Wednesday, December 24, 2014

52 Ancestors - #15: Bertha Edna Smith

Bertha Edna Smith
Bertha Edna Smith, the daughter of John Milton Smith and Amanda Larimer Horne, was born on January 24, 1898 in Paulton, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. She was the sixth child of seven—Benjamin Gordon, George Nelson, Edith McCrum, Howard Stanley, Helen Margaret, Bertha Edna, and John Thompson Smith.

On June 25, 1900, two year old Bertha lived with her family in the Washington Township of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. She was listed as Edna B. Smith in the census record.

Bertha’s 18 year old sister Edith, blind as the result of measles, died of typhoid fever on October 24, 1906 at Mercy Hospital. She was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Apollo, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania.

On April 26, 1910, the family still lived in Washington Township. A neighbor two doors away is John A. Stewart. Mr. Stewart was also a neighbor in 1900 so they must be living in the same house. Bertha was able to read and write.

Bertha’s father, John, died in Westmoreland County on March 9, 1912. He was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Apollo.

Another sister, Helen, died in Paulton on March 18, 1913. She was only 17 years old. Helen was buried on March 20 in the family plot at Apollo’s Riverview Cemetery. She shares a tombstone with her parents and sister Edith.

On January 26, 1920, 22 year old Bertha lived with her 60 year old widowed mother in the North Washington District of Washington Township. The home was located on Greensburg – Apollo Road. Bertha was single and had no occupation listed in the census record. Three adult brothers lived in the home with Bertha and her mother—Ben (age 37), George (age 34), and John (age 18). Her brothers all worked in a steel mill.

George Athya in white shirt, Bertha beside him
Bertha married a Scot, George Durie Athya, son of James Athya and Jemima Durie on June 14, 1924 in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Together they had four children—John Thompson, Howard George, Mary Margaret, and James Jem Athya. Family names were apparently important to Bertha and George. Bertha’s father was named John. Her grandfather and brother were both named John Thompson Smith. She had brothers named George and Howard. Her sister Helen’s middle name was Margaret. On George’s side of the family—obviously George was her husband. His father was named James and his mother named Jemima so possibly their son James Jem was named after both of them. George also had sisters named Mary and Margaret, and a brother named John. I do find it interesting that George named his daughter Mary as his 1920 immigration record shows that he left a wife named Mary behind in Glasgow, Scotland. No one knows if they ever divorced or what happened to her in general.

Bertha, her brother Howard, and his wife Myrtle
On June 12, 1925, Bertha gave birth to her first child, John, in Pennsylvania.

Late 1926, early 1927, Bertha and George lived in a third floor apartment over a bar. When the owner found out that Bertha was pregnant with her second child (Howard), he wanted to move her to the second floor. Before Howard was born, Bertha’s mother Amanda and her son Ben took John home to stay with them hoping to make life easier for Bertha. John was not quite two at the time. Amanda and Ben planned to keep John there until Bertha got back on her feet. However, as young as John was, he decided that was where he would stay and so he did. He’d only been staying at Amanda and Ben’s house for a few weeks at that time but he had visited often and was comfortable and used to being with them. It hurt Bertha’s feelings but she realized it was best for her as living on the second floor with two children, having to carry laundry, groceries, etc. would be hard. Howard was born in Apollo on April 2, 1927.

Two years later Bertha’s only daughter, Mary, was born on February 9, 1929 in Paulton. She often mentioned that her birthdate was 2 9 29.

On April 12, 1930, census records show Bertha, George, John, Howard, and Mary lived in Paulton Mine, Westmoreland County. By the time their fourth son, James (AKA Jim), was born on June 7 they had moved to 213 South 4th Street in Apollo. Bertha’s elderly aunt, Electra Smith Jack, lived with Bertha and George in Apollo. Electra died in the South 4th Street home on April 22, 1932 at the age of 91. Bertha was the informant on Electra’s death certificate.

On April 15, 1940, Bertha, George, Howard, Mary, and James lived in Apollo. The census record shows the highest grade Bertha had completed was the 8th grade. Her 75 year old single aunt, Josephine Horne, lived next door.

Bertha and George lost two houses in the 1940s—one to taxes and one when the Kiskiminetas River flooded in Apollo. After the flood, they moved in with Bertha’s mother, Amanda, in Washington, Westmoreland County. Amanda was bedridden from a stroke and died on January 11, 1943. She was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Apollo.

Bertha in the center

After the death of her mother, Bertha, George, and their son Howard moved to Warren, Trumbull County, Ohio. John stayed in Pennsylvania with his Uncle Ben where he lived until his high school graduation. Jim moved in with Bertha’s brother George and his wife Verda. Mary lived with a neighbor for a month so she could participate in 8th grade graduation ceremonies. John, Mary, and Jim eventually joined the family in Warren.

In 1953, Bertha and George took a two week vacation to Phoenix, Maricopa County, Arizona. Bertha had chronic obstructive lung disease and the doctor told Bertha it would be good for her. They ended up staying there after George called work several times to ask for more time off. Once moving to Phoenix, George, with Bertha’s help, worked as a church caretaker at two different churches—First Presbyterian and then Westminster. He was paid $100 per month and of that, $50 was used to pay rent. Bertha and George lived off the other $50 for a while until he started receiving a Social Security check.

Mary, her husband, and daughter moved to Phoenix the summer of 1955. They lived with Bertha and George for a year before returning to the East coast.

