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Women of Westminster

According to historian W. Paul Gamble, “Westminster College was the first integrated and unrestricted coeducational college in the nation.”

Westminster College will celebrate its rich heritage with a “Women of Westminster” seminar on Saturday, April 13 in Russell Hall.

"What were the women of New Wilmington doing during World War II?"

What were the women of New Wilmington doing during World War II? Since no written account could be found, an investigation of the memories of the women still living in New Wilmington was necessary. Surely there were women missed during the three-month interview process, but most that were interviewed told one of three stories: the life of the married woman, the life of the single woman, and the life of the teenager.

The Life of the Married New Wilmington Woman

Esther Ellis was in her 30s during the war. Married in 1935, she and her husband already had two children when her husband, then business manager at Westminster College, enlisted in 1944.

“After basic training was finished, Ross went to Harvard for a continued three-month training. I drove my car, a Ford with bad tires, to Massachusetts so that my children and I could be with him. I couldn’t get new tires because they were rationed, but I was able to get retreads while I was there.”

While in New England for three months, Esther and her children lived in Brookline in the same house with another family from Indiana.

“I took the children to every historical site I could find in Massachusetts. Mostly, we traveled on street cars.”

In December, Mr. Ellis went to Philadelphia to wait for his ship to dock, and the family saw him every other weekend until February, when he left to travel overseas. Alone with her children in the same house she now lives in, Esther had to deal with ration cards for scarce items such as meat, butter, and sugar.

“I spent most of my days with my children and making menus with the food available. Once I went to a lecture at Westminster College to hear a dietitian talk about dinner without meat or using the unpopular parts like the heart and liver. I never did fool my family with liver meatloaf! Meat was very scarce because most of it went to feed the army. Once I bought a piece of round steak that was so tough, I thought it might have been an old dairy cow. Most of the farming around here was dairy farming, not beef cattle.”

Esther remembered sharing ration cards with other members of her family.

“If I needed more of something or someone else needed what I had, we would trade. You would save gas by going shopping with others. There was an A&P this side of Youngstown that I went to once with only $2. I bought a roast, five pounds of ground meat and two lamb chops.”

Esther considers herself lucky because she had money. Her husband sent all his money home. “He didn’t need any on the ship.”

“We saved certain metals, learned how to knit, and donated the things we didn’t wear anymore to ‘Bundles for Britain.’ We also took turns watching for airplanes from the Westminster Old Main tower. Watch was kept around the clock with two people at a time up there around an oil stove to keep warm. Later the plane site was moved to the hill where the high school is now.

“Mostly I did what people are going to have to do now...I just went on with my life as best as I could.”

Harriet Jackson Sarver was married in the fall of 1941 and was living with her husband, Bud, in New Wilmington when the war started.

“We bought bikes right after we were married that had baskets on them for groceries. As I remember, there were several grocery stores in New Wilmington then. An A&P was located where the Golden Dawn is now, and Gilliland’s was a market back then, too. Where the bank is now, there used to be a six-story building with a grocery store inside and apartments above it, and a grocery store where the post office is now because the post office was located near the Short Stop.

“Rationing...all of us had to deal with it. Meat, gas, sugar, shortening were all rationed. We had ration books and slips of paper were ripped out of them as we used up our items, but sometimes you got a little hard cardboard token back as change. We learned to live with pies that only had one crust to save shortening. The gas was limited by the number of people in your family and the distance you had to go to work. We all had to conserve, so we walked everywhere we could to save enough gas coupons to see my family every now and then. They lived 50 miles away.”

Before her husband left for the service, he worked in the Sharon area, and purchased war bonds with money taken out of his pay.

“We had drives where we stood inside banks, and encouraged people to buy bonds.

“My husband had three deferments, but finally he left in March of 1943 until October 1945. While Bud was in training, I lived in a crude apartment in Louisiana for $25 per month, but then I came back to New Wilmington to live in a third-floor apartment on North Market Street. I was delighted to live there because I already knew folks here from when I went to Westminster.”

