The Life and Family
Bertha Overfield Sellars
(Born Feb. 21, 1949, Eldest Child of James Edward Sellars and Betty Goodley Sellars)
Note: The majority of the following information was provided by my father James Edward Sellars and his brother John Lester Sellars of Henderson County, Kentucky. They consulted family documents, visited cemeteries, and compared their memories to make the following as accurate as possible. My role in producing this document has largely been to compile and organize the information provided by James and John Sellars and include my own personal memories.
My grandmother, Bertha Overfield Sellars, was one of seven children born to James Overfield and Frances (Fanny) Ladd. The children in order were Ruby, Roy, Floyd (Tommy), Herman, Nell, Bertha, and Coleman (Jack). All but Bertha and Jack were born in the 1890s, and Bertha was born in 1902.
Nothing is currently known about the Overfield family prior to James Overfield. James and his two brothers, Smith and Alex Overfield, were probably born in the 1860s. One or more of them may have actually been born during the Civil War (1861-1864). Kentucky was in a state of social upheaval throughout the war and during the period of Reconstruction in the two decades following the war. Citizens of western Kentucky fought on both sides in the Civil War. Civil war records of both sides contain numerous soldiers named Sellers, but to date I have discovered none from Kentucky named Overfield. No one knows what happened to parents of James and his brothers, but the three Overfield boys were orphaned at early ages.
As young orphans, they were taken in and raised by the Shakers at their communal farm in South Union, Kentucky, near Bowling Green. The Shakers worked the boys hard, but they also educated them and taught each boy a trade. James learned to be a farmer. As a boy living with the Shakers, he had to get up at 4:00 a.m., bridle a horse, and ride around the fields gathering the milk cows and herding them to the barn to be milked-all before breakfast.
Upon reaching adulthood, the Overfields left the Shakers, probably in the 1880s. Alex Overfield never married, but James and Smith married sisters. All of their children thus were double first cousins to each other. Smith had five children, Dallas, Gardie, Sam, Vogel, and Nola. James had the seven children mentioned above.
James married Fanny (Frances) Ladd who died before any of their children grew to adulthood and left home. After his first wife died, James and his second wife lived on a farm near a crossroads village called Little Dixie, not far from Corydon in Henderson County. He was a successful farmer and was known as an especially good cattleman. Throughout his entire life, James continued the frugal habits taught him by the Shakers in his youth.
James' second marriage was not a happy one. He and the new wife did not get along well, and she did not want to take care of his children by his first wife. Before long, the four oldest children left home to make their own ways in the world. However, Ruby refused to leave and stayed to raise her two youngest siblings, Bertha and Jack . Eventually James' second wife spent all of his money, left him, and somehow caused him to lose the farm he was trying to purchase.
James moved into the home of his oldest son Roy and his wife Ethel. Bertha had nowhere to go, but since she was already dating Earl Claudius Sellars, they decided to just go ahead and get married. Coleman (Jack) went to live and work for a nearby farming family named Denton.
Earl Claudius Sellars was the first of two sons born to John C. Sellars and the former Eunice C. Ball. The Sellars family was a very large family that had lived in Henderson County since the early 1800s. They were mostly farmers and lived in several sections of the county. John C. Sellars had purchased at farm on U.S. Highway 41A, then known as the Madisonville road. (See Appendix for information about Sellars family farm)
John C. Sellars was a bit of a tyrant, and he initially regarded Bertha a just another mouth to feed. At first he would not allow Earl and Bertha to live on the Sellars family farm. So when Bertha and Earl married, they went to live on the farm of Gill Crook, Earl's uncle who was married to John C.'s older sister, Alice E. Sellers. While living on the Crook's farm, they had their first child, their only daughter Marguerite, born in 1922.
To earn a living, Earl went to work building "the new road." At the time, a new roadbed was being built for U.S. Highway 41A that passed in front of the Sellars family farm. Local farmers were making "cash money" by hiring themselves and their teams of horses and mules to work on the construction of the new road. This federal project brought much-needed cash to the region. The work was hard and dirty, but the pay was good by local standards.
