that was common for the poorer people and we had these six rooms, very comfortable but no conveniences, no hot water, cold water, no bath. No heating except with a range or cook stove and a heater if you wanted to heat the rest of the house. Bedrooms were pretty chilly.
We got along without bathrooms but it wasn't as bad as what one would think having that outside toilets because, being the limestone land, there was plenty of drainage underneath the town. It seemed like there were underground streams that carried off anything that would be—would sink down. To have an outside toilet they would dig down until they found a rock, underneath that rock there would be an opening. Many times they turned the firehose in there and flushed it out then built the outside toilet, which of course made the danger of wells, so they had to close up the wells. They were not used, they couldn't be used any more because of this underground sewage. The sewage system only carried of the surface water.
They—the town was—the people were very much under the influence of the Pennsylvania Dutch, which are not really Dutch but from Germany. The people came from different parts of Germany and they were different as they came from different parts of Germany. They would differ, as they came and for a long time I thought it was real Pennsylvania Dutch but I found out that it was not—not the true Pennsylvania Dutch as it's called now. Not so much.
Susan: Mary, did this influence your upbringing?
Mary: Yes.
Susan: Did this influence the way your parents raised you?
Mary: Yes.
Susan: And affected your schooling?
Mary: It did.
Susan: Tell us how.
Mary: Because they brought with them the German ways. Oh. And while it wasn't too marked difference they—but they were very class conscious, and so as you grew up there you were kind of classed—that what street you were living on—whether you lived on this side or that side of the tracks, if you mingled with this class or that class. And if you got in that class, you never got out of it no matter how successful you were. You were always considered that class. In school as you grew up, you were just kind of, ah, classed in the poorer class or the better class and it stayed that way.
I went to school and I liked it. I liked school very much, but it seemed pretty hard. We didn't have—we didn't have any playgrounds. We were always kept off the grass. Many times we were blown and reproved and scolded if we got on the grass. We had no recess, we had morning and afternoon session, hurried home at noon and right back. We had no half terms or two terms in the year. It was a whole year. Mine were nine months work, solid work, and when examinations time came in the spring, we had nine months work to review for our examinations. We had very little vacation. Work—our school opened in September and by Memorial Day, we were out. We didn't go after that.
I went to the high school, finished the first year and attended the second year until I was ready for my examinations. My father was ill and I had to help out in taking care of him. I was not at home, at that time. I was living with a lady as a companion, going to school, so I went home and
helped take care of him and I got back with my lessons.
The principal said, “You pass; take your examinations. If you pass in three studies, I'll put you over in the junior class,” but I knew he meant harder study and the doctor had just told me that I was studying too hard, that I should not try to finish high school. So I figured I had better not try. So I dropped out.
I couldn't take up any work—I wasn't strong enough, but I did have a friend that was living, working in Atlantic City. When I was eighteen and she was doing work among girls who would go down to Atlantic City expecting to pick up work almost overnight, then be stranded, needed a home, needed advice, needed protection and so there were reading and restrooms for these girls and, but the doors had to always be open. So this friend of mine who was working there who was a graduate nurse asked me to go down and work with her, which was very interesting work. No salary promised, but all my needs were supplied and I had a very interesting life which I enjoyed so much. While there the lady who was the national president of this Florence Crittenton Association came there to look over the work in Atlantic City. She met me. She liked me. She liked my work and gave me a scholarship to go to their training school in—in Washington, D.C. So without any money (ha) I started and I found my way down there alone, not being used to traveling, but I—I found my way and began my work there.
They claimed that it was a year’s work crowded into six months. It was a specializing on obstetrical nursing but it included general lectures on general nursing, children’s diseases, ethics of nursing and two Bible studies. We just had day and night duties and many times I was on duty more than a half of that time because I had to fill out for a nurse to be off one day a week, so I got very tired, but the lectures that I received and the and the practical work which we jumped into immediately, instead of cleaning floors and so on as they did in those days, I did crowd in quite a little ah training.
I think I was just naturally…I, I liked nursing, and so after I came home I didn't start nursing but people kept asking and I gradually worked into practical nursing in private homes. What?
Susan: Then you came to—talk about when you came to Binghamton and started raising your family, and what were things like then.
Mary: I came in 1907, but I went back, and then I had a friend who wanted me to nurse her when she was expecting her third baby. I came then; I was on the case, and when the doctor came he was asking some questions and he wanted to be sure, how did I know this or that, and I showed my chart and he said, “Oh, I can give you work most any time.” From that I went—I stayed on
and kept working, and I got more calls than I could fill. I, I worked at that about four years and a half. I met my future husband and we got married when I was 34.
Susan: What neighborhood was this in, Mary? At the time, here in Binghamton? Where did you live at that time?
Mary: At West Windsor—
Susan: Oh.
Mary: —with this friend. They had a grocery store, and instead of resting when I would go off a case, I would go up there. I worked in the house, I worked in the store, and the man who owned the store was Treasurer of the Telephone Company. Had the books, so I would catch up on the books, so I never got a great deal of rest.
Susan: Tell us about when you were here in Binghamton.
Mary: Then when I got married I first went to Vestal for a few years but then we moved back to—we moved to Binghamton. That was, oh, about ‘25—1925. My hou—my life was my home life.
Susan: Your home was your life.