Sarver’s married life took a path that was not unusual for married women during the war.

“My husband’s unit was told it wasn’t going overseas, so we felt it was safe to start a family, but he was sent. Our boy was born in April, and he didn’t get to see him until the fall when his son was already five months old. After Bud left, my biggest concern was would I get mail that day.

“Wives that lived here and had kids got together for lunch sometimes. We took turns being a sitter for each others children, especially during church since we didn’t have a nursery back then.”

Sarver was involved in the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization deeply involved in the war effort.

“We mended socks, sewed on buttons, and baked cookies for the men stationed at the American Service Training Program here in New Wilmington.

“Dr. Black, who headed the Mathematics Department at Westminster College, got me into another program called the ASTP program. The Army and Navy sent hundreds of servicemen to Westminster to learn math and physics for plotting and graphing and geometry for aviation. They had barracks behind what is now the Student Union Building on campus where Orr and Beeghly are now. I taught them math.

“No one complained because all the women were in the same situation. We had to go on with ordinary life. Many women had to learn finances because most husbands did that sort of thing back then, and some even had to learn to do outdoor yard work that they weren’t accustomed to doing. We accepted what was going on, and just went on with life the best we could.”

The Life of the Teenage New Wilmington Woman

Kathryn and Marjory Semple are twins and grew up in the same house they now live in on North Market Street, and Jean Swindler Hosie, who also lived on Market Street, was and still is their best friend.

“My family raised chickens, and they were on demand due to the rationing of meat,” said Hosie. “You needed ration stamps to buy things like shoes or stockings.”

“I remember butter was also rationed,” said Kathryn Semple. “You got white oleo, and it was our job to mix it with the yellow coloring packet that came with it. It was a messy job.”

“We all contributed to the scrap metal drive, too,” said Hosie. “We’d collect old cans and take them uptown to a pick up point near the school.”

“My father built most of Camp Reynolds,” said Hosie. “They had dances there, but we were too young to go. My dad taught physics at Westminster, but there was not much need for physics during the war. He took a Navy program at UCLA for a year, so others in the department didn’t lose their jobs.”

“My dad was in the coal business,” said Marjory Semple. “The train unloaded it into the bins at the station and my father took his truck, loaded it, and took it to customers. He had an ‘A’ on his gas ration book because his type of business got more gas.”

“The trains also brought the service men,” said Hosie. “Solders, sometimes 300 at a time, would get off the train and march up Neshannock Avenue. It was quite a spectacle.”

The women had fond memories of school during the war. All three remembered buying stamps for 25 cents each until they got enough to buy a $25 bond for $18.75.

“You could buy as many stamps as you could afford,” said Kathryn Semple. “The bonds matured in 10 years.”

“Teachers had current events in class,” said Hosie. “I remember that the principal of the school, Walt Whitman, though he’d lost his son at sea. I heard his son, Donald, spent five days in the water, but he was a good swimmer and survived.”

“We walked from school to the community house for gym class,” said Marjory Semple. “I remember one male gym teacher, Russell Byler, but then all gym teachers were men back then. He taught us to march to the community house, using cadence with military commands.”

Besides school, the women found that they had many activities to keep them busy after school and during the summer months.

“There used to be a Wilmington Theater, and many Saturdays we went to see old westerns, like Gene Autrey or movies like Mrs. Minnevre,” said Hosie. “I had to work to get the money to go. I did housework, baby sat, and walked dogs.”

“I remember cleaning offices,” said Kathryn Semple. “I think it was Paxton and C.W. McKee located on the second floor of the lumber company.”

“A lot of New Wilmington kids went to the Missionary Conference during the summer,” said Hosie. “Before the amphitheater there was a big tent.”

“The Kiwanis always sponsored a Halloween party, even during the war,” continued Hosie. “I don’t recall the war making Christmas any different than usual except the family had to save gas coupons to get everyone together.”

