Getting To Know Our Ancestors

By Joanna Newman

“It is in the family that we learn to share-
meals, space, laughter, tears”
Beth Mende Conny

Thompson Family Sketches

Zoya Fansler’s Interview with her
Grandmother, Lillian “Judy” Thompson Hall
b. July 7, 1914

An observation before we begin…

One of the wonderful things about family stories, is that by reading several viewpoints you get a picture with more depth, than we get with just one viewpoint. I hope to include as many of these viewpoints on family issues and members as possible. It is good to remember here, that each of us have a point of view. You may agree or disagree, but we benefit much by multiple opinions. Our understanding of our ancestors deepen as we read various accounts of their lives.

This is a paper created by a cousin, Zoya Fansler, to whom we owe much thanks. And we also thank her for sharing this interview with her Grandmother, Lillian “Judy” Thompson Hall.

My Aunt “Judy” has always been a wonderful lady, and I had many great times visiting her home in West Virginia. Her three daughters were favorite cousins of mine. Ann, Kay, and Zoya’a mother, Sherry Hall Fansler. My thanks for many wonderful memories, go out to all these people, and to Zoya for sharing this insight on her Grandmother’s view of past events! Great work Zoya!

Oral History Project

by Zoya Fansler
Spring 1990

“I have a picture here….I might have showed you. Mary is on Daddy’s lap, in a rocking chair. Mom’s holding Cletis on her lap in a rocking chair and Eunice is standing with a foot on each rocking chair between the two chairs….I have a bunch of the old pictures. And see, you weren’t really old enough to be interested before, but I know you’re gonna enjoy them.”

-from and interview with my grandmother,
Lillian Thompson Hall

I learned so much about my grandmother and her times by interviewing her for this oral history assignment. Yet, the most important thing I learned was how little I really know. I knew she had been born and raised in West Virginia. The names of her brothers and sisters were familiar to me, and I had heard some of the funny and tragic stories of her growing up. However, her descriptions of Christmas parties and Fourth-of-July picnics, among others, were new to me. Just as touching were her accounts of time spent with family members, of listening to her sisters play duets on ther piano, or of telling jokes with siblings. Also surprising were her many stories concerning sexism that she has experienced and her views on politics, sex, and the women’s rights movement. I expect to see those pictures she mentioned soon and to hear a lot more stories. What follows is what I know about her life so far.

Lillian Thompson was born 7 July 1914 in Frogtown, West Virginia. Born at home, she was the fourth of the ten children of Malinda Elizabeth May and Lorenzo Dow Thompson.

Lorenzo was from a family of ten children and had a fourth-grade education. He quit school in ordr to help support his family after a neighbor (one of the Hatfields, of Hatfield-and-McCoy fame) killed Lorenzo’s father and shot his mother in the elbow. Lorenzo worked for several years helping neighbors with their crops and, when he was old enough, he worked in the coal mines. When he was twenty-one years old, he married Malinda May. he studied to become an electrician though mail-order courses, and by the time his daughter Lillian was four, Lorenzo was the Chief Mine Electrician with Island Creek Coal Company.

Lillian’s mother, Malinda May, was the thirteenth and last child of a coal miner and a midwife in West Virginia. Malinda May dropped out of school in fourth grade so that she could keep house for the family. Her father had long hours at his job, and Malinda’s mother was often called away to help women in giving birth. During the winter, the river that Malinda’s mother crossed to visit families would freeze, and Malinda and the other children would be left alone until their mother could cross the river again. At age sixteen,Malinda May married Lorenzo, and from that time she kept house for him and had children.

When Lillian was four years old, her family moved to Holden, the headquarters of Island Creek Coal Company. The coal company provided the houses, general stores, medical facilities, schools, and churches to the coal miners living in Holden. As in the novel Yonnondio by Tillie Olsen, workers were paid part in cash, part in company scrip. The scrip could be used to buy food, clothes, furniture, gasoline, or to pay utilities, all at inflated company prices. A passage from Yonnondio describes the situation in which the miners and their families lived: “Dear Company. Your men are imprisoned in a tomb of hunger, of death wages. Your men are strangling for breath–the walls of your company town have clamped out the air of freedom. Please issue a statement; quick, or they start to batter through with the fists of strike, with the pickax of revolution.”

