By Brett Milam
Hazel Honaker, born Jan. 30, 1918, grew up on a tomato farm in Lindale, a little east of the village of Amelia — she’s a Clermont County girl, having lived in the county most of her 100 years.
Her father, Clayton, owned the Hancock farm, which he moved to in the 1800s. Honaker was born on that farm and was originally a Hancock.
Honaker said her grandfather was part of the Lillick’s family, who came here from Germany to Portsmouth in the 1800s but “they didn’t like the area too well,” so they came down the river on a raft to New Richmond.
The house they built had two rooms initially. Most of the area around that time was for building and farming, Honaker said.
One of her grandfather’s brothers then began building houses in the area, at least two or three, she said.
“So that’s the house where I was born and raised in, in Lindale, that was one of the houses,” Honaker said. “It was only, I imagine, what they call two rooms down, two rooms up, you know, four-room house and later, it was added on.”
It was 1926. The Roaring Twenties. Calvin Coolidge, aka “Silent Cal” was president. And the stock market wouldn’t have its “Black Friday” precipitating the Great Depression for another three years.
It was a time when a landline telephone was mostly used to call a neighbor because the network was still so small and the first cars had to be cranked and seeing airplanes flying overhead was still a marvelous, wonderful sight.
It was a time when a little girl of about 8-years-old was expected to chip in on the five acre tomato farm by dropping plants.
“I had to drop the plants for those and it could only be done after a rainstorm,” Honaker said. “And of course, tomato plants would have all that mud on them and I’d have to put them in my arm and drop one for each one of those corners. And I was barefooted.”
The five-acreage farm was laid out like a checkerboard, with which she had to drop a tomato plant on each piece of the “board.”
Part of the process involved being on a horse-drawn wagon, with tomatoes stacked at least 20 or 25 high.
“I was always a little fearful,” she said.
It wasn’t easy work, to say the least. And afterward, she’d get washed off in cold water by her mother.
“Because I was mud,” she said. “I was always so mudded, I just screamed like everything, that was awful, that cold water.”
At the end of the day, it wasn’t as if she was getting paid for this work, either.
“You ate your three meals a day, that was your pay,” she said. “And one pair of shoes a year.”
Sometimes, the men who came around to finish the process by putting the plants in the ground after she dropped the plant wouldn’t like the way she did it and she’d get “so mad,” she said.
“They’d make me come back and drop that,” she said. “I would get so aggravated, I’d be crying before I got done. But they teased me a lot, too.”
Honaker’s earliest memory though isn’t of toiling on tomato farms, but rather, one Christmas, at the age of at least 4, Honaker said she came downstairs and there Santa Claus had brought her real China dishes. A little teapot with a sugar bowl, four cups and four saucers.
Gloria Fisher, her daughter, has the set today.
“There never was a scratch on them,” she said. “I was just at the height of my glory and I don’t know to this day how my mother got them. It was something I never expected, but I aggravated my brothers and mother every day to have tea with me in the afternoons.”
She just wanted to have a tea party, but they were “always busy.”
One of her next earliest memories is her first memory of a car. The first car she can remember is her brother’s Whippet.
“He got that when I must’ve been 6-years-old,” she said. “In the car, it had two doors and on each side of the door on the inside they had little vases on the side. So he was, of course, working the farm, and I was there in the yard playing and I thought, ‘Oh it would be nice to pick some dandelions and put [them] in those vases and fix it up pretty.’ And of course, I did. And closed the doors. And this is summertime.”
She continued, “In the evening, he got dressed up, he was going to Bethel to see some girls and he opened that car door and those flowers stunk so terribly from being shut up like that all day. And I can still hear my brother saying, ‘Mom! When are you going to make her behave?’ Oh, he was going on a date and I had that car stinking something terrible. He didn’t like that. To me, I thought I was doing something nice, he didn’t.”
Honaker’s father died when she was 10-years-old due to a ruptured appendix, which marked the end of the tomato-growing.
When his appendix ruptured, the plan was to operate on him…at the house.
“They brought a surgeon out from Cincinnati and took the kitchen table and they were fixing that up,” Honaker said. “When this main surgeon came out, he said it was too late and there was no need of it.”
Honaker’s mother was able to hold on to the farm for about two years before meeting William Brick, who worked in Cincinnati and would become her stepfather when she was 12.
But in those two years, it was her mother, with a fourth-grade education, doing what she could to maintain the farm and keep the kids fed.
“I don’t know how my mother did it. She knew if she had extra pig and calf, one would pay for the taxes and the other would pay for the loan on the place,” Honaker said. “She always had a garden; she knew we’d always have food.”
