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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sketch of the Life of Lillie Belle Munroe Read, part 1

On September 13, 1892 Lillie Belle Munroe was born at home, a house in rural Newton County, Arkansas. She came into a blended family consisting of nine persons: her father,
Lester Munroe
William Lester Munroe, a curly-haired, blue-eyed Scot about 34 years old; his father, William Orlando Munroe, a widower about 66 years of age; Lillie’s mother, Mary Jane Whittenton Johnson Munroe, about 33 years old and widowed at the age of 21 before she married Lester; Lillie’s half sister Annie Frona Johnson, about 13 years old; her half brother Sam Johnson, age 12; her brother John Munroe, age 7; her sisters Agnes Telitha, age 5, and Allie May, age 4; and her brother Claudy, age 1. She would have had twin sisters, Flora and Florence, but they had lived only 4 and 5 months through the summer of 1886, when John was a little over a year old and before Agnes was born. A little over a year and a half after Lillie’s birth, her younger sister Jessie was born, and then the Christmas when Lillie was three years old, Medora was the last to join their family. When Lillie was only a baby, her brother Sam ran away from home. He was not there most of Lillie’s childhood, but she certainly knew him.

Mary Jane Munroe
May remembered their mother, Mary Jane, as a sweet-tempered, quiet, patient lady who liked having a houseful of children and never minded the noise and commotion they created. All children adored her. May said once that the only thing her mother did that a lady wouldn’t want known in public was once in a great while, she’d dip snuff. She’d send the little ones out to the field to find a certain kind of twig that could be chewed and frayed to make a paintbrush or a toothbrush, or, sometimes, a snuff dipper. Snuff is pulverized tobacco, and when put on a brush and held in the mouth against the cheek, the user would get a nicotine rush through the mucous membranes. That type of tobacco use did not contribute to lung cancer, but it could cause the teeth to loosen, and sometimes caused cancer in the mouth.

William Orlando Munroe
Tragedy struck the Munroe family a year after Dora’s birth when Claudy died in January 1897 at the age of 5. Lillie’s grandfather William Orlando Munroe, who lived with them, died the next year after Claudy, in April 1898. He was 71 years old. Then the worst tragedy for the family came eleven months later when their mother, Mary Jane, died on the 3rd of March 1899 in Little Rock. Lillie was only six and a half years old. Her brother John was 13 years and 10 months; her sister Agnes had turned 11 just four days before; her sister May was two months shy of 10; her little sisters Jessie and Dora were four and three years old. Her older sister Annie Johnson was about to turn 20. It was a severe blow to the family, especially to Lester, who never recovered from his wife’s death.

Munroe Girls about 1897
Front: Agnes, Dora, Jessie
Back: May and Lillie
Lester Munroe stayed in Arkansas for a few years more, and then he decided to move his children and himself to the northwest where there was room—land and opportunity. Annie, recently married to Clint Cusick and with a home of her own, stayed in Arkansas. Sam was living in Georgia and eventually moved to Pennsylvania.

In 1903 Lester and the children took the train to Idaho, settling in the Nampa area where Lester hoped to get work on the Bureau of Reclamation’s new Boise Project, among other things. The family was poor and lived in a sod house. John worked some and was in charge of his sisters, 15-year-old Agnes, 14-year-old May, 10-year-old Lillie, 8-year-old Jessie, and 7-year-old Dora, called Dodie. Because Lester couldn’t get all the work he had thought, the family became very, very poor. One time May and Lillie thought up a scheme to beat their poverty by coating pennies with mercury to make them look like dimes and sending Jessie and Dodie to the store to spend them. When their father found out about it, he tanned their hides!

Late in 1904, Lester decided to move on to Oregon, but Agnes was upset about the plan. On Christmas eve 1904 Agnes eloped and married William Henry Allen, who came from Pennsylvania.

In 1905, Lester bought a spring wagon and two horses to draw it, and with another horse, they headed west to Oregon. Lester drove the spring wagon loaded with all their belongings, and John rode the other horse alongside the wagon. Lillie and her sisters generally walked.

