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Mary Gassaway: moving to California in the back of a pickup truck

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi

Mary Gassaway was born in the tiny village of Elizabethtown, Illinois by the Ohio River on September 15, 1915 to Oscar and Mary Weaver. She had three siblings -- Sarah, Harold and Albert. Her father, Oscar, was a commercial fisherman and a Pentecostal preacher who caught catfish and bass with seine nets, and the family lived on a houseboat on the river.

When Mary was about 12 years old, the family moved to Van Buren, Missouri, located by the Current River, and when he wasn't working, her father preached at the little community of Houses Creek. In 1935, when she was 17, Mary was married to Lawrence Gassaway, who was 19. Lawrence worked in the woods, felling timber to make "stave bolts," which were short lengths of white oak that would be sent to a mill to make barrel staves. Their first child, Bob, was born in Mary's mother's home in Van Buren. The young couple moved to Columbus, Kansas, for a short time so that Lawrence could try working in coal mines, and their second son, Jack, was born in Columbus.

The Gassaways returned to Van Buren so Lawrence could do more timbering for stave bolts on a piece of land, and when that job was over, the boss told Lawrence, "I'm going to California, why don't you come too?" So just before World War II, the Gassaway family moved from Missouri to California in the back of an old pickup truck. Lawrence's former boss, the boss's wife and an adopted daughter rode up front, while the Gassaways rode in back.

"The men put a bench on either side of the bed of that truck, and canvas over the top like a covered wagon," Mary remembers. "My husband and I each slept on one of those benches at night and the boys slept in the middle between us. We travelled for five days like that to get to California."

The Gassaways came to Bakersfield and Lawrence took a job as a ranch foreman, tending grapes. A third son, Billy, was born in Bakersfield, and Mary worked at Kern General Hospital (now called Kern Medical Center). There was frequent friction between the father and son who owned the vineyard and Lawrence got tired of being in the middle of their conflicts, so in 1946 he took a job with Vic Phillips, a Tehachapi pioneer who was farming potatoes in Cummings Valley. The Gassaway family moved to Tehachapi and never left.

A fourth son, Jerry, was born in Tehachapi Hospital in 1949, delivered by Dr. Madge Schlotthauer, who owned Tehachapi Hospital with her husband, Dr. Harold Schlotthauer. Because of her experience at Kern General, Mary was hired to work at Tehachapi Hospital. She became what was known as a "practical nurse," rather than a registered nurse. Practical nurses got on the job training rather than attending school, and the Schlotthauers had several practical nurses, including longtime nurse Elizabeth Cuddeback of the ranching Cuddeback family, who was well-known to oldtimers.

"I remember the first time I gave a shot to a patient," Mary says, "He was the banker in town at the time, named Mr. Spencer. We were supposed to give him a pain shot in the rump, and I was on one side of the bed and Nurse Cuddeback was on the other holding the syringe with the needle. She told him, 'Roll over, we're gonna give you a shot.' He did, and then she handed me the syringe. He never knew it was me sticking him in the backside rather than her."

When the massive Tehachapi earthquake of 1952 struck, the Gassaways were living in an old house in the Sullivan apple orchard. "The bed started shaking and woke us up, and we thought that a plane had hit the house," Mary remembers, "It was so loud and powerful. We were okay, though, and our house survived."

Mary passed away on July 17, 2015, just two months shy of her 100th birthday. She was a strong and wonderful Tehachapi lady.