2014-09-12 / Front Page

Everyday Maine: Eva Ledger

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Eva Ledger of South Portland, age 104, reminisces with a photo album in her Landry Village home. (Duke Harrington photo) Eva Ledger of South Portland, age 104, reminisces with a photo album in her Landry Village home. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — There’s no easy way to prove Eva Ledger is the oldest resident of South Portland. Because it had been incorporated as a city by the time Boston Post Canes were handed out, making it ineligible to receive one, South Portland never bothered to try and keep track of its oldest person. And according to City Clerk Susan Mooney, a date of birth is not on file for all registered voters. Still, at 104, if Ledger isn’t the city’s oldest resident, there can’t be many people who are senior to her.

Born in 1910, she’s seen the advent of automobiles, electric lights, television, telephones and women’s suffrage, civil rights, manned flight, manned space flight and the computer age. She’s lived through the Great Depression, two world wars (the second one made her a widow) and struggled to raise three children as a single mother. Recently, she took the time to tell Sentry readers about her remarkable life.

In this 1928 photo, South Portland resident Eva Ledger, on the far left, now 104, gaffs about as “three bums” with her sisters Flora and Giselle, flaunting the convention of the times by boldly wearing pants. (Courtesy photo) In this 1928 photo, South Portland resident Eva Ledger, on the far left, now 104, gaffs about as “three bums” with her sisters Flora and Giselle, flaunting the convention of the times by boldly wearing pants. (Courtesy photo) Q: Where and when were you born?

A: I was born Aug. 14, 1910, in Lyndonville, Vermont — a little bit of a town near St. Johnsbury.

Q: Why did you come to Maine?

A: During the time of the First World War, my father (Joseph Ouellette) was working on the railroad. All the trains were taken over by the Army and he wasn’t going to have any work, so he came to Maine because he had relatives here, and he got a job working in the shipyard as a blacksmith’s helper during the war. He came first and then we came after, with my mother (Dora Ouellette) after he found work. I remember my sister and I used to walk over Vaughn’s bridge to bring my father his lunch. That was the bridge near where the Veterans Bridge is now that connected Portland and South Portland at the time.

Eve Ledger and her husband, Roland Ledger, from a 1931 photo of the couple. He died in World War II, while she continues to live in South Portland at age 104. (courtesy photo) Eve Ledger and her husband, Roland Ledger, from a 1931 photo of the couple. He died in World War II, while she continues to live in South Portland at age 104. (courtesy photo) Q: Where did the family live?

A: We had a house on Grant Street in Portland. But we moved all around because the family kept growing and we kept having to get a bigger house. Finally, my father built a house in back of Westgate, in Portland, in a development called Congress Terrace. Some developer sold lots and my mother and father bought a big one. That was a great place to grow up, because you didn’t have to worry about cars or anything. That also was our first home with electricity. Before that we had kerosene lamps. That was one of my jobs with my sister, cleaning those lamps every night, the globe and the wick, and putting the oil in it, then taking them up to the bedrooms. We were so glad when we didn’t have to clean lamps any more.

Q: What is your earliest memory of living in Portland?

A: I can remember when we first came to Portland. The people we stayed with until we moved into our house took my sister and I to ride on the trolley, to ride into Portland from down on Forest Avenue. I can remember getting on the seat, sitting way back with my feet sticking straight out, because I was just little, amazed that I was riding on a street car. We had nothing like that in Vermont, just horse and buggy.

Q: Do you remember your family’s first car?

A: Oh yes. And I learned to drive early, when I was just 16, because my father wanted me to take him back and forth to work. By then he was at the Portland Gas Company, which was right under the old Million Dollar Bridge. They made gas from coal and piped it all around the city and my father’s job was shoveling the coal into these big furnaces. After it burned what was left was like a spongy material called coke, and that’s’ what we used for fuel. My father had a big bin behind our house, and they’d just dump it out back. Anyway, he bought this Model T and had me learn how to drive. Back then, all you had to do is pay your $2 and you got your license. You never had to show them you knew how to drive. I finally gave up my license when I turned 100, but I drove right up until then.

Q: What did your mother do?

