Mrs. Daisy Fritts (1878-1961)
Savior at the Poor Farm, Leetown
Mrs. Daisy Anna Dunaway Fritts’ obituary begins by calling her “one of Jefferson County’s most widely known and best loved citizens.” Since 1927 she took in the poor, old, and enfeebled into her home of Last Resort – the Poor Farm, officially as “the superintendent of the County Home.” She ran it with love and will well after such homes were replaced by social workers and the foster home system in the rest of the State. But her weak heart made her step down in 1959. Funded by the state and reporting directly to the local authorities, “Daisy” kept the local County Commissioners happy and supportive with delicious meals and sweets when they met at the Poor Farm for meetings. They had Thanksgiving dinners there.
When the regular check arrived from the state, someone would drive her to the bank in Charles Town with Daisy waving the check saying: “The Eagle has landed!”
Poor farms improved from being a place where farmers before the Civil War could “rent” enslaved, orphaned black children for work. Two sets of saints – Daisy Fritts for the elderly and “Mom” and “Pop” Wheeler who ran the Children’s Haven orphanage for children - did admirable service up till about 1960 when regulations and old age forced these wonderful people to yield to the new ways.
Rena Marshall, now deceased but then a young girl who played the piano in the tiny chapel at the Poor Farm, told the editor about the people there. Above all is the haunting account of “Tillie” a very old black woman who gently comforted young Rena after she explained the reason for her hanging lower lip, which Rena said “just hung straight down.” Tillie, who said she was almost a hundred, told Rena that when once enslaved, an enraged owner grabbed the pincer iron for picking up wood in the fireplace and, with it, violently pulled her lower lip, permanently tearing the lip’s connective flesh. “There, there chile, that was long ago,” Tillie softly told the sobbing Rena. There was also a wondrous banjo player that inspired this poem by Rena: (printed by permission of the Marshall family):
“Old Bill played the banjo
With a dedicated air
Though he lived at the almshouse
His heart held not a care.
“He played for local dances
Happy music all night long
And any time you saw him
You could hear his happy song.
“’I can make the banjo sing,
I can make her fly;
I can make the banjo ring,
But no man makes her cry.
“’Keep your wailin’ fiddles
Or your flute for sad romancin’,
But me, I’ll ride my banjo . . .
A banjo’s made for dancin’
“’I can make the banjo laugh,
Make her shout three cheers,
But I can’t make a banjo cry
‘Cause she ain’t got no tears!’”
The Depression landed some thirty people in the Poor Farm, including a sometime socialite from New York City whose fortune evaporated. Arriving with a steamer trunk and trappings of remnant wealth, the woman was crushed inconsolably. She had been told the Farm was a “hotel.”
Daisy Fritts embodies the belief of Albert Einstein that all advances of civilization are the results of acts of individual conscience.
The following is an interview with Daisy’s niece, Grace Fritts Rowland, her brother’s daughter and the youngest of ten children in a classic farm family:
“Dad and Daisy farmed in Leetown. My mother was from Leetown. They were all out there. That’s how they to know one another. Fritts farmed mostly out in Leetown and the Fleming’s were all in there close together. My mother was a Fleming. Dad was a Fritts so Aunt Daisy and him were brother and sister. They went to church together. They were Methodist, went to a little bitty church. But Daisy only got to go when she got a chance if somebody would come there and help her out. She’d go get her groceries and things like that. They had buggies. They didn’t have cars. You’d see on my the road Aunt Daisy goin’ to get groceries (laughter). Little country stores. They didn’t have these great big stores to go to. Daisy would go to these little stores. You see on out from where the poor house was there used to be two or three stores.
“I always had to go to the Poor Farm when my Dad and them went, ‘cause we didn’t have cars. My brother usually would take us. And he’d come get us, pile in the car and away we go. Probably Aunt Daise had someone come and get her too in cars. We didn’t have too many highways. All we had was dirt roads. I guess I was five or six years old when I went out there. My sister and I loved to go out there. It was a lot of fun. We liked to help feed the poor people. And she would let us. She would put our little aprons on us: ‘Get yer aprons on and you can help do this and do that . . .’
“We carried water. I helped to carry the food. Take ‘em up the steps for Daisy. She loved that, havin’ children around helpin’ her. There wasn’t too many children comin’ in there. Mostly all she had was like poor men who didn’t have no place to go. They used to have a cemetery along the road on the other side. That’s where they had to be buried because they didn’t have money put away. There’s a lot of people buried out there.
“She wouldn’t let us get too close to the people on the count they might make us get some disease. She’d make us carry their food from her kitchen. And then when she would have big people like the mayor. They’d have their conference table there, a great big old long table. It would take my whole room up. They’d sit around there. And they’d have their papers. And she’d serve them tea, cake on the side.
“She made her own ice cream. They loved to go there. Mostly it was vanilla because everybody loves vanilla. They had all their conferences there. They’d say: ‘Daise, can you take us in?’
“They always called her: ‘Daise.’ I always called her ‘Aunt Daise.’ My Dad, he loved to go out there. He didn’t like the fancy doin’s she did with upper class people. She wanted to do her brother the same way. One day, Dad said: ‘Daisy, more food and less fanciness.’ From that time on, she served him just like the poor people. I thought it was real cute.
(Grace describes the inside of the main house. - ED).