In West Virginia, a conflict eventually arose between management and unionizers at a place called Blair Mountain. The Thompson family had obtained many of the privileges of management by then: a telephone, and indoor bathroom, a nice house, and better pay than most families received. Later, when Lillian was 14, the family moved to Beebe, a wealthier neighborhood where doctors, professionals, and their families lived. And so, Lorenzo Thompson, Chief Mine Electrician, fought at Blair Mountain on the company side–to maintain his family’s privileges and status. He did not, however, comply with the company’s request that he instruct his men to vote a certain way. Lorenzo and his wife were democrats, and according to Lillian, he told the workers he oversaw, “You vote to suit yourselves”

As Lillian grew up in Holden, she was definitely aware of sexism. As she recited the names of the ten children in her family,she mentioned one boy, Cletis, who died of pneumonia before he was three months old, She said, “Daddy told the doctor when (Cletis, his third child) was delivered — You know how much babies cost then? Five dollars. — and he told the doctor, said, ‘you bring me a boy this time, and I’ll pay you double’ and he paid ten dollars for Cletis, and then they lost him.” Lillian’s mother also clearly communicated her dislike of female children. Lillian said, “Well, Mom was partial to the boys. I hate to tell you that; I never could understand it. And she used to tell me if she’d had her way, she’d had all boys; she wouldn’t’ve had one girl/” Lillian’s parents’ attitudes are similar to those expressed in The Woman warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. In the novel, Maxine’s mohter says, “you know how girls are. ‘There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls.'”

Another incident in The Woman Warrior parallels Lillian’s experiences. On Saturday mornings, Maxine’s great-uncle takes the boys of the family — but never the girls –shopping with him. The boys get to walk through Chinatown with their uncle and receive candy and new toys. In my grandmother’s family, on Saturdays, all of the children would walk to town, where there was a movie theatre and drug store. The Thompsons gave their girls just enough money to see the movie, but gave the boys two times the price of the ticket so that they could buy ice cream or whatever they liked.

My grandmother characterizes her parent’s lives in Holden this way: “Man’s work is from sun to sun; a woman’s work is never done.” Lorenzo had a difficult job — he could be called upon at just about any time to fix broken machinery in the area. When he came home, however, he had few responsibilities. He expected to find his wife cooking and baking for him and demanded to be served. My great-grandmother, Malinda, cooked, baked, did washing, ironing, general cleaning and child care for her family. The children, especially Lillian, assisted her with various chores, but Malinda always still had work to do. Malinda’a washing was done on a wash board for many years. The family finally purchased a non-automatic washing machine for her to use when Lillian was nine years old. There were no electric dryers then either, so the clothes would always have to be hung out to dry.

Lillian said of the children of her family, “We were all trained….The boys had to get in the coal and chop the kindling for the coal store and the fireplaces.” The boys also did outside yard work. Grandmother and her sister did the same work that their mother did, from cooking to cleaning to taking care of the other children. Lillian said, “I even weaned Boots (the tenth child)–took me a whole week.”

The spheres of male and female work were clearly delineated. Outside was the male domain; women were charged with the care of home and family. Barbara Welter, in her essay, “The Cult of True Womanhood” writes,: The true woman’s place was unquestionably by her own fireside–as daughter, sister, but most of all as wife and mother.” Welter is writing about the model woman of nineteenth-century America, but the ideals of the nineteenth century certainly influenced the early twentieth century too, the time of Malinda and Lillian.

Lillian, however, did not apreciate being used as maid by her brothers. One story indicating her rebellion against the domestic role forced upon her involves her younger brother, Dow. Dow usually got back late after going out on dates, and would strew his clothes around the house while he was getting ready for bed. He expected Lillian to pick up the clothes. One time, though, she hid Dow’s clothes and didn’t give them back to him even though her mother told her to. She took revenge on her inconsiderate sibling several times in this way.