She continued, “Now do you think a fourth-grade kid could do that today? I think back and wonder, ‘How did she know how to do that?’
Brick was then able to pay the place off and Honaker would live there until she was married.
“I didn’t have to work on it after my mother married my stepfather,” Honaker said, of working on the farm. “He was a wonderful man. I didn’t know bad times from then on, but prior to that it was not good.”
Honaker, to emphasize no more bad times, said she went through the Great Depression, but didn’t “really realize” the Depression.
“Because my stepfather had a business — what he was doing, there was always money — so I didn’t know,” she said.
Honaker went to a school in Lindale for the fifth grade, which had two rooms and she sometimes walked at least a mile to get to it.
But she also would go in a horse and buggy on the mud road, courtesy of her mother.
“And I want you to know, I’ve had two buggy wrecks in my life,” she said. “No automobile accidents, but two buggy wrecks.”
She didn’t get hurt, but on one occasion, the horse got frightened and took off, throwing both her and her mother out onto the road.
“And I was thinking oh my mother’s killed, but the horse went right to the barn with the buggy,” she said.
By the time she was in the 7th grade at Amelia, there was around 35 in the class and the children were being bussed in, Honaker said.
“I was fortunate, I didn’t have to buy secondhand books,” Honaker said.
Honaker, much like her father, also dealt with appendicitis, saying she had it all of her life growing up.
“I know when I was on the farm, my brothers always said I didn’t want to work and then I would use that as an excuse,” Honaker said. “My side always hurt.”
Honaker would spend two weeks in bed at various intervals to ameliorate the appendicitis. Every three hours, she was to drink water with epsom salts mixed in.
“It was terrible,” she said. “Then I’d get better and go back to school and I’d keep that up all the time.”
But it wasn’t always epsom salts; Honaker remembers her mother fixing her tea and crackers.
In 1935, which was her sophomore year of high school, at the age of 15, she was “feeling bad,” she said.
Riding the old school bus was particularly bad with its bumps in the road.
“That side was hurting me like everything. I didn’t tell my mother, but she knew there was something wrong. When I got to school, I could hardly get up the steps to the second floor,” Honaker said.
It was the first time she’d ever been in a doctor’s office and she was by herself.
“He pressed around on my side and he went to the phone and called my mother,”‘ she said. “So when he come back to me, he says, ‘I think you should go to the hospital.'”
She didn’t know how she would get there. The doctor wound up taking her.
“I didn’t know one thing about them. Strange people and a 15-year-old kid,” she said, of her first hospital visit.
Honaker would stay at the hospital for two weeks and even then, her mother never got to see her, she said.
“There was no way for her to get down there,” Honaker said, adding that it was scary.
Not long after the appendix issue, she met her husband, Eugene, who was from West Virginia, while they both attended Amelia High School: her as a junior, him as a senior.
“And I laughed at him because of the way he talked. He talked strange,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever marry that guy, but I did.”
He was very intelligent, Honaker said.
“In fact, they said I was, too, but I went to school to have a good time; I didn’t go to school to learn, although my mother thought I should do better, but I said, no, it was too hard, I just could not get all that,” Honaker said.
And at the time, Eugene was driving a motorcycle with one of those side cars attached to it, which often carried Eugene’s mother.
“My mother said, ‘I never want you on that motorcycle!’,” Honaker said.
It would take Eugene an hour to talk her into getting on it, but she did.
She was married at 21 to Eugene; they had five children together. He died in 2009 at the age of 90. They were just two months shy of their 70th wedding anniversary.
Eugene served in the Navy during WWII as a carpenter, leaving Honaker to take care of their two daughters, including Gloria, for at least a year and a half.
They lived on Chapel Road in Amelia and Honaker said she’d buy coal in the summertime because it was a bit cheaper then.
“I kept the home, two kids; I shoveled the coal in the coal bin in the bottom of the house, like a coal bin like they had back in the old days,” Honaker said. “A hedge had to be cut? I did it. You see, when you were raised like I was raised, I knew what to do.”
Eugene would build homes and churches throughout the county and Hamilton County.
Church in general was a “huge part” of their life, Gloria said, and it’s what Honaker said was the “answer” to nearly seven decades of marriage.
“And I taught Sunday School — a women’s class — for thirty years,” Honaker said.
She taught at Lindale Baptist Church, which Eugene built.
“Seems like, in my life, the Lord was always at the center of my life,” Honaker said. “I can say, I’ve never gotten in a lot of troubles or anything like that. Church has always been the center of my life. I believe that God’s directing me and has kept me on the right path and in thinking.”
In Michigan, one of her sons is even a minister. Another son was a minister of music of a large church in Virginia.
