Della Johnson – A long life built on roots in Spohr’s Crossroads
Last month, the three surviving children of James P. and Ethel Clark gathered with extended family and friends to celebrate long life and strong family ties.
The occasion was the 100th birthday of Evalyn (Clark) McBee – the oldest of the three sisters. Still living in her own home near Oakland, Md., McBee was surprised by a party held in her honor near her home.
Her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-greatgrandchildren gathered along with friends to celebrate the milestone.
The family further surprised McBee by bringing in her younger sisters, Kathryn Kesecker, 95, of Shelby, N.C. and Della Johnson, 98, of Berkeley Springs.
McBee’s granddaughter, Gwen Evans, reported that McBee was overwhelmed by the surprise and the attention.
“I don’t know if I can believe all this,” she told Evans.
“I got tired of posing for so many pictures,” McBee said.
Having a big sister who reached the century mark doesn’t make much of an impression on Della Johnson, who lives by herself in Berkeley Springs.
She’s only two years away from the milestone herself, but looks and acts several decades younger.
Born May 23, 1913, Johnson was one of six children. Three have passed on – Boyd, Norman and Elsie.
Farm, school & town
Life for the six Clark children was centered around Spohr’s Crossroads – its church and schoolhouse, family farms and the tomato canning factories that operated there in later years.
Johnson recalls working on the farm, pulling pea vines from the tomato plants and corn rows during the summer season.
To keep the sun and pests at bay, the girls wore old stockings on their arms, pinned to their summer dresses at the shoulder, Johnson said.
The Clark family kept cows and horses. Johnson remembers riding the horses over to the farm pond to let the animals drink.
During the fall, winter and spring, the Clark children attended school in Spohr’s Crossroads at the building that is now the area’s Community Center.
Johnson went to eighth grade there, then went another two years because she didn’t recall having anything else to do at the time, and didn’t have a way to the get to the county’s high school.
Coming into Berkeley Springs from Spohr’s Crossroads – a trip of five miles — was not a frequent journey for the Clark family in the early years.
“Daddy would bring us into town on the buggy.
We would get an ice cream cone at Disher’s Pharmacy and we thought we really had something,” Johnson recalled.
She remembered other stores in town – Henry Gorrel’s Variety and J.Y. Miller’s clothing and shoe store.
“If you try on a shoe and it’s a mile too long, J.Y. will say it just fits,” Johnson can remember a family member saying.
Work in tomato factories
Once she got older, Johnson worked at several tomato canning factories in the fall season.
She stood on a crate and peeled tomatoes destined for cans, and also put lids on the cans.
“I never saw a girl slapping lids on those cans like that,” Mr. C.I. Pentoney told Johnson.
Her schoolmate, Gladys Peer, lived behind the schoolhouse and invited her for sleepovers. The girl’s father, Earl Peer, ran a tomato canning factory there. The remains of his farm and barns still stand at Spohr’s Crossroads.
Starting a family
In the early days of the 1930’s, Willard Johnson spotted the young Della Clark walking home from a prayer meeting and the two struck up a friendship.
The couple married in 1932. They had three children. Herbert and Bernard Johnson still live in Berkeley Springs. The Johnson’s daughter died very young of leukemia.
Della Johnson added to her family by taking over the care of a little girl just a few months past her first birthday. That girl, Peggy Peck, still calls Johnson “Mom.”
Throughout the years, Johnson took care of many children – babysitting and watching little ones for friends and family members.
“That’s my favorite job – to babysit,” she said. “I was busy with grandchildren and I loved it.”
She has seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren to keep her on her toes.
Peck visits for a daily game of dominos and to help with errands.
Sons Herb and Bernard Johnson and their families keep a close eye on their mother, making meals and taking her to town. Della Johnson doesn’t drive, and never did.
Johnson insists her children still play dominos with her, sometimes late into the evening.
“I play so long sometimes I can’t see the spots,” she said.
Asked to account for her longevity and good health, Johnson is a little stumped.
“No smoke, chew or drink,” she rattles off her tongue – a lifelong rule she’s adhered to.
And good genes, shared with her sisters.
Her plans for future?
“To sit,” she said.