The Amazing Esther Wrinkles
When our hills and hollers are brown and bare and winter grasp is cold and hard, Ozarkers yearn for hints of coming spring. One of the surest signs in Douglas County, as reliable as the swelling of buds and the rise of tender lily shoots, is the photograph in this paper of Mrs. Esther Wrinkles displaying a handmade quilt to be auctioned for the Skyline Volunteer Fire Department.
Over the years, Esther has hand-pieced more than twenty quilts for the annual fundraiser, raising from eight hundred and two thousand dollars apiece. The Skyline Area Volunteer Fire Department is near and dear to Esther’s heart; she helped found it in 1987.
At the time, Esther and her husband, Clifford Wrinkles, lived next door to the Henson Store in Champion. The only fire department in the area at the time, the Eastern Fire Department, was on the east side of Fox Creek. When the water in the creek was high, the firefighters would have to travel many extra miles to reach a fire on the west side. More than one structure was consumed by flames before the Eastern Fire Department could arrive on the scene.
After talking with friends and neighbors about the need for a fire department on “their side” of Fox Creek, Esther, Sharon (Mallernee) Sikes, and Sharon’s mother-in-law, Thelma Mallernee, began the hard work of starting the new department. They drove all around the Champion and Skyline areas signing up folks and collecting membership dues. Esther said that she and Sharon drove many, many miles and on more than one occasion they wound up in places they were glad to get away from. To supplement the dues, Esther and the Ladies Auxiliary held pie auctions and chili suppers, set up garage sales and staffed concession stands. By the end of 1987, the Skyline Fire Department was rolling in full force. “We did it the hard way,” Esther said.
In February 2004, Esther was recognized as a Founding Member and received an Award of Appreciation from the Skyline Area Volunteer Fire Department for her many years of dedicated service. Service that continues to this day.
The determination Esther proved in taking the fire department from a dream into a reality was nurtured early in her life. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Esther was born at home in Cold Springs to Rufus and Alice Hutchison Keller on June 28, 1917.
Rufus, was a strong man. He had been raised in a home with a dirt floor in the kitchen. In the winter, he had to break ice to wash his face and hands. Although he did not attend high school, he went to grade school until he was eighteen-years old. “He was an excellent student,” Esther said, “and fast.”
Following in her father’s footsteps, Esther started school when she was four-years old. She walked a mile and a half to the Champion school house with her uncle Herbert Hutchison. Though Herbert was in the eighth grade then, Esther was a bashful child and sat beside him throughout the two-month summer term. Then, she was taught by Ethel (Ross) Proctor. The following year, she attended the school’s first term and was taught by Eula Schudy. From then until the end of the eighth grade, she was taught by Willie Freeman, a teacher she genuinely admired. After she graduated from the eighth grade, Esther went back a year to be taught by Oliver Coats who had also taught her father.
To earn extra money, Esther milked her Uncle Jewel’s cows before and after school. She also took turns arriving early at the schoolhouse to light a fire in the wood stove and sweep the classroom.
In the winter, her mother wrapped gunny sacks around her feet and tied them with binder twine. As soon as she got to school, she’d take the sacks off her feet and lay them in a corner. At the end of the day, just before she headed home, she’d wrap her feet again. Esther said she couldn’t do it as well as her mother, but the sacks were always there when she got home.
One winter while on her way home from school, Esther was accidently pushed into the creek. Her sacks and shoes were soaked through. She says her feet hurt so bad that she was crying when she reached home. Another time, she says, she and Cecil were on their way home from school and hid behind a bush when they saw their first Model T. A Mr. Plunger Bownds had sold a new one to Abraham Coonts for the whopping sum of two hundred dollars.
One of Esther’s happiest childhood moments came when she was being taught by Willie Freeman. Students from Esther’s school occasionally met for “ciphering matches” with those from Fairview, Bakersfield, Dogwood and Cold Springs. To get to the matches, Esther and her friends would ride with her cousin, Orvil Hicks, in his Model T Ford. Because the car only had two gears — low and reverse — they would have to get out and push it up hills, then climb in and ride in it down hills and across straightaways. Some of the matches were more than ten miles away, making them challenging to reach.
At a match against Dogwood, sixteen-year old Esther bested the other students and was facing her teacher, Willie Freeman, for the win. She knew that if the problem they were given required multiplying fractions, her teacher would “turn her down,” but if it required adding fractions together, she would “turn him down.” To her delight, the question required the addition of three or four lines of fractions. Esther beat her teacher! Although it was hard for Mr. Freeman to lose, he took pride in telling Esther, “I taught you everything you knew.”