John changed his mind, and later he asked Earl to bring Bertha and come back to the Sellars family farm. He offered them a place to live and half of the proceeds of the farm if they would return and work the family farm for him. They accepted his offer and moved back to the farm. The farmhouse in which John C. and Eunice lived was on a hill top, and in 1923 Earl, John C. and Gill Crook built "the Little House" for Bertha and Earl on the next hilltop. (See Appendix for a sketch of the Little House). This was the tiny two-room house in which Earl's and Bertha's first two sons were born, my uncle John Lester Sellars and my father James Edward Sellars. The young Sellars family of Bertha and Earl lived in the Little House for several years before moving into "the Big House" to help care for John Sellars and his wife in their old age.
The Little House remained as a functioning farm building until it was destroyed by a tornado in the late 1990s. My father James, his brother John, my brother Mark and I stripped tobacco for several years in the little house. For heat, we used the same small 2-burner coal stove that Bertha cooked on when she and Earl were first married and living in the house.
When Earl and Bertha lived there, the Little House had two rooms, a small kitchen and a larger room used as a combination living room and bedroom for Earl and Bertha. In the wall between these rooms was a chimney with a fireplace in the living room and a flue on the kitchen side. Above these rooms was an attic in which the children slept once they were old enough to climb the stairs. The one luxury in the Little House was a large pane of glass in the kitchen door etched in an elaborate Victorian pattern. Throughout my childhood, this door was nailed shut and the outside steps leading up to it removed. Only the plain, windowless front door was used. Many of Bertha's and Earl's grandchildren were shown the Little House and told about earlier life on the Sellars farm. Many of us did not like the idea of living in such a small house. When Bertha and Earl moved to the Big House, their sons John L. and James were still young boys. For a while at the Big House, John L. had to share a room and a bed with his grandfather, John C. Sellars. James remembers his grandfather as a mean, selfish, old man who would argue about anything. John C.'s wife Eunice developed mental problems that grew worse as she grew older. Her condition deteriorated to the point that she would at times threaten family members with a butcher knife and had to be physically overcome and restrained. Eventually she had to be taken to a state mental hospital where she spent the remainder of her life.
Bertha and Earl lived on the Sellars family farm for the rest of their lives and raised five children in all--Marguerite, John, James, Arnold, and Charles. Bertha told her children little about her family's history and did not want it widely known that her father had been an orphan and raised by the Shakers. In his elder years, her father James Overfield lived near the small town of Poole in nearby Webster County. He occasionally came to visit Bertha and her family and would stay for a week or two at a time. My father James Sellars (his namesake) remembers him as a tight old man with a huge handlebar mustache that he waxed and twirled. Bertha also remained close to some of her siblings, and her children got to know their aunts and uncles as they grew up.
Bertha and Earl were extremely active in the Baptist Church. For years they were faithful members of a church in Corydon. Earl became a deacon in this church, a source of family pride. Then for some reason, they left this church in Corydon and moved their memberships to the Immanuel Baptist Temple in downtown Henderson where Earl was again made a deacon. They remained faithful members of this church for the rest of their lives.
After their return to the Sellars family farm, Earl and Bertha continued to work the farm for the rest of their lives. As their children grew old enough to do farm work, Earl rented and worked at least two other nearby farms in addition to the family farm. By using the labor of the boys and trading work with other nearby farmers, he was able to work several hundred acres. All of this was accomplished by using the muscle-power of humans and horses and mules. At one time, the Sellars family owned over two dozen horses and mules, and they raised and trained their own pulling and riding stock. Some of the Sellars boys owned their own teams of work horses or mules, and some of the boys rented and worked other small farms nearby on their own.
