By Nancy Hicks Williams
Special to the Enterprise
Peggy Joyce Esch was born September 11, 1939, at her home, five miles south of Gleason, one mile from Peace and Harmony School, to Edith Moore and Leland Esch. She lived there until she was seventeen-years-old, a graduate of Gleason High School, and wife of Joe Stewart, May 10, 1957. Her parents were originally from the Macedonia Community out from McKenzie toward Huntingdon. Peggy’s great-grandmother Esch was a full-blooded Indian whose heritage traced to North Carolina, supposedly of the Cherokee Nation.
Peggy was the third-born of five siblings: Bobby, Jackie, Peggy, Jerry, and Patty. So, she was a very special young lady. “I was always happy. Being the first little girl in an all-male household of brothers, plus an uncle and a grandfather, other than my mama, I was completely spoiled and doted upon. I could do or have anything I wanted; however, I did not abuse my privileges. I never caused any trouble, nor was I selfish.
“We were a small, farming family. Everybody had jobs within and around the home as well as in the fields. For me, Monday was a wash day. Tuesday was ironing day. Mama would iron on the wooden kitchen table and I would use the ironing board. Saturdays were cleaning days, top to bottom, spit polish, except for summers when we were all in the fields and cleaning was placed on the back burner for a while. When I wasn’t working my childhood playmates were basically church friends.
My family sold milk and at six years old, when the truck pulled up to load, Mama would let me crawl up into the cab with the driver and ride with him to McKenzie to go visit my grandparents. I had no fears, and neither did my parents have to worry about their little girl. Society was different back then.”
I loved getting to start elementary school. Virginia Smith was my 1st grade teacher. Mrs. Edith Rushing taught me in 2nd grade. She was motherly, warm and caring. Lottie Garrett in the 3rd grade was precious. “When I was seven years old, I played in the woods by myself. I would take my dolls and carriage and stay for hours until Mama called me in for lunch. Then, I would go back. I found the foundation of an old house, gathered and put up sticks to make the rooms, and had my own real playhouse and magical kingdom.”
“My greatest responsibility as a youth was babysitting and tending to my new brother, Jerry, and sister, Patty, beginning when I was eight-years-old and beyond, basically, until I left home. Electricity and indoor plumbing had been installed in 1947 and we bought our first television when I was in the 11th grade, 1956.” These amenities made caring for her younger brother and sister easier.
I did not have to work all the time. When I was 10, 11, 12 years old, my cousins and I would board a train, by ourselves, and travel to Little Rock, Arkansas, to visit Mama’s relatives. We would stay for several weeks, before returning home. We did this many summers.
“I would go to Ernest and Cora Parham’s house and watch their television until we got ours. They were always so nice to me. I had to walk down to the end of a little dirt road to meet the school bus. The Parhams lived at the end of that little road, and, sometimes, on cold or rainy days, they would invite me into their home, out of the inclement weather, to watch for the bus.
Mr. Walter Morris and/or Fay Snider (school bus drivers) were always dependable and on time. It was an early, long route…almost a fifty minute ride. When we arrived at this long bridge, the driver would stop the bus. We would all have to get off the bus and walk across the bridge instead of riding because the bridge was unsafe. By the time we arrived at school, we scuttled inside, headed to our classrooms, and settled in, just in time for the morning scripture and pledge on the school intercom led by different students each day. I worked in the cafeteria and sold popsicles for an hour during lunch. I did love their rolls and butter!!”
Nothing was ever dull at the Esch household. “Mama’s family was musical: a brother mastered the violin, a friend played the mandolin, one cousin strummed the guitar, and another cousin played the piano. There were always festive gatherings at all the family homes.
Miss Peggy, age 11, was already taking piano lessons from Miss Reba Oliver and joined right in as a Beech Springs Church pianist as well as a quartet pianist for Shelby Verdell, Ray Dean Verdell, Joe Stewart and Lavonda Stewart. They were featured at the McKenzie Radio Station during the early-mid 1950s. They would leave the radio station, go to Beech Springs for morning service, have lunch, go to an afternoon singing, and then return for night services at the church. They even sang at Joe’s sister’s church in Michigan. They were dedicated to music and committed to the church.
“We basically lived at Beech Springs Church growing up. Mama taught Sunday School, conducted the Training Union, taught at Vacation Bible School, and played the piano for church services.”
“Wherever a revival was being held, we went. It did not make any difference how far. Jacky even remembers traveling to a revival at Fairview Baptist in the Macedonia Community in a wagon.” That was before Peggy could remember.
The family’s medical needs never extended beyond a good washing of an infected area and applying rubbing alcohol. “That cured everything else that Vicks couldn’t. Jackie had to take cod liver oil. He has always had problems with his lungs. When he had scarlet fever with high, high temps, Mama thought she was losing him and asked God to take him. The next morning, he had slightly improved. Mama’s side of the family has a history of lung problems; Jackie inherited that malady. Winter-time pneumonias and congestive issues have always followed him.”
