Oral Historian: Frances Farrish Butler
Interview Date: 11 July, 2006
Interviewer: Angela Nemecek
February 22, 1919
Where were you in World War II?
In Buckingham County, Virginia.
Did any of your family serve in WWII?
A brother, my husband, and some nephews.
What was your brother's name?
Was he killed or injured?
No. He came home. My husband, Earl Butler, had a brother killed over there, and I'll get you his information. His name was Forrest O. Butler. He was killed in Florence, Italy.
You said you worked on a farm during the war.
My brother was farming when they called him into the service. My father was a very elderly man and he wasn't able to handle the machinery. I was the only one left to handle the machinery. And I drove tractors, trucks…and combined wheat on hillsides. Gas was rationed and I only had an 'A' stamp. On a car, you got an 'A' stamp. On a truck you got a 'C' stamp. And I had Negroes that didn't have any transportation that called me all of the time. They had to go to the doctor; they had to go to the courthouse to sign up for their farms, even for jury duty, and I had to stay all day while they were on jury duty. Doctor's appointments, too - and that used up my 'A' gas ration stamp. Then I had to suffer until the next month. We also couldn't get new tires…I had to take bad tires - recaps. And no spare tires. I had to go to Richmond to get tires for the machinery. With no spare tires and recaps, I had to drive on a wing and a prayer. But my car didn't break down…not even one single time.
One time, I had to take my husband back. He had come home and was stationed up in New York and Massachusetts. And my brother was stationed in Richmond at Ft. Lee. One would come home and I'd have to take him back to the train. Then the other one would come home, and I'd have to take him back to the train. Then when they had blackouts, the lights would go out in Charlottesville, and he had to get up and walk to the train. I had a pretty tough life.
Sounds like it! So tell me about the blackouts and having to walk?
Every so often they would have a blackout. And every light had to go out. Someone would knock on the door if there was even one light burning. The trains would run through the town. Once we had just gone onto the bridge when the blackout siren sounded, and my husband had to get out of the car and walk. When the lights came back on, whoever took him, drove over to carry him the rest of the way to the depot.
I see -you couldn't drive during the blackout because you couldn't have your lights on.
But all of the men were in the service except for a few who got out for farming reasons. And we had a neighbor who got out of the service because he farmed, and when the snow came, he did have a snowplow to get us out. But I had to do most everything else.
Really? How did you learn how to drive all of the machinery?
When you have to, you do it. I drove tractors on hillsides and combines, too, sometimes. My brother used to call from service in France and said that I was in more danger than he was and that I was going to turn over on those hills. But I never did!
Had you operated that machinery before the war?
Uh-uhhh. They didn't even have wood. The old people couldn't even get wood to burn. They didn't have electricity back then. Electricity didn't come until after the war all through Buckingham County. Even the doctor didn't have it. The doctor didn't even have a telephone. But you know, it wasn't all that bad. I look back now and think how much experience I got from those days. It wasn't bad when you really stop to think about it.
How long were you operating all of that machinery?
About five years. My husband was gone 4 years, 10 months. The only recreation I had was hunting. Squirrel hunting…. I killed turkey…
So when your husband came back, did he take over the farming duties?
No, he wasn't the farmer. My brother was the farmer. And any building material, you had to sign up for it. And there was no place to rent. You could not buy cars. And the people back then had old cars…selling them for big prices to the soldiers who were coming back. You couldn't buy a car or building material, and so we had to live on the home place for 11 months before we found a house. It just happened that the man died, and we got the house over here, close to his parents' place. And we're in that house now - never moved!
So how long have you lived in that house?
Since the late '40's.
Did you follow news about the War?
Oh, my yes!! Mr. Gabriel Heater--his sounded more encouraging than anybody else's. And you couldn't get batteries…and you had to buy batteries for the radios and sometimes you couldn't even get them. You see, there was no electricity.
Were batteries rationed or just hard to get?