“I remember spending time playing games like Parcheesi, Monopoly, Old Maid, and Authors,” said Marjory Semple. “I also remember the nickel ice cream cones and Isaly’s Klondikes. If you were lucky, you got one with a pink center, and you’d have to hurry back to the store before it melted to get a free one.”

“In the summer the swimming pool was and still is free to locals,” said Hosie. “I’d hurry to get my chores done and then run to the pool every chance I got.”

“I remember getting sleigh rides in the winter from Lawrence Garrett,or in the fall sometimes he’d give hay rides,” said Kathryn Semple. “We all belonged to Girl Scouts and 4-H, and a lot of church activities, too. We kept busy during the war and nothing much stopped for us.”

“When I graduated from high school, my boyfriend Matt, who I married later, received one of the last draft notices for the war,” said Hosie. “It was cancelled a couple of days later.”

As the interviews ended with these special women, one fact became evident. No matter what the marriage status or age, everyone agreed that they did not let the war change their lives.

Mrs. Ellis, who was interviewed shortly after the September 11 terrorist attack, summarized the feelings in one sentence.

“Mostly I did what people are going to have to do now...I just went on with my life the best that I could.”

The Life of the Single New Wilmington Woman

Mary Beth McLaughry, a student at Westminster College, was sitting at a football game when she first heard about the German bombing of Britain.

“I remember thinking, how can we just sit here while this is going on?”

She was a senior at Westminster when Pearl Harbor hit.

“I heard about it on the way home from a choir performance in New Castle. There was a special chapel service for the men who were joining up and leaving right away. From then on, the war dominated our thinking. In the spring of ’43 my brother joined the Air Force.

“My first job after graduation was a routine clerical job at Protected Home Life, but I was looking for a war job...somewhere I could help.

“I was recruited by the Alcoa Aluminum Company that had just started up where the old tin factory that folded during the depression was previously located. This new company made aircraft and bomb parts. Since this aluminum company was set up as a defense plant, it received money from the government plus a percentage for what they produced. I was one of the first four women who worked there, but at the height of the war, there were about 300 women working there.

“My job was a Hot Forging Inspector on two to 20-ton presses. The only requirement for the job was to be able to lift 25 pounds. I inspected the product as it came out of the press. With heavy gloves on, I used pliers to pick up the pieces out of the dies, and put them into a mesh basket. The basket was taken to a tub of alkaline solution to clean off the oil lubricants, and then into acid and rinse water. You could always tell who were the inspectors because we always had holes in our slacks.

“When I went to work, I had a special uniform to wear, which had a high hat to protect your head. It was high so that you knew if you were too close to something. The hat also had a long bill and a hair net. I also had to wear safety shoes.

“You got to know the people throughout the plant because we worked six days a week on all different shifts with all different press men. They did that on purpose, so that we didn’t get too friendly with any one press operator. You see, the press operators got paid by the number of pieces they produced, and we got paid to inspect their product. The crews would change every week.

“Everyone car pooled because gas was rationed. The buses ran three or four times a day then. Once I thumbed a ride with a Sears-Roebuck truck to work. People helped each other out whenever they could.

“I was placed on a Labor-Management Committee which was consulted on labor questions and planned events. I once planned an all-plant rally, and was chosen the master of ceremonies for the event because I was a speech major at college. I also organized war bond drives. It was made as easy as possible for everyone to buy bonds. You could buy a 25 cent stamp, and when your book was filled, you got a bond.

“I got paid 87 ½ cents per hour, but that was a lot then because you could buy an entire dinner – appetizer to dessert – for 87 cents.

“Mom was always supportive in my job, but she had a hard time explaining to her friends what I did. Dad was proud of me, but he was used to seeing women in the factory. He had women working in his business, Quality Tools, which made automotive tools.

“On V.E. day, the whistle blew and all production stopped. The layoffs began before that though. I could see the writing on the wall, and I was already very active in the UAW/CIO, so I took a job with them at one-third the amount I was paid at the plant.”

