Sixty-two years after they graduated from the 8th grade at Mertz School, a group of former classmates met again at a reunion in Citronelle Oct. 1. Ellen Pope Rogers, now living in Idaho, instigated the reunion when she realized that an unrelated family affair in Mississippi would bring her through Mobile.
She said the 70 students who graduated from Mertz “grammar” school had been friends and classmates since first grade. At the end of 8th grade, depending on their residential location, some of them went to Theodore High School, some to Baker and the rest to Murphy, which, even in 1953, was “a very large school,” Rogers said, “We never saw each other again.”
In planning the reunion, Rogers used the Internet, the phone and public records to discover 29 of the 70 students are still living. Unfortunately, she also learned 30 had died, but she continues to search for the remaining students, whose whereabouts are unknown: Claude Brazil, George Dunn, Lee Dell Freeman, Barbara Rester Guy, Larry Horn, Betty Lee, Robert Little, Jo Ann Ward and Billy Whitney.
“Most of us had not seen or communicated with each other in all those years,” Rogers said. However, “Judging by the conversation among us at the reunion, none of us ever stopped thinking of and wondering about the well-being of our classmates.”
Mertz was a “clean, rural school with no luxuries, no school colors, no mascots” at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, according to Rogers. Barbara Lambert Hebert agreed. “Life was pretty sedate on the Mertz School campus, with no playground equipment,” Hebert said. “I remember spending a lot of time on the ground at recess looking for four-leaf clovers.”
“I usually walked to and from school every day,” Rogers said. “And since girls were supposed to be ladies, no matter how cold the weather, we were not allowed to wear pants. I was cold all winter every year,” she said.
Despite the mostly prosperous, fairly peaceful time between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War, many families, if they had a car at all, only had one. Rogers’ family didn’t own an automobile, and she recalled that Mertz had no school nurse; when her brother, a year behind her in school, broke his collarbone during a game of “grab and growl” and “he came into my classroom with one shoulder way higher than the other,” she had to take him home on her bicycle.
“He was in a lot of pain so I put him on the back of my bicycle and took him home. Neither the principal nor any of the teachers telephoned my mother or offered to drive him home. And because we didn’t have a car, my mother called a taxi to take him to the doctor.”
By the time these students graduated from Mertz, life was pretty good. A new home cost $9,500; a new car was $1,700; gasoline was 20 cents per gallon and an average annual wage was about $3,500. But when they started to school, around 1945, the country was just recovering from WWII and things were still tough.
Ira Thomas, at whose son’s home the reunion was held, and who was described by Rogers as having grown up in a home “rich in love, wisdom and faith in God,” remembers his childhood vividly.
“When I was 9 years old,” he said, “I went to work for Bill Broadus on his dairy farm, where I cleaned barns and cattle lots and did odd jobs.” He would climb very high up into a silo and throw silage down to be bagged and loaded into a truck. “I was too small to lift the heavy bags, but I could drag them over to the truck,” he said.
Thomas’ pay each workday was one gallon of milk and, he recalled, “I was so proud of that gallon of milk, because I knew it helped my parents feed us seven children. We had no refrigerator, so my father would tie a rope to the handle and let the bucket down into the well to keep the milk cool. Mr. Broadus had Jersey cows that produced very rich milk, just about 50 percent cream, and my mother would separate the cream to make butter. She poured the cream into quart jars, tightened the lids, and my twin sister, Iris, and I would shake those jars until butter formed.”
Thomas described his father as a sharecropper and “a man who took pride in all his work, but especially in the crops he produced.” In order to sell produce to Delchamps, the crops had to be harvested and cleaned, and, Thomas said, “I would get up with daddy before daylight to help him wash vegetables. On some very cold winter days, the water was frozen, so we cracked the ice and washed those vegetables in ice water. We had no gloves, and our hands would be frozen, but we delivered good, clean vegetables to Delchamps before the store opened to customers,” he said.
Rogers remembered having a school holiday when there was a presidential election (in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president) because Mertz was a polling site.
But one of her favorite memories is the “invention” of oleomargarine, “which by law could not be colored by the producer,” she said. Within each cellophane container was a food coloring capsule and, Rogers said, “My siblings and I would compete to squeeze the capsule to release the coloring and turn the margarine yellow.”
Iris Lundy Anderson, about 78 now, remembered how the school came to be named Mertz.
“My grandparents gave the property for the school to be built; the condition was it had to be named Mertz, to which the school board agreed,” she said. The reason, as she recalled, was the high esteem in which Mr. Mertz (she doesn’t remember his first name) was held by farmers in the area.
“The farmers had to go all the way to the foot of Government Street to get to the train to ship their produce,” Anderson said. But, “Mr. Mertz persuaded the railroad to build a spur, which used to be across the road from our filling station/house at U.S. Highway 90 and Pleasant Valley Road … That is where the name came from. When people of my generation speak of the Mertz community, they usually follow it with the word ‘station,’” Anderson noted.
Rogers believes the bonds of friendship formed at an early age become stronger with shared experiences. Those experiences from age 6 to about 13 “remained important to us and enabled us to gather joyfully for the reunion on Oct. 1, and we are already planning another reunion for October 2016,” she said.
To participate in future reunions or to share information about former students, call Rogers at 208-699-5339.