You just couldn't get them --- people bought them all. You couldn't buy anything made out of metal or rubber - you couldn't even buy rubber pants for your baby! When they rationed, they really rationed. Sugar? You couldn't get sugar…you couldn't get shortening.
So what did people do?
They would get just a little sugar. We had to have stamps for everything. You canned with honey and things that you had, but that wasn't very good. A poor substitute. You raised all the meat you had…we had cattle and cows to milk. We had plenty to eat - raised hogs, cows. But what you had to get in the store was rationed.
You raised vegetables and those kinds of things?
Oh, yes, and canned. They had canneries so that people could save their produce. But people didn't have anyway to get to the canneries. And so that was another thing that I did, take people to the canneries. And that was an all day job.
Where were the canneries located?
Every county had them. Buckingham County had a great big one. And they had one right here in Scottsville…right next to the school and across from the library. They had more than one in every county. They set them up during the War and they stayed open a good while after the war, too. And then they started closing them down a few at a time until they were all closed. But you had to pay right much for your can. The cans were expensive because they were made of tin. Some people still carry their own class jars, but you had to be very particular so that they didn't break.
Do you remember how you heard about certain events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the end of the war?
Oh, yes! Very much. We were coming back from Charlottesville when we heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor before we got home. And my husband was in the service then.
And where was he stationed?
He was in Germany, France, England - I think that he spent most of his time in Germany.
So you were coming back from Charlottesville when you heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Did you hear it on the radio or did someone tell you about it?
I stopped at a store and they told me about it.
Do you remember where you were when the war ended?
We had D-Day. And I remember when President Roosevelt died, too. Man, the saddest bunch of people you ever met in your life was that day. People remarked that they wished it could have been them instead because he meant so much to the country. They grieved more for that than the beginning of the war.
Did your husband come home after VE Day?
No, they had a point system for bringing soldiers home. They all didn't come at one time - they had as system. The married ones came home first - he was married. - and if soldiers had families, they came first. And how long you'd been in the service counted, too, towards your points.
What other wartime activities did you take part in - air watch or plane spotting?
Yes, they had an air watchtower just outside town here.
What was involved with that activity?
Well, it didn't amount to much. Really I think the volunteers that they had didn't really know what planes they were looking for or where to look.
Did they train you how to spot different planes?
Yes, they told us and had a paper with that showed people what the different planes were. I don't think it amounted to much here. It might have gone over better in the bigger cities but not here. I saw planes but I never knew if they were the right ones. At least we were never attacked anyway. The plane-spotting program didn't seem to amount to much and didn't last too long.
Did you do other things like collecting tin or iron?
Some people collected iron, but I didn't have time to collect anything. Just farm.
So your brother was the farmer in your family, and when he went to war, you had to do the farming, right?
See my father was an older man and he didn't drive. So I had all of that to do. If an old person didn't have wood, I took the dump truck to the mill and loaded it with wood and then unloaded the wood, too. There wasn't much that I didn't do, I'll tell you that.
So you did stuff on your own farm and you ran lots of errands for other people…
See people lived on large farms, they didn't live close together then, certainly not like it is now. You had a long way to go to that mailbox, and everyone was waiting for that mail to see if they'd gotten that letter they'd been waiting for in their mail. Postage was just 3 cents then, and an airmail letter was a little bit more. It certainly didn't cost much to write. I kept in touch with my husband all of the time. He had a very good position with the medics, and they sent him to school a lot. They sent him to school in a hospital in Atlanta, GA, which kept him out of the war for a good long while.
How long did it take to get a letter from your husband?
Well, at first it took forever to send it by boat. But it wasn't long before we were sending it by airmail.
So when did your husband go to war?
1941, and he was in the service 4 years and 10 months. Well, when he went, he went for training. "Be back in a year, little darling." That's all that we heard then that everyone would be back in a year. Then the war broke out while the training was going on.
