A Legacy Lives On
Family Donates Items to County in Memory of Generous Grandmother
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.
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