Bertha’s brother Ben died at the Elks Home in Bedford, Bedford County, Virginia on December 15, 1957. He was buried in the Elks National Cemetery, a section of Oakwood Cemetery designated as the burial place for residents of the Elks National Home.

Bertha’s brother George died on April 24, 1959 in Washington Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. He was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Apollo.

Her brother Howard died on January 14, 1961 in Apollo. He was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Apollo.

At the age of 72, Bertha’s husband George died  in Phoenix of lung cancer on August 30, 1964. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Scattering Rose Garden (section 48) at Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery in Phoenix on September 2. After George’s death, Bertha left Arizona and moved back to Warren to live with her oldest son John. In the mid-1960s, she moved to the city of Falls Church, Virginia to live with her daughter Mary. She stayed there a while and then went back to Ohio to live with her son Jim.

Bertha lost her last brother, John, on September 23, 1969. He was buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in Lower Burrell Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

Sometime between 1971 and 1972, Bertha moved to Manassas, Prince William County, Virginia to live with Mary. She lived there until she died of a heart attack on April 22, 1979. She was 81 years old and the last member of her family to die. In her personal papers, I found a note handwritten by Bertha dated October 12, 1977 expressing her last wishes for a funeral: “To the undertaker: I want everything over as soon as possible. No need for viewing time, as simple and plain. No fuss. I want to be cremated and ashes scattered where ever they do it. No one needs to go to the [unreadable]. No embalming. No charge. No make-up. No charge. I never wear it.” Bertha left behind four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at All Souls Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Warren.

Bertha was a homemaker most of her adult life, except when she helped George take care of the churches in Phoenix. She never drove a car. She had a wealthy cousin named Effie Evans Beale who wanted Bertha to learn to drive so she could be her driver. Bertha always regretted not learning to drive. She was a gracious lady and a very nice person. She was quiet and stayed to herself a lot. Bertha never left the house without a head scarf. She enjoyed watching religious television shows such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robinson. She also enjoyed Panorama, a midday talk show hosted by Maury Povich, game shows, and the roller derby.

Bertha read the Bible often and attended church when she lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio. For some reason, she didn’t attend church once she moved to Manassas, although other family members did.

Bertha liked to play cards—rummy was her favorite card game. I’m told she counted cards, not that she ever used this skill in a casino. She taught her grandson to count them too. He tells me she taught him the statistics of cards being played during games of Go Fish.

By the time Bertha lived in Manassas, she no longer cooked regular meals. When she did cook, it was usually Seafoam Candy (a brown-sugar version of Divinity), peanut brittle, or pies. She’d work for hours making Seafoam Candy using old school kitchen equipment. No fancy food processors for her. She did it all by hand.

Bertha would also spend hours swinging in the front yard with Mary and her first great-granddaughter, described to me as “being a handful.” I find it hard to believe that my dear niece could be a handful. In her defense, I’m told she was instigated by her uncle. To keep her distracted from mischief, Bertha would help her pick animal formations in the clouds while they swung in the front yard.

Bertha liked to keep her hands busy. She passed time by tatting and crocheting. She made sock monkeys and puppets out of anything she could get her hands on around the house. She’d make paper sailor hats and ships for her grandson and accordion paper doll cut outs.

She kept a Listerine bottle in the bathroom and for years her grandson thought she was taking a nip when he’d see her drink from the bottle. To his surprise, he eventually found out it actually was Listerine.

Bertha had curly dark hair and hardly a gray hair in her head when she died. She never wanted to be a burden.

I have a photo album that belonged to Bertha that is filled with photos taken in the early 1900s. Not a single photo has a name attached to it. Fortunately, I’ve been able to identify some of the photos from other photos we found in her possessions. Some are of a school age Bertha. Some are her brothers. A few are of her mother and aunts. Note to self … get busy labeling the many photos that I have. Someday someone may want to know who these people are!
When my in-laws retired and moved out of the home they’d lived in for 25 years, I found the picture to the right of a 20 year old Bertha in their attic. It was wrapped in newspaper and sitting in a cardboard box. The bubble glass was broken in half so I assume that’s why it ended up in the attic. I told my mother-in-law that I was taking the picture home with me that day. I was surprised when she let me take it because she just didn’t give things like that away. I brought the picture home and promptly put it upstairs out of the way for safe keeping. Sixteen years later, I finally decided to invest in new glass for the frame so we could hang it downstairs for all to see. It cost me $300 for the glass so I gave it to my husband for Christmas that year. He was thrilled with it and so we packed it up to carry with us on the hour drive to my in-laws house Christmas Day. My mother-in-law was in the final stages of emphysema and we knew when we arrived at their house that she was in bad shape that day. She was in bed so I spent a long time sitting with her in the bedroom. We talked when she was able to and held hands when she couldn’t do anything else. She wasn’t up to eating Christmas dinner but was finally able to come and sit in the living room while we made an attempt to celebrate the day. At times she was hallucinating—she was talking to a couple of presidents from the 1800s at one point. We finally showed her the newly framed picture of Bertha. Even in the state she was in, she immediately knew it was her mother. Her face lit up, she smiled, and a long ‘awwwww’ came out of her mouth. Christmas Day turned out to be her last full day on Earth as she died overnight. I was so thankful that we took the picture with us that day so she could see it.

I have only heard good things about Bertha. She must have been a very special woman.


  1. I always enjoy seeing the great pictures on your posts. And I love the story about her counting cards!

  2. Thanks Brenna. I have some great family photos and just feel the need to share! Happy new year!