My husband was at Ft. Eustis and in Louisiana - he said that was the worst place he'd ever been. And then the war broke out, and then he went to Atlanta for medic training. He took a lot of training as a medic, and then he didn't stay overseas more than a year. Some were overseas for 4 or 5 years, and some were prisoners. He was very lucky but his brother wasn't. His brother, Forrest, has a memorial in Florence, Italy. My friend just got back from Florence, Italy, and she says there is a great big memorial there with Forrest's name on it. He got a Purple Heart and all kinds of things for bravery because he went back into battle after his friend, and was shot down while carrying his wounded friend on his back. Snipers got him.
Do you remember any troop trains coming through the area?
Oh yes, yes! And if you had somebody that was supposed to be on it, he might not be on the one you're waiting for. Then you waited for the next one…the next one would be right after the other. I waited that way for my husband for years.
Did your husband write you to tell you when he'd be back?
He couldn't tell me anything. It would be cut out (sic: censored).
Right, so how did you know when he was coming home?
By that time, you did know. But during the war, you didn't know because letters were censored.
We've heard that there may have been a POW camp in the area and that some POWs were assigned to work on area farms. Do you know anything about it?
Oh, yes, CCC camps. They were during the Depression before the war. We had a big one at Lewis Mountain near Farmville. They just did work, built walls and roads - rough work. And they got paid $30 a month...that was big money then. People were worried that they were training for war.
I don't know anything about POWs or German POWs working on farms though during the war.
Do you have any stories about your adventures working on the farm during the war?
I had milk cows to milk, and farmers sold cream. I used to have poor people knocking on my door, asking me if I'd carry them to Scottsville to see Dr. Harris. And I'd say, well, I have to milk and then I'll take you. One was crying with a toothache, and I took her in, and Dr. Harris pulled it for one dollar. That's all he charged.
We had no rescue squad or anything. One time we took a man out of the woods who had cut a log on himself. And we got another guy in a car wreck and Dr. Wade took him out and carried him to the hospital. There just wasn't anyone to call for help. The Thackers did what rescue work was done with their hearse.
An 'A' ration stamp was as much as I ever had for gasoline during the war. Earl's father had a 'C' stamp because he had a truck. And sometimes when all my 'A' stamps were gone, I would get one of his 'C' stamps and put gas in my car.
So you weren't able to get a 'C' stamp?
I didn't have a truck and so I couldn't get a 'C' stamp. And I had to have gas to run the machinery. And I really can't remember where we got the gas. I think they had forms….I think they allowed gas for that.
Talk about an experience…one time I took my husband back to Fort Lee, and you could not buy gas after 7 o'clock. That was the law and you had to have a stamp, and you couldn't buy it after 7 o'clock. And we came looking for the turnoff and turned the wrong way. And we were afraid that we would run out of gas. All the way back we just had what gas we had. And we made it back - I think the Lord just works with you. We didn't run out of gas or have a flat tire.
The flat tire business was really something….
So were you unable to buy tires at any point?
You had to go up to the service station and they had to measure the tread on your tire, and if you had enough tread, you couldn't get a tire. If your tire was slick, you could sign up and buy a recapped tire. You had to send in the old tire and they would recap it.
So you couldn't get a new tire?
No, if they installed a recap, it might still blow out. They just put on some new tread. There wasn't such a thing as a new tire. You couldn't buy a toy with a rubber wheel on it. As I said, you couldn't buy rubber pants. And when my husband came home, my daughter would wet on his uniform because she didn't have rubber pants. And then we had something made out of old plastic that smelled to the high heavens when it got wet. But actually people didn't have half as much to worry about then as they do now. I wouldn't trade those days.
You've said several times that it really wasn't that bad…
No, it really wasn't. You just remembered how much you accomplished each day and looked forward to getting a letter. Well, I think it was hard for people who had somebody in a prison camp. I remember my Sunday school teacher whose son was in a prison camp for 5 or 6 years.
