The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

August 5, 2012

Those 10 Calaway girls

Surviving member recalls being 1 of 10

Staff Writer

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.

In the early 1940s, Walter supported this family of 12 on his wages as a flooring salesman for the Carlisle-Allen Company of Ashtabula. JoAnn said the family stretched every dollar by growing a garden and canning as much of their food as they could. When their city lot was too small for a garden plot, they rented land for a garden. Each girl was expected to participate in the growing and harvesting.

Frugality and hard work ensured that the girls grew up well fed.

“I never recall a time we didn’t have a full table, full of food, and not having dessert,” JoAnn says. Strawberry shortcake and chocolate pie were the favorites.

With 12 persons to feed, there was no room to accommodate personal culinary preferences. JoAnn, who hates liver to this day, was singled out as the picky child.

“Everyone except JoAnn likes spinach, everyone except JoAnn likes vegetables and everyone except JoAnn likes meat,” the newspaper article stated.

“JoAnn’s the only fussy one,” Mrs. Calaway says. “But even she likes plenty of milk.”

Rationing cut into the bounty on most Americans’ tables. Prior to the war, the Calaway family burned through 15 pounds of sugar every week. The war cut that to six pounds, more than half of it going toward the morning cocoa.

During the war, the girls worked at various jobs that required walking to work. JoAnn worked at the A&P Store on Main Avenue, where she met her future husband. Several of the girls worked at the bayonet factory.

Walter Calaway eventually left his job at the department store and went off on his own as a flooring and countertop installer.

“He did very well,” JoAnn says. “He had more work than he could handle.”

Hattie helped him in the business by hand sewing the binding on the carpets. The couple eventually had a new home built on Route 45 in Saybrook Township. A three-car garage was part of the construction; the plan was to devote one bay to the business, but because there was a large basement under the house, it ended up being in there.

The third bay was made into an apartment, and the youngest daughter, Beverly, lived there with her new husband, Robert, after they were married.

JoAnn says every daughter was treated equally when it came time to wed.

“He gave us all a $50 bill,” JoAnn says. The receptions were held at the house and Hattie baked the wedding cake.

The girls’ married names were Isabelle Brail, Esther Smith, Pauline Thompson, Beverly Montgomery, Betty Spencer, Edith Drake, Lillian Proper, Lucille McConnell, JoAnn Howard and Doris Weir.

The 10 girls gave Walter and Hattie 29 grandchildren. Walter died at the age of 66; Hattie lived to be 88. All but one of the girls, Doris, stayed in  Ashtabula County, Ohio, after marrying. The girls always made it a point to get together at least once a year. JoAnn says their oldest sister, Pauline, seemed to assume the role of the bossy big sister as the girls grew older.

And then they started passing from the scene, as did their spouses. JoAnn’s first husband, Charles Howard, died in 1980. Eighteen years later, she married Robert Keller, who passed away last year.

Her last remaining sister, Esther Smith, 92, died July 21, 2012, leaving only JoAnn the last survivor of the 10 Calaway sisters.

“Life goes on,” she says. “Changes all the time.”

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