Charlie and Dessie Bilbrey
In checking the word “terrapin”, the Thesaurus section of the spell checker on my computer gives the following definition: “Any of various edible North American web-footed turtles living in fresh or brackish water.” The reason I looked this word up was to try and get an idea of where the words “Terrapin Ridge” could have come from. But looking up that word didn’t help me one bit; I simply learned the definition of “terrapin” and that’s all. Maybe there are those who know why a certain area just outside the Livingston city limits is known as Terrapin Ridge, and if so, it would be interesting to know how that name came about. In the meantime, I will attempt to share the story of a couple who lived there and raised a family of 14 children.
Charlie and Dessie Bilbrey have their picture taken before his death in 1989.
Dessie Hammons was just 14 years-old when she became the bride of Charlie Bilbrey who was 28 at the time.
By the time Dessie was not quite 16, she was a mother, and as the years passed, she and Charlie’s family increased to include 14 children – 8 girls and 6 boys – whose names are Lois Allred, Charlene Hicks, Kenneth Bilbrey, Bonnie Wright, Dorothy Sidwell, Margaret Leach, Ralph Bilbrey, Danny Bilbrey, David Bilbrey, Doug Bilbrey, Billy Bilbrey and Barbara Robbins (twins), Anita Walker, and Sandy Ramsey.
All of these children were born at home with help from midwives, with the exception of Sandy. Because Dessie had some complications with the delivery of the youngest of her 14 babies, Sandy was born in a hospital.
Members of the Bilbrey family are, front row from left, Barbara Robbins and Sandy Ramsey, middle row, Margaret Leach, Bonnie Wright, Charlie Bilbrey, Dessie Bilbrey, Kenneth Bilbrey, Ralph Bilbrey, back row, Dorothy Sidwell, Charlene Hicks, Bill Bilbrey, Anita Walker, Lois Allred, Danny Bilbrey, and David Bilbrey.
A 100-acre farm on Roaring River was the first place Charlie and Dessie lived. They bought and paid in cash the total sum of $1,000 for this property.
Charlie Bilbrey was a man who didn’t believe in borrowing money or owing a debt to anyone. Saving money was important to him, as was making every nickel go as far as it possibly could.
When they decided they wanted to buy this property, Charlie cashed in a life insurance policy for $500 and worked out the rest of the money for the land by cutting and selling timber.
Margaret described her parents in this manner: Their mother was the one who disciplined the children while their father was the one who directed their lives by the wisdom he passed on to each of them through, not only advice he gave them, but the example he set with his own life.
The work the Bilbrey children did while they were growing up on the farm did not consist of boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs. The older girls knew just as well as any boys growing up then what it was to plant corn behind a mule, and the Bilbrey boys were also expected to help with dishes and other household jobs, as well as the outside chores.
They did everything from picking strawberries and blackberries to hauling hay and chopping out corn. And no matter what they had to do, Margaret said they always had a good time.
She compared her life with that of her older sisters and brother as “living in the lap of luxury”. She said those who were older than she was really worked much harder than the younger children. The first home they lived in as children had no electricity or running water. Water was carried from a spring that was about one-fourth of a mile from their house. Their milk and butter was kept in the spring because refrigeration was something else they didn’t have.
When Margaret was 4 years-old, Charlie and Dessie bought another place where a home was built, and after it was completed, the family moved there. This farm consisted of 60 acres.
Charlie had timber cut to build the house from. The flooring in the home was from tongue and groove maple with walnut baseboards. A walnut mantle was also built in the home.
Although this home did have electricity, the kitchen had a wood cook stove. A fireplace served as a source for heat.
Charlie and Dessie never owned a car during their lives. If they went somewhere when their children were small, they went by mule and wagon, and in later years, someone with a car was hired to take them places from time to time.
Margaret can remember a time when the only car that passed by their house during the day was the mailman. Lois was the first member in the family to own a car.
The Bilbrey family got their first television in 1960. That was a real treat for the Bilbrey kids; they got to stay up one hour later than their normal bedtime on the day the television arrived. Their father allowed them to stay up until 9 p.m. that particular night, when normally everybody went to bed at 8 p.m., and there were no exceptions to this rule. The lights went out at 8 p.m. and everyone was in bed, Mom and Dad included.
Having five younger brothers kept Margaret on her toes most of the time, but once in a while she got the best of them. Once she decided she would really fix them. The boys had a habit every night when bedtime came around, they would run as fast as they could, jump and land in their bed. But in the bed was not where they landed one night. This was because Margaret moved their bed and they landed against the wall.
She had already gone to bed in the next room, and as she lay there waiting, anticipating what was going to happen, it worked out just as she had planned. She knew the boys would try to get her back, and being able to run fast helped her out of a lot of situations similar to this one.
In spite of having five younger brothers and three younger sisters, Margaret found a place where she could take refuge and have some private time. That was in the top of a cedar tree where she was never found when she climbed up there, although the boys did do quite a bit of looking for her when she could slip off from them to her special getaway place.
School, which was one room with grades first through eighth, was still being held at the O’Neal School when Margaret was old enough to attend. She went to that school for the first five years. Some who taught there were Emma Bilyeu, Elena Maxwell, Lucille Maxwell, and Susie B. Mills.
The children had a recess period during the morning, a lunch hour, and an afternoon recess, all of which did not require teacher supervision.
