Chatting with Charlotte
by Cate Murway
More recognition should be given to our great generation of senior citizens. We owe them our thanks and a heartfelt salute. Their life experiences have become our life lessons and a message for the future generations.
Charlotte May [named for her mother’s eldest sister, Aunt Mary, who used May for a nickname] [Rathke] Doan, BHS ’37 was born on Pond Street and then lived in Harriman. She has agreed to share some of her memories that helped define what has been called the Greatest Generation.
So, stop, listen, and look back.
Charlotte’s paternal grandparents, Gustav A. and Augusta Rathke emigrated from Germany in the mid 1800’s and she remembers that they still spoke German in their home.
Mr. Otto Haas [1872-1960], a friend of her grandfather’s, inspired them to come to America. Otto was the co-founder of the Röhm and Haas Company, known as the "benevolent dictator”, as he had the ability to instill a healthy fear in his employees while always being fair and concerned for their welfare. He told her grandparents about Bristol and informed them that there were unsurpassed opportunities here. Gustav Rathke found a position at the Thomas L. Leedom & Company and became the head of the sales department for that carpet pioneer.
Charlotte’s WWI veteran Grandfather who was stationed in Camp Meade, later Fort Meade, named for Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade; and her father, WWII Army veteran Charles Rathke were friends of Senator Joseph Ridgway Grundy [1863 –1961].
When her grandfather passed away, Senator Grundy, who was the proprietor of the Bristol Worsted Mills, took her father under his wing.
Their connection had been political. At that time, the government of the borough was vested in a Burgess and the Town Council of twenty members, four being from each ward. Joseph R. Grundy and Gustav Rathke were two of the representatives of the Second Ward.
Later on her father “was President of the Council for quite a few years.”
Her maternal grandfather, John F. Smoyer, Sr. was part owner of the Keystone Dairy Company.
“The Keystone Dairy Company is preparing to move its present quarters in the plant of the Artesian Ice and Coal Company into the newly erected brick plant on the east side of Pond Street, between Washington and Lafayette Streets. The new building is built according to modern and sanitary plans.” January 1922 Bristol Courier
Charlotte is a member of the Bristol Methodist Church and has been since she was twelve. Her parents were married in that church.
Charles Gustav and Suzie Herbret [Smoyer] Rathke were both born in Bristol and attended the Borough schools. Charlotte is the first born of their children.
“I was awarded a 4 year scholarship to a university in Iowa but my parents couldn’t afford the train fare, I couldn’t go. That has always bugged me.”
Charlotte received her diploma from the Bristol Elk/ author of “History of Bristol, Penn.”, Doron Green, who was the President of the School Board, along with a $5.00 award as a member of the 54th graduating class “showing the greatest dependability in discharging responsibilities”.
R.N. Margaret Eva [Rathke] Wentz is three years younger. Valedictorian Peg won the coveted Grundy Medal at her 1941 graduation and her 96.633 was the highest average ever until very recently. The youngest, L.P.N. Alma Elizabeth [Rathke] Erb, is a decade younger. “I missed a lot of Alma’s childhood.”
Charlotte’s mother graduated from “West Chester State School” [renamed West Chester State Teachers College in 1927] and taught in Tullytown. She later attended Peirce School of Business Administration in Philadelphia to prepare to work as a secretary for the PA RR.
When her father returned from the service and before he started his own electrical business, he worked as an electrician in the massive Grundy Power House situated on the west corner of Jefferson Avenue and Canal Streets. That building housed the boilers and generators that provided power to the wool and worsted yarn factories known as the Grundy Mill Complex constructed along the Delaware Canal. The Grundy Mills employed more than 850 workers by 1915, making it the largest employer in Bucks County.
He wasn’t all business. Her father performed in amateur minstrel shows. “He was a lot of fun!”
Charlotte can vividly remember the Great Depression.
Her mother sewed all her clothes, “jumper things with blouses”, on a treadle sewing machine. She believes they did their best to keep it from them that they were not well off.
“My dad did electrical work for neighbors but they paid him in chickens. He had to pay for supplies with money. My parents sacrificed a lot for us in the Depression.”
They had cheese sandwiches for lunch, and often tuna and fresh peas in a flour and white milk sauce for dinner.
“My dad made sure that my mother had the first electric things that came out. We had the first electric stove on metal legs and the first electric washing machine in Bristol.”
She recalled, “The ice man would come with his tongs and place the ice block in the wooden cabinet with the big door when we lived with my grandparents.”
They roller skated on side streets. “When we were growing up, there were no sidewalks. There were two twelve inch wide boards, side by side.”
Charlotte currently lives on what used to be a country road that ran out to Senator Grundy’s brownstone family homestead, Walnut Grove Farm, in Bristol Township on the Neshaminy Creek. She would accompany her father when he went out to visit Joe Grundy. His housekeeper would keep an eye on her. She has happy memories of “sliding down the rails of his beautiful big staircase that went up to the second floor.” Senator Grundy kept cows and horses on his farm.
Charlotte also remembers the copper bathtub in his Radcliffe Street home.
Charles Henry Doan and Charlotte knew each other from “early Sunday school days”
WWII Army CPL. Charles Doan exuded courage as he crossed from North Africa into Sicily.
He was in a reconnaissance outfit in a military halftrack vehicle with eleven other soldiers, sent on a mission to assure superiority in the area, and they were trapped behind German lines.
They were rescued by General Bernard L. Montgomery’s troops. He later was a guard on a ship with prisoners of war before he landed in Norfolk, VA.
To prevent battle fatigue, he did not go back into combat, but was sent to rehab in a Utah facility.
He was stationed in Monteray, CA and they lived there together for a time.
Their daughter, Sue Ann Yocum, is a grant writer and administrator in the Pottstown school district, and their son, Carl Henry Doan, retired from the State of NJ treasury department.
They have 2 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.
Charlotte worked for the lawyers, Hugh B. Eastburn, William J. Begley and John P. Fullam at the Eastburn, Begley & Fullam Law Firm on Radcliffe Street.
She especially enjoyed working with John Fullam and his adoption cases.
When the Harvard law school graduate became the Senior Judge Fullam of the US District Court- Eastern of PA, she changed careers.
Her friend, Don Moyer, who had been the VP of PA Trust Company, opened a bank in what was then known as Levittown, NJ. She became the secretary to the President for that first bank.
She also worked at the Leedom's plant right after graduation.
When her husband completed his military stint, he worked as a welder for US Steel and then at a concrete plant for a short time before opening his own sand and gravel pit in Berlin, NJ. Charles’ specialty product was pure white silica sand that was used for glass making.
Her husband passed away in 1989.
When Charlotte was 90, she took a trip with her children to trace areas where their father had been stationed, as well as surrounding sights, including Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, San Francisco, and along the coast and back to Reno.
“It was two wonderful weeks, reliving two years.”
Charlotte is the treasurer of the Bristol Chapter Order of Eastern Star on Cedar Street.
Her father and grandfather were Masons and Eastern Star is opened to female relatives.
Last weekend, she helped host a fundraising pasta dinner at the Lower Bucks Senior Activity Center on Wood Street.
Charlotte cherishes and shares her trinkets of life-learned wisdom.
Hindsight provides perspective on what’s truly important.
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