The Sellars farming operation was a cross between subsistence farming and what is now called diversified family farming. The farm family was highly self-sufficient and had to purchase little to maintain daily life. They kept a small herd of beef cattle and a large herd of milk cows. The family owned a mechanical cream separator and sold cream to a local creamery. Each year they raised large numbers of hogs for their own food and kept a large smokehouse filled with cured pork. Surplus hogs were sold to bring in family income. Grandmother kept dozens of laying hens for eggs, and each year she raised dozens of young chickens for the family table. The family raised corn, wheat, hay, and other crops to feed themselves and the livestock and to sell the surplus. Tobacco was a major cash crop for the farm income.
Grandmother Sellars had a busy and demanding life as a farm wife in those days. Besides raising the chickens and a huge garden, she had to cook, clean, and wash for a large family--all in the days before electricity. For such a large family, she had to preserve large amounts of food for the winter. The cellar had to be stocked each year with hundreds of jars of canned fruits and vegetables. Other fruits had to be dried, often on the rooftops of outbuildings. Several times a week the family's bread had to be baked using the corn raised on the farm and hauled to a local mill to be ground into cornmeal. Bertha also baked biscuits every day using flour purchased at the mill. On Saturdays, Earl would drive Berth in the family car approximately 10 miles into Henderson to sell their surplus eggs and cream and to buy what few groceries the family could not produce for themselves.
In her later years, she would tell how much easier farm life became when electricity and motors and "bottled gas" became available in Henderson County. Basic household devices that we take for granted--such as a water pump, a refrigerator, a freezer, a kitchen stove, a washing machine, a clothes dryer, and electric lights--took dozens of hours of drudgery out of a farm wife's weekly life.
When the family purchased its first tractor, the boys fitted it with a battery and electric headlights so they could plow and work the fields late into the night. That one tractor replaced 8 head of mules and horses. The Sellars boys ran it from sun-up until after midnight during the spring planting season. By the early 1950s, the farm was down to 4 mules and a saddle horse. All of the other work animals had been replaced by two small tractors, a car, and a 1-ton truck.
Unfortunately, farms no longer needed as much human labor either, so most of Bertha and Earl's children left farm life for "town jobs" in the 1940s and 50s. Their eldest son John L. Sellars stayed on the farm. There is more about John L. later in this document. Marguerite married Roy Hazelwood who held a variety of jobs and ran a service station for a while before dying relatively young of lung cancer. Marguerite had a lengthy career of her own in retail sales. Arnold Sellars had a career as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force and married a gracious Japanese lady named Kimiyo. He lived most of his life far away from the Sellars family farm, mostly in North Carolina. My father James E. Sellars married Betty Goodley Sellars and has lived most of his life in Henderson County. He continued to help work on the family farm as needed for many years, often taking my brother Mark and me with him. For over 36 years, he worked for Whayne Supply Company, a Kentucky-based dealer for Caterpillars and other heavy equipment. Charles married Sondra Sheets and lives in Henderson. He also had a long career working for Whayne Supply Company and recently retired.
Although he farmed his whole life, Bertha's husband Earl Claudius Sellars also learned to be a carpenter. He helped build the old Cairo school that combined the old building methods with some of the newer ones. The timbers of this school were held together by hardwood pegs (the old way), but the school had a coal-fired central heating system (an innovation at the time). Some of his grandchildren (my brother Mark and I) attended this school. Earl and one of his cousins Miller Ball became especially good at installing hardwood floors, and Earl's carpentry work supplemented the farm income as he and Bertha raised their family during the Great Depression. Earl's aptitude as an craftsman has carried down through my father James to several of my siblings and me. In one of my earliest memories of my grandfather Earl, he was sharpening a worn old handsaw clamped to a farm gate. He used a tiny triangular file to sharpen every other tooth on the saw. Then he turned the saw over and sharpened the remaining half of the teeth. I still remember being amazed at how easily the old saw would cut through the tough sawmill planks when he was finished sharpening it.
In his fifties, Earl developed rheumatiod arthritis. For a few years, he used a cane to walk as he continued to help with the farm work whenever he could. Eventually he was confined to a wheelchair, and he died in his sixties of complications related to his disease.