Esther’s win did not come without an unfortunate twist of fate. The match was held when the weather was cold and, as she had waited her turn in the match, she had stood by the woodstove with another student, Johnny Evans. At the time, Esther had thought Johnny had more pimples than any boy she’d ever seen before. Unfortunately, the dots covering Johnny’s face weren’t pimples. They were eruptions caused by measles. Esther came down with the dread disease a few days later and suffered a long and slow recovery.
In 1935, after two years of high school at Denlow, Esther decided to marry Raymond Mears. Esther’s mother, Alice, warned her that Raymond was too young for marriage, but she married him anyway. A year later, Esther gave birth to a son, Lonnie. Soon after, her mother contracted Bright’s (kidney) Disease. Alice died on June 11, 1936, when she was only forty-years old. To help raise Esther’s four year old sister, Irene (now, Irene Dooms) and teenage brother, Cecil, Esther, Raymond, and Lonnie moved into her father’s house. To her many duties and responsibilities as a wife, daughter and sister, Esther added a new one: She became a correspondent for the Douglas County Herald.
Two years after moving to her father’s home, Esther gave birth to a son, Donnie Leon. In 1943, when Donnie was four, Andrew Proctor gave him a puppy. To keep the puppy warm, Donnie filled the doghouse with leaves and “tickle” grass. The following morning, while Esther and her father were milking cows, Donnie searched for the puppy. Unable to see inside the doghouse, he found a match somewhere, then poked his head into the doghouse and lighted it. The dried leaves and grass ignited instantly.
When Esther and Rufus saw the smoke, they ran to the doghouse. Rufus poured milk on the fire and Esther pulled out Donnie, but it was too late. Donnie was dead. Later, the doctor told Esther that the flash fire had burned Donnie’s lungs. He had died instantly.
“You don’t ever get over something like that,” Esther said, “But you go on the best you can.”
Not long after, Alice’s warning about Raymond proved true. He sold the family’s cows, took the money, and left, leaving Esther to care for Lonnie and her siblings alone.
By early 1945, so much sadness had befallen Esther that she was “close to a nervous breakdown.” A doctor told her that she needed to leave for a while. So, she drove her Model A into Mountain Grove to help a cousin. They worked together cleaning an enormous house for the Johnson family, then at the Brown Shoe Factory.
The cousin was dating a young man, Clark Wrinkles, who had a brother, Clifford, who had just returned from the war. The four palled around together and had a lot of fun. In 1946, Esther and Clifford married. Esther left her job at the shoe factory. In 1947, they bought a farm in Champion, and their son Larry was born that year. Clifford was a good husband and a fine father to Lonnie and Larry. In 1958, Esther went back to work at the shoe factory and worked there until 1970.
Clifford and Esther lived in Champion until 1989, when Clifford was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that had metastasized in his lungs. They sold their farm and moved to Vanzant. Four years later, beyond medical help and unable to stand the agony any longer, Clifford wrote Esther a note, went to one of his favorite places in the woods and took his life.
Esther remained in Vanzant, where friends and family abound. Until her hand became too shaky to write, she remained a correspondent for the Herald, contributing articles for more than seventy years.
Today, she has a happy life, enjoys the casual Thursday Night Music at the Vanzant Community Center and gatherings in Champion and Skyline. Of her past, Esther says, “The old days back then, I can see now were the Good Old Days – smelling the wood burning in the old wood cook stove of an evening when we built a fire to get supper.”
Sitting near her “ventless” gas heater, ninety-four-year old Ester recently finished a beautiful brown, turquoise, and white quilt for this year’s Skyline Area Volunteer Fire Department chili supper. Since then, Esther has come down with bronchitis and a sinus infection. Three weeks and twenty-eight antibiotic pills later, she’s still feeling puny. Yet, the same fierce determination that helped survive the tragedies and challenges of her life and get a fire department started is pressing her onward. “As soon as I feel a little better,” she said, “I’ll be out and about!”
There are a lot of folks looking forward to that. When asked what her contribution to our community has been, Wilda Moses says, “Essentially, Esther is the community. Her roots go back, back, back! At the same time, she is active in the present. Esther transcends the very best aspects of this part of the world.”
Note: Information for this article came from Esther Wrinkles, herself, interviews, and “Conversations with Esther Wrinkles,” by Wilda Moses.