Everybody came to the Post Office - mail came in several times a day then in Scottsville. People would come to town and wait for the last mail to come in. And old man Sam Gault was postmaster then, and this same poor woman, whose son was missing, kept coming in looking for mail from him. He told the man, who worked for him: "Go on back there, Boy, and get the mail for that woman. That's what I'm paying you for." He never turned anyone away looking for soldier mail. They would just line up at the Post Office looking for a letter. It was just a different way of living. The mail came several times a day, and the last shipment was at 5 o'clock.
I don't know how many times the mail came into town, because people went to the post office when they were able to go to town. There were wealthy people walking to town with a basket of eggs to buy groceries. And you never failed to pick a serviceman up. My brother was walking one day to Farmville, and this old man came by and picked him up. You just didn't pass a soldier without picking him up. The old man was having trouble driving and he said, "Would you like to drive for awhile? I'd like to go over to Schuyler. " And he turned the car over to my brother to drive. Back then, you trusted anybody. You didn't have any worry then about trusting people.
Did you ever pick up soldiers?
Oh yes, yes - many times. Just walking and thumbing rides …and a long way sometimes during the war. My husband never walked on the roads. But my brother, he wasn't married, and if he came in late at night, I had to carry him back to Farmville to catch a bus there. One time my brakes failed - I made it all the way to Farmville and back almost to the house …in the drive when the brakes failed. I drove with no brakes - we had to cross the ferry at Warren with no brakes - the bridge washed away. With bad brakes, I went on that ferry and just praying we'd keep from going into the water. I don't imagine anybody much had the life I had during the war.
Why did you take it upon yourself to do all of these things?
I still do it. I can't stand around - if they need help, I help them. Like I said, people on farms lived far apart. Nobody had a telephone - you had to come because nobody had a telephone.
When Miller and Rhodes opened up their department store in Charlottesville, my niece got a job there. For the information they needed for her to work there, they asked her what her doctor's address and phone number for emergency contact purposes. She said, "But my doctor doesn't have a phone number. But I didn't want them to think that I lived in the country if my doctor didn't have a phone number and so I just figured it was none of their business.
When did you get a telephone out there?
Quite a good while after the war. We got electricity before the telephone in Buckingham. I'll tell you a good one: I had a job during the summer months at the county agent's office during the Depression. And we had to sign up and register these farmers for how much tobacco and so forth that they were going to raise. I got $2 a day and $50 cents a day for board. That was big money then. And when I got that job, there were lines of people trying to sign up for it. Only one office in the county seat had water in it, and that was the office that I was in. And that was before integration and the blacks could not use the bathroom. They came down and stayed all day to sign up their farms and couldn't use the bathroom. This old lady came to me one day almost crying. I've got to use the bathroom. I said, "You slip in there, and I'll stand at the door and watch for you." Here come a clerk of court out the door and said, "I saw a black come out of the bathroom." She got the spray and sprayed the bathroom and hallway everywhere because she was so upset. And I thought to myself, I could have lost my job if they'd caught me.
Just that one office had running water. All of the other offices didn't have any. When Dillwyn caught on fire, they didn't have any water and most of the town burned up. They had to get a fire truck from Farmville to come help. Most all of the town burned down. They didn't have any fire trucks.
In Farmville, people would burn their fields off, and fires would just burn and burn and burn. And that's something CCC people did - they built roads through the farms so they could get trucks in there to fight the fires. That something that the CCC folks did and their roads were called 'CCC camp roads" and were not kept up by the State.
Do you have other stories about operating the machinery or driving someone somewhere?
One time I really got upset - we hadn't heard from my brother in a long time and knew that his ship had been torpedoed. He had to go somewhere else to get across the ocean and we didn't hear from him for a long time. So we were just worried to death about him. Mr. Moon delivered the telegrams from the depot whenever anyone got killed. I saw his car coming down the road. I was at the clothesline, hanging clothes, and went into the house and said, "I know what this is going to bring." And here Mr. Moon had traded cars with someone else down in Farmville, and bought cattle. And this farmer was driving the car, not Mr. Moon.
