published Monday, August 19th, 2013

Bledsoe County centenarian's advice: Be satisfied, love people

Lucille Boston Lewis, who is set to celebrate her 100th birthday Tuesday, talks on the porch of her home in the Bledsoe County community of Nine Mile.
Lucille Boston Lewis, who is set to celebrate her 100th birthday Tuesday, talks on the porch of her home in the Bledsoe County community of Nine Mile.
Photo by Maura Friedman.

NINE MILE, Tenn. — In Lucille Boston Lewis' lifetime, the U.S. Postal Service started parcel post deliveries and now is threatened with extinction.

The nation's 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, was in office when she was born Aug. 20, 1913, and Congress had just ratified the 16th Amendment a month before, establishing the federal income tax.

And across the nation and world, women began fighting for their rights as the National Woman's Party formed in 1913 to take on the battles of women's suffrage.

But those milestones are a distant thing for Lewis, who on Tuesday will mark off a century on her birthday calendar.

At her rural home in Nine Mile, Tenn. -- so named because it's nine miles north of the Bledsoe County seat of Pikeville -- the mother of six views her world with a cheery perspective on the same land her father farmed before she was born one of eight children.

She's never had a driver's license, never been behind the wheel of a car, but she likes to ride with her young grandchildren because "I like to go fast."

She remembers election day shootings and moonshine stills that made up Bledsoe's cottage industry of homemade whiskey. She recalls the arrival of electricity when the Tennessee Valley Authority began damming up the Tennessee River and men came through Bledsoe County to sign people up for electrical service in the 1940s. She remembers the family's first radio where she heard the Grand Ole Opry.

Her earliest memories are of the tense times of World War I.

"I remember when I was 4 years old, 1917, you know, and the war was on," Lewis said brightly, her styled, silver hair shining in the slanting sun under her carport on Wednesday.

"I remember my mother was scared that Dad was going to have to go to war."

Lewis, small as she was, could tell that her mother, Rosa Pearson Boston, was worried. She couldn't tell if the same was true of her father, a sharecropper who worked days on farms belonging to the local Swafford and Tollette families before coming home to work the orchards on his own 5 acres.

Lewis said her fondest memories were of her father, George Washington Boston, coming home from work. She would ask if he was tired to gauge whether to leap into his lap or to head off to play.

Lewis said she only remembers going to Pikeville once by wagon as a child. The time-worn seat from that wagon sits just a few feet away against the back wall of the carport.

The family didn't have much time for traveling, even the nine miles to the nearest town. Classes were taught in small community schoolhouses, and she started school at Lone Oak School.

With a quick warning, she suddenly calls off the 28 letters spelling the "longest word" in the English language, "antidisestablishmentarianism," an accomplishment of her fifth-grade year that she remains proud of to this day.

Lewis graduated from J.A. Patton High School in the nearby community of Melvine in 1933. Classmate Cora Tollette just had her 100th birthday party on Aug. 14.

Lewis says Franklin D. Roosevelt was the best president the country saw in her lifetime because he brought work to rural communities and her family when times were hard.

"We didn't have any money before Franklin Roosevelt, except when we sold a pig or calf or something," she said. Two of her brothers found work in the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps camps, one in the Great Smoky Mountains and the other in nearby Crossville.

Boston family members are long-lived hard workers and always have been because they "stay busy and help each other," Lewis said.

She has two brothers still living: Kenneth, 17 years younger, who lives in neighboring Rhea County, and Chris, six years her junior, who lives in Walla Walla, Wash. Among descendants, she has 19 grandchildren, 35 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great grandchildren.

Lewis' own grandmother, Minervia "Minervy" Caroline Sales, surpassed the 100-year milestone around 1930, leading the way as the subject of a Chattanooga News story by Fletcher Knebel, who chronicled a life that then had spanned "from ox-cart to airplane."

He mistakenly listed Sales at an astonishing 117, but the family now says Knebel was provided bad dates. She was really around 105 at the time.

Knebel writes that Sales was "scornful" of the "noisy arts of modern civilization" like airplanes.

"Naw, I wouldn't go up in one of them airplanes. Seein' 'em fly ain't nothin' to me. They fly over here every night. Pshaw, I'd rather see a plow turn than see one of them things," Sales said in June of that year.

Sales attributed her numerous years to "hard work" and having never taken any kind of medication, a feat Lewis had maintained until just the past couple of months.

Lewis says the secret to living past the century mark is "God and family," noting she's never eaten anything special but likes fresh fruits and vegetables, mostly, with a little meat.

Lewis has no computer or cellphone, but she has used a cellphone and she's tickled that her photograph has been posted on Facebook, granddaughter Michele Angel said.

Angel, 52, and Lewis' daughters, Jeannette Thurman, 78, and 77-year-old Helen Crawford, who is Angel's mother, gathered on the matriarch's front porch on Wednesday, just within earshot.

Lewis spent much of her earliest childhood with her long-lived grandmother Sales, who would walk all over the community daily to visit with friends and neighbors with her tagging along.

"Grandma worked at something all the time; she made gardens. She called them truck patches. She seemed like she was 100 years old the first time I remember seeing her," Lewis said, laughing, as cicadas sang with the rising summer heat.

Little "'Cille" wasn't crazy about going off for the visits, though.

"One time, I didn't go and she talked to me for miles before she discovered I wasn't behind her," she said.

In those days, matrimonial plans didn't wait for long. Lewis "picked out" her husband, John Dudley Lewis, when she was just 10 years old.

"I went to a new school called Rocky Branch and I saw him standing there and I said, 'If I get married, that's my husband,'" she said. They married in 1933 and remained wed until Dudley's death in 1998.

As she enters her 101st year, Lewis says she still has some unfinished business.

Lewis has been on a helicopter ride, a plane flight up and down the Sequatchie Valley, and most recently notched driving a boat on her to-do list.

But a few years back, she was loaded up and ready to take her first hot air balloon ride when it started to rain. Lewis says she still wants to go on that hot air balloon ride.

Her advice for others?

"Life is fun. It's all up to the person. Be satisfied. You don't have to be 'happy' all the time, but you need to be satisfied," she said. "And love people. Find something to like about the person -- it's there -- because we're all just people."

Contract staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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