When Lillian graduated from high school in 1933, she expected to continue working at home, helping her mother. she had no plans for a career or marriage, but her father encouraged her to go on tho college. All seven of the Thompson children that survived past childhood completed high school and most had some type of career training after they graduated. Clearly, the Thompson family valued education, and Lorenzo especially wanted his children to succeed. The Thompsons brought in hired help to do the housework that Lillian had done before, and Lillian attended Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia, graduating in 1935. The depression, which was going on at this time, had very little effect on the financially-secure Thompson family. Even growing up, Lillian said, “We never had to worry about not having enough to eat.”

Lillian decided to go into teaching after she graduated from Marshall College. When I asked my grandmother why she chose to become a teacher, she told me how much she loved children. the children she taught were, “the best bunch of little people I ever knew.” When I asked her what careers were open to women when she graduated from college, she listed stenographers, nurses, and teachers and then said, “my minds’s gone blank….I don’t think there was much to choose from.” The limited career opportunities that she cites are very much in keeping with what we have learned in this class. Lillian went into a sex-segregated job–a predominantly female profession, and the other jobs she mentions, clerical work and nursing, were also mostly held by women. Certainly, it was not common then for women to become doctors, lawyers, or professionals.

Lillian did not expect to marry. In this respect, she was atypical of her time period, since most women expected to marry and have children. Lillian had been regarded as “backward” since she was a child, partly because she was small for her age. She recalls, “The doctor called me a rat when I was born.” Also, lillian had been partially deaf since childhood due to a ruptured eardrum, and so had trouble communicating with others. She didn’t date a lot until she started working as a teacher. Then, she would go to dances with her brothers. Her younger brother, Dow, would tell her, “If you have the price of the ticket, I’ll get you a blind date.” One of these blind dates was with Oliver Wendal Hall (“O.W.”) in September 1936. by 1938, Lillian and O.W. were married. She was twenty-three years old; he was twenty. She married a little later than most women did. Certainly, there was a big difference between the age at which she married and the age that her mother married.

Lillian continued to work as a teacher until early 1943, when she resigned because she was pregnant. She had taught eight years, and although she enjoyed the work, she never went back because she would have needed extra training. Lillian’s first child, Mary, was stillborn, but in the years from 1944-1947m Lillian bore three healthy baby girls: Sherry Rulana, Diana Kathryn, and Ann Louise.

Lillian said that the methods of birth control were much more limited in the 1940s than they are now. The forms of birth control that she was familiar with included abstinence, coitus interruptus, and the use of condoms. (“We just called them plain old rubbers then.”) Lillian’s mother, Malinda, had known practically nothing about contraception. In fact, when Lillian was in the ninth grade, Malinda asked her if she kew about birth control. Malinda wanted information, and had no on to ask but her daughter. According to Lillian, Malinda had always wanded six children–“She thought Edwin (her sixth child) would be the.” Malinda’s eventual family of ten was large for her time period. According to figures given in class about the number of live births per white woman in 1920, 3.17 was the average. Malinda’s lack of knowledge about contraception almost certainly was on of the reason for her unusually large family.

Lillian’s progressive views on abortion and birth control are due partly to her family history and partly to the double standard she saw at work when she was growing up. Malinda would often say, “a girl can ruin the family name.” Lillian now adds,”but a boy can ruin the next door neighbor’s name.” She feels that women should have access to reliable methods of birth control and believes in a woman’s right to choose for herself whether or not to have an abortion. However, Lillian stands firmly against pre-marital sex.

When I asked Lillian whether she feels that opportunities for women have changed over time, she replied, “Not enough.” She is “totally for” the women’s rights movement and although she did not directly participate in a feminist group in the 1960s or 1970s, she has done things, like contributing to the National Organization for Women and subscribing to MS. magazine, that are atypical of women in West Virginia in general. “I’m definitely a women’s libber” she concluded.

What my grandmother had to say truly related to what we studied in this course. Sexism in family life, career, and marriage were all apparent in her life. World War II and the women’s rights movement both were important influences on her. What she said about birth control methods closely paralleled general trends in early twentieth-century United States. I was especially interested in what she said about the politics of Holden, the coal mining town in which she was raised. through conducting this interview with my grandmother I feel I have gained insight into her past. I have, in the process, also realized some of the effects of her views on the children she raised, and what effect that has had on me. By understanding her past, I understand my present more fully.