And yes, my brother got back safe. The only family member we lost in the service was my brother-in-law - he was twenty-one. He was younger than my husband and went in after my husband. But he was in the infantry -he was in a really tough spot.
Do you remember any popular songs from the war era?
I know one would be "I'll be back in a year, little darlin'." I know I'll never forget that. But no, folks hardly ever used the radios because you were saving batteries. Well, they'd occasionally listen to a record. The movies were still running in Scottsville - for 35 cents you could see a movie. We did that sometimes. Stores stayed open late on Saturday nights, and people would come into town and buy groceries and go to the movies.
Did you save letters and things like that from the War?
A few, and I've got a right many from my brother-in-law because his mother saved them in a trunk. Photographs and other things.
You talked about 'running the hillsides' - what does that mean exactly?
Our farmland was not level, and the combine ran on the side of it. The combine sometimes tried to pull the tractor down the hill. And we had a threshing machine to thrash our wheat. And everyone had to get their wheat in before the rain that usually started in August. Not everyone had a threshing machine, and that's another thing they had me do: go around to the farmers and pick up the farmer and his wagon to come and help him thresh his wheat because he couldn't call anybody. And you had to bring the gas because he didn't have any gas.
One time all of the farmers in the neighborhood got together to thresh the wheat. And I got a letter from my husband with a picture in it from Germany. He was taken a picture of this library over there - a beautiful place - of course, I've got pictures of places all torn up, too. And the farmers who were working with me said, "He's sure faring a whole lot better than you are."
It was hard in some ways, but you had memories of things - I had a baby during that time.
Frances and Earl Butler with their newborn daughter, Beverly, in 1943
You told me on the phone, that you would take your daughter around with you - did you take her into the fields sometimes?
I never took her into the fields much, but sometimes I'd have to go with somebody in the dump truck to the mill to get wood, and I'd take her with me. And when I'd bring it back and pull the dump, she'd scream - it would scare her to death. She had to be a little farmer, too! And she did well.
When did you have the baby?
When your brother came back, did he take everything over?
He farmed awhile, but it was too much work for him because he didn't like farming that much. I helped him as long as we stayed on the farm - we stayed there 10 or 11 months after the war before we could find anywhere else to live. When we got this house, and you couldn't get anything to fix the house up with. We didn't have any refrigerator, and this was in the summertime when it was hot. You had to sign up for the refrigerator in Charlottesville in different stores, and they would call you when it came in. We got a call that our refrigerator would be delivered in January and ice was all over the ground.
What did you do until then?
We lived close to his mother's and sometimes I'd take something over that really needed to be refrigerated and put it in her box and then go over and get it. Some people put their milk in a bucket and put it down in the well and that kept it cool. You couldn't feel bad because everybody else was faring just like you were. I did keep a car when my husband came back, which many did not have. Some people had cars, but couldn't buy the license to run it. You didn't have the money to buy anything.
If you didn't go to war, people called you 'yellow' and everything else. And people would look at you just as mean as anything. I had one friend, and he got turned down. He was working somewhere in an office, and he just kept after them. His friends had all gone and he said he was just sitting there in his office and that made him feel so bad that he couldn't sleep a night. And he said, "I want to go!" And he went and got killed as soon as he got there (the Ransom boy in Buckingham County). All my friends and members of my class - so many got killed. One week here in Scottsville, someone was killed every day.
If you were turned down for service, you were 4F. If you were 1-A, you were the first to go. And if you were of age - 28 or less. If you were in college, you could finish. That's how a lot of them got out.
My husband went in when he was 22; he was called up by the board. He was a 1-A, and they were the first to be called. I imagine the draft categories went on down to 4-F, because 4-F was when you were turned down.
At that time, I know one fellow was turned down on account of his heart - he died just a few years ago after living a long time. Oh, they tried just about everything - one man put pepper in his eyes. There were all kinds of things to get turned down. The men had to go to Richmond to be considered for a 4-F classification. And they would take some people who were just in really bad shape. It made you think, "If they'll take him, they'll take just about anybody."
