A Legacy Lives On

One of the traits that Ruth Hunter most admired about her Grandmother Bessie was her playful spirit.

Standing just 4 feet 11 inches in her black laced oxfords, Bessie Cramer Johnston loved to invent games and tell stories to entertain her grandchildren. On hot summer nights, says Hunter, Johnston would spread white sheets on the grass so the children could study the stars and wish on them. On cold nights, she would find icy windowpanes and spin yarns about Jack Frost.

"I grew up holding on to her apron, watching her cook and bake at the black iron wood stove," says Hunter, adding that one of the treats Bessie baked was lady fingers for impromptu tea parties.

Another trait that Hunter admired was Johnston's generosity and compassion for her fellow man – "especially those in need," emphasizes Hunter.

To her grandmother, says Hunter, "a hobo was only someone less fortunate and Jesus in disguise."

When Johnston owned the Clifton Bakery and Quick Lunch in Ashland during the 1920s, she would feed ministerial students from Randolph-Macon College at her own expense.

During the Depression, she collected clothes and food for the gypsies and their babies who camped in cars near Brook Road in Glen Allen. Once she had filled a wagon with her collection, the tiny woman would haul it to the gypsy camp, accompanied by her granddaughter.

"I was eight or nine," recalls Hunter. "I was probably almost as tall as she was."

So when it comes to honoring her grandmother's memory, it's only fitting that Hunter has echoed that generosity – and incorporated Grandmother Bessie's playfulness as well – by donating toys, dolls and other playthings to a Henrico museum.

On Nov. 24, Hunter visited Meadow Farm Museum to make her latest donation: a "Bessie doll" made in 1872, the same year her grandmother was born.

"She is a Grenier [doll]," says Hunter, "a homely doll [with a] papier mache head." Hunter believes Grandmother Bessie would approve of the doll's plain appearance, since Johnston – who was born in the Poconos near Stroudsburg, Pa. – used to call herself "the homeliest girl in the mountains."

Shoes and Thimbles
Perhaps it was Johnston's "homely" designation that helped make her so sensitive to the plight of others.

Bessie had a sister who was thought of as beautiful, says Hunter, and once told her granddaughter about family gifts received from an aunt when she was about 10.

Emma, the sister, received a beautiful doll; but it took Johnston awhile to find her gift.

"Finally, down in the very bottom of the package, was a little thimble for Bessie," says Hunter, adding that the sterling thimble is now cherished by her daughter-in-law.

But Bessie Johnston's faith undoubtedly contributed to her giving and compassionate nature as well. A devout Baptist, she was a charter member of Biltmore Baptist Church.

"Her credo," says Hunter, "was simple: to complain is an insult to God."

Johnston arrived in Ashland in 1911 when her husband moved his family to be near his father, H.C.N. Johnston of Passaic, New Jersey, who had bought the 300-acre Winn farm on Elmont Road a few years earlier.

Until she and her husband moved to Henrico County, sometime around 1927, Bessie operated the bakery on Railroad Avenue.

Hunter has written about the lunch spot in a commemorative book marking the town of Ashland's 150th anniversary.

"I am told she is written up in the annals of [Randolph-Macon College] for her contributions to the well-being of the students," writes Hunter.  "The menu included soups, sandwiches and pies of many flavors.

"Bessie was a Yankee and had never heard of grits or collards, so she cooked or baked what was familiar to her: foods of Pennsylvania.   Her heritage, going back to early American days, was German, English, Dutch, Swiss and possibly a little French thrown in."


Ruth Hunter's special connection with her grandmother may have reached a peak, however, in her third grade year.

"We wore the same shoe size [that year]," she says, "so she ordered us shoes form the Spiegel catalog – exactly alike!"

"I sometimes wondered," says Hunter, "if she loved me only because I was the child of her cherished daughter. But she loved everyone – except the doctor who called me homely when comparing me to my prettier mother."

Billy Goats and Buckets
As a family, the Hunters have a long history with Meadow Farm. 

Hunter's son, Robert Jr., did archaeology digs on the grounds as a student, and described the farm experience in his graduate dissertation at the College of William and Mary.

Hunter was born just a few miles away from Meadow Farm, near Mountain Road, in 1928.

At the presentation of the Bessie doll, Johnston's great-granddaughter Debbie Frost Bohn joined her cousin Ruth, and they discussed the legions of relatives who have lived in the Meadow Farm area for decades.

Bohn recounted stories she heard as a child from her own grandmother "about the ladies getting off at the train station in their big dresses, going to big balls at the Forest Lodge." Bohn has recently taken an interest in the family history, and credits Hunter for helping her learn more about the Johnstons and other ancestors.