After reading Zoya’s interview with her younger sister Judy, Eunice Thompson Long, wrote a letter to Zoya with her own memories. For some reason this letter was never mailed. When Eunice passed away in 1995, and her belongings were sorted, this letter was found among them. Our family has found this to be a delightful letter reflecting her spirited nature! Hopefully you too will find it interesting and amusing.

My thanks go to cousins Sherry and Kevin Fansler for sharing this wonderful peek into Eunice’s life and experiences.

My comments in [ ] brackets

Letter from Eunice Thompson Long

Hi Zoya,

I enjoyed the story that you wrote from your phone conversation with your grandmother, Lillian (Judy) Hall.

I was the one who played duets on the piano with my next younger sister, Mary, until she passed away at the age of 13 years. Mary started having serious illnesses at age 5. She contracted scarlet fever and Bright’s disease. In Junior High School at Holden, Mary and I played on a basketball team. Our girl’s team played the boy’s team once. She was tripped up and hurt so I was refused to play even after our coach talked with my parents. Mary’s health further declined and she was an inviting target for the neighborhood bully, Robert P—-. I pulled him off of her and beat the tar out of him. Good result.

We first lived in Frogtown in the first house above Holden Hospital. Then we moved to Roach for about two years and then back to Batchelder by the Holden Church. We lived in the part of the double house nearest the church.

I was busy helping Mom at home until Judy was old enough to take over. I did not get outside activity privileges as a teenager. I visited Louisa KY, Salversville KY for brief period when the summer term was over, as I had 3 weeks before I began teaching school.

I wanted to become a nurse but was refused by my mother. “No high school graduate should wait on a male patient”

In my teen-aged years I sold California Perfume Company (now Avon) products etc. to earn my spending money and worked my way to attend Marshall College during their summer session. I borrowed from a loan company and started paying back the loan when I began teaching school in 1927. I also graduated from Logan High School in 1927. I wanted to go on to get my degree but I had to withdraw from my final summer term in 1957 because my husband became very ill with cancer. he died on September 8, 1960.

My Grandma Rulana Massie May was a midwife. She lived upon a bank in a log house 4 miles above Inez, WV and is buried at [Hatfield] Cemetery near there. Grandpa John May dug herbs for a living and farmed. His byword was “Pshaw.”

Mom’s sister lived at Holden below main town Logan Avenue Street. Mom caught [the] train to go see her sister and my Dad boarded next door. She baked cake and invited him over for ice cream and cake and even gave him second helpings.

In the hollow at Inez WV stood grandma’s log cabin. A Marshall College group toured it. Indian relics and other things were there. Never did hear the final results.

As you see, our Dad was Chief Electrician all over Island Creek, Whitman, and Mud Fork. One time for several nights when we lived by Holden Church, the night boss called and said, “my night helper comes to work and sleeps.” So Dad said to Mom, “Put on a white uniform and go with me.” There was a big Joy Loader turned in front of a wall and this man asleep. Daddy got behind and made a big noise. Mom was told by Dad to be in front of the sleeping man. He awoke, got on his knees praying “the angel comes after me!.” That broke his bad habit. HA!

Early January 1901, Island Creek gave daddy a mule to ride. Later roads were built and then he was given a truck.


This letter brings to mind an incident that happened to me (Joanna) in 1956, when Grandmother Thompson was living in California.

We had moved to California for a time, living with her in her home. Grandmother was so particular how her “girls” behaved and appeared to others.

All the kids in the neighborhood were getting kites and of course I wanted one too! Asking my Mom for one, I was surprised when I was refused! No matter how hard I begged, I was never given permission to have that kite.

For years I secretly held a petty resentment toward my mother. It was only within the last few years before my mother’s death in 1995, while “talking about memories”, that she just smiled and told me that it was not HER that said no, but Grandmother Thompson! Grandmother felt, that at 12 years of age, I had to learn to behave like a “young lady” and stop doing such “tomboy” things.

Looking back now, I too, can only smile myself. Grandmother held such high stock in “appearances”. And she lived them herself. She was the embodiment of ‘A Lady’.

Looking at the way the world is today, I think she was right! We need her values again!

Thanks Grandma!

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One Response to Getting To Know Our Ancestors

  1. jim thompson says:

    as the son of larry “edwin” thompson, I greatly enjoyed this story I happened across