The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Currents

August 5, 2012

Those 10 Calaway girls

Surviving member recalls being 1 of 10

KINGSVILLE TOWNSHIP —  In an era when many couples are happy to dote on just one offspring and most U.S. McMansions have at least 2.5 bathrooms, the story of the Calaway sisters is amazing.

There were 10 girls born to Walter and Hattie Calaway, who lived in Ashtabula City and Saybrook Township, Ohio. And for several years, all 10 girls lived under the same roof and shared one bathroom with their parents.

“Dad had first choice if he wanted to take a bath,” says JoAnn Calaway Keller, 84, the only surviving sister and a resident of Kingsville Township, Ohio. “There were 12 people in that house and only one bathroom. But we didn’t think anything of it.”

Nor did the cramped sleeping and close arrangements seem odd to the Calaway girls, who slept two to a bed, four to a room, most of their childhood and adolescent years.

“I got stuck with Isabelle and Betty, I think,” JoAnn says, trying to recall her sleeping mates. “I can’t remember for sure. But we didn’t think anything of it.”

The 10 Calaway girls were born within a span of 15 years, starting with Pauline’s birth in 1917. She was followed by Isabelle, Lucille, Esther, Betty, Edith, Doris, Lillian, JoAnn and Beverly.

Large families and a run of kids of the same sex apparently ran in both sides of the family. According to a 1942 Ashtabula Star-Beacon newspaper article, Walter Calaway’s aunt, Mrs. Albert Root of Austinburg, had seven boys and no girls. Hattie Calaway’s uncle in Indiana had 15 children.

Ironically, Hattie Calaway grew up an only child.

“I remember how lonely I was on my parents’ big farm in Indiana,” she told a reporter in 1942.

There was but one time when Hattie Calaway regretted having a large family — when all but two of the girls came down with scarlet fever at one time.

Large families were common in the first half of the 20th century, although less so in suburban families like the Calaways. It was inevitable that there would be a run on children of the same sex; the Waggoner family of Paradise Township, Ill., for example, had 10 girls and gave them up for adoption.

JoAnn says, that to her knowledge, her father did produce two boys. One of them was a miscarriage; the other, named Walter, lived only a few hours after birth.

“We always said that my dad kept trying for a boy,” JoAnn says. “You’d think he’d given up a long time before he did. But I never heard him say ‘I wish (the baby) had been a boy. But you can’t help but think he wanted a boy after 10 girls.”

Indeed, Walter Calaway became so tired of telling his friends “It’s a girl,” that when girl number six, Edith, came along, “Mr. Calaway informed his friends that he had just become the father of twin boys,” stated the 1942 newspaper article. “That stopped the joking until one of the friends checked at General Hospital!”

JoAnn, who was born when the family lived on Fisk Street, Ashtabula, says they moved to Topper Avenue, then a four-bedroom home on West Avenue, and from there, another four-bedroomer at 1020 West Prospect, a house that still stands. It was still a single-bath home.

The 1942 newspaper article hints at the confusion.

“There is much ado about stockings. Mrs. Calaway sighs at the very mention of the word. There’s a session of washing stockings almost every night in the bathroom. The silk stockings hung to dry leave no space for towels or anything else, the mother laments. There are numerous mix-ups in stockings, of course.

“Then there are the shoes, toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, hats, hairpins and housecoats! Oh my!

“Another problem is the matter of baths. There are baths every day — first come, first served.

“Still another problem is that of boy friends calling several at a time. There’s no privacy, so why try? Usually, the girls and their callers simply make it one grand party.”

“We’d play tricks (on each other’s boyfriends),” JoAnn says. She recalls going on a date with a boy who left his jacket at the Calaway house because it was a warm evening. When came back to retrieve it, he discovered the sleeves had been sewn closed by the date-less sisters.

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