A: She took care of kids. She had 12 of us, a baby every year practically. I was second in line. Three died young, two as infants from pneumonia and then one when it was only 10 days old, of a birth defect or something. But nine of us lived, six boys and three girls. Today there are only three left and I’m the oldest. I have one brother who lives in Westbrook, he’s 86, and I have sister who lives in Mill Cove Apartments. She’s 95. My mother died early, in her 40s, not long after my first child was born. Just as she got to an age when she wouldn’t be having kids of her own anymore, she got sick and died. She was just worn out for having kids, I think.

Q: Did she ever say how she felt about women finally getting the right to vote?

A: No, I don’t remember too much of that, I was too young. I was probably 10 when women got the vote. But I’ve voted in every major election since I’ve been an adult. Of course, I vote absentee today. But I do remember Prohibition. Everybody had home brew down in their basements, even my father. I don’t know what he made his liquor out of, I never tasted it, but sometimes the bottles would blow up, the corks would blow from something in the brew and you’d hear them banging against the floor.

Q: What was high school like in the 1920s?

Q: It was different. We had a gym and a small, little cafeteria, but nothing like they have today. I took business courses, typing and bookkeeping. We didn’t have buses to take us to school. I went to Deering High School and we walked from Stevens Avenue and Congress Street — snow, rain, sunshine, it made no difference, you went to school. There were no stores then where Westgate is now, it was just a big hayfield then, and that was our shortcut. Still, it was a long walk.

Q: What did you do when you got out of high school?

A: I went to work. I had a job with Emery- Waterhouse. It was a big place on Commercial Street that sold tools, kind of like a Home Depot. I was a secretary. I’d type and write letters and, it never failed, my boss would wait until it was just about time to go home when he’d call me in to dictate about five letters. When I graduated from high school I got married and I gave that up.

Q: Was that your first job?

A: Oh, no. I went to work when I was 16 at an ice cream factory on Commercial Street. It was called Fro-Joy. I’d take the streetcar after school from Congress Street to Monument Square and walk down and work until closing time, sometimes until midnight. My first job there was sorting chocolates into the boxes they sold to stores for the holidays. It was like a puzzle, and you could sneak a few chocolates here and there, so that was a fun job. Later I worked on the assembly line, putting the sticks in popsicles. That was tricky when they first started that, because they couldn’t get the brine cold enough to harden the popsicles. They had great big bins of brine, and they dropped these big racks with the popsicles down into it. People on each side of the bin had to be ready when the racks came out, to put them into bags to be rushed into the freezers. So, it was move fast, but there were late nights because the popsicles weren’t hardening right and it had to be done all over.

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

A: There was one fella a little older than the rest of us who had what they called a touring car that you put the top down on. Nobody had any money, but everybody would chip in a quarter to buy gas. You could ride all day on that and we’d all pile in, sitting on the top up there and on the running board down there. We’d fill that car. But it never failed, the tires were no good and we’d only get a little ways before we’d get a flat and have to patch the inner tube. But those days were fun. We just ran around and had a good time. There were a lot of things for young people to do. There were theaters and ice cream shops where we met all our friends. Later we got into square dancing. We did the works. But we never heard of drugs or sex or anything like that. We didn’t even think of those things.

Q: How did you meet your husband (Roland Ledger)?

A: He was in the Army. He was from up in the Bangor area and we met at one of the theaters down near Monument Square. There was one place that had a ballroom where teenagers hung out. They had soldiers, sailors, Marines; anything you could want was down there. I would have a date with one guy one night, and a date with another guy the next night. I met a lot of other guys while I was in high school. I had some that would stop at Deering High and pick me up and bring me home, so I didn’t always have to walk.

Q: Of all the boys you dated, how did you choose the one that became your husband?

A: Oh, maybe he was more insistent, I guess.

Q: You got married just about when the Great Depression started, what was that like?

A: With my husband in the military, it didn’t seem as hard on us as it was on most people. Still, you had to make do. When we first were married we lived on Front Street here in South Portland. There was a sardine factory right there and there was a ferry that went from there to the state pier in Portland. You could ride across the harbor for a nickel and that was nice because, before we could afford that, I must have worn out two sets of tires off my son’s stroller from walking all the way around and across the bridge. Later, We lived on Great Diamond Island at Fort McKinley until the Second World War. We were there when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Q: Do you remember where you where when you heard about Pearl Harbor?