They hadn’t been on the trail long when they stopped near Vale, Oregon, and some men at the general store asked about buying their horses. Lester replied that the horses weren’t for sale. That night they stopped to camp, and Lester rode back to Vale to buy more supplies they would need before heading into the wilderness of eastern Oregon. He had taught John and May to shoot and they both had pistols, May said. She said he told them strictly that they must hobble the horses and not ride them anywhere, but stay close and guard the camp. As soon as he was out of sight, May recalled, she and John jumped on the horses and rode around a while. She could not remember whether she and John had remembered to hobble the horses or not after they were through. She thought they had. Meanwhile, the younger girls remembered they had spread the canvas tarp on the ground with their bedding on top, and they lay and sang while looking up at the stars. When their father came back to camp, he asked, “Where are the horses?” They were gone! The family searched for days and found one horse, but they never found the other. Those unscrupulous men had evidently led the horses quietly away while the children were singing. Their father was furious and certain children got a whipping for their negligence.

They continued their journey across Oregon, walking beside the wagon. The weather was cold as they traveled through the central Cascades past Three Sisters. When they got to the top of the McKenzie Pass, they had to spend a night in the snow because a broken-down wagon blocked the trail ahead, which led down through Eugene and over the coast range to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. They settled in Marshfield, near what is now Coos Bay, where their father got work building bridges, houses, and whatever else he could find. He had been a finishing carpenter for the railroad back in Little Rock, so anything to do with woodworking was what he tried to get now. The children lived in a camp a little ways outside of the town because they couldn’t afford to rent or buy a house. They had cleared the brush and forest from some of the land and built a platform on which they erected their tents. They built a cook stove on which May cooked most of the meals. May and John hunted rabbits and squirrels sometimes for food. May remembered it being scary being off there by themselves a lot, but she also recalled liking being by themselves. They were a close and loyal family.

Munroe Family about 1905: Lester in the center;
clockwise from top: John, May, Lillie, Dodie, Jessie, Agnes
Lester decided to move to Portland, but he waited until after the World’s Fair (Lewis and Clark Fair) of 1905 was over. He did not want to deal with his teenage girls and the crowds that the Fair drew. Lillie was about 13 years old. John and their father were often away from home, finding work anywhere in the Pacific coastal states from Seattle to San Diego, and at first the family lived in tents on two lots their father had bought in Portland. May was in charge of the family, but her younger sisters weren’t easy on her. One day, Lillie and Dodie recalled, they and Jessie had been so “ornery” to May that May had announced that she was going up the hill to visit her friend Amanda to get away from her impossible little sisters. Lillie and the younger girls waited all night, but May didn’t come home until morning. When she came back, the girls cried, “Why didn’t you ever come home?” May replied that she would have if they treated her better. Not long after this time period, May married Paul Rieboldt, October 1, 1907.

In about 1906, Lester Munroe had finished a little house on one of the lots, so they had a better place to live. Dodie had become very sick soon after the move, and Lillie took care of her, nursing her night and day. The doctor told Lillie she was a natural nurse. When May was expecting her first child, Lillie was the one who stood by to take care of the baby. Paul ran for the doctor that night, and the doctor gave the new baby, Pauline, to Lillie with orders to dress her. Lillie had never dressed a baby before, but she guessed she could handle it. When the trained nurse arrived to take over, Lillie asked her whether she had done anything wrong? The nurse replied that she had done everything right, excepting maybe the nurse wouldn’t have put a little slip on the baby along with the other clothes. Lillie was happy with the praise. When John got double pneumonia, Lillie nursed him too. He was unconscious for eight days, and when he awoke, the doctor told him his sister was the one to have pulled him through. The doctor told Lillie that if she would enter a nursing school, he would pay her way. But she hadn’t done well in school and didn’t think she would be able to handle the course work, and without anyone else to advise her, she didn’t go.

Lillie’s schooling had been sporadic, and after she completed some high school in Portland, she looked for work, never to return to school. Despite her lack of schooling, Lillie was educated very well in many things. Besides nursing, one in particular was her botanical knowledge. She knew the names of all the domestic and wild flowers in Oregon, all the trees, all the shrubs. She was always a skillful gardener, although her methods could sometimes be unconventional. She used to tell her house plants, “Bloom, or I’ll throw you in the trash,” and they always obeyed her. She also read extensively. She always liked to learn new facts, esoteric and otherwise.

Lillie about age 16
In 1908 at age 16, Lillie was baptized in the Arleta Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. Her father had earlier been a Seventh Day Adventist, but he didn’t go later in his life. Lillie was always a faithful Christian and church goer throughout her life. She read her scriptures regularly and she loved hymns, especially “Whispering Hope” and “In the Garden.” After her marriage she joined the Disciples of Christ Christian Church that her husband belonged to.