Bertha continued to live in the Big House on the Sellars family farm to the age of 97 and died in 1999. She remained active in her church work, in her housekeeping, and in her gardening well into her nineties, even though she gradually lost her sight in the last fifteen years of her life. At age 97, blind and feeble, she still canned tomatoes from her garden. Until the last few weeks of her life, she had never spent a night in a hospital, having borne all of her children at home on the Sellars family farm. In her last few years, she gradually stopped going to church. The effort required was just too great, and all of her old church friends had passed away already. She once said that she was tired of being recognized by the preacher as the oldest member present in the Sunday services.
Bertha and Earl's oldest son John L. Sellars has remained on the Sellars family farm to the present, working the farm and later managing it. He also cared for both of his aging parents until their deaths. The Sellars family recognizes John's devoted care, especially to Bertha Overfield Sellars in her old age. Because of his efforts, Grandmother Sellars never had to leave her home on the Sellars family farm to go into a nursing home. The family is grateful to John for this loving service to Bertha Overfield Sellars and to the rest of the family.
APPENDIX: The Sellars Family Farm
Throughout this document, "the Sellars family farm" refers to a farm of approximately 125 acres located on the western side of U.S. Highway 41A between Henderson and Cairo in Henderson County. It is near the Cairo Elementary School that was built in the 1960s. It has been the home of my Sellars ancestors since 1899 and in the family is referred to as "the homeplace."
The farm was purchased in three tracts. The first tract was bought by John C. Sellars in 1899 and contained the main farmhouse and the acreage next to the original roadbed for U.S. Hwy. 41 A. The second tract contained additional acreage directly behind the original tract and added about 35 acres to the original tract. Eventually a slender third tract was added onto the front of the original farm. It comprised "the old road" and the strip between it and the new U.S. 41A roadbed.
At the end of the text in this Appendix is a series of sketches illustrating the approximate layout and use of the Sellars family farm during my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. The first sketch shows the farm as a whole with the three parcels labeled in order of their purchase. The second sketch illustrates the area to the left of the Big House and adjacent to U.S. Hwy 41A. This is the section of the farm where a great deal of the daily work occurred and where many daily chores were performed. The third sketch emphasizes the area immediately behind the Big House where Grandmother spent most of her time when outside of the house. The final sketch includes the layouts of two historically important buildings on the farm-the Little House and the stable.
The Little House has already been discussed at length in this document, but the stable was an extremely important building in farm life, even though Bertha Overfield Sellars seldom went there. It was built in the early 1900s by John C. Sellars and brother-in-law Gill Crook. The stable was the main building involved in the care of the horses and mules and milk cows on the farm. It was a tall two-story stock barn typical of West Kentucky. On one side, a shed was added for the milk cows. In later years, farm equipment was stored there. On the ground floor of the two-story section were several stalls for livestock plus a couple of corncribs, a storeroom for ground feed, and a room that was magical to young boys, the gear room.
Like all of the stalls and rooms on the ground floor, the gear room had as its doorsill a massive beam worn down on its topside by the feet of earlier generations. On the plank walls were racks holding bridles, saddles and harnesses for over a dozen horses or mules. Many parts of the harnesses had not been used for over a decade, since the tractors had replaced all of the working teams except one. Homemade whips and cast iron clevises hung on nails; singletrees leaned in one corner. When the last two remaining mules (a white one named Belle and a black one named Queen) were harnessed to work, they were brought into the entryway of the stable. Then the harness was brought out of the gear room, and each mule was "geared up."
In earlier generations, learning to handle mules was very important for young boys. I remember my grandfather Earl Sellars bragging that my brother Mark and I could each harness and drive the mules and neither of us could have been over 10 years old. I distinctly remember driving the mule team hitched to an empty wagon with my grandfather Earl on the seat beside me, and I am sure that I was no more than 8 years old.