A: We were sitting in a theater and a sergeant came and tapped my husband on the shoulder. They went out and then my husband came back and whispered that we had to leave, because they’d just got word that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed. Fort McKinley had nothing for protection and of course we had no idea if the Japanese were on their way to bomb us, or what. They put the guards out there manning those guns that couldn’t shoot, but at least they could see if any planes were coming in. I spent that night making doughnuts to feed to these guys that were on duty all night. Of course, things moved after that and the whole outfit got sent out. My husband was in the 5th Infantry and he got sent to Connecticut. We went with him — I had two of my three kids at the time. Later in the war, he was assigned to a base in Florida, so we moved there. I lost my husband in the war. He was killed in Europe and he’s buried in Arlington Cemetery.

I also had three brothers in the war at the same time. One of my brothers, William, went in on D-Day and was in a lot of the fighting. He lived for maybe 10 years after the war, but wasn’t well at all. He drove supplies to the front and at night, with no place to sleep, they had to get down in the trenches and sleep under the vehicles. He got arthritis real bad from that and ended up bent right over all the time. He died from not being able to breath and I think of him as a casualty of the war, as well. He was only 54 when he died.

Anyway, after the war, in 1946, I wanted to come back to Maine because this was home.

Q: Where did you live?

A: The shipyards were shut down by then, so I missed all that, but there was a new development at the time in South Portland just built by the Army called Peary Village. I moved in there into a small apartment with a pot-bellied stove for heat. I had to work, of course, but I hadn’t worked all those years I was married. Because bookkeeping was what I knew, I applied in the office at Montgomery Ward. I didn’t have a phone so they couldn’t call me to tell me I got the job, so they had to send me a telegram.

Q: What was life like in post-war South Portland for a single mother?

A: During the war you couldn’t buy refrigerators or stoves, even sheets and curtains, because all manufacturing just about had been dedicated to the war effort, and it took a while for things to start back up. You couldn’t even find a fan in Florida, and it was hot down there, with no such thing as air conditioning back then. You had to go to black markets to get things.

Anyway, because I was at Montgomery Ward, I was able to put my name on a list for a refrigerator. At the time, all I had was an icebox. Well, I was gone all day to work, and the kids were in school, so I had to leave the door unlocked for the ice man to go in and make deliveries. Luckily, I got an electric refrigerator on the first shipment that came in.

Q: Did you ever remarry?

A: I didn’t have time to do that. With three kids, I had to work! Besides Montgomery Ward I also worked at the same time at Lancaster Furniture and at Philco Wholesalers, selling TVs when those first came in. I didn’t have one myself for a quite a while. But we’d go over to a neighbor’s and, back then, there’d be some good show on every night, not like today.

Q: How long did you stay in military housing?

A: I lived in Peary Village for four years. Then the Army sold all the buildings and gave us a year to move. I looked and looked for someplace else to rent, but I couldn’t get anything. At that time, the landlords could refuse to rent to you if you had children. What I had to do was, I had to buy.

Q: How were you able to afford a house?

A: We had bought a trailer when we were in Florida. Trailer parks were then popping up everywhere, because the service families were all in the same boat, needing a place to live. When I came back to Maine I sold the trailer and kept that money in an emergency fund. Plus, I always saved money. Rents were like $15 a month then, but your pay was like $60 a week. You could buy a pound of the best hamburger for 15 cents, or a loaf of bread for a nickel. So, you didn’t need a lot of money. I bought the house at 63 Smith St. in 1950 for $4,500. Because I had about half of that for a down payment, my mortgage was only about $30 a month. I later sold that house for $25,000 after my kids were all grown and married. But I did a lot of work on that house. I learned how to do everything, how to paint and how to wallpaper, and even to put tiles on the kitchen floor. I had a three-car garage built, because my son had a car, and I had a car. My neighbor didn’t even have a driveway, so he rented a space from me. There were so many memories in that house — so many birthday parties and showers for my kids and all their friends. I built a sandbox on the porch and my grandchildren filled it one bucket at a time from visits to Willard Beach. But eventually I didn’t need all that space so I bought a place on Skilling Street and went from seven rooms to four. By then I was working at Coca- Cola.

Q: What did you do there?