To support herself in her teen years, she was working in a mill in Portland when she heard that Meier and Frank’s department store needed a bookkeeper. She started studying bookkeeping at night while she kept working in the mill during the day, but then she landed a job as a clerk at Meier and Frank’s. She worked with lace and notions on the first floor (no cash register; she had to calculate prices and change), earning $17 a month. She said her room and board with Mrs. Douglas of Kern Park at that time was $10 a month, and she had to spend $2 a month for street car fare. Then she had to stretch the rest to do her washing and so on. And she wanted to be a missionary someday, so she was saving her last pennies each month with that in mind.

As a grown woman, Lillie was short. She was 4’11” at her tallest and later admitted she was 4’8”—but her feet always reached the ground, she said (except when she was sitting in someone else’s chair!). As a young woman she had reddish brown hair with a slight natural wave in it, and she had bright blue eyes and a pale complexion that freckled easily. She was never thin, but never too heavy either. She wore a small but wide shoe size, 4½, and when it was hard to find women’s shoes in her size, she could get put out about it. The selection was never very good for clothes and shoes in her size.

One day in 1909 she was riding the train from Portland to Yacolt, Washington with her sister May, who had been visiting her in Portland and, finding her suffering from a case of the flu, said, “You’re coming home with me.” While on the train, a young man stopped to talk to May for a moment, and then he went on. Lillie, feeling terrible and thinking she was looking her worst, nonetheless thought that the young man certainly looked interesting. She asked her sister who he was, “the young man with all that hair.” May told her his name, Lloyd Read. Before the train arrived in Yacolt, Lloyd had come back to find out more about the girl with May, red nose and all. And he got permission to call on her when they were back in Portland.

One of Lloyd's postcards
Their courtship lasted through 1909 and into the spring of 1910, with Lloyd seeing Lillie every chance he got and writing her postcards or just sending a postcard he thought she’d like even with no message on it to make sure she knew he was thinking of her all the time. In June they attended the social functions of the Portland Rose Festival together. After the Starlight Parade on June 11, 1910, Lillie accepted Lloyd’s proposal of marriage, and they were engaged.

Lillie’s father and family approved of Lloyd, but Lloyd’s parents disapproved of the match. They said Lillie was “white trash” and wouldn’t have anything to do with her. Even though Lloyd’s mother, May Corlinda Robertson Read, had had to walk partway to Oregon herself as a little girl and had known poverty, she felt that this poor girl from the South with little formal education would do nothing to help her son advance in the life that she had pictured for him. Lloyd’s father didn’t want his son marrying so young, and marrying a girl of a different religion at that. He wanted his son to go to college, to have material advantages. They tried to break up the match, even telling Lloyd that if he would call off the marriage, they would pay for him to get a college degree. He refused. They threatened to cut him off without a cent. He regretted their attitude, but he wouldn’t give up Lillie. He didn’t care what they said or did.

Lillie and Lloyd were married in Portland on October 5, 1910 at the home of the minister, Francis (Frank) Cook, at 795 E. Salmon St. On the marriage license Lillie reported her address as 247½ Fifth St., City and her occupation as chamber maid. She had lost her job at Meier and Frank’s and had gone to work in a hotel that belonged to friends of her family. After the wedding, while Lillie and Lloyd continued to live in the hotel while both of them worked, Lloyd’s parents pointedly showered money and privileges on their younger sons still at home and tried for a time to have nothing to do with Lloyd and his new wife.

That didn’t last. Lillie’s good humor, hard work, strong faith, and loving ways won them over. When Lillie’s first baby was born March 20, 1912, her mother-in-law was there to attend her. Viola Maybelle, named May for her paternal grandmother and Belle for her mother, was the first Read grandchild and great-grandchild. The Read grandparents were suddenly very proud! They had pictures taken with their granddaughter. She was probably spoiled rotten at first. Or she would be if she had the disposition to be spoiled, and if her mother had let her be—and Viola herself said she felt she was given much more than any of her younger siblings. Everyone was delighted with the baby, and more importantly, Lillie was finally accepted by the Reads.
Lillie and Lloyd at left, Lloyd's parents at right (Virgil and May Read)
Grandparents Clifton Kittridge Read and Elizabeth Nancy Porter Read
and Viola Maybelle Read, born in early spring 1912

This is the first of a two-part series. Click here to read part 2.

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