Above the ground floor of the stable was a huge hayloft that could hold hundreds of bales of hay. Mark and I helped fill that loft with hay year after year in our youth. Along one side of the loft floor was a long narrow section of the floor that had no floorboards. Hay was dropped through this opening into mangers along the walls of the stalls below. As children, my siblings and I understood the Christmas song about "Away in a Manger" while many of our friends had no idea what that part of the song meant. Half-wild farm cats lived in the loft, but we knew not to handle the kittens since they would bite and claw like wild animals.
An important building on the Sellars family farm not depicted in the sketches was the tobacco barn. It was built in the early 1900s by John C., Earl, Gill Crook, and a young man who had been raised by Gill and Alice Sellers Crook. It was a tall boxy barn typical of the region and specifically designed to house dark and burley tobacco after it had been cut and was in the curing process prior to being stripped from the stalks for sale.
The tobacco raised on the farm was always air-cured rather than fire-cured, and this barn was specially designed for that method of curing. Starting about 12 feet above the dirt floor were horizontal rows of timbers about 4 feet apart going all of the way across the barn and all of the way to the peak of the tin roof. This grid of "tier poles" comprised at least 75 percent of the interior volume of this large barn. When the mature stalks of tobacco were cut down in the field, they were strung onto slender tobacco sticks about 5 feet long. These sticks with the tobacco on them would be carefully hauled from the field and handed up through the layers of tiers and spaced evenly along the tier poles so that the leaves of the tobacco could cure on the stalks.
The process of cutting and housing the tobacco was very labor-intensive, and a crew of workers would be used to house the tobacco in the barn. The least experienced members of the crew (usually my brother Mark and me) had to climb to the highest levels of tiers. The experienced workers on the lower levels would pass the tobacco sticks up to less experienced workers and supervise their placements of the sticks on the upper layers of tier poles. If the sticks were placed too far apart, the entire harvested crop might not fit into the barn. If the sticks were placed too close together, the tobacco might not cure properly or might "house burn".
The siding on the barn was composed of very wide, very long, vertical planks of rough-sawn wood with finger-width gaps between the planks. At intervals along the sides of the barn, some of the wider planks were mounted on hinges so that they could be swung open to allow more air into the barn while the tobacco was curing. Because of its specialized construction, the tobacco barn was a very cold drafty building. While hay was sometimes stored on the ground floor on one side, this barn was not used to house farm animals.
During my lifetime, two tornadoes hit the farm doing serious damage both times. In the mid-1950s a tornado touched down near the Big House. It lifted the family's wooden garage into the air, carried it about 50 feet and then dropped it down into the old roadbed, destroying it completely. Then in the early 1990's, a much larger tornado hit the farm. It destroyed the Little House, the tobacco barn, the stable, and numerous hog houses. It did some minor damage to the Big House, but it was quickly repaired. John and James Sellars spent weeks salvaging all they could from the two barns, since both buildings had many tools stored in them. The remaining debris was then burned and buried.
After the death of Bertha Overfield Sellars in 1999, John and James Sellars were co-executors of her estate. After discussing the estate with their siblings, they all decided that the farm should be sold in the not-too-distant future. John and James decided to modernize the farm as much as possible so that it would bring a higher price when it was eventually sold.
For more than a decade, John had been caring for Bertha as she grew older and weaker and lost her sight. He could not leave the house for very long at a time, seldom over a couple of hours. Because of this he had not been able to work the farm himself, or even to maintain it as well as he would have liked. A nearby farmer had worked the farm on shares while John cared for his mother. So gradually the farm began to look more and more neglected and worn out.
For the last two years, John and James have worked hard converting the farm from a worn-out stock farm of the mid-1900s to a modern row-crop farm of 2000. By removing fences, filling in ponds, cutting trees and brush, etc., they increased the tillable acreage on the farm by at least 10%. The first crop raised on the farm after this conversion set a new record yield for the farm. In fact, the average yield for the entire farm was significantly higher than the highest former yield for any particular field on the farm. The improvements on the Sellars family farm became a topic of conversation among nearby farmers. John and James were both in their 70s when they accomplished this conversion, and their motivation seemed as much about Sellars family pride as about economics.