A: I worked in the office of the bottling plant they had then at the corner of Main Street and Westbrook Street, right at the light. You could walk by the window and watch the bottles going along and being filled. Their policy then was that when you were 65 you had to retire. Two years after I was forced to retire, that law was changed. But it didn’t help me. They told me the policy when I took the job, but after 16 years I had forgotten all about it until they came in and said, ‘We see you’re going to be leaving us soon.’ I said, ‘Why, am I getting fired?’ and they said, ‘Well, no, but there is the policy and you are having a birthday next month.’ So, that was the notice I got. One month. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m not prepared for this at all. Anyway, I went in and talked to my boss and said if I could work six more months it would really help me. He talked to the directors and they let me work until January.

Q: What did you do for work after that?

A: Well, I was already working at the Merry Manor, and at the Sheraton Hotel, which had just been built out by the mall. I’d work at Coca-Cola until 5, then go to the Sheraton and work there until 11 p.m. After I was made to leave Coca-Cola I took up babysitting and did that until I was 88.

Q: How did you like that?

A: Oh, I enjoyed taking kids. I would sit for people who would go the Caribbean for two weeks and I’d just move right in and take care of the kids and the cooking and the laundry. Everything. When you go into somebody’s house and their little 2-year-old comes running to you with his hands out, that makes you feel good. The grandmothers would be jealous of me, but I was like, well, why doesn’t she take care of the kid?

Q: What has been the biggest change in South Portland since you’ve lived here?

A: The biggest and best change was when they filled in the dump. What is now Mill Creek Park was the city dump. I had to go by it every day on my way to work. Broadway was then one way and you had to go right by the dump, along Cottage Road and Ocean Street to get back to Broadway. They’d always be burning stuff, with smoke and smells, with the trucks backing stuff in and seagulls flying around. They filled it in over the course of about five years and made that beautiful park. When I think of it, that’s been the biggest change, bigger than the mall. But I’ve loved living in South Portland. wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s homey.

Q: When did you finally retire?

A: Well, I first tried it in the 1980s, when the complex I’m in now was first built. I stayed about five years, but I was bored. Bored stiff. I was going on a lot of bus tours. So I said, ‘I don’t like this, I’ve got to buy another house.’ So I lived on Westbrook Street for several years. I continued babysitting and also worked at the Merry Manor and at the Sheraton, nights and weekends. I went back to senior housing after a giant tree fell into my yard in a storm and I realized the yard work was getting to be too much for me.

Q: At 104, how is your health, generally?

A: I’ve had a stroke and a heart attack, so that’s slowed me down. I have what they call compression fractures in my spine, with one vertebrate hitting the other, bone-on-bone, because there’s nothing left in between. Because of my age there isn’t a doctor in the state of Maine that will give me a pain pill. I have gone to every doctor in the area — acupuncture, chiropractor, orthopedic, neurologist —every, one. When they hear my age they say, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you.’ They don’t dare touch me! I’ve told them, you’ve got to get together and come up with something, because people are living longer. You’re going to get a bunch of 100-year-old people soon, and you’ve got nothing to give them.

Q: To what do you attribute your longevity?

A: I think clean living and hard work. I never smoked. I never drank. No drugs. And I always worked hard. I still do a lot for 104. I only just started last Friday having a girl come and do housework, vacuuming and the like.

Q: How do you keep busy these days?

A: The library has a wonderful outreach program where they deliver books. There’s no time limit. When I’m done I just pick up the phone, leave a message that I’m ready for more, and the next day the girl is right here, rain or shine, with four or five more. It’s a great service. I’ve offered to pay, because she uses her own car, but she won’t take it. And I read everything that comes my way. I read all the free papers. I read everything. I keep up with the news. Although, I tell you, I am so sick of this tar sands. Lord, I’m so sick of hearing about that. The world sure has changed. The world is turning too fast for me right now. It seems like every month goes by so fast. But I can honestly say that, while I’ve had struggles, I’ve never, ever been lonely. I’ve always had plenty to do.

Q: What advice would you give to a young person just starting out?

A: Well, first get off the drugs. Then, stay in school until you graduate, from college if you can. I don’t think I would have done anything different if I had gone to college, but if you can’t go to college, you can always go to the

Q: Looking back on your long life, what has been your happiest memory?

A: Oh, I don’t know, there’s so many. I’d say my first grandson being born. I have so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren now, but having the first was so wonderful. I took so many pictures of him. We had washers but no dryers in those days. The kids all wore long johns and I’d put out them out on the line where they’d freeze. Well, I’d bring them in and make them dance on the floor to entertain him. It’s those little moments that make life so special.

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