Lola Sewall Christy graduated from Westminster College in 1935, and in 1938 took a position as head of the girl’s dormitory, where she lived until she was married in 1944.

“I also taught math to 20 Navy boys who lived in Hillside. Then more Army boys came, and stayed in temporary white clapboard barracks behind where Shaw is now. I also taught math to them. I’m not sure why they were here, but they did come to learn. The Navy was here two years, while the Army was only here one year toward the end of the war. Male enrollment was low during the war for regular male students.

“The military and my ladies were no problem because there were strict regulations. My girls were not allowed out in the evening past 7:30 unless they went to the library. The service men were strictly regulated too, and cooperated with the College. The men wanted to cooperate because they considered it a privilege to be here.

“I don’t recall a problem with rationing at the College, but I’d bet that the dietitian had problems. However, the cafeteria always had enough food.

“None of my brothers had to go overseas. My husband, Wayne, signed up as Chaplin, but Dr. Galbreath convinced the Army that he was needed here on campus.

“I remember going on a ‘plane watch’ on the hill where the high school is now located. It was one of the highest places in New Wilmington. Town people, two at a time, went in hour shifts to record any sightings of planes.”

Elizabeth (Betty) Yahn Miller lived with her widowed mother and older brother during the war. She commuted from her New Wilmington home while attending Westminster College, and graduated in 1944 with a degree in business.

“Pearl Harbor surprised everyone, just like the September 11 attack, but not much changed in my life then. My brother was the chief metallurgist at Sharon Steel, and because he was needed there, he didn’t go to the service.

“I do remember airplane spotting at the College tower. There was a sign-up sheet at the borough building, and everyone was very serious about this job. People reported the sound the planes made and the date and the time. My brother and I would go together.

“Rationing, well I couldn’t get any hose, and shoes were also difficult to get. Of course, there was gas rationing.”

“Remember Rosie the Riveter? Well, even though I worked in an office, any type of job was easy for women to get – even in factories.”

Helen Williamson Kaufman, who graduated from Wilmington High School in 1942, lived with her parents during the war. He father ran a dry goods store where the art gallery is now located.

“I worked for the telephone company for about a year after high school, but then in October 1943, I went to work for the Standard Steel Sprint Company. They made 500 and 1,000-pound bombs. I worked in the office. No women worked in that factory. We had guards at the gate and really tight security there.

“I used to go to the theater in New Wilmington. It used to be next to where Pizza Joe’s is now...where the craft shop is now. On Saturdays before every movie, they’d run newsreels about the war.

“My father was an observer in the College tower. All the participants in this watch program had armbands.

“Each family member got a ration book, but I can’t remember where we picked them up. Silk was not available then, so we went to nylon stockings. Even when I married Robert in 1953, we received aluminum gifts instead of silver, which was still in short supply.”

Glenna Patton Morton graduated from Wilmington High School in 1939, even though she lived in West Middlesex at the time because her father believed the school to be better academically. She came to live in New Wilmington to attend Westminster College in 1939, and graduated in 1943 with a degree in elementary education.

“I was a sophomore at Westminster when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. I think I was at home when the news came though. I remember that my dad used to listen to the news on the radio all the time.

“My brother, Thomas, was two years older than I. He enlisted in 1941 right after the attack. He trained in Los Angeles and then was sent overseas. He came back alright, and used the GI Bill to become a minister.

“When I started college, I stayed with Mrs. Brandon across from the library. I lived there free in exchange for cleaning her house, which was also home to several college boys on the second floor. I also worked at the College business office.

“I never noticed the effects of rationing because I never really had to deal directly with it. One change that I do remember was the military on the campus. Some of the guys were in uniform, but not all. Some just went to class and looked like regular students.

“After graduation, I went to work with Alcoa in New Castle. They recruited here at the College. I worked in their employment office, and in ’45 I was transferred to Pittsburgh where I met my husband.”

*This information was compiled and written by Carol Eberhart, communication assistant at Westminster College.

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