“You go in, like into a big hall. Then you went, one room this away, I think the setting room sat back that away. And she used this like another room. Then she had a great big room made up like a conference room. Everybody would call it the dining room portion of the house. And it was a big room. I think it is off to the left from the entrance hall. I think the living room set on back.
“When there were meetings, I helped her many times to roll up the napkins, with the silverware in it, and lay it down next to their little plates. The state helped her do this. Daisy loved it. But didn’t nobody want to take it over after Daisy got sick; so I think that’s why they did away with it.
“She never had nobody to bother her right up ‘till the day she quit. And she didn’t live too long after that. She stayed right there at the house. She had a bad heart.
“When she had anything to say, she said it right out to ya. She didn’t hold back anything. If she had to tell ya anything, she’d tell ya. And she wasn’t ashamed to ask for something if she needed it. If she needed help with something, and the state had it and she knew it, she’d got after it. And she got anything she went after. She’d come in town to the courthouse somewhere to someone in charge at that time. She’d say to my Dad – she called him ‘George’ – she’d say: ‘When I go after something, George, I usually get it.’
“I’ve heard her say that many times. She said: ‘I don’t stop ‘till I get what I want to help these people.’ And they loved her.
“The people, we didn’t get to call them by name; she let us call them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle.’ When she took food into them, she’d have green beans, potatoes, and back in those days, they had a lot of pork. Cook a ham, sliced ham, sweet potatoes, they loved sweet potatoes, I remember that. And she made her own kraut. And she’d go in this cellar. And she had this big old crock. And she’d get it right out of there with a big old spoon, and bring it up in great big pans. They loved that with mashed potatoes. I had that there many times – and cranberry sauce, she loved to make that – and cake. As I say, the ice cream she used to make. Well she did a lot on her own back in those days. She took her own and made her own flour. She’d take it to the mills. She kep it in a great, big, old green barrel. That she kept her flour in. She’d make enough to do her from one year to the next. And it wouldn’t get weevils cause she had it in barrels. And it kep it.
“She made her own bread every morning. Her people that she kept had warm bread every day. Made her own butter. I made many a thing of butter. You know, churn it for her. She’d say: ‘OK Grace baby’ – that was my nickname to her. My sister, Catherine and I and Dorothy couldn’t wait to go out there. But Catherine and I was the ones that would get around with Daisy. (Laughter) We wuz right on her apron tail to try and see what she was goin’ to take them for dinner. Last time she would give ‘em peas, stuff like that you know, vegetables. They’d always have a piece of meat, sometimes a vegetable and a potato. She’d fry ‘em, and she always made her gravy.
“Every bit of a dozen people lived there. She had an upstairs, off from the main part of the house. I don’t know if they tore it off or not. You had a lower part and an upstairs part to go from the outside and go up to these bedrooms. I don’t know but I’d love to go back. But it used to be two parts, one part for her family, the other for the people.
“To relax, she’d read. She was a good reader. She loved to read. And listen to the radio. There wasn’t no television then. All we kids knew was get out and play, in the fields and things, ride horses. That’s about all we knew. That’s what I did. I rode horses at the Poor Farm. They farmed that land. Daisy’s husband farmed it. I know they’d make corn and plant corn. They had cows, milk. They did their mowing and weeding. They kept that farm goin for a long time. It was almost self-sufficient. It was really a nice place to go.
“I liked to go to church out there. It was just a little church right there at the front next to the house. And the little church set right out from it. They had little old tiny pews and one little alley, a cute little thing. A little pul-pit, just enough to put her people in there. And she would go to church with them. She wasn’t too nice to go to church with them. And I did it many time with her.
“Daisy liked to sing old hymns like the ‘Old Rugged Cross,’ the song the old people loved was ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ They’d always sing that. And they’d have their prayers just like we used to do. It was just the same like now. She’d go out and get a preacher, tried to have a preacher there every Sunday to preach. Her daughter most generally would play an old piano for ‘em. We had one of the hymnals but it got lost along in there.
“It was real interesting to me to go out and see how bad they were and have someone take ‘em in. you know, give ‘em homes. And I was always so interested in ‘em. And I would ask Daisy: ‘How come you got all these people here?’ She’d say: ‘I have to give them some place to live. They have no homes to go to.’ I’d say: ‘What do you mean, they got no home?’ She said: ‘Remember you got a home to go to with George.’ She would explain to me about ‘em.
“Two colored people, I just fell in love with them. She was a real heavy-set lady. She wore a red bandanna around her head, and she wore her dress down over her knees almost to her ankles. She was a very nice lady and she always helped Daisy. I’ll always remember her and the colored man. They wuz helpin’ her cook, and cleanin’ house. I think maybe Daisy paid them. Her best help got paid, yet they got help there too with it. I think they died, and she buried them out there. Back in those days they wasn’t nothin’ for women to do! You see the state paid her if they came there and she helped those people. I think Daise had to pay these colored people out of her money.
“None of them that I know that came there ever left there. They always stayed there.
They could have left, if they wanted to leave.
“I don’t think anything could get her angry. I don’t never seen her mad. I think she knew Mom and Pop Wheeler but didn’t know ‘em too long, cause they took children in and Aunt Daisy took in old people. I knew both of ‘em, really. There was a lot of difference. They had more control over the children. But out here you talked to them and they would do whatever you asked. But you know once Miss Wheeler got the children under hand, they loved it there.