People on the draft board were often accused of being biased. Our doctor was on the draft board - the one who didn't have a telephone.
What did you grow on the farm?
Wheat, corn, tobacco, and all kinds of garden. They couldn't even sell timber to get a little money. There wasn't any building going on and there wasn't any use for it. They'd drive up with a load of wood and couldn't sell it. And you couldn't ship it anywhere else like you can now. There just wasn't any demand for it. All the demand was for steel, rubber, and gas.
We owned a big farm in Buckingham Co. And then people came in on crop sharing and just got part of what they raised. We owned our farm - and it was a big farm - and it was as hard as everything to make it then. So I don't know how the sharecroppers made it. And they had big families. I know a lot of them today with big families, who went to school and everything and came from southwest Virginia and are crop-sharing farms. I don't know how in the world they went to school; I don't know how in the world they lived. I'll tell you one thing, people went to church back then because the churches were all full.
What kind of church did you go to?
Baptist - and the old church is still active. And growing. But in Buckingham, I go to the Methodist Church because my husband is Methodist. I live just a mile away in Buckingham; my daughter lives in Charlottesville.
Did you only have the one child?
I didn't have time for children.
What is your daughter's name?
Beverly…she owns the Beverly Dress Shop in Charlottesville. She taught school 27 years but didn't care for that.
It's your 65th wedding anniversary today.
Today…TODAY!! In 1941.
So did you get married before your husband went into the service?
You shouldn't ask me that question….three days. I thought I might be able to go with him, but few wives did because they shipped them too fast. But I didn't have time for anything but the farm…even that baby. My mother kept the baby while I did the farming.
And I had a brother-in-law that died during the time, and he had two little, small girls. And I took care of them.
Was this a different brother-in-law that died than the one killed in Italy?
Yes, this one died young, 29 years old. It wasn't a war-related death.
After the war and you found and moved into that house owned by the man who died, what did you do?
I still went back over there 2 or 3 times a week and had to do my duties…back to the farm. And my husband went to work at the garage here in Scottsville. And I had plenty to do on the farm, and we made it - not the best in the world. After my daughter went to college, I couldn't stay at home then. I went to work at Miller and Rhodes and different stores in Charlottesville.
Did you have just one brother?
I had three bothers, but none of the brothers helped on the farm. One worked for the highway department, and the other drove for a bus line.
Were you the only girl in your family?
Oh, now. I had older sisters who were all married. I had just one that was younger, but she was at school. And then she went to work in the office at Uniroyal after she graduated from school. They didn't open the plant at first because some people didn't want but then the government enforced it, the way I understand it. But it gave the country people jobs, who had never had jobs before. It was the best thing that ever happened in this community-that plant. They'd made tires and hired shift workers full blast - people worked there who had never had jobs before.
So how many sisters did you have?
Three brothers and seven sisters. Everyone had big families then…but me: I only had one. I didn't have time to have children. That wasn't my thing. The brother who was in service was younger than I was and my sister, who was in school. All of the others were older than me.
My youngest sister graduated during that time - they didn't have but 8 months of school that year, and the gas was so rationed that they couldn't have but one light for the graduation. No theaters or anything. We just did not have gas.
When we had a baby during the war, this insurance man in Dillwyn kept trying to get life insurance on me. We didn't have money to pay for it. He kept coming after me until I said, "OK, you live in Dillwyn and I don't have ration stamps to buy gas. So I said, "You bring me a ration book with 5 in it." So here he came with a ration book and I filled out the insurance form. You got it! How he got it, I don't know.
And I was able to get sugar to finish my canning. You should have lived then-they were good times. It was hard times, but it was exciting.
Folks were too busy to get into trouble then. The only time I didn't work was on Sundays when I went to church. I just milked cows on Sunday and visited. The girls whose husbands and sweethearts were in the service would come to my house on Sundays and visit.