Growing up out Proctor: Uncle Yontz and Aunt Pearl
My uncle Yonsell (Yontz or Yonce) Jay Eller (1902-1982) and aunt Pearl Amanda (Briggs) Eller (1906-1978) lived in Proctor almost all of their adult lives. Uncle Yontz was the third of the nine Eller siblings. All were born at the C. A. and Elizabeth Eller homestead on Newman Ridge and all attended Highland School and Antioch Church. Aunt Pearl was born and raised a few miles from Proctor on American Ridge, which was called German Ridge until World War I came along. Yontz and Pearl had three children, all older than me: Joanne, Jim, and Jay. Uncle Yontz did not go past eighth grade in school but Aunt Pearl graduated from West Liberty Normal School, now West Liberty University.
The youngest child, Jay, became especially close to my Dad and our family. We saw Jay a lot at our place, partly because he courted and married Mary Hohman who grew up further out Route 89 from our place on a farm near St. Joe. Jay traveled past our house often to see Mary and usually stopped to chat. As described in an earlier chapter, my elderly grandmother Eller lived with Uncle Yontz and Aunt Pearl part of the time while her care was shared between some of her adult children, especially Aunt Freda in Akron. We were at Uncle Yontz and Aunt Pearl’s place in Proctor often.
I seemed to me that Uncle Yontz and his brothers were short on small talk, at least with kids. Yontz earned a living with his large trucks and bulldozers. He passed this interest and knowledge along to his sons Jim and Jay who became successful with their own earth moving and trucking businesses.
One of my most vividly recalled early youth experiences happened one night at Uncle Yontz’s big garage. It was bitterly cold and he was having trouble starting a diesel bulldozer in his garage. He solved the problem by piling some boards under the engine, pouring on some fuel, and igniting the boards with a match. After about ten minutes, the engine had heated up enough to start with no trouble. I now know that is an old diesel mechanic’s trick but it certainly impressed me at the time.
I believe Uncle Yontz bulldozed the foundation for our new house out Route 89 and dug out our farm pond. He did that kind of work all over Wetzel and Marshall County. One year, Uncle Yontz had the contract for cutting brush on pipeline right-of-ways. The PPG plant was on strike that summer and my Dad was hired on as a laborer to earn some income. Wow, that was hard and dangerous work – swinging scythes and axes on extremely steep hillsides in the heat and smothering humidity of the West Virginia summer.
Uncle Yontz was elected sheriff of Wetzel County for the 1969 to 1973 term, so he was popular around the county. It was unusual at the time for rural county sheriff, but he never wore a gun. I was told that Uncle Yontz believed that gunplay was a job for deputies and his job was to try to prevent situations from getting to the point where a gun was necessary. I’m not aware of any great drama during his tenure as sheriff so his strategy worked.
In the years Yontz was sheriff, he and Aunt Pearl lived in the Sheriff’s House between the county jail and courthouse in downtown New Martinsville. Granddaughters Beth and Missy would stay with Yontz and Pearl at the Sheriff’s house in summers. The girls remember weekend drunks being escorted into the jail by the handsome Deputy Castranova, who of course was nicknamed Cassanova. They also remember the delicious meals Aunt Pearl made as jailhouse cook for the inmates. Aunt Pearl indeed was a great cook and some people suspected the drunks wanted to go to jail just to have a day of her cooking. In a future chapter, I’ll describe the time in the wee hours when one of my shirttail cousins rode his horse onto the sheriff’s porch, pounded on the door, and demanded to be arrested so he had a place to sleep off a bender.
My cousin Joanne reminded me that her parents Yontz and Pearl took many people into their home who needed a home, in addition to my Grandma Eller. Joanne also said that railroad hobos (the B&O line was just a hundred yards from their house) knew they had a good chance of being handed a good meal if they came to Aunt Pearl’s door. I can attest that Aunt Pearl usually had her delicious cookies on hand when we visited.
I remember many evenings as a child sitting in Aunt Pearl’s kitchen. Pearl had been an elementary school teacher and recognized that I liked to work with numbers. To keep me occupied, she would make up addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication exercises for me to work. It worked every time. (Yep, I was a nerd from the start!) Joanne recalls that younger Fred amused himself by playing with Aunt Pearl’s pots and pans.
I have only fond memories of Uncle Yontz and Aunt Pearl. Everybody should have aunts and uncles like them.