2015-08-14 / Community

Everyday Maine: Helen Bisbee

‘I’ve just always worked’
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Helen Bisbee of Kennebunk, soon to be 100. (Duke Harrington photo) Helen Bisbee of Kennebunk, soon to be 100. (Duke Harrington photo) Editor’s note: Everyday Maine is an occasional feature in which we turn from the newsmakers of the day to have a conversation with those around us who live, work and quietly contribute to our community every day, whose stories are no less vital despite the fact that they may rarely make headlines. If you know someone who would make an interesting profile, write to news@kennebunkpost.com.

KENNEBUNK — Helen Bisbee, (nee Lehmann) of Kennebunk, has quite a milestone coming up. In September, she will turn 100, making her one of the oldest members of The Center in Lower Village, which she still drives herself to several times per week. Her story, she says, is simply one of hard work: taking charge, finding employment and raising two girls on her own after being widowed. This was when a single, working mother was still something of an oddity in America, and many women could still remember a time before they even had the right to vote. Last week, she sat down at The Center to share her story with Post readers.

Q: Where and when were you born?

A: I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in September 1915.

Q: What did your parents do for work?

A: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father had a business installing forced hot air heating systems, which was quite a new technology then. It was the first heating system installed in homes. Prior to that, everyone used a fireplace or a stove for heat.

Q: How big was your family?

A: We were a family of eight children, four boys, and three girls besides me. I was right in the middle. My mother was very busy. So was my father, too, I guess.

Q: Can you remember a time before woman had the right to vote?

A: No, I can’t actually remember that far back. I can say when I first went to vote at 18, my vote was for Franklin Roosevelt, the first time he ran for president. I voted for him once and never voted for him again. But he is the one who started Social Security — believe it or not I’m one of the first people who got on that, and there was quite a lot of doubt about it when it first came out. And he ended Prohibition, so I guess he had some good qualities. But I was never very political.

Q: What was St. Paul like in the 1920s?

A: It was a booming town because of the railroad and the cathedral there. There was money in St. Paul then — a lot of money. There were warehouses in the lumber business, a big slaughterhouse, and General Mills was located there. But eventually everything moved to Minneapolis and that became the place. In fact, for a time we called it ‘The Little Apple,’ after New York City, which of course was ‘The Big Apple.’ Anyway, there were then excellent symphonies and plays and things like that all in St. Paul.

Q: What was the economic status of your family?

A: We were a very blue collar family. Working people.

Q: Did you have electricity, and a telephone, which might have been seen as luxuries at the time?

A: Well, that was a progressive thing. When they built the house — it was a nice house, but it ended up being too small for a family of 10 — it had a chandelier in the dining room that ran on gas. Then along came electricity, and so the house was wired for that. Eventually, the old stove with the part where the firewood went in was taken out and the new stove came in. I don’t remember exactly when the telephone came, but we did get one and I remember my mother wouldn’t use it. She was afraid of the thing, I don’t know why.

Q: Do you remember when you got your first television?

A: Oh, that was much later, after I was married — I was married at 28 — when my girls were young. In the 1950s I think. I’ll tell you, what I am enjoying now is movies on the TV that came out in the 1930s and 1940s that I never saw at the time. I remember my father took me to see a Charlie Chaplin movie. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. But we never got to the theater again after that. As a young woman I didn’t see movies. My life was so serious. I don’t remember fun things. I had to get out and work. That was foremost in my mind, because I wanted to grow up real fast and earn some money so I could have things I did not have.

Q: What did you do for entertainment when you were young?

A: We listened to the radio mostly. I remember my brother had an old car with what they called isinglass (thin transparent sheets of mica) that would roll down for windows. It sat in our backyard for the longest time. I remember him always fussing with the radio, a little unit that it had. That was actually our family’s first experience with a radio. It’s funny, I don’t remember my own first car, maybe because it came years later. We lived within walking distance just up the hill for the downtown area, and back then, all of the businesses were in the downtown, and when I didn’t walk I took the bus for many years. But I can remember my brother’s first car vividly.

Q: Do you remember what the Great Depression was like?

A: I remember they had just started to really build downtown St. Paul, but after the stock market crash they had to leave it that way. This one building stood for years half-done, well into the 1930s, because they didn’t have the money to finish putting it up.

It was hard for our family, just trying to get along, to survive. We did the best we could. The people on the farms did better — they had the food. The city people didn’t have the money. I can still remember seeing long lines — the bread lines — of men standing one after the other, waiting for handouts. So, that was the condition during the Depression. Yeah, we struggled.

Q: What were things like for your father?

A: Well, being in his own business, that suffered, too. The business just didn’t flourish. Everything in the city was affected by the Depression. But even in the 1920s, things were tough. It was clear that some of the kids at school didn’t have as much as others. Some didn’t have it quite so good.

Q: What did you do for fun as a child?

A: Well, being in the middle of the family, I was anxious to get out and earn some money, so even from a young age I did little jobs, babysitting and things like that.

Q: What did you do right out of high school?

A: It was very difficult, because it was hard to find a job at that time. There just weren’t any. So, I wandered around to different jobs that didn’t last too long. One of them was in new car sales, I worked in the office there, but of course there was not much demand for new cars just then and that folded up, too. Another was selling tickets in the cafeteria for the Minnesota Mining Company. It was a struggle. I was searching for something. I was trying to find a fit. I had so many different jobs I can’t remember them all. I sort of bounced around. All I knew was, I had to work, I had to be independent. I took my knocks but I had to get out on my own. The problem was I had nobody to talk to. No father, because he was gone — he had died of a massive heart attack — and my mother was all worn out from having all those babies, and she was not worldly anyway. So, I didn’t have a mentor, I’ll put it that way.