When the O’Neal School closed, the children in that area went to Hardy’s Chapel. H.C. Langford was one of the teachers Margaret had, and is the one she said encouraged her to read. But the best teacher award she gives to Mrs. Ester Pigg, who served not only as a teacher, but as principal of Hardy’s Chapel. Margaret said she was a teacher who treated every single child alike, and expected the very best and then some from each one. Each and every paper turned in to Mrs. Pigg was not only graded carefully, but she took the time to write comments on each one.
Margaret remembers the only time she cheated in school. She was in the second grade when it took place. A spelling test was going to be given that day and included in the test were two bonus words: “rocket” and “satellite”. She was afraid that in spite of studying how to spell each word, she might forget, so she wrote them down on her desk. She says she still feels guilty today over that incident.
During the time the Bilbrey children were growing up, there was no such thing as being bored. If each child didn’t have anything in particular to do, their parents quickly found a job that kept them occupied. Since there wasn’t a television in their home until 1960, and computers were unheard of then, the children spent their time working, and had little, if any, idle time on their hands.
The Christmas holidays were what Margaret described as being the best in the world. There were no wrapped presents, but lots of fruit and candy was enjoyed by the family. Their father kept all that hidden in the crib until Christmas morning arrived.
Dessie began working at the Livingston shirt factory in 1951. The responsibilities of the home were turned over completely to the children when she began to work outside the home.
Supper was on the table every night, which was Margaret’s job since she was the oldest daughter living at home then. Others helped with washing the dishes after supper was over, and often it was Bill’s responsibility to do the breakfast dishes.
During the summer months, the boys were allowed to find jobs, but Charlie didn’t allow his daughters to work outside the home. Another thing he didn’t allow the girls to do was to be present during the birthing of farm animals. He didn’t believe that was a woman’s place.
Promptly at 6 a.m. each morning, the Bilbrey family all sat down at the breakfast table together. This was done seven days a week. The meal did not begin until Mr. Bilbrey was seated at the table.
Mealtime was a time when family discussions took place that sometimes included lectures from the children’s father. He used this time to check up on the children’s progress, or lack of it, in school, or to just stay in touch with what was going on with the children.
Although Charlie had only an eighth grade education, Margaret told me she thinks of him as the smartest man she has ever known. He didn’t leave home very much, but he knew what was going on in the world in spite of that.
He did his best to instill in his children that an education was the most valuable thing they could possess. He said that money can’t buy it, but you have to have money to get it.
Other things he taught his children were that you’re known by the company you keep, and although a person should speak to everyone they meet and treat people kindly, you don’t have to associate with people who don’t have good morals.
Don’t do anything that would embarrass your parents is another thing he expected from his children.
Today, as an elementary school teacher, Margaret tries to pass the wisdom from her father on to her students she has at Allons Elementary School.
During the time Margaret was in college, she worked to pay her own way. While she was in college, her father served as her own personal banker. All the money she made while working, she turned over to him which he saved for her, and when she needed to get money “out of the bank”, she had to explain to her father why she needed it. Sometimes he felt her reason was okay and gave her the money, and at other times, he said no, that she didn’t need whatever it was she was asking for at the time.
Her father helped her some financially with her education, but not as much as he could, which Margaret says was a good thing for him to do. Anything worth having is worth working for, and she appreciates the education she got more so because she had to work for it; it wasn’t something that was handed out to her.
Charlie Bilbrey passed away in 1989 at the age of 83. Dessie lived to be 76, having died in 1995.
Lois assumed the role of head of the family after their parents passed away. The Bilbrey children have never been a family who allowed problems to come between them, and many times held family meetings where they sat down together and talked things over.
Although family members’ wives and husbands could attend these meeting, they were usually held with just the brothers and sisters in attendance.
The Bilbrey family now includes 31 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.
Margaret has three children of her own, all grown now, and occasionally, but not very often, when she might have been troubled by personal problems she experienced in her own life, she let herself get depressed.
While she was growing up, everyone in the family knew she was her father’s favorite, and even her son, Chris, has reminded her of her relationship with her father when she was feeling down and out.
Chris’ words to her were, “What would Charlie think?” And this helped her get back on the right track again. But her close relationship with her father didn’t end with his death. Margaret has visited the place where he was buried to talk things over with him when she had something that was especially troubling to her. She has found this always helps, too.
Looking back on the years the Bilbrey children were growing up, Margaret feels it was a very good life. She doesn’t consider their lives as being hard years to get through, but says she appreciates very much the way she was raised. Having a good solid upbringing that both parents were involved in, and that didn’t consist of a lot of material things, are included in what she appreciates most.
Being brought up in a loving home meant more than a world of material possessions. Life on Terrapin Ridge was a good one for the Bilbrey family. Many of them still make their homes around that area today. Only one of the 14 children has passed away, and that’s Doug, who died at only 24 years of age.
Charlie’s philosophy and beliefs about life influenced Margaret a great deal, and she, in turn, on occasion quotes her father to the students she teaches.
Although it isn’t likely that very few, if any, of her students’ upbringing can begin to compare with how she was raised as far as having lived in a home without electricity for many years, or not having a lot of material things while growing up, maybe there will be at least one student who will remember something Margaret has quoted from her father, and a seed will grow in that person who in turn someday passes that bit of wisdom on to some other person.
I feel sure that even though I didn’t know Charlie Bilbrey, he would be pleased to know his influence went beyond his children and reached others along the way. After all, isn’t leaving behind something meaningful and beneficial to others outside the material things in our lives what really counts the most?
I read somewhere that people who strive for excellence, whether they are driving a truck, or running a country store, or bringing up a family, make the world better by being the kind of person they are. They’ve learned life’s most valuable lesson, something that Charlie Bilbrey encouraged each of his children to do.