The most senior woman in attendance at this year's Tehachapi Oldtimers gathering was a familiar figure to those who have lived here a long time: Mary Gassaway, 98, who has lived in Tehachapi since about 1946. Mary has spent her life as a capable, hard-working, unassuming woman and after nearly a century of life and having to bury two husbands and two sons, she still has her sense of humor and a positive outlook.
"I'm glad to see you've been prayin'," she said to me with a smile when I visited her last week, as she eyed the worn-out knees in the jeans I was wearing. Though she uses a walker to help keep her balance when she is outside, Mary still lives in the tidy Tehachapi house she and her husband Lawrence bought new in 1955. She gets help from her granddaughter Cindy Gassaway, but she's still fairly independent.
Mary was born in the tiny village of Elizabethtown, Ill. by the Ohio River on Sept. 15, 1915, to Oscar and Mary Weaver. She had three siblings -- Sarah, Harold and Albert -- but Mary is the only sibling still living. Her father, Oscar, was a commercial fisherman and a Pentecostal preacher who caught catfish and bass with seine nets, and the family lived on a houseboat on the river. Seine nets hang vertically in the water, resembling very long, wide fine mesh volleyball nets, with the bottom held down by weights and the top suspended from floats. The net is spread out wide and then drawn into a circular shape, trapping the fish within its circumference.
Mary remembers a close call she had when she was about seven years old, and her father was driving her and her sister Sarah in a Model T car in Flint, Mich. The car drove up a small berm in the road where there was a railroad crossing, and suddenly stalled out on the tracks just as a train was speeding their way. "My Dad jumped out of the car, tearing his pants on the brake handle as he got out," Mary recalls, "He managed to get the car pushed off the tracks and the train just missed us."
When Mary was about 12 years old, the family moved to Van Buren, Mo., located by the Current River, and when he wasn't working, her father preached at the little community of Houses Creek. In 1935, when she was 17, Mary was married to Lawrence Gassaway, who was 19. Lawrence worked in the woods, felling timber to make "stave bolts," which were short lengths of white oak that would be sent to a mill to make barrel staves. Their first child, Bob, was born in Mary's mother's home in Van Buren. The young couple moved to Columbus, Kan., for a short time so that Lawrence could try working in coal mines, and their second son, Jack, was born in Columbus.
The Gassaways returned to Van Buren so Lawrence could do more timbering for stave bolts on a piece of land, and when that job was over, the boss told Lawrence, "I'm going to California, why don't you come, too?" So just before World War II, the Gassaway family moved from Missouri to California in the back of an old pickup truck. Lawrence's former boss, the boss's wife and an adopted daughter rode up front, while the Gassaways rode in back.
"The men put a bench on either side of the bed of that truck, and canvas over the top like a covered wagon," Mary remembers. "My husband and I each slept on one of those benches at night and the boys slept in the middle between us. We travelled for five days like that to get to California."
The Gassaways came to Bakersfield and Lawrence took a job as a ranch foreman, tending grapes. A third son, Billy, was born in Bakersfield, and Mary worked at Kern General Hospital (now called Kern Medical Center). There was frequent friction between the father and son who owned the vineyard and Lawrence got tired of being in the middle of their conflicts, so in 1946 he took a job with Vic Phillips, a Tehachapi pioneer who was farming potatoes in Cummings Valley. The Gassaway family moved to Tehachapi and never left.
A fourth son, Jerry, was born in Tehachapi Hospital in 1949, delivered by Dr. Madge Schlotthauer, who owned Tehachapi Hospital with her husband, Dr. Harold Schlotthauer. Because of her experience at Kern General, Mary was hired to work at Tehachapi Hospital. She became what was known as a "practical nurse," rather than a registered nurse. Practical nurses got on the job training rather than attending school, and the Schlotthauers had several practical nurses, including longtime nurse Elizabeth Cuddeback of the ranching Cuddeback family, who was well-known to oldtimers.
"I remember the first time I gave a shot to a patient," Mary says, "He was the banker in town at the time, named Mr. Spencer. We were supposed to give him a pain shot in the rump, and I was on one side of the bed and Nurse Cuddeback was on the other holding the syringe with the needle. She told him, 'Roll over, we're gonna give you a shot.' He did, and then she handed me the syringe. He never knew it was me sticking him in the backside rather than her."
When the massive Tehachapi earthquake of 1952 struck, the Gassaways were living in an old house in the Sullivan apple orchard. "The bed started shaking and woke us up, and we thought that a plane had hit the house," Mary remembers, "It was so loud and powerful."
When local builder and developer Don Carroll built the Ranch House Motel on Tehachapi Boulevard, he hired Mary to run the place, and the Gassaways lived in the managers' quarters at the motel for two years. Then Mary and Lawrence bought a brand new Carroll-built home in 1955, and stayed there. When Tompkins School first opened on Curry Street, it was the Tehachapi Junior High, and Mary worked there as a cook with her friend Lena Hayes -- who coincidentally was Cindy Gassaway's other grandmother.
Mary's older boys, Bob and Jack, both went into the service, Bob in the Navy and Jack in the Army. Tragedy struck the family when her third son, Billy, was killed in a car accident. Two carloads of kids were going to race out towards Monolith to see whose car was faster. A waitress at the cafe where the teenagers were said that Billy was the last one in the cars, drinking from his cup and saying "Well, I guess I'll go with them," as he put his cup down. In those days before seat belts, Billy was thrown out as the vehicle crashed. Three Tehachapi boys died that night, and the impaired driver served time in state prison for manslaughter.
Following their military service, both Bob and Jack returned to Tehachapi. Bob worked out at CCI as a sergeant for 15 years, and later was the owner of Farmers Supply, a feed, seed and garden supply store on C Street now called Mountain Gardens Nursery. Jack worked at Monolith for about 15 years and then eventually became a woodworking instructor at CCI, doing carpentry and cabinet work on the side. Mary's youngest son, Jerry, became a dentist and still has a practice on the corner of E and Green Streets in Downtown Tehachapi, and Jerry was instrumental in saving the adjacent Errea House on Green Street by selling it to the Tehachapi Heritage League.
Mary and Lawrence were married for more than 50 years when he succumbed to leukemia in about 1990. Mary became a regular at the Tehachapi Senior Center, and it was there that she met James Thomas, who she married in 1993. James was a great companion to her, and they travelled and had fun together until he passed away in 2010. "I was lucky enough to have two good husbands," Mary says, "I was married to Lawrence for 55 years and then to James for 17 years, so I've been married most of my life," she adds -- for a total of 72 years of married life.
Mary survived a life-threatening incident one frosty night when she was 92 and she and James were leaving the Senior Center. James sprayed ether de-icer on the windshield, and then wiped it with a towel. The towel was wet, and he placed it on the hump on the floor of the front seat. The ether fumes quickly knocked them both out, and the next thing they knew, they were crashing into her son Bob's truck, since he coincidentally lived just down the street from the Senior Center. Mary broke her arm and ankle and her car was totaled, but she recovered -- James, the driver, was unhurt.
Mary's eldest son Bob passed away last year, and she told me a couple of times that she really misses him. She's never been one to complain, though, and she stays upbeat. "Tehachapi's been a wonderful place to live and raise our family," she says, "There's a lot of fine people here." True, and Mary Gassaway Thomas is definitely one of them.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to: email@example.com