Q: Where did you live?

A: I lived with my mother. After my father died, we had to support her. With a family the size we had, we all took turns taking care of her. But I continued to live at home until I was married.

Q: Did you date much before you were married?

A: I don’t recall that I did too much of that. I was too busy working that I wasn’t that much attracted to men. I am very proud of what I did — to be independent and get the things a young woman wants. And I did it on my own.

Q: Do you remember where you were when you heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor?

A: We had a small radio in the house by then and it came over the air. It was devastating. It seemed like right away there was rationing, limits on how much meat and things you could buy, things I’m not sure young people today could understand. I remember they collected tires to use in ammunition some way, I’m not sure how. My memory is vague on the details. And I remember they had a big ammunition plant just outside of St. Paul. They made bullets there.

Q: World War II was underway when you got married. How did you meet your husband?

A: I don’t know, I can’t remember. Just by chance I guess. In a bar I suppose. What else was there to do at the time? I don’t think we dated for long before we got married.

Q: Was your husband in the service?

A: No, he worked at the ammunition plant. But I had two brothers in the service. One worked for the government. He was up in Greenland when the war was going on. I’m not sure what he did up there. The other one was on Iwo Jima and got a bullet in his leg. My other brothers got exempt I think because they had big families.

Q: What did you and your husband do after the war?

A: His father started a lighting company and they built up a pretty good business. I stayed at home with our two daughters. It was a pretty happy time. We entertained. We had good friends. My husband was very English, so we had to do things properly. I learned a lot, things I did not get at home, like real table manners and things of that sort.

But then my husband got sick. He had a breathing problem, I don’t recall exactly what it was, and he failed rapidly. He was not well. When he became sick they closed the business. He stayed home and was taken care of and I worked. My oldest girl was 16 when he died. The other was four years younger.

Q: What did you do for a job when you went back to work?

A: I got a job at another company that did commercial and residential lighting. This was when recessed lighting was just coming in. We sold everything and people would bring their plans in and we would set up the lighting for them. I was hired as a salesperson.

I didn’t get into college until I was working for that company. Apparently, they must have thought I had qualifications because they sent me to college, to a twoyear managerial program. After I finished that at their expense I managed their showroom. There were five girls I managed and in 15 years there was only one bad apple. I had to fire her.

Q: What brought you to Maine?

A: I came out about 30 years ago. One of my daughters went to college and became a dental hygienist and the other became a registered nurse. I’m very proud of them both. They’re both in their 60s now, if you can believe it.

The one who became a nurse, she vacationed out here with a friend and after she finished school, she said ‘I’m going out there.’ You know how kids are, they want to leave home. So, she got out here and worked in a local hospital. She lives in Cape Porpoise.

After I retired, I sold the house and followed her out here. I like being by the water. I used to walk the beach but I still take a drive down by the beach all the time. I do enjoy it here, this seems to be a safe place to live. There’s a feeling of comfort and security here.

Q: What did you do once you got out here?

A: I went to work right away. There were lots of little shops where jobs were available. The best one I had was in a candy store. These days I play bridge a lot — I was one of the first members of The Center and I used to volunteer there quite a bit — and I go to the gym a few times a week. It’s very essential to me, to keep my muscles up.

Q: And you still drive, is that correct?

A: I’ve been driving for a long time. I can’t say I’m a good driver. I don’t recall that I ever had lessons. But my health is good and I’ll keep driving as long as I can, to keep my independence.

Q: Do you own a computer, or a smart phone?

A: Oh, no. I’m like my mother when it comes to computers. When they first came along I was, like, ‘My gosh, what is this all about? I don’t want to get involved in that at all.’

Q: Do you have anything on your ‘bucket list’ that you still want to do?

A: There’s a lot of things I want to do, but I physically can’t. I used to volunteer all the time and I wish I could do more of that. But I would like to take up folk art — painting. I think I’m going to get some brushes and paint and see what I can do. I’ve never done that, but my family’s always been artistic. I have a granddaughter that’s really good at it. Maybe I’ll be the next Grandma Moses.

Q: To what do you attribute your long life?

A: I knew that would come up. I’m not sure how it happened that I got to be 100. It just sort of sneaked up on me. All of a sudden it’s there. I don’t know — time goes so fast.

But there are three things. One is the genes. Two is exercise at the gym. And the third, my advice to anyone, is get a dog, because it gets you out of bed in the morning. They don’t tolerate it. They want to get up and go. I had a terrier for many years. I thought he was going to outlive me, but he had to go, in 1994. That was a long time ago, now that I think of it.

Q: Based on your long experience, what advice would you give to a young person?

A: One thing is, you have to keep an open mind, and do not be judgmental. I also think you have to have goals, otherwise you just flounder. I never knew what my goal was until later on in life. So, maybe young people have to go through that same routine of finding out where they fit.

Q: Looking back, what was your proudest accomplishment over the past century?

A: The proudest thing I had was the managerial job, that I was able to work with all those girls. I was happiest there, most of the girls looked up to me, I think, and that’s what I cherished most.

I also hope I’ve done a good job of being a mother. I hope my daughters have learned something from me. I’m very proud of both of them. That period of time when they were growing up was a nice time.

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