“I didn’t know anything but farm work, and my schoolwork didn’t help me any because I didn’t put enough effort in it,” Honaker said.
Gloria countered her mom, saying she is a fabulous cook, who made jellies; and was also good at sewing, knitting, crocheting, painting, quilting, fixing up houses and so on.
“She made yeast rolls; oh my goodness,” she said. “One of her tricks was — we hated liver — they would fix liver with onions, but we always had big yeast rolls to try and choke it down.”
Honaker said she picked up her cooking prowess from watching and helping her mother growing up.
When asked what’s kept her young and going on this long, Honaker said, “I have no idea.”
She had brothers and sisters that lived into their 80s and 90s, but her mother lived to be 68.
“My brothers always said, if you want to live long, you have to work — I didn’t know what they were talking about,” Honaker said. “But I knew what work was, you know, you just grow up with it and you don’t know any different.”
On a typical day, Honaker said she keeps a box of thread by her living room chair for knitting and crocheting.
“I work crypto puzzles,” she said. “I do that kind of work. And when I go over to eat, around 11 [a.m.], talk to a few friends and then I come back, maybe 1:30 [p.m.], that’s all.”
She added, “The best way to get along in this world is to have friends — good friends — but don’t wear your welcome out and watch what you say. Don’t be a gossip. That’s the best advice I can give anybody.”
Not a smoker or a drinker, and aside from the appendicitis, Honaker said she did get a kidney taken out in 1960 that the doctors told her was probably bad all of her life. But that’s it. No other issues.
“I played with children who had Whooping cough, but I never got it,” she said. “It’s something I cannot understand why I didn’t have something that took my life, but of course, my brothers were the same way, and sisters, they just died of old age.”
Making it to 100 means someone has seen a lot of life, but it also means they’ve seen their fair of death and funeral processions. Honaker is no different.
“I’ll tell ya, one of the worst things I had to go through was when we lost our daughter,” she said, of a daughter, Rosemary, who was a schoolteacher and singer, lost to cancer. “I just thought that would be the end. But when my grandfather died, my mother died, I accepted it, that was life. When my husband died, your life is done then and you’ve lived it, but I don’t know, I just couldn’t take it with my daughter. There’s a tie with mother and children that you can’t break that. Something that, even today, I just miss her.”
It was something she said that she couldn’t get her feet under her.
“You always think you’ll go first, but as I said, I have no family left — I mean that as immediate family on my side. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles; everybody’s gone, Honaker said.
A life lived full of marriage, children, church and technological change has sprung forth a new reason to keep going: freedom. The freedom to do what she wants, when she wants and according to her own time schedule.
“I’m living a life of leisure,” Honaker said. “I go to bed when I want to and get up when I want to. I don’t know how many years I’d always hear that, ‘Hazel, it’s time to get up,’ and then I got married and I had to get up and get breakfast. And then I had five kids and had to get up and get them off to school,” she said.
Then she leaned in and whispered, “I don’t have to do that anymore.”
This is what you call retirement, she said.
“Some evenings I’m sitting here working on puzzles, knitting or crocheting and it’ll be 1 o’clock [a.m.]. And then the next day, I’ll get up when I want to,” Honaker said.
Autonomy is a theme that has run throughout Honaker’s life — in fact, it was something she learned from her mother — and it’s still present now.
“As long as I can do it myself, I’m going to do it myself,” she said. “I never was one to yell for somebody to help me. I always go ahead and do it. It’s good for you. I don’t want to intrude on men to do this for me; I can take care of it myself.”
We’re in different world now, Honaker said, one which she doesn’t think has made people any happier than when she was a kid.
“Little bit of this or that made us happy. I very seldom watch that television. If I get interested in making up a new pattern, I do it. Or working some puzzles, I get engrossed in that and I don’t want people to entertain me,” she said.
As for the internet, she doesn’t want to engage in that, either, she said.
“My brain is full. I can’t learn no more and you know, I get along just as well,” Honaker said.
Honaker then told a story about helping someone at the retirement home, who had said they were leaving to have an operation done in the middle of the night, and she got the person back to their room.
“Is my life valuable now as it was 10 years ago? See, that’s what I think about. And if I can help somebody, yes, but…” she said. “That’s what I can do now, but that’s it. You’re limited when you’re here to helping people, but I always try to, if I possibly could, if somebody needed help, I always took time to do it, especially sick people.”
As for how she wants to spend her 100th birthday:
“Nobody around and bring me some hot dogs,” she said, from Skyline. “I don’t want any cake or all that.”
On Jan. 27, the family is planning to have a celebration for Honaker, with at least 70 or so people to invite from the immediate family.