"[So] many generations of my family have grown up here, and still go to Glen Allen Church," says Bohn. "We all lived on Blackburn. My mother – Bessie's granddaughter – still lives here. It's all still connected."

In addition to the Bessie doll, Hunter and her family have presented Meadow Farm with several other items over the years: blacksmith tools, brass buckets, fireplace and farm tools, and a hide-covered trunk lined with early newspapers – all in keeping with the farm's 19th-century origins.

On Hunter's 81st birthday, her grandchildren presented “Billy” for placement in the children’s bedroom in the circa 1860 farmhouse.  “Billy” the goat, a late 19th-century riding toy with iron wheels and a brass bell at his neck, had enjoyed many years as a decoration in the Hunter home.

"Rather than try and put the goat on a gift list," says Hunter, "since more than one of our children may want it – and like Solomon we cannot cut him in half – we like the thought of the public enjoying Billy in the old farmhouse."

As she was with the riding goat, Hunter is happy to make a home for the Bessie doll, and to honor once again the memory of her grandmother.

Even after all these years, says Hunter, Johnston has a powerful everyday influence on her. Whenever she feels the urge to whine or complain, for instance, she hears
her grandmother's voice admonishing her.

"Today, every trip I make to the compost pile with vegetable scraps, or to tend the herbs, or bake bread from scratch, or love a grandchild – I think of my grandmother," says Hunter. "To emulate her in small ways is all I can accomplish.

"I tell you," she adds wistfully, "I loved that little lady."

For more about Ruth Hunter and her museum donations, visit her blog at http://redhunter50.blogspot.
com/2009_11_01_archive.html.
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Preschoolers give pillows to families in need


A group of preschoolers from Chesterbrook Academy Preschool donated 56 pillows to local families in need at the Housing Families First shelter. The shelter is always in need of pillows and linens as, since families take the donated ones with them to their new homes.

Housing Families First provides shelter and support for homeless families and assist them in finding a permanent housing solution. The shelter serves people year-round, said Terri Iguina, operations and volunteer manager at Housing Families First. > Read more.

Dairy Queen’s Blizzard sales July 27 to benefit Children’s Hospital of Richmond


Dairy Queen’s 13th Annual Miracle Treat Day – Thursday, July 27 – will raise fund to benefit sick and injured children being treated at Children's Miracle Network hospitals throughout the United States. Locally, $1 or more from every Blizzard Treat sold at participating locations will be donated to the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Last year, the event raised more than $14,400 for the hospital. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: July 24, 2017


Crime Stoppers needs your help to find the person who struck a pedestrian in the City of Richmond.

On July 21 at 12:52 a.m., a woman was crossing the street at Forest Hill and Sheila Lane when she was struck by a dark colored four-door sedan that was traveling eastbound on Forest Hill. She was transported by ambulance to Chippenham Hospital for minor injuries and released. > Read more.

Henrico Police locate missing man

Henrico Police have located a missing 46-year-old Henrico man.

Police had reported Kevin William Cannelli missing this weekend, after he was last seen July 18. He was located safe in the Richmond area July 24. > Read more.

Business in brief


For the ninth year in a row, Puritan Cleaners is conducting a one-day-only community program that offers everyone in Richmond a free cleaning of one pair of pants. The event, called Free Pants Wednesday, will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 2. The offer is good at all 13 Puritan locations throughout the greater Richmond area with no strings attached. There are no minimums or other stipulations (other than suede and leather pants are excluded). This year, Puritan has partnered with the Richmond SPCA to help raise awareness for the Free Pants Wednesday program while also raising awareness for homeless kittens awaiting adoption at the Richmond SPCA’s humane center. The two organizations collaborated on a short movie which can be viewed at http://www.puritancleaners.com/community/free-pants-wednesday. This video is the latest in the light-hearted, low-budget, and intentionally campy videos associated with the Free Pants Wednesday program. Previous versions have featured racing at Richmond Raceway, ex-VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart, Todd “Parney” Parnell and the Flying Squirrels, and Bill Bevins and Shelly Perkins of Easy 100.9. > Read more.

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July 2017
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The Henrico County Community Author Showcase, a program that connects writers and readers in the community, will begin at 7 p.m. and continue on the second Monday and every Thursday of the month at various libraries. Suzanne Starseed will share her book “The Ecology of Learning: Re-Inventing Schools” at Fairfield Library. For details, visit http://www.henricolibrary.org/authors. Full text

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