Edith Esch was a master seamstress. “Mama would always have her quilting frames hanging from the ceiling, down, when in use, rolled up, when not in use. She made clothes for me and Patty. I came home the day before Valentine’s one year and told Mama I wanted a special outfit to wear to school the next day. That night, she made me a purple skirt with gold hearts and a lavender blouse. My cousin, Janice Barksdale, of McKenzie, always gave me her beautiful clothes as she outgrew them and Mama made the rest.
Mrs. Edith made Peggy’s wedding dress, covering all those tiny buttons and hand-making the loops. “The material for my wedding dress cost $16.00. I still have it and it is still beautiful.” Mrs Edith was a seamstress at Lillian’s Bridal in Gleason. Patty is also a good seamstress. I do what I have to do, but I don’t like it.”
“I was a social butterfly in junior high and high school. I always invited lots of friends and groups and clubs to our house for outside picnics and activities and parties.” Peggy had excellent penmanship in printing, but not as well, in cursive. She was very proud in the 7th grade when she was asked to go to the high school office and hand-print items on a school poster. Her best friends in Junior high were Rosemary Trevathan and Sarah Henry. They shared all the giggly-girl-talk and all continued their camaraderie throughout high school.
Peggy didn’t like studying but she loved good grades. So, she had no other option. Her hardest class was Chemistry. ”Sometimes, I would just cry.” The easiest was Home Economics. ”It was fun and I already knew how to cook. Peggy Douglas, Frances Maddox, and Bobbie Beard made it all worthwhile. Her hardest teacher was Mr. Vernon Dunn and the easiest was Mr. Lemonds.
One day, the history class students of Mr. Dudley Sanders thought they were really doing something, questioning him about his military service all period long. They were quite proud of themselves keeping him off-track from his daily lesson plan…until the end of the class period when Mr. Sanders gave them a quiz on his impromptu lecture. They all failed it. It is hard to outwit a fox.
“My ‘role’ among my peers was peace-maker. I wanted everybody and everything to run smoothly and be normal. I did not like trouble and dissension. There were not many real discipline problems in our school, but if there were any unruly behaviors in Mrs. Bobbitt’s English class, she would have each student stand, facing a raised window, bend over into the open space, with the upper torso completely outside, and then pull the upper window down enough to contain him/her. She left each there for a while. She also had a 4’-5’ long, wooden stick with an egg-shaped knob on one end. One time, James Garner was asleep and she tapped him on the head with that ‘goose-egg’ to awaken him.”
“I was a member of the Annual Staff my Senior year. I loved the freedom of running around, getting all the pictures together.”
“I had my first ’date’ with Joe Stewart right before I was thirteen. I dated Dossie Wheatley for about 1½ years while Joe was dating Carolyn Babbs. I was dating others, as well: Randall Hearn, Ferrell Hunter, Paul Joe Jackson, for a while, and Donald Godwin for one date only. He drove to Gleason on Old 22 from McKenzie, going 100 mph with his lights off. I had never been so scared in my life or any prouder to be safely at my home. In hindsight, I knew Joe Stewart was the chosen one all along.”
“Wanda Klutts and Mari Lee Wyatt moved to Gleason and became a part of our friends’ group. The smokers never missed a designated break without convening outside by the milk house for a few quick puffs. My favorite music was anything labeled Pat Boone or Elvis. I was proud to be a cheerleader, a homecoming maid, as well as a member of the Miss Gleason Royalty.”
Peggy and the love of her life, Joe Stewart, began their 57-year-marriage in 1957, first living in Memphis for five years and having two babies (Rick, 1958, Rachel, 1960). Joe was a policeman, and got a big break to double his salary by going into the phonograph business and moving to Pennsylvania. He accepted; they moved. That business evolved into tapes, cd’s and, finally, the printing business.
After relocating, again, with an additional 3rd baby (Ronnie, 1962) to Michigan, Memphis, and back to Pennsylvania, within a thirteen-month span, this family finally settled. No more home-sickness and finding a nest. The phonograph business was good to them.
After a most successful career, the Stewart family retired and came home to Gleason in the early 2000s. They found family, old friends, and lower property taxes! They changed their membership to the Gleason First Baptist Church. They first lived in Pillowville for five years. They then moved to Gleason, on East Grove Road, into a house, Peggy’s brother Jackie, had originally built. Mr. Joe died in 2014.
Peggy Esch Stewart is blessed with a good family, good friends, and the best children in the world, along with two granddaughters. She enjoys creating floral arrangements in her spare time. She also helps as a care-giver to her brother, Jackie.
Peggy extends a loving ’Thank You’ to Mama “who taught me I could do anything” and to Joe, “who always picked up where I left off.” He still does and always will.