Gaar turns 98
By Tom Kelly
Friends visited Mrs. Edwin (Josie) Gaar at her home at the Gaar's Mill-New Hope community crossroads in northwest Winn Parish on Sunday afternoon, November 1, celebrating her 98th birthday.
"Miss Josie," as she is affectionately known, is the last surviving sibling of the 14 children of James Michael and Mary Elizabeth Austin. Her younger brother, Lonnie Austin, a retired educator, died in August 2008. Miss Josie is currently a resident of Autumn Leaves Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Winnfield, but was primped and dressed for the recent occasion, held at her home. Her eyesight has faded, and she is frail, but her mind continues alert.
Josie Frances Austin was born November 3, 1911 to James Michael Austin and his wife Mary Elizabeth Steven Eula Hearn Austin, the seventh of their 14 children. One, Annie Mae, died at nine months old. The remaining 13 survived to adulthood.
Until her fading eyesight declining health prevented it, Mrs. Gaar lived at home a stone's throw from the Welcome Home Methodist Church near the LA 126-LA 34 crossroads five miles east of Dodson, where she was been a member for many years.
Her childhood recollections include working at farm and household chores, attending school at Dodson and Gaar's Mill, and going as part of her large family to rural church meetings at New Hope, Dodson, and Hudson, communities in Northern Winn Parish.
She was married September 1, 1933 to James Edwin Gaar, the sixth child of James Wilburn (Uncle Jim) Gaar and his wife Frances Missouri Walker Gaar. They became the parents of one son, Douglas Edward, on September 11, 1942. Douglas, who lives with his wife, Angie, on family property near his mother's place, is a logger.
The Austin family grew up on a 200-acre family farm on what is now Ballio Road, a parish road leading off LA 126 about a mile east of the present Dodson corporate limits.
Josie recalls that her father bought the place from an absentee landowner, and the family worked to pay it off. She said that when the last payment came due, the owner refused to accept it. Why? "He wanted the land back," Josie said. Her father got the money together and traveled with a friend to New Orleans and made the seller take the money, in the presence of a witness.
About half the 200-acre place was in cultivation, Josie said. The remainder was timber, "But nobody knew much about selling timber back in those times."
As the eldest of the seven siblings still at home by the time she was old enough to do household chores, Josie's job was to make biscuits for the family every morning on a wood-burning stove. The biscuits were baked in a couple of long pans, enough for the family breakfast, and also to pack lunches for the kids going to school. With seven kids going to school--walking the three miles from the Ballio road to Dodson school--they carried three large gallon-sized lard pails filled with food from home. (School lunches had not yet been invented.) As they walked down the road with woods on either side, hogs in the woods, hearing the buckets banging, would come running, expecting to be fed. Were you all afraid of the hogs? I asked. "No," said Josie. "We could outrun them."
At mealtimes, the family sat at a long table, with a chair at either end, and wooden benches down either side. One parent sat on each end, and the kids occupied the benches. Everyone sat with head bowed until their father "returned thanks." Then, father handed the plates of food down the table, with the kids passing from one to the next, replying, "Thanks for the bread . . ." etc., as each dish went around the table. "That's the way I was raised," said Josie. "Now, folks eat standing up, eat out of the pots, off the stove."
And "thanks" are often not "returned."
On Sundays, father would hitch the mules to the farm wagon, mama would put quilts in the wagon bed, and the family would ride the two or three miles east down the wooded road to the Welcome Home Methodist Church.
In summer, in August after the crops were "laid by," the family went by wagon a few miles further, heading down what is now LA Hwy 34, to the Hudson Camp Meeting ground, for a nine-day truly "camp" meeting. They put a wood cookstove on the wagon, packed clothing, took pens of live chickens, and other food for cooking, and lived the entire nine days at the Hudson Camp Meeting campus, attending church services morning and evening, and socializing with neighbors and visitors. There were always guest preachers and visiting musicians.
As Josie grew into high school, she met Edwin Gaar, and soon dropped out of school to marry. The Gaar family, including the patriarch James Wilburn, five sons--Sylvester, Willie, Roy, Shelby, and Edwin--and two daughters--Annie Mae and Florene--operated the large community general store, cotton gin and grist mill, plus a large farming operation with six tenant families. The store and gin were located on what is now LA Hwy 34, near the Gaar's Mill school (property on which the present home of Mr. and Mrs. Levie Vidrine and their family is located). At the road intersection leading to the school stood a large timber--probably a railroad crosstie--planted in the ground, atop which was mounted a wagon wheel, with a ring of rural-route type mailboxes facing outward, allowing the rural mail carrier to stop in one spot and service all the boxes for the small village by simply spinning the wagon wheel.
Another of the Gaar enterprises of that period, in the early 1930s, was a dairy, which was Edwin's responsibility. Josie recalls that as a young housewife, she and Edwin would rise at 2:30 a.m. and milk--by hand--thirty cows, and repeat the milking in the afternoon. They lived on Highway 34 south of the store, within sight of the Gaar's Mill High School, and Josie decided that she would go back to school. She continued with the early morning milking, followed by a short nap, then went to classes. After the afternoon study hall, she returned for another nap before the afternoon milking.
When graduation day came, there were five of the Austin clan to graduate--various ones having skipped out temporarily, then returned. And so, they graduated together--three times. The Austins, including Josie, the twins Zella and Zelma, Lonnie, and Laura, marched down the aisle at Gaar's Mill, where Josie was finishing, then came over to Dodson and marched down, where the others were educated. And finally, the elder brother W.J. (Willie) Austin, who was by then teaching school at Elton in Jeff Davis Parish, Louisiana, invited the clan to come to his school and "graduate" again. (W.J. Austin later taught and retired from a career in education in Winn Parish.)
After the death of Edwin's father, the heirs continued operations of the store, gin, and farm for awhile. But eventually, after World War II, cotton farming died out, the gin closed, the store was shuttered, and Edwin and Josie built and opened a new Gaar's Store a couple of miles south of the old location, at the LA 126 and 34 intersection in 1956. After Edwin's death, Josie and son Douglas operated the store for a time, but he eventually got into logging. Josie kept open for an additional time, in more recent times mostly as a place to visit rather than do business. The store closed for several months, then was leased briefly to new managers who have now abandoned the enterprise, and the store building remains closed, probably permanently.
The fourteen children of James Michael and Mary Elizabeth Austin are:
Maggie Lemora, born Nov. 26, 1895.
The seven children of James Wilburn Gaar and his wife Frances Missouri Walker Gaar are:
Sylvester Henderson, born Jan. 5, 1898.