Mary: Yes, I didn't want to work, a doctor begged me to do work for him, but I said I was—I wanted my home life. I enjoyed it. I was happy. Of course, those days we were living comfortably.
Susan: Your husband was in business here in Binghamton? Your husband was in business?
Mary: Yes, he was…well, a carpenter. At first he was working—he had worked for E-J a good many years, but he was gifted. He was a carpenter and he went into business for himself, so he was building homes, and of course during the Depression he was doing a great deal of repair work because they we were glad of any kind of work during the Depression.
Susan: Can you tell us anything about the change in the city from the time you first came as against now? Did they have the trolley cars when you were here?
Mary: Yes, they had trolley cars and I can remember when they last—they made the last trips. They draped some of the trolleys with crepe and that was the last trip that they made when the buses came.
Oh. I…the War - the First and Second War - they didn't affect me a great deal. I was working at nursing during the First World War. The Second World War, of course my husband didn't have to go. My stepson didn't have to go. He didn't pass the physical and my son didn't get—he wasn't old enough to go until the last end, so that he enlisted twice but he wasn't in—a—he didn't get overseas.
Susan: Now, I know that you’re not very much up on the Feminist Movement, but can you tell us anything about the Suffragette Movement in your days? When you were growing up?
Mary: No, I didn't seem to get into contact with that. I think it was because I was so satisfied with my home life, and I thought that being a housewife and a mother was just about the height of happiness, and I thought to be a mother, to be able to be queen of your own house and home, you had to learn how to cook well. You had to learn how to sew. You had to learn how to take care of the children when they were sick. I thought it was very challenging and I liked it. I think I would not trade for any—ah—outside interests, if I just could have…be queen in my own home.
Susan: You were telling me the other day about some of your experiences when your mother sent you to the dry goods store. Could you describe one and a little trip that you made to the store so that people will have some idea?
Mary: Yes.
Susan: And your experience with that little…at?
Mary: The dry goods stores. They—they sold a great many things, of course. All kinds of yard goods on the first floor. On the second floor they had furniture and furnishings for the home. Window shades, curtains and things like that. The people did a great deal of sewing in those days and one day we came home from school. Mother had been to this store and when we came into the house she said, “Girls, I want you to go up to—up to Allcott’s,” that was the name of the dry goods store. She said, “They have something there that's very interesting,” and she tried to describe it. We couldn't imagine.
We went up—we went into the back of the store on the first floor. And there they had a gramophone, with the records and a great big horn and the sounds coming out of this horn were unbelievable. We couldn't imagine where they came from. Some of the kids said, “Oh it must be down in the basement coming up some way,” and that was my first experience with the gramophone, and of course those were the days before radio and those were the days before many things. We had no refrigeration, electric refrigeration. They had cut out, they would cut the ice from the river during the winter months. It seemed we had very cold weather at that time. Then they would pack this ice in sawdust in buildings and would sell it during the summer. It was always amazing to me how that ice would stay from winter until summer and still not melt away.
Those who could afford it, the ice wagon drawn by horses came through every day. You could buy a 25 block piece or 50, but most of the people depended on their cellars. We didn't call them basements - they were cellars with dirt floors, and perhaps because of the underground waters or streams, they kept cool. We kept our milk and butter and things down in the cellar. No, there was no heat in there, just our canned goods. Everybody canned because you couldn't get fresh fruits and vegetables. You either had them canned or you buried them and they buried cabbages, carrots, parsnips and so on—and would dig them out and we canned fruit and preserved a great many. We had to get along from one season to another that way.
Fire engines were drawn by horses too, and I'd like to tell you a story. After they, the fire engines did not need horses anymore, they, somebody who owned a great big wagon or, we didn't call them trucks, would haul coal. They were heavy which needed two horses, one of the owners bought two fire horses to draw the—this wagon of coal and it, I heard that if they would hear a little gong ring, they would run. Just why they started this day I don't know. I was sitting, looking out the window where an alley came up into a dead end, not actually a dead end but a jog, and they were coming right straight for my window, and I knew they were coming too rapidly to make the turn and got up and ran to the far end of the room and held my face, waiting for the crash, when they made the turn it would hit our house but I didn't hear it—so—I went out. They did make the turn by coming up the sidewalk, and one horse’s shoe mark was left on the step but they made the turn, went down about half a block, turned into Main Street and stopped at a fire hydrant. But—I went out rather shaky. A doctor from the corner came up and looked over to see what they had done. He said, “They left a shoe mark right on your step; if you had your door open they'd have walked right in.” [chuckles]
But our coal was delivered that way, just like the ice. It went down the chute in the cellar. We didn't have gas. We had, we had to cook on a cook stove, but they had—many of the houses had what they call a chimney corner instead of a fireplace. It was a chimney corner that you could shove your cook stove or range inside, do your cooking and a little—it was a little—it was ah, er…awkward. But you could do it, and then afterwards close the doors and that heat would stay. It was not…you wouldn't need to bear the heat from the stove. Sometimes, they had a little summer kitchen they could move into.

Streaming Audio

Date of Interview



Dobandi, Susan


Keeney, Mary


30:22 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Keeney, Mary -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Mechanicsburg (Pa.); Pennsylvania Dutch; Nurses -- Interviews; Binghamton (N.Y.); Dry goods store

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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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