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Thursday, June 16, 2005 01:27 pm

Green ham and interrupted prayers

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They were known as plain people with a practical faith. Their church was called German Baptist and later changed to Church of the Brethren when ethnic identity became a handicap, but they were nicknamed Dunkards for their method of baptism: not once but three times under. Following the injunction in the Book of James “to care for orphans and widows in their distress,” in 1903 they voted to establish an Old Folks and Orphans Home in Girard, Ill. The next year they paid C.C. Gibson $3,000 for 20 acres of farm ground at the northwest edge of town. By 1905 they had raised $15,000 of the $20,000 they would need, and in the spring construction began on a large brick building to house the “Home for the Homeless.” Soon the name was changed to “The Home.”

Last Sunday, church folk from miles around came to Girard for an old-fashioned church service to commemorate 100 years of caring at The Home. In 1976, when the old brick building was demolished and replaced by a modern nursing home, it took the name Pleasant Hill Village, reflecting the board’s dream to fill its 20 acres with homes and services for the aging. The board struggled for several years just to fill the nursing home, then struggled some more to keep it solvent. Only in the last three years has the “village” begun to take shape, with the construction of 48 new apartments for seniors. Old folks are still thriving at this place everyone calls The Home.

But the orphans are gone. Caring for homeless youngsters under the same roof as homeless oldsters worked well for awhile, with the children bringing delight to the old folks, who contributed their wisdom and life experience. A woman who took care of the children in the early 1920s recalled this incident many years later: “One evening I was hearing the girls’ prayers. There were two sisters, Hazel, the youngest, and her older sister, Edna. Hazel was saying her prayers and Edna was tickling her feet. Hazel said, ‘Wait a minute, Lord, while I knock the devil out of Edna.’”

She also recalled a tragedy, when one of the boys, against the rules, decided to go swimming in a pond on his way to school. He suffered cramps and drowned. Not long after that the county turned over the care of its wards to the state, and the children were sent to an orphanage in Bloomington. “It took the heart out of us all,” the caretaker wrote. “It was family breakup for all once again. The Home was never the same.”

But life went on, with generosity and humor fueling the enterprise when other resources were scarce. For Christmas 1923, the Girard community gave The Home a player piano, with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan contributing 27 $1 bills to the gift. Along about that time the superintendent took The Home’s pair of horses to a place from which they would be sold to raise money. After a sad farewell he went back to his office. Not long after, here came one of the horses, broken out of his stall, trotting down the road back home.

Helen Talkington, the nursing home’s assistant director of nursing, is retiring this year after nearly 30 years of caring for residents. When she started there in the 1970s, the rules weren’t so strict. She remembers a little man, Howard Ball, who used to go to town and the grocery store with the staff member who made the daily mail run. No one checked his bag when he returned. One night he became very ill, and Helen had to send him to the hospital. “He admitted before going that he had eaten ham and onions. He said, ‘I had it outside my window to keep it cold.’ However, the temperature had gotten warm and the ham had turned ‘green,’ causing him a good case of food poisoning.” He recovered, only to return to his old tricks. “One night my aides came to me, asking me to check a toilet which wouldn’t flush. I took off the top of the flush box to find a neatly tied plastic bag containing a chunk of bologna and an onion. He had found a different place to keep his snack cold.”

The chronicle of a nursing home is history written small, nothing on the grand scale of the war on terrorism and evil. But pondering the amount of love that has been poured into that place over 100 years makes me think it is somehow just as important.

Fletcher Farrar is a board member at Pleasant Hill Village, which will celebrate its centennial again July 29-31 with a weekend of food and entertainment on the grounds in conjunction with Girard’s sesquicentennial festivities.

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